When Kim Chi struts down a runway, the audience can’t help but drop their collective jaws at his flawless face, feminine gestures and highly aesthetic avant-garde fashion that glitters under the stage lighting.
His name, or even drag culture, may still be unfamiliar to some. But for drag fans, Kim Chi is one of the most influential drag queens around.
He was one of the top three finalists on season 8 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which aired in the US last year.
Born as Shin Sang-yong in the US, Kim Chi became the first Korean-American participant on the show as well as the first Korean-American drag queen on national television in the US.
People are enchanted not only by Kim Chi’s fantastical makeup resembling an anime character, but also his honesty and quirky sense of humour.
“Featuring in the show as its first Korean contestant was a great honour. I’ve always been proud of being a Korean and Korean culture, which I think is extremely beautiful. That’s the reason why I named my stage persona as Kim Chi — to promote Korea,” Kim Chi told The Korea Herald during a recent interview in Seoul. He flew to Korea to perform at a club in Itaewon, Seoul, as part of his world tour.
Kim Chi said he had visited a textiles market here before the interview to buy a traditional Korean hanbok he could wear for his upcoming performance.
“I design my own outfits. My fashion is usually based on avant-garde style, and the dynamic silhouette of hanbok fits perfectly into it,” he said, adding that he planned to design a more authentic traditional Korean outfit with the hanbok he had recently bought.
True to his word, Kim Chi wore an extravagant self-designed version of the hanbok in his final performance on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and sang his original production “Fat, Femme and Asian,” partially in Korean.
Through the song, Kim Chi said he wanted to overtly tackle stereotypes and expectations projected on gay Asian men, who he feels are often emasculated in the US.
Kim Chi’s efforts to promote Korean culture have also included performing to K-pop songs such as T-ara’s “Bo Peep Bo Peep” and IU’s “Marshmallow” during his shows.
“I prefer cute K-pop songs like ‘Marshmallow,’ because they go well with my cutesy, poppy and funny onstage persona. This is the way I try to set myself apart from other drag queens who usually emphasise their sexuality and physical figures by wearing body-hugging outfits.”
Asked how he first got started with drag, he flatly said, “Well, it all started out as a mistake, when I first tried out a drag costume in a gay bar on the day of Halloween in Chicago in 2012.”
Drag was what Kim Chi finally came to after studying graphic design in college, working as an art director and dabbling in various fields of art such as sculpture, fashion design and painting.
For Kim Chi, drag was about blurring the lines of gender, as well as creating fantasy. Describing his anime-inspired drag persona as a “7-foot-tall, live-action anime character and high-fashion model,” he said he turns into a completely different person when he walks down the runway.
Unlike the perky and bubbly images he has shown on TV screens, Kim Chi is quiet and calm off the stage.
But when he is on the runway, he creates his own fantasy world where he can transform into the character adored by audiences.
Kim Chi also revealed that his parents, who are divorced and living in Chicago, are still unaware that he is a drag queen, and even that he is gay.
“I am a very independent person who has been living alone since 18. I try not to care about what others think of me, and that’s the way I’m going to live,” he said.
As a self-taught master of makeup, Kim Chi wishes to launch his own cosmetic brand under his name in the future.
The world-famous drag queen taking the world by storm said he also hopes to have more opportunity to connect with fans in Korea, where drag is not as widely accepted by the public or media.
“Some may think that only queer and whimsical people do drag, but I want to show people that we are as normal as they are,” Kim Chi said.
He added, “Think of this way. Don’t we all have some special weirdos among our friends? Drag queens are one of those.”