An Expensive Art
“It’s crazy expensive to do drag. If I didn’t do drag, I might be $50,000 dollars richer now”, Sammi Zhen exclaims as he spreads out a seemingly endless supply of makeup on the tiny vanity table. It is a few hours before the One Love party at Lime House Singapore, a big night for Sammi who is the night’s host. Held on 1 July, One Love, with the tagline “Celebrating love, respecting differences and embracing the world”, followed Singapore’s Pink Dot 2017.
Pink Dot is an annual event in support of the LGBT community in Singapore, also affectionately known as “the little red dot”. Each year, participants dress in pink and come together to form a “pink dot”, to celebrate diversity, inclusiveness and the freedom to love. This year, an estimated 20,000 people attended the event.
With almost two decades in the industry, Sammi has seen it all. “The market here is changing. The taste has shifted from drag queens to Go-go boys instead, like they have at parties overseas”, he sighs. “In my time, there were starter rates for newer queens. But now the playing field has evened out because of this change in demand. Now, I meet organizers who say $250 is the market rate for an entire night’s work. For a club night, my performance slots are really late, sometimes between 12 and 2AM, and then I have to mingle and do meet-and-greets after. It’s so late when I finish so I almost always have to get a room near the venue and I’ll need a taxi to and from the hotel because of all my stuff. $250 barely covers this! I think it shows a lack of respect for the art”, Sammi rolls his eyes. “Do you know how much I’m paid for something like a dinner and dance event? I typically get paid $1500 for a half an hour performance slot!” He throws up his hands in exasperation.
The drag scene might be changing in Singapore, but despite this, Sammi’s love of the art keeps him in the game. “Drag is important to me because Sammi’s an extension of my personality. I’m more daring in drag. The makeup is a mask. It empowers me. It makes me feel like I can get away with anything. It’s a great way to express myself. That’s why I like it. It’s always a part of the show”, Sammi states. “I want my audience to go back remembering what they have seen. I want them to like it so much they come back again. I just want people to have a good time because why the hell not?”
Besides, drag is worth doing for his ultimate goal: “What I want is to use this as a means to eventually build a shelter for the displaced in our community. As gay men, so many of us face persecution and discrimination and eventually get chased out of our homes”.
The Cheat Sheet
Between the combined pressures of an expensive craft, changing tastes, and difficult bosses, a drag queen needs to be not just entertaining, but also smart and resourceful:
“Nobody taught me the tricks – I learnt everything along the way. I’m always on the hunt for cheap beauty deals. I usually go to Somchai Clinic in Huai Khwang (an eastern district in Bangkok known for its night markets) to get my IPL done. Each session is only $30 and they have places there that are open 24 hours a day! If I’m in Singapore, I always go to Selvi’s in Little India in Singapore for face threading. My nails are done at a place called Our Nails Studio at Holiday Plaza in Johor Bahru (the capital state of Johor, Malaysia). I can get a manicure and pedicure for 200 Ringgit (roughly $63.40).
I don’t believe in branded makeup. Generally, the rule goes: The cheaper it is, the more waterproof it is. This is important because you get so sweaty doing drag. I have so many layers on. I’ve got my corset and four layers of padding on top, then my underwear, my safety shorts, two layers of opaque stockings that are over 100 denier (the higher the denier, the thicker and warmer the stockings – stockings over 100 denier are usually meant for wintery climates) and another pair of shorts over those. Everything is always cooking!
My secret weapon is this portable, light-up desk mirror with LED lights that you can get really cheap from Taobao (the Chinese online budget retail giant). Every drag queen should own one. We’re always having to get ready backstage, in corridors, in taxis – more often than not, the light is not great. I’ve gotten ready in poorly lit settings before only to discover much later through photos that my makeup was actually horrific!
After so many years in the business, I have developed my signature makeup look and found my trustiest products.
My contour and sculpting products are from Kryolan. I use the Kryolan TV Paint Sticks – shades 6W for my base, 3W for my highlight, and NG1 for my contour. I use a regular paintbrush I buy in bulk from Mustafa Centre (a 24-hour shopping mall in Singapore famed for its wide selection of budget products and services) to contour. Over the years, I’ve learnt it’s less about having a fancy brush than about having the technique down pat.
Then I bake with a mixture of loose powders; Kryolan Derma Colour Fixing Powder and M.A.C. Studio Fix Powder Plus Foundation in NC40 with a bit of talcum powder (it has oil absorbing properties) thrown in. (Editor’s note: Baking is a technique that has been used by drag queens for years. You basically dust translucent powder on and allow it to sit on your face for 5 to 10 minutes. Your body heat helps the makeup become one with your skin, leaving a flawless finish after the powder is dusted off.)
My favorite brow pencil is the Cosmetic Art Brow Pencil. It’s so economical, but intense. The trick is to sharpen it with a pen-knife so you have better control. I also use the M.A.C Fluidline Brow Gelcream to get more definition at the ends of my brows.
For bronzer, I love this Body Shop Bronzer in #01, but sadly it’s been discontinued. Then I go over with the Kryolan TV Paint Foundation Stick in NG1 to get what I call my ‘Maleficent cheekbones’.
I love a cheap blush. I feel like the cheapest blushes have the best colors. I’m currently using this Couleur Inc Blush On one in shade Raspberry 10 [editor’s note: not available online], also from Mustafa Centre.
Today, I’m creating a purple eye look with my favorite shadow by Ida Offenhauser. Sadly, the whole line was discontinued. I can’t bear to use it up so I have to ration! I can’t seem to find anything with the same brilliance. Even at 1 or 2AM when I’ve been sweating, the color won’t have budged and I’ll still look like Ursula from the Little Mermaid! To get an even more intense color, I use the Urban Decay Eyeshadow Primer Potion before.
For eyeliner, I’m wedded to this Cyber Colours Defined Liquid Eyeliner in #01 Black. I love it. It’s very matte and very black. I buy it from SaSa (the Hong Kong-based cosmetics chain store known for its discounted prices).
Finally, for my signature touch, I use these glitter eye stickers. It’s my secret trick. These stickers are typically used in traditional Malay dance performances. They give you instant sparkle but are such an easy cheat.
My final step is lip color, and today it’s M.A.C’s Retro Matte in To Matte with Love. It’s so good – such a vibrant color. My friend who is a makeup artist gave it to me to try. Love it! Bring it on! I’m ready!”
– as told to Gillian Daniel at Hotel 81 Cosy in Singapore on 1 Jul 2017
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.