In this Pride Month episode, hosts Nyge Turner and Dom French with producer Georgia Wright sit down with Bay Area drag queens Panda Dulce and Poison Oakland to explore their unique journeys into the world of drag, the joy the art form sparks, and how performers are fighting back against those trying to silence them.
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @yrAdultISH!
Dom: Hey y’all, it’s Dom here. We’ll start the show in a second, but I wanted to give a heads-up that this episode includes the discussion of some tough topics, including homophobia and transphobia. Please take care as you listen.
Nyge: Welcome to Adult ISH, produced by YR Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. I'm Nyge Turner.
Dom: And I'm Dominique French. If you haven't heard, some states are now creating legislation to make drag illegal.
Nyge: In Tennessee, quote, “adult cabaret performances” are now prohibited from happening within 1000 feet of a public park, school, or religious establishment. They specifically use the phrase “male or female impersonators” in the law, so it's pretty clear who they're targeting.
Dom: This bill comes alongside some heinous, anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ laws that states are introducing as well. As of when we’re recording this, 62 of these bills have been passed into law, with 272 more advancing through state legislatures. This is according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is keeping track of this on their website. To me, this just shows how anything outside of this cis-hetero norm is targeted and othered. And how some people seem to have a gross misunderstanding of gender expression versus gender identity.
Nyge: School the children, Dom.
Dom: Aight. Gender expression is who you present to the world. What you wear, how you style your hair, the presence or absence of makeup. And, gender identity is who you are on the inside.
Dom: Still, in the face of all of this legislation, drag performers are doing their thing, more bravely than ever. They're fighting for the rights of their fellow artists, embracing queerness, expressing themselves creatively, and they're having a whole bunch of fun doing it. And, we want to celebrate them.
Nyge: I had the chance to sit down with Kyle Casey Chu, a.k.a. Panda Dulce, to discuss what drag means to her. Panda is a fourth-generation San Franciscan, a Sundance Award-winning writer, and a performer with Drag Story Hour, where queens in drag read picture books to kids.
Dom: I want to note that in the summer of 2022, a group of far-right extremists from the Proud Boys hate group stormed one of these drag story hour events hosted by Panda at a public library. Panda didn't speak to us directly about this event because it was a traumatic experience. But, you can read more about it in a piece she wrote for Vogue called, “What a Terrifying Clash with Extremists Taught Me About Pride.”
Nyge: Dom was out the day of this interview, so senior producer Georgia Wright stepped in as co-host.
Dom: Let's get into it.
Georgia: So, I'm going to start with a big question, but very open to interpretation, which is how do you personally define drag?
Panda: Oh, wow. That is a really big question. And honestly, I think about drag in the same way that a lot of people in past generations may have thought about punk rock, in that, instead of it being a container or a genre in itself, it's kind of, by definition, genre-defying and expansive. And so, it reminds me of that bell hooks quote, which is like, ‘queer, as in, fundamentally at odds with everything around you.’ And, I think that's kind of a really apt way to describe drag. It's any sort of expression or way of presenting yourself that is fundamentally at odds with the structures around you or puts us in dialog, or argumentation, or conversation with those constructs. And, it can look any way you want it to, and that's why it's so beautiful and expansive.
Georgia: I love that, bringing in the bell hooks right off the bat.
Nyge: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey into drag? Like, when did you first encounter it, and when did you first consider doing it yourself?
Panda: So, I think I, I did it as a freshman in high school on a whim, and it was for a one act play that my friend wrote. And, he made me dress up as a caterpillar, and I just had one line, but he kind of just did like the slapdash sort of eyeliner job on me, like, two minutes before going on stage. And, there was something about justifying the expectations of what I would look like when I went out on stage. And like, this was the early aughts, so a very different context. Right? And, having that sort of shock value was a little thrilling. And so, afterwards, I kind of experimented a little more. When my best friend and I in high school would cut each other's bangs - very chaotic - and like, I would put on her clothes and we’d walk down The Castro, which is like a historically queer neighborhood in San Francisco. I just remember catching the eye of a florist, who was hosing off his sidewalk, and he said, “Goodnight.” And, I said, “Goodnight,” in my usual baritone. And he was like, “Oh.” And, it was kind of this, like, shotgun moment where he was like - I see you. I see what you're doing. And, it's almost like we had this conspiratorial understanding that there was trickery and magic afoot. And so, I think, ever since that, I just couldn't stay away from it. Yeah.
