Interview #92 — Kyle Casey Chu
Interview by Whitney McIntosh
She has been a guest speaker and performed at SFMOMA, RuPaul's Drag Con, and universities across the US, including UC Berkeley, CalArts, Tulane and University of Florida. Most recently, she is the co-writer, lead actress and songwriter of the forthcoming QTPOC web series: CHOSEN FAM.
Kyle Casey Chu (Panda Dulce) is a Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) core queen who writes about race, power and desire. Her drag and writing has been spotlighted on NPR, VICE, HuffPost, FUSION, MTV, NBC, and them.
How and when did you first get into drag?
There’s an in-joke amongst queens that you either start doing drag on Halloween or for LGBTQ Pride, because the spirit of drag is infectious and glitter is everywhere (but seriously, don’t even touch it, you’ll never see the end of it).
I’m an outlier, as my foray wasn’t on either occasion. In high school, my best friend Rachel and I were emo girls. We liked to take artsy photos on disposable cameras, and trim each other’s bangs while watching John Waters movies and chatting wistfully about the perfect boys we’d someday meet, who don’t actually exist in real life. On a particularly slow night, we were feeling wacky. She fitted me into her booty-hugging denim jeans and a cute top. I slapped on some eyeliner and lipstick, and five minutes later, we trotted down the street to 18th & Castro, arguably the world’s gay epicenter, giggling delightfully at our own private knowing.
It was super late at night, and the street was desolate but for one bear florist who was closing shop and hosing off his storefront walk. I said “hi” to him in an ironically gruff, masculine voice, and remember him looking up, with his eyes widening, agog, like I’d just pantsed someone important. He laughed heartily and I just remember feeling bright. I was excited, seen, and most of all, utterly excited to be seen.
I was hooked. Later that week, I came to school in a proto-orange county Barbie look: a blonde wig, pink dress and pumps from Goodwill, and spent every ensuing Halloween masquerading as different female punk icons, including Courtney Love—and more than once. Out of drag, I donned guyliner, which I applied every day before school. Aside from the shock value, I believed eyeliner to enlargen my almond-shaped eyes—a source of shame for me growing up. Later, makeup would become something I used to amplify myself. It would soon feel less like a hiding mechanism, and more like stepping into something true to me.
Anyway, being a drag queen was the closest thing to being famous. It made me feel powerful and legibly queer in the painfully awkward, isolating social milieu that was high school. I never let go of it.
How did you come up with the name Panda Dulce?
Panda Dulce literally translates to “Sweet Asian Bear,” but is a play on “Pan Dulce”, which is essentially a Mexican donut.
As a teen, I was really trying to find my place in the broader gay scene. I’ve always been into bears (fat bearded hairy gay dudes), but was often overlooked in bear spaces because I didn’t resemble that same burly, hairy, bearded aesthetic most often linked to white bodies. I also disliked the term “chaser” for myself, which refers to skinnier dudes who “chase” after bigger bear types. The title always connoted a kind of lecherous desperation that never sat right with me.
As a young adult, I became a “gainer.” I started weight-training and eating considerably more to better embody my “type,” because gay dudes do this thing where they date and fuck people who look like their twins. “Twin-fucking.” It’s weird. It’s boring. But becoming a gainer didn’t really change my perspective. I still felt unwanted and out of place. Feeling slightly defeated, I abandoned the plan and allowed my body to go back to its “natural” non-gainer state.
One day, I ordered a drink at a gay bear bar. The bartender handed me my beer and was like “Here ya go, Panda,” with a wink. It was jarring for me. I suddenly felt like I was seen for who I wanted to be. Which was so often not the case in gay cruising spaces where whiteness is disproportionately pedestalized, and Asianness is severely, blatantly devalued, and you get gaslighted for even noticing this. Perhaps it had more to do with my attitude than anything else. It got me thinking that maybe I was already legible as the sexy bear dude I was. What if “bear” was a state of mind? Even better, what if desirable was a state of mind?
