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When Art Arya was just a 10-year-old schoolboy, one of his teachers asked him to publicly dance with a group of girls. All the girls wore makeup, and so, after asking his mom’s permission, he performed in makeup, too. The experience planted a seed in Arya’s mind all those years ago, and now that seed is a fully grown garden. Tonight marks the premiere of Drag Race Thailand — the very first international spinoff of beloved American reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race — of which Arya is host.
When Art Arya was a first-year student at Bangkok’s University of Fine Art, as part of a new student hazing ritual, some upperclassmen students singled him out for a special humiliation. “They kind of saw that I’m not like the others. I’m kind of a feminine — the way I walk, the way I look,” Arya says.
They made Arya dress in women’s clothing so that others would laugh at him. At first, he admits, he wasn’t happy. But the experience actually helped ignite his interest in fashion. He recalled the dresses worn by his mother and aunt, and he began focusing his studies on fashion while starting to wear women’s fashions around campus.
Art Arya quickly gained a reputation for his gender-bending style, and after graduating he went to study fashion in Paris, later returning to Bangkok to work as a commercial designer and fashion stylist. Soon after he became a guest judge for Thai reality TV competition show The Designer.
“I created my look as a mean professor,” he says. “So I put on a turban, a black robe and very big eyebrows … so sharp and so scary.”
Arya took an experience that was meant to humiliate him, drew inspiration from the powerful women in his own life, transformed women’s fashion into a powerful means of self-expression and turned it into a full-fledged career.
It’s no wonder Art Arya was chosen to host the first-ever season of Drag Race Thailand, the American version of which has become an iconic part of gay pop culture in the United States and beyond.
With now more than 30 years in the industry working as a designer, consultant, producer, TV personality and owner of his own business, Arya will host Drag Race Thailand alongside locally renowned Thai drag performer Pangina Heals. Arya says the chemisty between them was instant, and that the two carry on in the show like sisters.
Fewer people realize that Arya also serves as one of the show’s executive producers.
Referring to the 10 competitors of Drag Race Thailand, Arya says, “These 10 girls are now my daughters officially, because I picked them from day one, from the audition. I interviewed them, I chose them — everything — and now we know each other even more.”
Art Arya has been a huge fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race since Season 1, Episode 1. She admits her favorite champions from the show include Raja for her fashion, Jinkx Monsoon for her comedy, Violet Chachki for her pin-up style and Sasha Velour for being avant-garde.
Arya first learned of RuPaul after hearing his dance hit “Supermodel (You Better Work)” in Paris’s Queen Club back in 1992. He instantly became obsessed with RuPaul’s brand of drag culture and began to understand his own penchant for dressing as a woman.
“My boyfriend at that time came back with a vinyl of RuPaul and said, ‘Come on, have a look at this, have a look at this, listen to this one. This girl sings with a man voice,’ and I had a lot of love for that, because [my boyfriend] thought RuPaul was a girl. And at that time, it turned out we learned about drag queens. What I did was drag, but I didn’t know it was called drag.”
According to Arya, in Thailand many people refer to drag as “kathoey,” a word that can refer to a trans woman, an effeminate gay man or a third gender, but he says that doesn’t really encapsulate what a drag queen is. Early in Thai history, men performed in makeup and dressed as women at the Royal Palace Ballet, and these days you can still see men dressing as women in comedy sketches on Thai TV.
As a result, Arya figures that about 90% of Thai people don’t know what drag truly is. “All they know is lady boys, showgirls, dancers and performers,” he says. “That’s the best that they can come up with for describing drag.”
But his experience filming Drag Race Thailand helped show Art Arya the potential effect the show could have on Thai viewers — even those who have no personal experience with drag. He says one of the first season judges — a “very straight superstar actor across Asia” — came to the show not knowing anything about drag. “He didn’t know that we perform, didn’t know that we can do comedy, didn’t know that we dress up and lip sync … had no clue,” he says.
But by the time the queens began walking the runway, Arya says, “The guy was jumping up and down.
He was like, ‘Can you believe this guy can do that?!’ He was like that boy, you know. And he was laughing out loud, crying, jumping and enjoying it. And so happy about everything. He was like, ‘My God, they are so talented.'”
Similarly, a female guest judge from this first season left the show saying how touched she was by the experience. “She said, ‘I love all the queens. I love all of them … because the queens are so good at what they did, but they’re not coming out to kill each other. They come just to be their best.’ I don’t know how to explain it, maybe I’m not explaining, but vulnerable I think is the right word.”
She later clarifies, “The queens impressed the judges and made the judges feel vulnerable, impressed by their charisma.”
Art Arya expects the show will become a hit both because of its wild combination of fun and drama and because of the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race in Thailand. Even though RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t broadcast in Thailand, he says many fans view episodes via YouTube.
Despite the fun of the Drag Race Thailand experience, Art Arya admits that hosting and executive producing has been challenging.
“What I learned from this program is, it’s fucking difficult to do, being a host with 10 queens in the room. It’s difficult. It takes a lot of energy. I didn’t know that. And it exhausted my whole body. After filming I have to go home and sleep right away. I can’t do anything after. I can’t go have a drink with friends, I can’t go out dancing. It’s like I’m dead.”
Drag Race Thailand has already been granted a second season (with Arya and Heals returning as host and co-host), and he hopes its newfound popularity may create its very own version of Untucked — maybe even podcasts and the style of drag ambassadorship from past performers that the American franchise has seen.
— Drag Race Thai Fans (@DragRaceThaiFan) February 2, 2018
The show will be available to view in Thailand as well as on World of Wonder’s streaming service WOW Presents Plus. The show has been subtitled in English, a possible hint at its eventual release in other countries.
Arya expresses hope that English-speaking fans will judge the show on its own merits rather than expecting it to be exactly like RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“You have to be open. You have to come with an open mind, prepared that this is another culture. This is another environment, and another cast, another crew and another title,” he says. “But everyone who took part wanted to help elevate this gender — to make it genderless. To make it just … human. So everybody’s equal, and the show’s staff jumped in because of that. That’s what I love.”