Eugene Tan isn’t all that different from his drag persona, Becca D’Bus. ‘She’s a lot like me,’ he begins, ‘except more colourful, bolder, more flamboyant… and with less clothes. Hell, I’d wear less all the time if I could.’ It’s declarations like these that set the tone for our chat with Tan, shed of the glitter of his alter ego but still dripping with sass and wit.
On one Saturday every month, the 38-year-old slips into character as part of drag revue RIOT! But Tan won’t be in his get-up at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, because he’s taking his presence offstage as producer and mentor for Foreign Bodies, alongside American performance artist Madge of Honor. The burlesque revue hopes to start a conversation about Singaporeans’ acceptance of immigrants – and it begins with stripping down to bare skin.
It promises a scintillating visual treat of glitz, gender subversion, fat bodies, muscular bodies and more from 18 participants who were either born elsewhere but relocated here, or lived overseas before returning home. Rehearsals began in October, and by the second workshop, participants were already in various stages of undress, Tan included.
‘Our workshops had one condition: if you step in, you have to participate, which means taking off your clothes. People will watch Foreign Bodies because, well, the naked body is a sexy body,’ he states. ‘It demands attention for the right and wrong reasons.’ Tan and Madge of Honor present this show through the burlesque troupe Skin in SIN, with a simple takeaway: acceptance of foreign bodies begins with unclothing and making sense of the ‘new normal’. Foreign Bodies does just that by tackling racism and xenophobia head-on, with sexy skin-baring and gaudy lashings of colour.
The birth of a reason
Tan didn’t plan on going this leftfield when he entered university in Boston, much less into show business: he had chased a degree in marketing and theatre studies in the hopes of becoming a copywriter. But shortly after graduating in 2004, he landed ‘quite deliberately’ – emphasis his – in the drag circuit when he joined Boston-based queer theatre company, The Theater Offensive, as director of community engagement. Part of his job involved handing out condoms at gay parties to raise awareness of HIV/ AIDS – but it wasn’t getting attention. So one night, he and his friends donned themselves in drag and, armed with rubbers and flamboyance, stepped into the venue once more. It worked: people began to listen.
His first real foray into the drag scene began at amateur nights in Boston’s famed offbeat bar Jacques Cabaret. But before the birth of the fabulous Becca D’Bus, his alter ego was, simply, Eugene. ‘I thought I was hip and making a statement by keeping my real name – but my employer [at The Theater Offensive] told me to stop being an idiot and just think of a stage name already,’ he recalls. Becca D’Bus was born quicker than Cybil Disobedience, another stage name he contemplated adopting, was trashed. The name he settled on references Rosa Parks and the American Civil Rights movement – and not so much his size.
Tan’s return to the city in 2010 began with stints in marketing, PR and editorial work, but he wanted to make a mark in the drag scene. So in 2013, he joined Drag Academy, a drag contest, and two years later, RIOT! was birthed. It was far from an easy ride. ‘Have there been times when I woke up wondering where my next meal is coming from? Hell, yeah. But I love what I do. Name one job that isn’t challenging,’ he declares. ‘Everyone struggles – this happens to be mine.’
'Everyone struggles – this happens to be mine'
Thankfully for Tan, his parents easily came ’round to the idea of his profession, and even caught his debut RIOT! show. ‘They haven’t been back since,’ he chortles. ‘But they’ve always supported me, and that’s something I’m grateful for.’
With the exception of a homophobic comment dealt his way in school – by a teacher, no less – Tan admits he was too self-absorbed to notice any bullies. Besides, he has far more leverage these days than anyone had counted on then. ‘Being in drag doesn’t translate to acceptance, but it gets us attention and grants us more space to talk about what’s important,’ he muses. ‘Hopefully Singaporeans will open up more to the drag scene – and maybe their legs, too.’
Foreign Bodies is at Esplanade Recital Studio from Jan 5-7.