Ahead of his new show opening at the end of this month, our very own cross-dressing queen Kumar sits down with Gwen Pew to talk about love, happiness and what comedy is all about.
8 Mar 2013: You know Kumar’s entered the house when a hush falls over Loola’s by Awfully Chocolate, the restaurant at which we’re meeting Singapore’s legendary drag queen and stand-up comedian. Wearing dramatic make-up (in preparation for his show later on in the evening) and dressed in a casual t-shirt, a pale army-green jacket and black studded pants with matching belt and shoes, he parts a group of waiters like Moses parted the Red Sea. The other casual diners either try to subtly take out their phones to snap a shot, or simply stare at him in awe. One brave soul comes over for a quick handshake. But other than flashing a brief smile to his fans, Kumar barely registers the fuss going on around him. With a quick flick of his flowing black hair and a sigh, he sits down at the table, at first only acknowledging his marketing manager. After a few rounds of bitching about the weather and traffic, he finally turns his attention to us and signals the beginning of our interview with a curt ‘Okay – go.’
Speaking to Kumar can be an unnerving experience at times. He’s sharp, composed and oozes sassiness. It’s almost impossible to catch him off-guard. At one point during our chat, a restaurant staff wafts over to introduce a special champagne menu. True to his notorious dislike of attention offstage, Kumar brushes him off unapologetically with a firm ‘no’ – followed by an exaggerated eye roll. ‘The thing about being a comedian is that people expect you to be funny all the time, but I have a switch that goes on or off and I keep my private and public lives very separate. Kumar-Kumar is more reserved, quiet, and isn’t very funny…’ He pauses, and then breaks into a laugh, ‘Okay, fine, he’s still funny – but performer-Kumar is ten times funnier! I mean I’ve always loved dressing up since I was young; the only difference is that now I don’t have to hide it. My only regret is that I didn’t come up with a drag name when I first started, and it’s too late now.’
Coming from a family of five with three older sisters and a younger brother, the lean, mean 45-year-old Singaporean-Indian first started dabbling in the comedy scene in the late 1980s after finishing his National Service. He hit the big time when he was offered a comedy slot at the Boom Boom Room in the early 1990s, where he performed until the venue’s closure in 2000. As the story goes, he started off tame by sticking to clean jokes, but quickly realised that he had to go below the belt if he wanted to get laughs – and so started his crossdressing routine. ‘There are only so many times you can talk about animals crossing roads,’ says Kumar matter-of-factly. ‘And especially back when I first started, people were looking for something different – something raunchy that had edge – they wanted to see what lay outside of the “clean” Singapore. The police would’ve liked to stop my act – they tried, actually – but I never use the F-word in my shows, I never say the names of the genitals, I’d just say “down there, down there”. “Down there” could mean anything. It could mean my knees, my toes… It could mean Australia – it’s hot there also – and the police were like “Ah… you caught me there!”’
Getting to where he is in life now was a long and winding road, however, especially since his parents had a very different notion of what they wanted their son to be like. ‘My dad thought I was a prostitute and stopped talking to me for seven years until his passing, and my mum still hopes that I’ll become straight one day,’ he explains with a resigned sigh, but adds happily that his other family members and friends have been very supportive of him and his success. Having started the tradition of doing a solo show each year since 2007 with theatre company Dream Academy, Kumar’s latest gig bears the self-explanatory title ‘What Makes A Man A Man?’
According to Selena Tan, local stage veteran and founding artistic director of Dream Academy – who are producing the show – the title was inspired by gay American singer Larry Paulette’s eponymous song, and they had come up with the idea ‘naturally’ during a brainstorming session last year. ‘It depicts Kumar’s – as well as every other drag queen’s – struggle quite accurately,’ she explains. And Kumar himself certainly has a lot to say on the matter. ‘These days, it’s hard to tell what a man is. It’s not just about straight and gay anymore, there are heterosexuals and metrosexuals and what have you. And it’s ridiculous because if a girl sees a cute guy, her first thought is that he must be gay lah – straight men are fat and ugly,’ he says, widening his eyes in despair. ‘And you get women saying that they want a “real man”, but how can they want a real man when they’ve got make up and fake eyelashes and fake boobs?’
Taking a sip of water, he crosses his legs and leans forward slightly. ‘Being happy is simple,’ he announces casually. ‘Do what you like, don’t take out a bank loan and don’t keep a credit card. That is all.’ While the full script for his upcoming show – which is co-written by freelance stage writers Benjamin ‘Mr Miyagi’ Lee and Jasmine Teo and directed by George Chan – has not been finalised and rehearsals had yet to begin when we met up with him, Kumar is confident. ‘I don’t know [what makes a man a man],’ he admits somewhat wistfully. ‘But the show will be an emotional rollercoaster ride. At the heart of it, it’s all about love. I want to get my audience thinking and feeling. The thing about comedy is that it’s truthful – if I can get people to start thinking about things that don’t normally cross their minds, then I’ve succeeded.’