Neon lights lit up a Shanghai stage as a whistle from the crowd pierced the air, heralding the live debut of Chinese drag queen “Miss Cream.”
Also known by his real name, Yan Anyu, the 18-year-old from Hebei Province strutted out in a glittering sequined gown, heavy makeup and a curly blond wig to lip-synch Donna Summers’ disco standard Last Dance for a rapt crowd.
“When I’m dressed like a man, I’m not so confident,” said Yan, whose fake lashes fluttered from eyes framed by glittering makeup.
That changes when he becomes “Miss Cream.”
“She’s very confident, graceful and charming — a real queen,” Yan added.
Attitudes toward alternative lifestyles are slowly softening in China and members of a small but growing drag community have begun to step into the spotlight.
Until last month’s stage show, “Miss Cream” only appeared via livestream from Yan’s home in Hebei, where stage shows are non-existent.
Like millions of so-called wang hong, or Internet stars, in China, Yan makes a living through tips paid by fans through digital payment platforms.
However, with drag shows a regular — if discreet — occurrence in more cosmopolitan Shanghai, Yan traveled 1,000km for his stage debut at a bar popular with the LGBTQ community.
Homosexuality, which was only decriminalized in China in 1997, was classified as a mental illness until 2001.
It remains a touchy topic, and this month’s annual Shanghai Pride festival was held for the 12th time with organizers declining media coverage.
However, China’s LGBTQ community has quietly asserted itself over the past few years, forming advocacy groups and challenging the status quo.
A Shanghai gay-bar proprietor who asked only to be identified as “R” and who helped organize one of the earliest drag-queen competitions in Shanghai, said that the first edition in 2013 drew only four contestants, but that last year’s event saw more than two dozen compete.
Chinese drag in its early years was clumsy and “unpolished,” but it has quickly progressed, R said.
“Even more straight crowds are watching drag, liking it and accepting it,” said R, whose bar organizes weekly drag-related events.
Initially inspired by the hit US reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race, Yan debuted online last year and has 140,000 followers on TikTok, where he livestreams while dancing, singing, modeling new looks or just talking about being a drag queen.
Yan at first faced pressure from family and friends.
“They finally accepted me and are not worried that I discontinued my studies, because they can see the great effort I put into doing drag online and wearing make-up that long,” he said.
Still, Yan, who is gay, has yet to officially come out to his family.
The coronavirus halted drag shows for several months, but even that was a blessing, boosting “Miss Cream’s” online following as people watched to pass the time during extended lockdowns.
However, Yan loved performing live and someday plans to move permanently to a big city like Shanghai.
“When you’re eating a cake, the cream is always on the top,” Yan, said explaining both his stage name and his ambition. “I also want to be on top.”
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