I chose Panda because it represents me, invoking what I want to be, and seeing myself for it. Which works, because embodying realness, living your fantasy, and breathing intention into image and action is what drag is all about. They say to be a great queen you need CUNT: Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent. But I think Attitude comes first. Attitude is the fundamental ingredient in manifesting what you want. Panda Dulce is me being my best me: ACUNT.
As for the Dulce aspect, I believe we need to be better to each other. Beyond my love of concha bread and donuts, sweetness, tenderness, and fluffiness is often nonexistent in gay male spaces, where the air is thick with pheromones, blooming ids, and hunter-like concentration. Similarly, in queer, trans, and activist spaces (which are quite distinct in my opinion), our default attitude and means of connection is calling out problematic behaviour, spotlighting wrongdoing, and instantaneously disposing of each other. We are expected to sit perfectly in our moral superiority, or plunge to infamy at the slightest misstep. There is no room for error or humanity. As a result, queer, trans, and activist spaces can also be a breeding ground for self-isolation, self-consciousness, heightened anxiety. and cynicism. I do not wish to be a part of any community that uses strong politics, personal trauma, and emotional exhaustion to justify re-engendering the same violent dynamics on those who we claim to care about. It is possible to be fed up and compassionate to those we deem worthy of our patience. I choose Dulce because we all need to be better to each other, dammit.
As a teen, I was really trying to find my place in the broader gay scene. I’ve always been into bears, but was often overlooked in bear spaces because I didn’t resemble that same burly, hairy, bearded aesthetic most often linked to white bodies.
And how would you describe your drag?
My drag is all over the place, from macabre to bubblegum and kid-friendly. A friend of my all-Asian drag family, the Rice Rockettes, once said, “she’s so… dark...so… violent...” about my drag. And I guess it’s true. I throw a lot of silicone babies, often foam blood at the mouth, maim myself and act out dark political jokes. Last month, for our theme, “Womyn in Herstory”, I was Marie Curie, lip syncing to Britney’s “Toxic.” After experiencing an unfortunate and untimely chemical burn (from vinegar, baking soda, and red food coloring), clumps of my hair fell out, and I spat out a bloody tooth. While lipsyncing to Britney’s “Piece of Me,” I offered my teeth and hair to the crowd, cupped in my bloody hand, and asked them, “You wanna piece of me?” The straight Irish couple who was visiting SF left their front-row table without finishing their drinks. I considered that an accomplishment. Clearly the kid-friendly side of the spectrum.
When I’m not acting out chemical accidents, I’m reading gay children’s books to your kids at RADAR’s Drag Queen Story Hour!
What is your creative process when you come up with a costume, new persona, or new political act?
That’s a great question! In bar settings, I’ve learned you need to hit the common denominator because you don’t know who’s watching. It’s loud, people are distracted, drunk, cruising, etc., and will likely tune in and out of your performance. In bar drag, the challenge is making your concepts instantaneously understood: clear, simple, and easy to communicate visually.
My formula is predictable and dependable: it is usually one big transformation, and essentially absurdism mixed with current events. Usually I watch the news, focus on an individual, e.g. Ivanka Trump, and think of the most ridiculous, grotesque, or nasty thing she could do, considering the context of the story. Whatever is dominating the news cycle and currently infuriating me is great real estate for commentary. After the video of Ivanka emerged, where she wresting her hand away from Trump, I impersonated her reluctantly giving a Trump piñata a handjob (a cheeto puff), and eventually stepping on and crushing the cheeto puff under my heel.
Whatever is dominating the news cycle and currently infuriating me is great real estate for commentary.
Doing drag feels like a decisively political act. Is drag political for you?
Drag is absolutely political. It has unfortunate underpinnings in American minstrelsy, when white folks would mock blackness. But as the times have changed, drag has kept its mocking spirit to draw attention to the ridiculousness of the norms that continue to shackle and undergird us. Drag boomed during the McCarthy-era witch hunts when everyone got pantytwisted about gays and homosexual acts became legally punishable offenses. Men began dressing as women to “pass” as straight couples when in public with their male partners, to avoid the persecution and public outings that often accompanied police raids of gay spaces.
