How RuPaul's Drag Race queen Yuhua Hamasaki turned cultural shame into artful armor
Competing on RuPaul’s Drag Race is an elite privilege reserved for drag queens at the top of their game. Despite placing 12th on the Emmy-winning series’ 10th season in 2018, Chinese-born, New York City-based beauty Yuhua Hamasaki has made the most of her time in the spotlight by tipping its glow onto others who look like her by celebrating the heritage she once feared.
“The only way to experiment with drag wasn’t through YouTube or TV, it was through people you saw in the clubs or people you hung around with, and the people I saw weren’t Asian. So, I wore brown hair and blonde wigs; I wanted to emulate that aesthetic,” she tells EW of her early career. “As I got to do drag more and more, it helped build my confidence. That led me to be more prideful about who I am and my ancestry and heritage and culture. I wanted to be prideful about being Asian.”
“Coming to America, I had a culture shock, and I didn’t realize it until years later,” she continues. “I was ashamed of eating Chinese food and going anywhere in Chinese attire, but drag gave me confidence and happiness in remembering that that’s part of who I am!”
In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which runs throughout May, EW caught up with the Drag Race star for a discussion on representation, liberating herself from antiquated standards of beauty, how the RuPaul-hosted reality series changed the game for diversity in drag, and why the art form is the perfect medium for her to express her love of Chinese culture (and killer heels). Read on for the full conversation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you first started drag, did you look to any Asian celebrities or pop culture figures for influence?
YUHUA HAMASAKI: When I first started doing drag, I wasn’t on that route. I got inspirations from people around me. Ten or 15 years ago, drag was completely different. The only way to experiment with drag wasn’t through YouTube or TV, it was through people you saw in the clubs or people you hung around with, and the people I saw weren’t Asian. So, I wore brown hair and blonde wigs; I wanted to emulate that aesthetic. As I got to do drag more and more, it helped build my confidence. That led me to be more prideful about who I am and my ancestry and heritage and culture. I wanted to be prideful about being Asian. Coming to America, I had a culture shock, and I didn’t realize it until years later. I was ashamed of eating Chinese food and going anywhere in Chinese attire, but drag gave me confidence and happiness in remembering that that’s part of who I am. There’s a lot more diversity now than 10 years ago.
Early in your career, how important was it for you to see people like Ongina, Raja, Gia Gunn, and Jujubee succeed on early seasons of Drag Race?
When I first saw an Asian queen on TV, I didn’t even care how they did, I just wanted them to win. Even if they were terrible, even if they didn’t know the words to the song or looked busted, I was going to root for them. Even five years ago, there wasn’t much Asian representation. Now, you have Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh Off the Boat, more singers, but, 10 years ago on the first season, I wanted Ongina to win just because she’s Asian! Representation is so important, because if you don’t see somebody on TV who looks like you, it makes you feel worthless and underappreciated.
What did it feel like to finally see someone who looked like you on TV in drag?
It felt normal, because society has taught us that we have to have blue eyes, blonde hair, and be white and skinny. If you don’t fit those criteria, you’re no good. Luckily, throughout the years, individualism and diversity has been celebrated more. It feels a lot better now.
You previously told me that upon moving from China to America, you were ashamed of your culture. Why?
[Because of] what the media portrays as beautiful and wanted. Ten years ago, when I saw an Asian [in media] they were a deliveryman, a geek, or a loser in the school, and when I saw an Asian girl, she was a prostitute or a slut. Now, we’re celebrating diversity. We get to see movies like Crazy Rich Asians, where the Asian man plays a bachelor; he’s wanted, he’s sexy, and the girls are successful and smart.
Why is drag the best outlet for you to celebrate your culture, over any other medium?
When you put on your outfit today, you thought about what colors you wanted to wear and how you’re feeling on the inside. It’s the same thing for drag queens, except we do it a little more hyper. It has allowed me to experiment with different types of hair, outfits, and shoes, and playing with all of it makes me want to dig deep inside and pull those things out and paint them on my body, like a canvas. It brings up confidence and happiness!
I just spoke to Plastique Tiara after her elimination on season 11, and we talked about that infamous moment when she said she didn’t know about pop culture or people like Mariah Carey and Beyoncé until a few years ago because of her Vietnamese upbringing. She told me she was afraid that admitting that would make people hate her because they’d think she was lying. Having grown up in a different country as well, can you also speak to that experience?
I totally relate to that. In Asian cultures, when your parents immigrate [to America], you basically live in a bubble. My childhood was lived in Chinatown. I went to school, I came back and watched my Chinese TV shows with my parents. We spoke Chinese and they read their Chinese newspapers. We didn’t know what was going on outside of our little bubble. So, when Plastique admitted that she didn’t know who Beyoncé or Mariah Carey were until recently, I believed her! It’s the same thing when people asked me about movies or bands [back then]. I didn’t grow up listening to them or watching certain TV shows. I watched what my parents watched, which was a bunch of Chinese stuff!
What did you think of the moment Silky Nutmeg Ganache shouted a few Japanese words at her during the reading challenge?
Maybe five years ago it wouldn’t have been as offensive, but watching it today made me feel uneasy. Especially with the presidency that we have today, it’s important to recognize people for who they are. Plastique is Vietnamese, so you have to identify her respectfully and correctly. I understand that Silky was trying to be comedic, but the joke could’ve been planned better!
Having not known much about pop culture growing up, that makes drag such an interesting career choice for you. If you grew up in a bubble, how did drag creep into the picture for you?
For me, it was online. Myspace was my drag discovery! I remember seeing profiles like Jeffree Star’s, of Myspace icons and celebrities, and I was like, “Oh my God, they’re so colorful!” I appreciated their bravery and courageousness in not being the norm or what society told them to. I dressed up how they dressed up; I wasn’t performing or doing Beyoncé.
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