Georgia: Okay. So. In addition to your work as a drag performer, which is already an illustrious career, you're also a writer and a filmmaker. Can you tell us a little bit about some of your most meaningful projects?
Panda: Of course. And I just want to preface this with like, it sounds so conceited to say these things upfront. I always feel so awkward doing it, but my drag mom was like, “Well, you better tell them because if you don't tell them, they're not going to know!” And so, I'm trying to get used to that.
Georgia: Hell yeah.
Panda: Yeah, embodying that.
So, I would say that film and writing are kind of my first loves. And I also think that, that and drag is inherently connected because that's all about storytelling and that's all about greeting the audience with what they think they know and then kind of subverting it or making them think a little deeper about things that we take for granted every day. And so, one of my first film projects was a web series called Chosen Fam, and it follows an all-queer and -trans people of color indie rock band in San Francisco. And it's kind of honoring the way that I was raised in the San Francisco punk scene, and I kind of came of age and gender there, um, playing saxophone in a hardcore band and often dressing in drag while doing so.
But, in terms of now, I'm working on a short film called After What Happened at the Library. I think what this gets out is there was so much focus on what happened when the Proud Boys stormed my event last June and so much kind of salacious sensationalization of being a victim, a public victim in this way. And like, how did it destroy me in this way? Like in the moment. But I think trauma is a very complex thing and it's not confined to the vacuum of just like that experience. It echoes and it reverberates in the weeks and days and months after. And, this is about, kind of, experience with media and, like, retelling your story. But besides that, I'm also authoring a middle grade novel called The Queen Bees of Tybee County with HarperCollins. And so that's focusing on a bigender Chinese-American basketball player who discovers drag through pageant culture in the South.
Georgia: Oh, my gosh, that's so exciting.
Panda: I'm really excited. It's, it's the year of Panda, I guess.
Nyge: Right. So, you’re a performer with Drag Story Hour. Can you tell us about how you came to be a part of that group and what it does?
Panda: Drag Story Hour, formerly known as Drag Queen Story Hour, is a youth literary program that brings drag performers to public libraries, bookstores, schools, afterschool programs to read fabulous books to kids. And it started in 2015, I believe the organization with Michelle Tea, who is a renowned queer writer and mother. And the entire program just, like, spread like a wildfire.
Georgia: So recently my friend went to a library where they were hosting a drag story hour, and I remember him saying like it really clicked for him, like why it's so especially fun for the kids when, you know, this queen got out of the car and was like waving like Princess Diana to the crowds and everyone was, like, losing their minds. And so, also just, I love that, in addition to the importance of the literacy and the identity parts of it, just the, like, sheer joy of, like, having someone dressed up in a really fun and exciting way for these young people. And I'll take this moment to segway into the library incident, as you said, which we don't have to get into the details of, you've already written about it extensively, but when I, when I was reading your piece in Vogue about that incident, something that really struck me was how the queer community rallied around you after this traumatic event. How did that experience of, you know, the queer community showing up for you in particular change you? And, you know, how are you feeling as we're going into Pride month of this year?
Panda: Totally. You know, I'm somebody - I'm a bigender person of color, I’m femme, I'm a little chubby. These are all things that have been and can be maligned by queer communities,and I want to be transparent about that. It's not necessarily an acceptance utopia that it's often marketed as by Citibank or whatever.
So, when the pride floats roll around, I don't necessarily always feel that warm giddiness that a lot of people kind of idealize about Pride. And after the incident happened, I realized that – that warm giddiness wasn't the aim, or wasn't what I should be feeling. It's more so, like, the quiet mutual aid and the check-ins and people sitting with me and watching Drag Race with me without talking because I just wasn't in a place to do that. Or organizing meal trains, coming and giving me a massage and, like, cooking me home-cooked meals, sending me, like, witchy crystals that I can't pronounce. All of these acts of care just added up to so much more than any, like, large throbbing crowd of circuit goers ever could. And it was life saving, full stop. That outpouring of support just, it was a beautiful thing.
Nyge: I'm curious, with all of that in mind, as a creator of media yourself. What role do you think media has to play in the fight against fascism?
Panda: Media is literally everything. It is the watering hole where all the animals of the Lion King come to drink and get their, their glimpse of the world and of themselves. It's essentially a cultural mirror, and that's why there's such a heated culture war and debate over mediation and the media we consume. And so, bringing this back to youth, I think as queer people, as people of color, as anyone who is underrepresented and knows what it's like to grow up with a representation desert, and trying to latch on your sense of self to side characters with scarcely a line in a movie or who are maligned and one-dimensionalized – it's a certain kind of devastation. And, I think, in creating media representations that accurately reflect the worlds we inhabit and the people we know and love is revolutionary and necessary medicine.
