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Becca D’Bus: Larger than life

We had scheduled an appointment with Eugene Tan, but after three hours in TAB’s dressing room, loads of make-up, a purple wig and a leopard head stuffed toy later, we found ourselves in the presence of Becca D’Bus. As the colourful, larger-than-life drag queen stepped out into broad daylight in front of the club, the inevitable happened — passersby with bemused smiles whipped their phones out for snaps.

We had scheduled an appointment with Eugene Tan, but after three hours in TAB’s dressing room, loads of make-up, a purple wig and a leopard head stuffed toy later, we found ourselves in the presence of Becca D’Bus. As the colourful, larger-than-life drag queen stepped out into broad daylight in front of the club, the inevitable happened — passersby with bemused smiles whipped their phones out for snaps.

Becca D’Bus didn’t cause a riot that day, but Tan is hosting one tonight. Don’t worry, it’s just a musical revue and variety show called RIOT! and it features Becca and three fellow queens, Noris, Mona Kee Kee and Galaxia Birch.

The show, the first of what he hopes will be a regular thing, is Tan’s attempt to, well, drag back into the limelight. Why now? The 37-year-old, who writes for a magazine when he’s not being Becca, said one reason is that this year marks the 10th year that the popular drag show venue Boom Boom Room — where Kumar made his name — closed shop.

“A lot of things have changed since. Ten years ago, Singapore didn’t have IndigNation (the annual LGBT Pride event) and Pink Dot, and the world didn’t have RuPaul’s Drag Race (a reality television show). Each of those have impacted how we think of queerness, drag and gay men. And there has been little space to explore what that is,” said Tan.

But Tan’s alter ego is no Kumar. “Venues present drag performers as part of dance nights, in a night club experience, or you have private parties hosted by a drag queen. But the focus hasn’t really been on drag performance or lip synch drag. Kumar is doing his shows and I’ve a lot of respect — that he’s still pulling in an audience. But, in reality, much of it is a stand-up act that’s supported by drag numbers. Ultimately, people go to (Kumar’s shows) for the stand-up,” he said.

 

A CHARACTER PLAYER

 

While Tan had been aware of the Singapore drag scene since the `90s, he accidentally stumbled upon it as part of the theatre scene in Boston, where he had taken up Marketing Communications and Theatre Studies at Emerson College.

“When I left college, I had this idea of becoming a performance artist, as in the art-gallery-smashing-eggs-on-my-head sense,” he quipped. “I realised quickly that you can’t earn a living doing that.”

As director of community engagement for the theatre company Theatre Offensive, part of his work had been to be an outreach volunteer at a local health centre. “We would work the gay parties on Sunday nights and talk about safer sex — and nobody would talk to us. One night, we thought we would try going out in drag - and everyone started talking to us.”

With Boston’s university vibe, added Tan, “there’s a part of the scene that was weirdly intellectual”.

His alter-ego Becca D’Bus was a result of that. After an earlier suggestion to use his real name as his drag name was shot down (“Because nobody thought it was intelligent”), Tan toyed with calling himself Cybil Disobedience, before a friend informed him that there were “at least seven Cybil Disobediences in the world right now,” recalled Tan.

He settled on Becca D’Bus (pronounced “back of the bus”), which referenced the American civil rights movement and Rosa Parks, the African-American activist who, back in the days of segregation, refused to give up her seat at the front of the bus to move to the back. “In Singapore, I think people just think I named myself after a bus, which is fine,” he deadpanned.

As Becca D’Bus, he regularly performed in the Boston circuit, as well as in New York, Philadelphia and Virginia. But in 2010, Tan moved back to Singapore, where he took a couple of years off before connecting with the drag scene here (the RIOT! performers all met at Play). He also started the Singapore version of Dr Sketchy, an international live drawing class-meets-cabaret event, and lately, has reconnected with his theatre roots. Tan was an intern at TheatreWorks before his Boston days, and was seen last year in the NUS Arts Festival production Con$umed as well as Teater Ekamatra’s Paradise.

Apart from preparing for RIOT!, Tan is also juggling rehearsals for two other shows: He’s part of the six-hour production The Incredible Adventures Of The Border Crossers, which debuts in Paris next month for the Singapore Festival (it will also feature at the Singapore International Festival of Arts later this year); and he is taking part in The Necessary Stage’s The Orange Playground (TOP) incubation programme at the end of this month. Interestingly, it won’t be Becca you’ll see but a new character that harkens back to his aborted performance art days — a performance artist named Banana Del Tranny.

 

WHO’S THE REAL BECCA D’BUS?

 

For a greater part, the stage has always been about Becca D’Bus, whom Tan describes as a “louder, brasher and braver” version of him. He is perfectly aware that people do treat Becca D’Bus as a character, which he called “the Mickey Mouse and Disneyland effect”.

“When you walk around in drag, people tend to treat you like a mascot because you’re so visually spectacular. There’s a certain spectacle to this oversized, over-decorated human being, which almost makes you not human,” he said. “I don’t think Becca is necessarily 100 per cent human — there’s something quite insanely ridiculous about her presence.”

It’s another thing, however, for the people behind these personas and characters. While Tan acknowledges how “extremely lucky” he about the support he gets from his parents and sister (“They’ve seen me in drag when I leave the house and they’ve seen me in plays”), that support isn’t as common for his fellow queens. “I know performers and friends in Singapore who have to hide that part of themselves and it feels unfortunate because when I see them onstage, they are so radiant,” he said.

However, there’s one thing Tan wants to make clear. “I’m not a female impersonator by any measure. My own approach is drawing from all genders and I reference a very broad range of things. I can be doing things that are quite funny and clown-like or grotesque,” he said.

“As Becca D’Bus, I really only have one ambition in life. And that is to perform for a sea of 6.9 million people all dressed in pink!”

 

RIOT! is on tonight, 7pm, at TAB, 442 Orchard Road. Tickets at S$20. For more info, visit http://www.riotdragshow.com/.

The Orange Playground (TOP) Showcases is from Feb 27 to March 1 at The Necessary Stage Black Box. You can find out more at http://topshowcase.peatix.com/.

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