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Experience: How Becoming One of Hanoi's First Drag Queens Transformed My Life

“Oh my god! You look beautiful! You belong on the runway, why aren’t you on the runway?” said Tamah Lake, the organizer of last year’s RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing party events in Hanoi. She came up to me during the show and said that to my face, which was completely outrageous. And oh boy, was I ready for that? Not in a million years. 

Fast forward two weeks after that first encounter, and I was on the runway, lip-synching my first song, “sissy-ing” that walk and having the time of my life. Now, two months away from my first anniversary of being a drag queen, I’m grateful for how I’ve been able to contribute to the growing queer community here and realize how much I’ve changed as a person.

Growing up, I was picked on for being too feminine for a boy and different from everyone else, but this definitely shaped me into the person I am today. Since I was really young, I have always known that I was gay. I was eight when I first realized I wasn’t attracted to girls, and that was 17 years ago. Vietnam was different back then; almost nobody was familiar with the concept of homosexuality. In order to hide the fact that I liked boys instead of girls, I created another character to please everyone around me, including my family. That character, however, did not last long, as my femininity started to grow even stronger.

My time at school was, without a doubt, hell. People bullied me, they called me names, they made fun of my parents for raising a “half-man, half-woman” son. I hated it. I didn’t want to go to school. It wasn’t until I turned 16 that I finally thought to myself: “Fuck you all. Tell you what? You are not gonna be in my life after the next few years anyway, so just…fuck you.” Then, for the first time in my life, I felt relieved and completely comfortable with myself.

That was the first lesson I learned about how to accept myself and embrace being different. I finally understood that being gay is not something I should be ashamed of. At the same time, I was also removing friends who didn’t appreciate me or accept me, and welcoming those who were willing to be my friend and love me for who I am. But then the time came, as it always would, when my parents found out that I was gay.

Me in the days before I got into drag. Photos courtesy of Gia Nguyen.

“So a little bird told me that you were really into this guy,” my mom said. I was scared shitless. “It’s ok,” she continued. “I already knew. You do you, as long as it brings no one no harm,” and I went from “Oh FUCK!” to “Wait, what just happened?”

That’s how I came out to my family, or to be more precise, how my mom ‘outted’ me. I couldn’t have hoped for a better result, especially when it was already becoming clearer that I was gay, that I was acting more feminine. I am, to say the least, incredibly fortunate to have an amazing, supportive family, and awesome friends who have walked with me on this journey of self-discovery.

I’ve continued along this path ever since, and March 25th, 2018 marked a profoundly important event, with me being all glamorous, ready to enter a new chapter of my life: a drag queen was born, and her name is Zazazellia.

Zazazellia is a combination of ‘Gia’ — my name — and ‘Cinderella.’ I chose this drag name in the hope of becoming a beautiful, glamorous and “fishy” queen, as close to a natural woman as possible. My fellow queen McKaylah Jo describes Zazazellia as “plenty of fish in the sea, but none as fishy as she,” and that’s how everyone has seen her every time she’s on stage.

Zazazellia, however, was born under duress. Back in March last year, a few friends and I decided to attend Lake’s RuPual viewing party. I’d spent hours before at my friend’s place, daring her to make me the queen of the night, and wham bam, thank you, ma’am, Maddie “turned me out.” Even though I was already openly gay, I had never gone out in public with a full beat face (full make-up). I went in with a confidence that grew behind that beautiful face, yet still in normal boy’s clothes. I was greeted with love and compliments, and from then on, I knew I was home.

Lake approached me during the show and asked, in such an encouraging tone, why I wasn’t on the runway. I took the bait and agreed to think about it. I hesitated at first. “Fuck this shit!” I thought, “No way I’m gonna do this.” Yet for almost two weeks, the thought of doing drag never slipped from my mind.  

I kept on harassing my friends and asking them what I should do. “What if I wouldn’t be good enough?” I asked. “What if I fail completely?” But they assured me that I would be amazing. I was also lucky to have a lot of talented people in my life who helped me prepare. Nguyen Tuan Khang, a graphic designer who performed in the past himself, gave me tons of advice about wigs and how to tuck. Costume designer Megan Rowlands went out of her way and helped me make one of the most beautiful 1920’s flapper dresses I’d ever seen.

Finally, the day came. It took me some time, only five hours, to finish beating my face. Happy with how it turned out, happy with how fishy-as-fuck I looked, I rushed to the event, an hour late. I ordered two glasses of rum and Coke and chugged them to get myself ready. The MC eventually introduced me, and I sat down on the runway waiting for my music cue. The next thing I knew I was on stage, lip-synching and dancing for my legacy. I was living every moment with fire in my veins, as cheers and applause flowed in from the crowd. And somehow, stunningly, the night even brought about my first interview with international press. It all happened so fast and felt surreal for days to come. I was famous, y’all.

Performing on stage as Zazazellia. Photo by Amiad Horowitz.

Everything changed after that night. Like RuPaul always says, “Being gay means we get to choose our own family.” I did find my drag family, or a “drag orphanage,” as we sometimes jokingly call it. We had no drag parents; we had to learn everything ourselves. Our group is crazily diverse: we have drag queens (me and BBQ), bio-queens (Silver St. Sinner and AnnieTagonist) and the messiest straight drag queen who’s got five different drag personas. And the initial shows of that fledgling scene we grew together were glorious. One night, however, turned brutal.

Midway through an event at Bia Tay Ta, we were attacked. Out of nowhere, wine bottles filled with pieces of brick and cement were thrown over the wall and into the venue. Some of those bottles were even filled with fish guts, feathers and engine oil. Nearly ten bottles were thrown over a space of about two minutes and it was terrifying.

Nobody ever explained the reason behind the attack, but the shock of that night eventually led to a change of location. Lavender, a former Hanoi expat queen, and David Morrison created a monthly event at Savage called Peach. I was honored to be one of the very first drag queens to perform. Once at Peach, you can do whatever you want, you can be whoever you want, and everyone is welcome. The shows have gone on to be a great success. 

I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be able to work with so many amazing artists and performers. Yet I couldn’t have done it without some of Hanoi’s best body painters, spectacular photographers or VicTeam, the remarkable drag team from Hai Phong who really pioneered the scene in northern Vietnam.

This whole experience has transformed my life, yet also changed the way I view the gay community here, too. I was a super-picky kind of person in the past when I tried to make friends because I thought no one would understand me. I used to divide the gay community here into two groups: those into art, and those into activism. I didn’t feel compatible with people in the latter group, and the artsy crowd just seemed too cool for me.

After getting into this type of art, however, I have become more open-minded, tolerant and willing to learn and accept other people for who they are, just as others have done for me. I now know that those artistic people are not too cool or unapproachable like I used to think, and life is way too short to ever think you are above or below anybody.

What is the biggest lesson have I learned though? It is definitely that eyeliners are not twins. I will never leave the house without a bit of lipstick on. Highlight your face to God. And never forget to blend your eye shadow to perfection.

“And remember, if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”


[Top photo by Phung Le Phuong Thao]

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