Queens of Seoul
“It’s been a crazy four years,” Kuciia Diamant says as he takes a moment to reflect on how much his life has changed in such a short amount of time. “I feel like I’ve lived with Kuciia for ten years. Just four years? Wow.”
Kuciia is a full-time drag queen who uses this name on and off the stage to simplify his life. (“If I’m not Kuciia and am using my Korean name, I can’t focus on my career.”) At 25 years old, he has only been on the Seoul drag queen circuit for four years, yet he is one of the most sought after performers.
“Before I just wanted to be a diva, but I think now I am a diva,” he says. By “diva” he means the feeling he gets from being on stage — the chanting, the applause, the sight of a packed-out venue dancing because of you — a far cry from his pre-drag days.
“Before Kuciia I lived a simple life,” he says. In Incheon, where he was raised mainly by his mother and grandmother, there was no glitz nor glamour, just work and study. After he completed his military service, he wanted a change of scenery and decided to move to Iteawon in Seoul. Weary of the area at first, he started bartending and settled in. Soon, he found himself attending the drag show of a coworker and was blown away by the crowd’s response.
“The first time I saw his drag show, so many people applauded him and screamed and it looked so nice. I thought ‘maybe I can do that’.”
While much of the last four years have been spent perfecting his act, he has been part of a different project: working with other queens to build up Seoul’s drag community. A self-appointed mother figure to those entering the industry, he says this effort is now coming to fruition.
A growing community
Made up of Koreans and expats, the drag queen community is steadily growing — an achievement Kuciia believes has been helped by Korea’s increasing acceptance of the LGBT+ community.
“The queer festival was huge last year. I think people are listening to us and watching what we are doing, I think this year [drag queen shows are] beginning to get more popular,” he says. Mainly centered around the few LGBT+ clubs in the Iteawon and Hongdae areas of Seoul, a friendly and supportive community has emerged — one that offers more than just the chance to perform for a few minutes on stage.
“It’s awesome and liberating when you’re hanging outside the bar with the attendees to the parties and other queens and you’re with your family,” Winny, a part-time drag queen from the US, says.
Winny, who asked to be identified by his stage name, has been doing drag in Seoul since 2014. A much smaller underground community than in his hometown in Florida, he says he has seen the industry change over the past two years. “There are more new faces coming out to the Meet Market parties in Hongdae and each time the cast is just growing and growing. Prior to that there wasn’t much,” he says.
An active member in initiating this change, he says the scene was very different compared to when he first started. Lacking any centralized act or event — particularly for expats — he, along with Kuciia, set about changing this when they took over hosting the Meet Market in 2014.
Finding your inner drag queen
In 2011 “Butch-hers” Rachel Miller and Kim Thompson made the event as a safe space for queers. Since then the Meet Market has evolved into a monthly fixture for the LGBT+ community and their allies.
Winny, who emcees the event, said it took him some time to discover his character. When in Florida, Winny was a colorful drag queen inspired by the Ganguro subculture in Japan, much of his costume consisting of bright colors and a pink wig found at Good Will for 99 cents. But what emerged when he arrived in Korea was an “unfinished” version.
“When I got to Korea, I shied away from the colors at first,” he says. “The Winny that emerged from there was much more into rock n roll and gutter punk, spiky leather gloves and just not finished because I was feeling very unfinished at the time,” he says.
But now when Winny struts out on stage as a quick-witted emcee “a lot more of the wrists come out.” However, not every night flows as well as others.
“A lot of queens will say when the wig goes on and the makeup is setting they start to feel this change coming over them — like they’re stepping out — and I really don’t feel that too much. It’s kind of like this seamless transition. At times I feel like I’m still just [me] and I can feel every bit of the drag that’s on me. Some nights it’s good, some nights it’s not so great,” he says.
But not all drag queens feel this way. For others, it can be a chance to showcase and revel in the overblown personality that comes with being a drag queen.
“Being on stage, it’s liberating enough to make me what I’ve always wanted to be, with the big huge personality,” Claire Allen, a drag queen from the UK, says about her drag character, Unity Jackson.
“I feel like a superhero, like a real life cartoon character. It’s very empowering – I feel strong, I feel brave,” she says.
Her act is a bit of an anomaly in Seoul. Being a female drag queen — the only one she’s aware of — she was ready for some resistance. Luckily it never materialized. “I thought ‘Are they going to be like, ‘You’re a women you can’t do drag,’ but they instantly accepted me. ‘Oh you’re a female drag queen? Fine.’”
Allen says Unity Jackson is an extension of her already eccentric personality, which comes through on stage. She layers her comedic performance with serious overtones such as gender politics, multicultural relationships and takes inspiration from her expat life as an English teacher. Despite the variety, diversity and sincerity of the performances that she sees within the drag community, she says that people are quick to dismiss it as low-brow entertainment.
“I do find Koreans look down on it as some kind of trash art, that it’s not a respected art form,” she says. “Even with the Western expats I’ve seen, they do think it’s some kind of trash, like I’m just a go-go dancer in a club.”
For her, drag performance is a provocative art form. “I’m not just dancing to pop music and having old men stare at my bits. I’m actually trying to make a statement with this performance,” she says.
Misconceptions and confusion
Getting your drag character right can be a long, arduous process. In order to find his inner drag queen, Kuciia searched YouTube for make-up tutorials. Overwhelmed by the lack of Asian queens to copy from, he decided the typical exaggerated features weren’t for him. “I tried so many different ways. I shaved my eyebrows and drew them on, [I tried] big lips and big eyeliner. I think this is [typical] drag queen style, but for me, I don’t want to be just a drag star, I want to be a star. So I have to find a middle point,” he says.
Kuciia is in “Kuciia mode” on and mostly off stage — she is more than just an extension of his personality. Even though Kuciia was only born four years ago, he feels that he has lived with her for much longer. This concept can cause some people to conflate all drag queens with being transgender. As Winny puts it, this is one of the biggest misconceptions in the industry and it is detrimental to everyone.
While he notes that there is some intersectional overlap — there are some trans women who got their initial spotlight with drag — drag queens have the ability to take off the wigs and makeup. “When people immediately assume that the two are related, it [erases] the trans narratives that are out there,” he says.
“Not every drag is trans or wants to be trans or is even gay,” he says.
The narratives, he says, are as varied as the queens themselves. For Winny, this diversity and individuality is what being a drag queen is about. “To me, the beauty of drag is that you can be one thing in one act and you don’t have to pigeonhole yourself or shoehorn yourself into a box,” he says.
With an expanding community — particularly for expats — the variety of performers can only continue to grow. For Winny, Kuciia and Claire, the next step is taking it out of the underground to achieve a more celebrated drag culture.
“People are responding to it,” Winny says. “It’s very rewarding to see people get into the shows. It’s not lucrative, but it makes them happy and that makes us happy.”
The Meet Market