The mockery continues today. If I were to perform Scarlett Johanssen doing “I’m every woman” as an actress with zero conscience to play Asian women, Trans men--basically any character I want regardless of identity--I am figuratively flipping her the bird. I am inviting the audience to laugh at and pillory her, because that shit is messed. Every drag performance, at least for poor ass queens like me, is an opportunity to parody notables and public figures, if not in content, by virtue of poor production value and slipshod DIY props.
Today, drag has definitely evolved to become less subversive, and more commercially viable. Not that they’re mutually exclusive, but Drag Race often prioritizes spectacle and entertainment over message. But essentially, in transforming oneself and performing “realness,” you are emphasizing the performance inherent in everything. How easy it is to shift one’s entire identity with a pussycat wig and some cheap drugstore makeup, revealing the fluidity/malleability of our social roles.
In her memoir, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Style,” Rupaul always returns to the adage: “stop taking everything so seriously.” To me, quality bar drag zaps serious issues into potty jokes that we can all laugh about over cocktails and momentarily forget the gravity of their meaning.
But in that same memoir, Rupaul advises us to ONLY eat oatmeal with dried cranberries and splenda, and grilled chicken salads to achieve your “ideal bod.” So I guess heed her advice at your own risk.
How have you seen drag change over the time you’ve been involved in the SF and NYC drag scene?
The one thing I have seen more of is queens in general. Everyone and their mom and their mom’s mom is a drag queen now. Throw on a wig and boom! You’re fishy as hell. Obviously, I attribute this to RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has pretty much become the gay man’s tailgate game. LGBTQ people are starved. We haven’t had much quality media made by us, and for us, let alone featuring so many people of color. So what we’re seeing is a surge in demand, and in turn, a surge in local drag queens, showgoers, fan-thworpers, and enthusiasts.
But I think this is indicative of a larger cultural shift. Gay cis men have been socialized to desire and embody masculinity--to strangle the feminine parts of ourselves to not feel seen or wanted with our own. And now, suddenly, there’s a show that not only promises fame and social capital (which gay men love), but encourages wearing glitter, false lashes, and performing hyper-femininity? And you can even showcase your own overcoming obstacles / bootstrapping narrative?? Now ,all of the gays who felt rejected by their parents, the wider straight world, and also their queer peers for their characteristics; the ones who never fit the masculine ideal; the sissies, the pansies, the fairies, are rocketing out of the woodwork, making spammy instagram accounts with names like ABORTIA CLINIQUE, buying thousands of dollars worth of makeup and posting three looks a day, in a desperate bid to get on the show, and make up for all of that lost time. Now that cis male femininity is, for perhaps the first time, VH1-approved and encouraged, they’re resurrecting their hurt, whimpering, feminine spirits, and unleashing it all on us in glorious Instagrammable spectacles. It’s like when Spain transitioned from Francoism to La Movida. The freaks are out! I think there’s a lot of healing coming from the boom in drag.
But I also think the promised fame of drag has potential to defeat its purpose. People should get into drag because they love drag, and not only because they want to one day be on a reality TV show and prove to all of the deadbeat high school jock peers who terrorised them that they finally made something of themselves. It is easy to see the invalidation model reproducing itself in drag, with its pillars of critical “readings”, shade-throwing, and elitism. Which again, is why the drag world needs a little more Dulce.
Drag is absolutely political. It has unfortunate underpinnings in American minstrelsy, when white folks would mock blackness. But as the times have changed, drag has kept its mocking spirit to draw attention to the ridiculousness of the norms that continue to shackle and undergird us.
From the outside, the drag community seems truly committed to being an incredibly inclusive, welcoming community. Do you feel like it achieves this with intersectionality? What challenges have you come across as an Asian-American drag queen?
Different contexts perpetuate different norms. I think Drag Race, a show whose survival relies on demands and ratings, does not pause to give majority-white audiences what they demand, which, in some cases, is crowning less-deserving white queens. One particularly contentious example, is the outcome of Rupaul’s All-Stars Season 3 (spoiler ahead), when Trixie Mattel won over Shangela in a shocking upset that divided fans. I have a theory that former contestant, Ben Delacreme, who was in the lead mid-season, chose to leave the competition because she discovered the season was rigged in Trixie’s favor. With shady string-pulling to satisfy audiences, one could definitely argue tokenism is a thing.
