Meet Singapore's Leading Comic: A Drag Queen Named Kumar

Cross-dressing comic wins praise and the popular vote in conservative Singapore

January 8, 2009, 12:06 AM

SINGAPORE, Feb. 14, 2008 — -- "You can get away with murder if you are funny," the skinny man sitting across from me in a Singapore bar says on a wet February afternoon.

Kumar, as he likes to be called, is very funny. And although he hasn't turned his attention to crime or violence, he certainly manages to get away with a lot in Singapore's conservative culture.

Kumar (the name means "young man" in his native Tamil language) is gay and the country's first and reigning drag queen.

But most remarkable of all for this straight-laced nation, he is astonishingly popular in a country where cross-dressing is not exactly in vogue, and homosexuality remains illegal.

What accounts for this stand-up comic's fame in a nation-state not known for its sense of humor?

"I am a voice for a lot of Singaporeans," Kumar says seriously. "I discuss their idiosyncrasies, their concerns, and, of course, I talk about sex very openly."

That openness has garnered the 40-year-old many fans, as was evident when I attended one of his performances at Three Monkeys, a bar in Singapore's swanky Orchard Road area.

But it has also caused him problems at home.

"My father didn't speak to me for seven years after I took to the stage," he says.

As for his mother, "She thought I was a male prostitute when I started doing this."

"Besides, I have three sisters, and no one wanted a fourth daughter," he adds, cracking himself up.

No memory, no matter how unhappy, is immune to his comedy.

So, is there anything Kumar won't joke about?

Although he takes his fair share of swipes at government policies, he is careful never to name any particular politician during his routine.

He also insists that he will "never use four-letter words onstage. It's just too tasteless."

But everything else is up for grabs, including race, sexuality and gender.

"In a way, because I am neither man nor woman, I can say anything I want without anyone accusing me of being too feminist or chauvinist," he says.

Similarly, his democratic tendency to take potshots at every one of Singapore's ethnic groups -- Chinese, Malay and Indian -- allows him to say what he likes without getting into trouble for insulting any one ethnic group.

"People have been very supportive of me," he says. "I am not threatening anyone."

He insists that he has never faced any opposition from anyone, including members of the government. "I think they like having a politically incorrect figure like me hanging around," he says, chuckling.

Politically incorrect but conservative in some respects nonetheless.

For instance, he does not support the movement to have homosexuality legalized in Singapore, despite his own sexual orientation.

"I think allowing it will stir up a lot of s*** -- people here need time to adjust. Legalization will happen eventually, but at the moment, we have other issues to worry about in this country," he says.

"I want to be a voice for all Singaporeans, not just gay Singaporeans," he insists, adding, "I am still a conservative Indian man, even after all this."

Kumar says that he had no intention of ever becoming a stand-up comic, much less a drag icon.

"What I initially wanted was to become a Bharatnatyam (south Indian classical) dancer -- that's what I trained to do. Then, 15 years back, a friend of mine told me that I could make some money on the side if I could wear a sari and entertain people for an hour. So I did."

There's no sign of that shiny, sequined glamour at our interview, which he attends dressed in a simple black tee and trousers.

"I don't like dressing like a woman when I am not onstage," he confides. "And anyway, people should have to pay to see me in all those outfits!"

He does, however, wear his waist-length hair proudly, admitting that he gets it professionally washed every single day before putting it up. "I alone am enough to keep the hairdressers here in business," he jokes.

After a career that has spanned stage work, television, a culinary travel show and numerous stand-up performances at Singapore venues like the Hard Rock Café and the infamous Boom Boom Room, and at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, one wonders what lies next for this lissome glamour-girl with a difference.

"If I am given opportunities to perform abroad, I would love to take them up," Kumar says.

"But for now, my main priority is developing a talk show for a Singaporean channel. I want to interview celebrities and members of the public, to ask them what they think about Singapore, what they like, don't like," he tells me.

It sounds suspiciously like the beginning of a political career. "Well, I would like to be a minister for people," he says.

"Actually, what I want to do is teach Singaporean kids that they need to learn to think for themselves."

As for his own success, he confides that "it feels great. Maybe now people here can look at cross-dressers differently."

"And anyway, it's good to let the world know that Singapore's not just clean and green anymore!" he quips, before heading off to prepare for his next performance.

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