The lights begin to dim at Brooklyn’s 3 Dollar Bill Bar and the crowd buzzes with excitement. The crowd cheers when six of the Pussycat dolls’ “Buttons”, their slinky song, starts playing. The RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars’ Scarlet Envy and the crafty New York queen Jasmine Rice LaBeija are also on the stage. At the end of this lineup, the main attraction draws the most attention: Pagina Heals (co-host of Drag Race Thailand), performing in her first show since being locked down by COVID-19.
Charlene Incarnate, the show host, calls Pangina Heals “the RuPaul in Thailand,” which is not too far from the truth. The Emmy-winning reality TV show’s Thai spinoff has Pangina Heals as the dancing queen. She has worked for years to earn more respect for her fellow artists. She also founded the House of Heals in Bangkok, which caters to drag artists and their fans.
Pagina admits that she wasn’t an easy climb to the top, despite being Asia’s most well-known drag queen.
Forbes reports that she was overweight and a soft-spoken child. “I didn’t have many friends.” I was bullied, and this spiralled into an eating disorder that spiralled into self-harm.
It took me a long time to learn and love myself and discover the art of drag that helped me heal. This is why I am Pangina Heals. Not only did it heal me, but others around me as well.
Dance was Pangina’s first method of liberation. Her style of waacking, a form of street dancing that originated from the LGBTQ+ community during the disco era, has been a particular favourite. She became fascinated by Thai drag performances and was “gravitated” towards the art form. She smiles and says, “Whenever I see queens performing on stage, it’s almost like I’m being drawn into this fantasy world where everything’s okay.”
Pagina Heals, like many other drag performers, was born on Halloween. She performed as Lady Gaga in a local drag contest. At that time, she was a great supporter of the LGBTQ+ community.
Pagina says that although it was frightening to perform the first time, it felt like I was superhuman every time. “I thought it was the best thing you can do. It’s a big F to society. And it’s liberating in so many different ways for me.
The contest was won by Pagina, with the grand prize being a ticket to Gaga’s concert in New York. Pagina was always a fierce competitor even before becoming a drag queen. Pagina chuckles and says, “I have what we call dragon mom, which was like another step up form a Tiger mom.” She adds, “So I’ve always been very competitive since I was little.” So I was ready to compete in that competition. I thought, ‘I must do well, I have to win’. She has since proven her talent on competition shows such as Lip Sync Battle Thailand or T Battle.
WhenRuPaul “s” Drag RaceIt was first shown in the United States in 2009. It created ripple effects among drag communities around the globe long before international expansion. Thailand’s drag and the trans scene was still underground at that time, but it quickly rose to prominence. “After…” RuPaul “s” Drag RaceShe recalls that when she [came in], we held a press conference at a mall, where everyone got to see drag queens.” The word “drag”, in Thai, didn’t even exist.
Performers have more opportunities to get jobs than they had previously been able to because of the popularity of drag. “We are now being hired not only as performers, which is fantastic, but also as MCs, artists, and actresses. These opportunities go beyond the drag scene at nightclubs.
Pagina is proud of this personal change. She says, “I’m really proud about all this, what have we been doing.” “I’ve been on billboards, I’ve taken public transport, and train, so it’s big for me for the Thai public to see this woman dressed up and being accepted in my country.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race set out to expand its reach beyond America’s borders. Its first stop was Thailand. The franchise has since expanded to Canada, the UK and Holland, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. Pagina is a co-host on Drag Race Thailand alongside Art Arya (a legendary Thai drag queen and fashion icon with over 30 years of experience in the industry). Drag performers from all across Southeast Asia are welcome to participate in the competition, which, like its American counterpart, is full of hilarious moments and jaw-dropping looks on the runway.
Art and Pangina complement one another in the workroom, but Pangina laughs about her first impression of Pangina’s co-host. She laughs, “I hated that woman so very much!” But, after they started working together, “something changed.” Art’s vast knowledge of fashion is a credit to her; she said, “She’s a nicest and kindest, smartest genius.” She taught me about life, how to be in business, about not allowing people to take advantage of you and about sisterhood. She’s like my family now.
Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, has been long regarded as an example of Asian progress for LGBTQ+ people. Thai drag is a combination of all the values that Thailand holds dear today, including music, food, and fashion. Pagina proudly declares, “We love history.” We have never been colonized. “We have a history that is influenced by our past but also cultural exchange with others.” The love for pageantry in Thailand extends to the LGBTQ+ community with competitions like the Miss Tiffany pageant, which celebrates transgender performers in Thailand.
Despite Thais accepting LGBTQ+ people, many members of the LGBTQ+ community still struggle to get legal recognition and support. The country’s Gender Equality Act 2015 made discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity a crime punishable by a six-month sentence in prison and a fine amounting to 20,000 baht. Pagina believes the law does not offer any fundamental protections. It contains a broad exception for “education religion and the public interest”, and transgender persons cannot legally change their gender. While Thailand is far ahead of other Asian countries regarding same-sex civil marriages, LGBTQ+ Thais still advocate for legal entire married life.
Anti-trans discrimination is incredibly hurtful when Thailand has such an active and diverse community of kathoey (transgender women). Pagina says that sometimes clubs won’t allow transgender women, so she started her club and made her own rules.
Pagina is committed to speaking up for LGBTQ+ citizens in her country. Pagina has been a vocal advocate for equality in marriage and changes to the legal ID laws. She also celebrates the contributions of transgender artists and trans people. She asserts, “I have always fought for such things because it’s unfair.” “[I help] through visibility, by just being me and saying things that I believe are wrong in this world. Silence is dangerous, so I urge you to speak up.
The House of Heals is a safe place for LGBTQ+ Thais and tourists to have fun. The bar/performance venue is located in Bangkok’s central Pathum Wan area. It welcomes all and hosts performances by Drag Race Thailand alumni like Kandy Zyanide and Miss Gimhuay. Angele Anang, a transgender winner, has also performed there.
Pagina claims that the House of Heals was created out of necessity. “Venues who want the pink dollars often don’t put drag on a pedestal. She says that they just want the money. “I’ve always believed that taking someone’s money is a good thing. They’re paying for your salary. So when I decided to open this bar, I made sure a drag queen owned it. The stage must be spotless. The decoration must be perfect — I have flamingos everywhere in my club that I am proud to own.
She says that the atmosphere was essential to bring the House of Heals alive. She says, “I hate the fact that every time you go to a bougie bar, it looks so pretentious and nobody can dance.” “So, for me, my place has warmth but is bougie-looking. But it’s almost like everyone dresses up to go the House of Heals. They kick off their shoes and then dance and that’s all I want in this world.”
However, she points out that it’s still a long way before most Thais understand what drag and transness are and that they don’t have to be confused. It’s still a new concept in Thailand. People sometimes think I want to become a woman, but that’s not true. She muses that people now understand that it is an art form and anyone can do it. “That’s why I got my dad to drag with me, and my grandmother (96 years old) to drag with me, just to let people understand.”
After her second performance at 3 Dollar Bill, Pagina expresses her gratitude to the audience for their love and tip dollars at her first post COVID performance. Pagina Heals can’t imagine herself doing anything other when she thinks back on the journey Pangina Heals has taken up to now, both literally and metaphorically.
She beams, “I believe I was probably meant to be a drag queen!” “Just because I’m so shady and just annoying. “I don’t believe that any other venues would consider me for their line of work.”
Pagina cannot contain her excitement about the next stage in her career.
She glistens, “I have always had high expectations and goals that I have always achieved.” “I wanted to be on Thailand’s billboard and that was what happened. I wanted to appear in a fashion show, where I could walk as a drag queen and not be a joke. Finally, I thought, “I want to tour the USA,” and I’m now on my third US tour.”
“I always wanted to start my own club, and I finally did it. She grins. “I love performing. I enjoy meeting people and will continue to spread positivity, self-love, and encouraging people to pursue their dreams.