In terms of local drag, I can only really speak to San Francisco’s drag scene, which I must admit is very welcoming in my experience. Last summer, different drag houses united to form a RESIST performance, where different groups performed political numbers to each of the songs in a Rage Against The Machine album. This involved folks from my all-Asian American drag house, the Rice Rockettes, Native American activist queens, Latinx and Black queens, plus-sized queens, etc.
Yet, I must confess, the Rice Rockettes are kind of within their own world. We cater primarily to queer Asian Americans, and have cultivated an Asian-specific LGBTQ space since 2008. I think this is particularly notable because there are no longer any Asian-specific gay clubs in SF—they’ve all been shut down.
I’d also say that there are different ways drag shores up academic thinking that has forced me to code-switch. I associate “intersectionality” with a heady, humorless, critical consciousness that sometimes feels at odds with the anti-PC, reductive shock value, pure entertainment nature of gay nightlife. For example, it seems the non-PC queens who do shocking numbers and jokes at the expense of certain groups are often better received than the political queens who do sobering numbers that are less entertaining than they are preachy and heavy-handed. As someone who tried to be super intellectual in my twenties, who read a lot about race, gender and genocide, and volunteered to have heavy conversations laden with buzzwords like “trauma,” “microaggressions,” and “neo-colonialism,” drag is like a splash of cold water in my face, challenging me to chill the fuck out, laugh at myself, and take myself a little less seriously.
Through drag, I’ve struggled with making folks laugh and have a good time without completely chucking my beliefs out the window. It can be a tough balance when the baseline or threshold for the general public is off-color sexist jokes, but it all works out in the end.
I believe you’re part of the Rice Rockettes, an [Asian American drag group?] What’s it like working with others together to craft performances?
It’s like herding feral cats! Good god, we are certifiably terrible. And yet, somehow we were voted Best Drag Show of the Bay by SF Guardian. I’d like the think there’s charm in our shittiness. Kinda like how kindergarteners reenact famous movies for school plays. Except kindergarteners actually have an excuse.
What I like about our group is that we’re all relatively political, and come from way different backgrounds. None of us are career queens trying to “make it.” Each member has different group affiliations, interests and projects. Chi Chi Kago is a musical theater queen who stars in about three productions a year. I’m shooting a web series. Estee Longah flies all over the world. Among us are doctors, lawyers, corporate marketers, pinkeye. We’re a delightful bunch.
Some houses have called us “the racist rockettes” because they can’t quite comprehend intentional community spaces vs. race-based exclusion. They’re the same ilk that argue we’re self-segregating, instead of creating a space that doesn’t yet exist for folks who don’t feel welcomed in the larger drag world. It’s the same Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter argument that can’t hold the complexity of accounting for systems vs. perpetuating micro-level discrimination. So whatever, right? Those who fuck with us, fuck with us.
Different contexts perpetuate different norms. I think Drag Race, a show whose survival relies on demands and ratings, does not pause to give majority-white audiences what they demand, which, in some cases, is crowning less-deserving white queens…
With shady string-pulling to satisfy audiences, one could definitely argue tokenism is a thing.
I’ve also heard that you do Drag Queen Story Hour in San Francisco, which sounds like an absolute delight. Do you see real generational change in progressive attitudes in the Bay Area? What kind of future do you imagine for the children born in the 2010s?
Drag Queen Story Hour has been really healing for me. It allows me to provide for others what I needed as a queer kid looking for reflection and meaning in the world. What I’ve noticed, however, is counterintuitive. There are often more straight, white, progressive families in attendance at the readings, wishing to expose their kids to different gender presentations than queer families and families of colour. I know there are mixed feelings about this: some folks think queer families and those with queer children should be prioritised in these spaces. They also argue that there should be more accessibility for families of colour in regard to venues and neighbourhoods where the readings are offered. Radar Productions, the organisation that organises the readings has expanded to Bayview, Oakland Chinatown, and other first-generation immigrant and POC-rich areas. And yes, in an ideal world, all queer and trans kids and families could access and populate these readings with ease.
