This article originally appeared on VICE Korea.
This story is part of a wider editorial series. Coming Out and Falling In Love is about the queering of our relationships with others, and the self. This month, we look at Asian attitudes to sex and porn, dating in the digital era, experiences of LGBTQ communities, unconventional relationships and most importantly, self-love. Read similar stories here.
For drag queen Nana Youngrong Kim, love is about acceptance. To love someone for who they are and to be loved for who he is. It's a familiar sentiment often overlooked these days but for a gay man whose job is to perform in women's clothing, it's a difficult one to achieve in conservative South Korean society.
Nana, 33, calls himself a "drag artist" and takes pride in his ability to transform himself into anyone — a singer, computer, and even bubbles — all while dancing in front of a crowd.
Since his debut in 2007, Nana has performed actively on local and international stages, with shows in South Korea, Japan, and China. He is extroverted both onstage and offstage, but behind the fancy costumes and heavy makeup, is someone who just wants to love and be loved.
Nana was not always so open about being a drag queen. He often hid his career from the people he was dating when he was just starting out.
"I couldn't deny that my job is unique and uncommon. It's a minority of minorities," he told VICE. "About a decade ago, there were still many haters who were slamming me."
He said even the gay community was unaccepting, shaming him for wearing women's clothes in public.
One of his boyfriends even dumped him after finding out that he was a drag queen.
"I didn't think I needed to talk about my job and risk getting backlash," Nana said. "People would feel uncomfortable if I revealed what I did."
Just a few years ago, it would have been impossible to date and have a relationship if he revealed his job from the get-go.
According to the Korean Society of Law and Policy on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI), South Korea's rainbow index — which measures LGBTQ rights in various countries — was 11.7 percent in 2018, only a little bit higher than Russia's 10.9 percent.
"Luckily, guys hit on me now," he said. "In the past, people only said to me, 'I'm your fan,' but today, some say, 'I'm your fan, do you want to go out?'"
"I've noticed such a big change in how the drag scene is perceived in South Korea."
This has helped Nana accept himself more too. He used to not approach people he liked, in fear that they would be embarrassed about his job, but he's more open now.
"I've decided not to care whether they like my job or not. I no longer hide my job and hang out with people with the thought that, if they don't like my work, that's fine," Nana said.
"I've gone out of my way to put myself forward. Now I am too famous to even hide myself any more," he said, laughing.
Nana has noticed a positive shift in his personal relationships too. He dated a guy 10 years ago who had no idea that he was a drag queen. They broke up but started dating again 5 years ago, when he was already big in the drag scene. This time, the guy knew that he was a drag queen but did not take it well.
"I guess he felt uncomfortable — not just because I'm a drag queen, but because I've become a famous person."
They still keep in touch and now, Nana's ex is no longer bothered by his career.
"Once, he told me that his colleagues were watching my YouTube videos and loved me."
"From what I've heard, his friends asked him questions wondering about our relationship. He used to look uncomfortable when we dated in a restaurant, cafe, or gallery because people noticed me and said hello or sent a cake. But now it seems that he even enjoys it."
Nana describes himself as naturally positive and sociable, which is why he loves being a drag queen. It allows him to expand his personality and talent, while entertaining people. While some drag queens never show themselves without a costume, Nana does because it represents both sides of himself.
"I love both! The one with and without makeup is all me," he said.
On Instagram, he posts photos of himself with and without a costume. This has helped others feel more comfortable towards him too, further removing the stigma around drag queens.
"I'm proud of my job," Nana said, repeatedly.
When VICE met with Nana on the streets of Seoul's Itaewon district, three guys passed by and yelled, "Are you a dude? Gross." Without even frowning, he answered back and said, "Thank you, bitch."
Nana only has one thing to say to his haters: "I really don't care."
"I can't help it if you don't understand it. I feel happy if I have people who love me. I am busy taking care of those people. When you hate on me, I will love my loved ones even more."
Now, all he wants is a man who can be proud of him too.
"I'm jealous of my drag friends Bambi and Kuccia who are in long-term relationships. Their partners are all very supportive of their work and even love what they do," he said.
"I think this is love."
Find Junhyup Kwon on Twitter.