Georgia: Hypothetically, say you knew someone who had performed in drag once, loved it, then a pandemic hit and they've never performed in drag again. But, they feel in their bones that it's like, something they want to come back to. What would you say to them about sticking a toe back in the waters, or maybe even to somebody who's listening who's, like, interested in exploring this for the first time? Do you have any sort of methods of exploration?
Panda: I'd be like, “Come back, girl, Come back. Come!” [laughter] So, one of the things about drag, too, is that it’s so much work, it's like a lot of work to get into face, and put on your corset, and your padding, and you’re hot under your wig, and it’s itchy, and all the stuff – like drag, categorically, can be whatever you want it to be. Because of the highly social mediated world we live in, there's a lot of, like, Instagram perfectionism that comes into the art form. There's a lot of queens who I feel, like, are incentivized to just max out their credit cards so they can buy the fiercest looks and outfits. And I think that's kind of taking us further away from what drag is, which is just like playful silliness and feeling your own oats.
Georgia: I love that. Again, it's sort of, it's pushing back against this, like, more corporate version. Like, the most punk, the most drag thing to do is to, like, expand to everyone who has never been able to access certain spaces because of financial barriers in the past. And, I love this idea of like just, you know, drag can be in the little things and play from there. That spontaneity and that, you know, it's sort of like a, a spirit of, of creativity is what I'm hearing, maybe. Correct me if I'm wrong.
Panda: No, no, no. I think you nailed it on the head and I'm really glad you brought it back to the, like, corporatization and the, like, Drag Race industrial complex or whatever, because I think Drag Race in terms of influencing the larger culture has been both a blessing and a curse. It's been a blessing in that many more people are exposed to drag now and know what it is, but the other thing is when we watch these, like, highly produced shows, we're expecting like the utmost quality, like, well landed acrobats, like perfect faces, and like, that's an unrealistic expectation for every other drag artist who doesn't have like 15 assistants and like, doesn't have, like, the financial means to do that. And so when we go to a drag show, like, there's some people who are like, Oh, your eyebrows are unblocked. Oh, like, this looks bad. Oh, this looks bad – and it's just like, girl, like, revel in it. Like, have fun. Don't come for me like that, just enjoy yourself! And this poorly put on production of Titanic that I'm barely not even pulling off. [laughter] Like, just laugh with me.
Georgia: I'll be there in the, in the front row as the ship is going down.
Panda: Oh, you're coming down with me. I'm bringing everyone down with me.
Nyge: As the ship is going down!
Nyge: Is there anything else that you want to add, too, that we didn't get a chance to touch on?
Panda: I know it's a really harrowing time right now. It feels like the entire world is pouncing on us and doesn't want us to exist. And, I also think that that is a vocal minority and that they have more skeletons in their closet and this is more a demonstration of classic projection of their own insecurities, anxieties, and shortcomings than it is, or ever will be, a reflection of us. They needed a boogeyman and they wanted to personify it in a drag queen, which is like the fiercest figure you could pick, and the queer trans community. So, good luck with that. As overwhelming and isolating as it might feel to rid of this avalanche and onslaught of negative news, like, know that there is also, like, multitudes and multitudes of people who believe in your right to exist and fundamentally thrive, present company included. And our fight is age-old, and it will continue. And, come to the after party because we want to see you there.
Georgia: Yes. Mic drop.
Nyge: Thank you so much. You did amazing. Yeah.
Panda: This was really fun.
Nyge: If you want to see more of Panda's work, you can follow her on Instagram @pandadulce.
Dom: What was that conversation like for you, Nyge?
Nyge: Panda is such a bright light. She still, with everything that she faces, just wants to spread joy and love and create a safe space for everyone. I really feel for her though on everything that she’s gone through, but I really just hold a ton of admiration for their positive perspective and message that she’s continuing.
Dom: It warms my queer little heart to share this show with a cishet man who has so much love and admiration for the queer experience. I know that should be the norm, but it isn't – yet.
Nyge: Yeah, yet is key in that statement.
Dom: So Panda gave us just one juicy, delicious perspective on the current landscape of drag. But we were hungry for more.