I am personally just glad to see there’s such a demand for queer representation, and that I get the opportunity to do youth work in a way that embraces who I am, rather than feeling I need to skirt around a central aspect of my identity to interact with young people.
I think the salient “accept all differences” mantra left over from nineties multiculturalism, is easy to grasp, echoes other learnings youth internalise, and is effective... to an extent. Most children can digest and integrate it. I think the struggle lies when puberty kicks in, social networks become tribalist, and difference makes folks vulnerable to ridicule and alienation. I know this plants a seed at least, and does something to normalize queerness. But I worry about how this clashes with family and peer acceptance or nonacceptance, and messages being transmitted on a federal level, when our political leadership condones discrimination against LGBTQ people and people of colour.
I was just reading some scripts for your new TV show you’re directing and producing. Can you describe the premise and the intent behind the work? How did you get the idea to do it?
I’ve waited my entire life for media that accurately represents me and all of my identities, with dignity and authenticity. It never came. So we decided to make it ourselves.
Our web series, CHOSEN FAM, centers on a tragically unpopular all-Queer & Trans People of Color (QTPOC) Indy band, struggling to make it in their local scene. When they’re booked for a career-making show, their success is blighted by struggles in each of the bandmates’ personal lives.
The actual premise for the show came from performing in an all Queer, Trans People Of Color (QTPOC) punk band called SISSYFIT. My best friend and I came out with an album, toured the US, and met some really rad folks along the way! CHOSEN FAM draws from some of these experiences, and the anxieties and messiness of one’s twenties in general. We wanted to give voice to the quirky QTPOC weirdos who make our world colorful. So this is a story about *some* but *not all* of our lives.
And why a web series? I had zero respectable Asian role models growing up. I could choose between calculator-wielding nerds, foreign pushovers and line-less henchmen extras getting their asses handed to them by gruff white Action heroes who we are expected to idolize. I was raised on Asian faces acting as flippant sub-plots, as characters quickly and dismissively killed off, or as convenient objects of virtue-signaling who are only really there to further dimensionalize a white principal character. Which is to say, I could choose between nothing and nothing. Shit was bleak.
Media representation is fundamental because it informs us of who we can be, and what we are capable of doing. Media is a direct reflection of your own possibilities. And when you see no reflection, especially at a formative young age, it is easy to think you are simply not worth being reflected. In Junot Diaz’s words, “if you want to make someone a monster, deny them any reflection of themselves at a cultural level.” In light of recent events, I know Diaz is considered kinda sketch, but the quote is poignant nonetheless.
There has been so much hoopla about the success of Crazy Rich Asians and what it means for the future of Hollywood and diversity. The most salient criticisms are how Awkwafina’s use of AAVE is problematic, and how the film negatively portrays brown Asians. Both are valid arguments. But since when has any one piece of media been able to effectively and responsibly represent an entire group of people? Why should we expect it to? Does the film Deliverance represent all white people? We are so starved for content that we’ve lost sight of the limits of media. The point isn’t to comprehensively represent a community, as we’re often expected to do, but to keep adding threads to the fabric so that complexity is undeniable. Crazy Rich Asians should not be expected to tell the story of all of us. It probably isn’t even comprehensive enough to encompass all of the experiences of Singapore’s 1%, just to put things into perspective. Moreover, it (should) mark a watershed beginning of more stories to come.
I’ve waited my entire life for media that accurately represents me and all of my identities, with dignity and authenticity. It never came. So we decided to make it ourselves.
You’re also a talented musician. What are currently working on? How does this inspire and merge with your other artistic talents?
Oh thank you! So CHOSEN FAM is about a band who is struggling (and failing) to sound like Weezer, I hope in a charming way. So, for the series, my friends and I (members of SISSYFIT included) assembled a band. I composed an indy album for the band to perform onscreen. We’ll be selling the CD as part of our crowdfunding efforts as well! That, and I’ll be scoring the series. But that’s about it on the music front these days—no more feature scores for me.
