After two months of hazing—contour and makeup tests, socials and shows—the Rice Rockettes' Holiday Drag showcase this past December was the performance that would determine whether I'd be inducted into the historic all Asian American San Francisco drag house. The group challenged me to perform a pop number that incorporates political commentary.
I decided to sport a black leather harness and a sexy Santa velveteen one-piece; the number is "Into You" by Ariana Grande. And despite my traction-less stilettos and severely rushed tuck, I'm thrust on the stage, under hot, throbbing lights, about to lap dance a man with a sign taped to his chest that reads "Obamacare."
After mime-fisting Mr. Obamacare, a Trump impersonator forcibly removes him from the platform. "Into You" transitions into Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Misérables. I remove my wig and proceed to ugly cry and chop off all of my real hair with safety scissors. The Rockettes gasp, the audience cheers, and the bartenders groan as chunks of sweaty black hair flutter unceremoniously to the bar floor.
Within 24 hours, Rice Rockettes' drag mother and founder, Estée Longah, tells me that I've officially been voted in as their newest member. "May the gods have mercy on your soul," she says.
But don't let the frivolity give you the wrong idea—the Rockettes are a drag family with serious roots in radical, race-conscious HIV/AIDS advocacy.
The group's origins lie in an Asian American HIV/AIDS outreach project called the Rice Girls, a punny homage to the Spice Girls. In the mid 90s, as HIV rates began to rise among Asian and Pacific Islander men, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) saw a need for culturally competent methods to engage the community. They turned to trans Filipina activist Tita Aida ("Auntie AIDS" in Tagalog), who they hired to serve as a San Francisco health ambassador for the Asian and Pacific Islander community. Her outreach efforts often seemed more like stand-up comedy, and they routinely packed hundreds into 150-person-capacity bars.
In 1998, to kick it up a notch, she recruited five Asian American drag queens and health educators to accompany her in her outreach, a group she named the Rice Girls. They performed at the now-shuttered San Francisco gay bar N'Touch (short for "Asian Touch") with shows that acted out campy safe-sex scenarios on the stage before lip sync performances of Spice Girls singles. The CDC supported them through grants until 2005, when funding parameters shifted, and they were forced to disband.
After the Rice Girls disbanded, Tita took to grooming another drag queen—Alex Baty, another N'Touch performer—into the drag queen and community organizer she is today: Estée Longah. Alex soon teamed up with a cadre of drag collaborators to put on a performance fundraiser in 2008, and after rave reviews, she rebranded the group the Rice Rockettes, which today carry on the Rice Girls' activist-performance mission.
The Rockettes have since performed at pride festivals far and wide: the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance's Special Evening with George Takei, theme parks, special events, and, notably, before a seemingly confused panel of judges on America's Got Talent. They're now in their third generation of girls; in addition to founding members Estée Longah, Doncha Vishyuwuzme, and Chi-Chi Kago, members include Brenda Dong, Emma Hooker, Kristi Yummykochi, Imelda Glucose, LuLu M. Pia—plus myself, Panda Dulce.
But the road to becoming a member was not easy.
I've been doing drag for a while, but to join the Rockettes, I was subject to lengthy tests of my willpower, drag prowess, and loyalty. The first was a makeup tutorial, where Estée asked if I was right-handed (I am) and proceeded to paint the right side of my face—the easier side—before instructing me to perfectly recreate the look on my left. She and a Rockettes alumni closely examined my work, and after some deliberation, I passed. When I said, "Well, that was terrifying," she said, without a hint of humor, "We're Asian. Our hazing is subversive and psychological."
Over the weeks to come, I was pushed to my drag limits. I was asked to perform a conceptual routine that blended old-line, traditional drag with contemporary pop; I went with "Bitch I'm Madonna," dressed in the same Soviet-inspired S&M leatherwear as her music video's Asian backup dancers. I brought a walking cane and played "old," clutching my back during a shaky, belabored Charleston.
Then I was nearly eliminated by a lackluster Halloween performance. My fellow Rockettes pulled out all the stops—Kristy dressed up as a juggalette, brandishing a butcher knife and laughing maniacally during her set; Estée performed "Hello" by Adele as Samara from The Ring, whispering "hello" from the other side of a television—but my goth-skewed Azealia Banks performance was knocked for lacking surprises to keep the audience on their toes.
So surprises I brought. Fisting Mr. Obamacare with pudding-covered latex gloves and giving myself an Anne Hathaway haircut were my aces in the hole at my audition. According to the girls, that was the show that cemented me as a member. I was immediately asked to learn choreography for a performance at the Imperial Court, one of the world's longest-running and largest LGBTQ organizations.
"For me, the Rice Rockettes is all about inclusivity," said Imelda Glucose. "We're celebrating a community that are often othered in the gay world." And since the group's formation, it's moved on from solely focusing on HIV/AIDS to a larger mission: celebrating and empowering the LGBTQ Asian American community in all respects.
For Tita Aida, the Rice Girls and Rockettes promote more than just LGBTQ Asian American visibility. "Six of the Rice Girls have since transitioned to identify as trans women," said Tita. "This family can, and has, opened the door for young Asian American trans women to seek their authentic selves. It's modeling empowerment. There isn't a whole lot of that for Asians in the LGBTQ community."
In an age where Asian drag queens like Kimora Blac, Phi Phi O'hara, and Kim Chi have opened unprecedented doors for their community, breaking down barriers for Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in drag, their mission—to increase Asian American visibility in both drag and the larger LGBTQ community—has been made more attainable than ever. The Rockettes' monthly show remains one of the only regular events in San Francisco featuring solely Asian American drag queens, and through ongoing performances and outreach efforts, they're not quitting anytime soon.