Nyge: That's why we sat down with YR Media alum, KQED multimedia journalist, and multi-hyphenate talent and drag performer Emiliano Villa, also known as Poison Oakland.
Dom: Before we jump into that interview, I want to share some of the audio from the personal pieces that Emiliano made with YR Media when they were working here. Let's take a listen.
Emiliano: In elementary school, I was a shy, girly boy. I preferred arts and crafts with the girls to soccer with the boys. At home, I played alone with my sister's dolls. When my mom wasn’t home, I'd hide in her room and blast Britney Spears. I’d doll up in her flowered hat and high heels and put on a show. I was always happiest in my own little pop dream, jumping on the bed and spinning in circles to the music. I was raised in a strict Mexican family, so I was careful not to flail my wrists or speak too softly for fear of being told to speak up and act like a man.
I dreamed of being a performer, but I believed my glittery fantasies were wrong. I kept my passions hidden in the closet, held back by my lack of confidence and internalized homophobia.
When I was 15, I discovered the TV show RuPaul's Drag Race and a firework went off in me. I was drawn in by the queens’ personalities – so confident, so free, living out their high-heeled truths. Many of them grew up like me. They were weird kids who imitated pop divas. I saw that my dress up games could turn into art. But, you don't wake up a full fledged drag queen! It takes practice, patience and energy. When I'm not at work, I'm planning looks, practicing makeup, or learning dance routines.
My family's reaction has been better than I expected. My sisters love my outfits. My mom is supportive. She thinks I look like her when I'm in drag. My dad and I haven't had a conversation about it yet.
When I get ready to go out, I draw on feminine features and push away self-doubt. I think about the little boy who was scared to be girly. I never thought I'd be dancing in a nightclub, unapologetically being myself. But I am. And I love every second of it. These famous TV drag queens helped me find the confidence to let my inner queen out. Her name is Poison Oakland, and she's still me, but fiercer.
Nyge: And now, without further ado, let's meet the one, the only, Poison Oakland.
Emiliano: Hi everyone. My name is Emiliano Villa and I am a multidisciplinary artist. I am a journalist by background, a writer, producer, and also a performer all over the Bay Area and wherever they’ll have me.
Dom: Love it. I bet they have you everywhere.
Emiliano: That's the goal.
Dom: How do you personally define drag?
Emiliano: Oh, I personally define drag as being whatever you want it to be. There is a quote by the great astrophysicist RuPaul, [laughter] who said, “We're all born naked and the rest is drag.” And so I think that is the best way to explain it. I'll give it to RuPaul. So I think drag is whatever you make it out to be. It's the suit you put on in the morning. It's the costume that you put out, put on when you're going out for, you know, a fun night. I think the way that most people know it as, is the fun performance aspect where people turn into otherworldly characters. There's glamor, there's makeup, there's hair, there's all of that, you know, visual stuff. But, I think ultimately it is whatever you want it to be and however you want to present, because there's so many different styles of drag performance that we can't possibly put it into a box. So it's about breaking those boxes and just being yourself.
Nyge: When did you first encounter drag and then how did it make you feel when you first encountered it?
Emiliano: I say that I first encountered drag when I was like a preteen. I was very Internet savvy, so I was on Twitter and Tumblr and was, like, absorbing a lot of pop culture through these social media channels. And that's how I was exposed to drag for the first time. I got to see these people, these performers who were so lively, like they were just, like, so outwardly themselves, and just like engaging in like, this, like, culture that is so rich and it was all brand new to me. So the way they talked and the way that they acted and the way that they looked was brand new and intriguing. So I just wanted to find out more. And so then I dived in the rabbit hole.
Dom: At the time. Were you like, “Yeah, this is going to be a thing for me?” Or did that develop over a period?
Emiliano: It definitely took time to develop. When I first discovered it, I actually was kind of uncomfortable by it, not in like, not to the fault of any of these people, but because of my own inner insecurities, to be honest. So when I encountered these personalities, I saw myself reflected in them a lot. But because they were things that I wasn't entirely comfortable with within myself, it like, made me do a, like a, double take. Like, is this who I am? Or, is this like what I'm scared of? Which I’d say is, like, pretty average for being a young adult and not seeing any representation of yourself out there. And it ultimately helped me become more confident and secure in who I am and how I want to present and the sort of things and values that I represent. And so I was able to connect to them finally and find a place in that community.
Dom: That's really beautiful.
Nyge: How do you feel like the world of drag is changing as time goes on? Like, what's it like being a modern queen in 2023?