Looking back, I never imagined it’d turn out this way. I started playing the saxophone when I was ten. I went to a performing arts high school. I was competitive. I practiced for multiple hours a day, locked myself in practice rooms and ran scales and overtones and altissimo and every nerdy technique you can find on youtube. But after a while, I got bored.
I eventually found my way to a punk band in high school (playing sax ibn drag), to writing and finally, drag performance. I think for a long time, I had pressured myself to choose one medium to concentrate in, thinking I couldn’t possibly be successful if I engaged more than one interest. But I’ve come to accept that my practice is eclectic. I am working on reframing this as an asset and not a liability. So I wrote a web series about a band, composed the music for it, and will be acting and performing in drag in the series. Who says it can’t all come together nicely in the end?
What are you listening to?
Right now, SZA, Janelle Monae, Princess Nokia, Lizzo, Kylie Minogue and Cardi B are on my heavy rotation. Again and ALWAYS with the strong, unapologetic feminine rage.
What are you reading?
I’m currently reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. I just finished Virgie Tovar’s “You have the right to remain fat,” a deeply personal and poilitical manifesto that deconstructs diet culture and its intrinsic violence. Before that, I read Made to Stick, which explores how to communicate to get people to understand and remember what you say. I highly recommend it if you’re a writer, someone in a position of leadership, or someone just wanting to make a strong impact in your work.
Looking back, I never imagined it’d turn out this way.
Do you have any advice for emerging artists? Do you have any advice for emerging drag queens?
For emerging artists: Follow your bliss. I followed my head and it didn’t work. In middle school I knew I wanted to do art, and like any parents with so much as an ounce of pragmatism, they deterred me. I internalised that and went into social work and nonprofit management, thinking I could have a day job while supporting my art. Ultimately, I was miserable without my creative projects. Drag, media, all of it, was just something I needed to do. It seems quite simple, but it took me years to unpack.
My friend, Nafisa Ferdous once said, flat out, “This is your life. Do what you actually want to do with it.” I cannot stress enough, to go in the direction of what you want, even if the road there is terrifying, uncertain, and notoriously unstable.
For emerging drag queens: Y’all gonna need a second job to afford all makeup and outfits. If you see a queen with an unblocked brow or something off/clockable, don’t be an elitist. Ask them if they need help. You can learn something from everyone.
Also, tip your fellow queens. They could all use a stiff drink.
How do you practice self-care?
I am utterly terrible at self-care. But frozen grapes are the shit. It’s like nature’s ice cream.
What does being Asian-American mean to you?
I am often asked this question as if there is one neatly-packaged answer, formula, or magical insight that will make it all “click” for non-Asian people as a way to justify backwardness, perpetual foreignness, or any misinterpretation of cross-cultural events. I myself don’t care to take on the weight of that expectation. But for myself, it means being often ignored, dismissed, and forgotten by non-Asians. Inversely, it means being summoned when white people need a convenient political wedge, or as a “Figure A” used to censure black folks for not “bootstrapping” better. It means being mispronounced, underestimated, and complimented for certain preconceived blanket attributes that never fail to insult or undermine your other attributes. It means being steamrolled, and criticising yourself later for what you could’ve said. It means being swaddled in misunderstandings and assumptions that don’t give you the benefit of the doubt. It means fighting for dignity. It means fighting for a yes. It means being sad a lot of the time. As an Asian American, it is all too easy to feel invisible, unseen, and mistaken for lost.
But I know this is changing.
Our country likes to bury its bones without acknowledging the damage that has been done. This is no exception for the Asian American community. The leftovers of Gold Rush and Railroad-era anti-Asian racism has permanently stained our cultural fabric, declaratively delineating what is American from what isn’t, and we are unfortunately the perfect class to be caught in the crosshairs. But as the political climate reaches a boiling point we are growing, becoming more acutely aware, more savvy, more fluent in the nuanced language of exclusion. We are becoming more pissed. We are everywhere, we are many, and we’re gonna change this shit.
Our country likes to bury its bones without acknowledging the damage that has been done.
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