Emiliano: I feel like there is just so much room for talent and for people to just, like, find exactly what it is that they want. The story that we hear from older queer people is that it used to be really hard to do drag and to be a performer because you couldn't find clothes in stores that fit you. You couldn't find shoes. You had to go to the second hand stores. You couldn't find good quality makeup in your shades. You would have to, you know, just use whatever you could find or, you know, hit up a drugstore, or whatever it is that you could find for yourself. But I think now we live in an era where there are a lot of queens that can go on Amazon and buy all their outfits and then go to Ulta, Sephora and pick up the perfect makeup and put together, like, the perfect look. And so I think the ease and access is completely game changing. So there’s that.
Nyge: What advice do you have for folks who might want to try drag for the first time?
Emiliano: Go for it. Do it. Do it and mess up and find out more about yourself by just doing. It's, like, a never ending project, sort of. At least that's how I look at it. Like, if you want to start drag and you look at it as, like, an end all be all, you have to look perfect, that you have to look like this one thing in your head, then you're already like, letting yourself down. You're already like, having the wrong mindset. I think it all has to be about finding joy in, like, the learning curve and finding a place for yourself is what is most important. It's just it's all about, like, the process and finding yourself and what works for you.
Dom: Can you give some practical advice for anyone who is wanting to do drag but is not quite sure how the ins and outs work? Like, you start, you look at yourself in the mirror, you say “Go for it,” which is – I'm literally going to play a clip of you saying “go for it” any time I have queer doubt from here on in – but then what happens?
Emiliano: Personally, the way that I started doing drag and the inspiration for my drag persona came from the, all of the inspirations that I had as a little kid. So all of the things that brought me joy as a child were exactly what I wanted to channel into my drag. And so, in my case, I grew up wanting to be a supermodel pop star, and so that is exactly what became of my persona. I channeled all of those things that were all existing within me my whole life. And I turned them into something physical in the outside world, a persona of myself. But, it was me all along. So what is it that exists within you that needs to come out? What is it that you've always wanted to, to let out, or to be, or to show the world of yourself? And so that could be anything for anyone. Maybe they want it to be like a scary, you know, horror movie monster. And that's totally valid, that's totally cool. I'm sure there's, like, so many places for them to let that out and other people who would love to see it. There's so many different ways to create this joyful persona that is also yourself.
Dom: Drag is just so joyous, literally for everybody. Let the colorful queens read their stories to the chirren. Let the snatched queens just stomp the runways all day long and let the comedy queens roast the ever loving crap out of you because, one, it's a good frickin’ time. And two, it's the right thing to do. Drag, like so many other things that are fun, is deeply and fundamentally important to the people who create it.
Nyge: I personally am seriously taken aback by the love and grace shown by both Panda and Poison. So much hate, injustice and discrimination has been thrown at drag performers these past couple of years, and their response is simply more love. That might sound like a simple solution or response, but anyone who's had rights taken away from them or even just been scared for their life for just existing will recognize that anger, even hatred, can come from that pain.
Nyge: But our guests have made the choice to peacefully continue creating safe and inclusive spaces for everyone and to promote, and lean into, the joy in the face of all of that. That really takes some fantasy, superhuman, fairy tale strength.
Dom: So basically what you're saying is that drag performers are superheroes.
Dom: I can get on board with that! Happy Pride Month, everybody!
Nyge: Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young artists and journalists creating content for this generation. Our show is produced by Georgia Wright, Dominique French, and by me, ya boy, Nyge Turner.
Dom: Our engineer is James Riley.
Nyge: YR’s Director of Podcasting is Sam Choo.
Dom: YR’s Senior Director of Podcasting and Partnerships is Rebecca Martin.
Nyge: Our intern’s name is Quinn Castro.
Dom: Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR Media: Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, Noah Holt, Jacob Armenta, Chaz Whitley, Michael Diaz, Sean Luciano Galarza, and David Lawrence. Music Direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler.
Nyge: Art Direction from Brigido Bautista and Marjerrie Masicat. Creative Direction by Pedro Vega, Jr.
Dom: Special thanks to Eli Arbreton.
Nyge: We are also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent listener-supported collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting. Find them at Radiotopia.fm. And if you haven’t reviewed our show on Apple Podcasts, please be sure to do so; five stars is much appreciated.
Dom: You can follow us on all the socials @YRAdultISH. And on that note – put on a dress, it's really fun!