Beauty, fashion shine in Cambodia’s emerging drag scene

People perform during a drag show at Blue Chili.
People perform during a drag show at Blue Chili. Jade Sacker

Everyone wants to look their best, but few can match the cosmetology skills seen in Cambodia’s drag scene.

Sokha Khem, the owner and founder of Blue Chili, was inspired by the performance art of Thailand’s drag shows, known throughout the world as a destination for decadent, high production performances. There was no precedent for such a venue in Phnom Penh, so Sokha Khem set out to create one.

Blue Chili has an enduring legacy as Phnom Penh’s first gay bar, forging a path covered in rhinestones and spilt draft that introduced gay pride, beauty and acceptance to many in the Kingdom.

“Without Blue Chili there would be no open LGBTQ community here,” Khem says, while reflecting on the eleven years since Blue Chili opened its doors. Without a public space for LGBTQ people to meet and openly express their sexuality, there was hardly dialogue or representation in Cambodia’s culture. Since its success among locals and foreigners alike, a new industry of LGBTQ venues have emerged. These businesses have impacted Cambodia’s LGBTQ community, giving them a space to make connections and ultimately feel empowered to advocate for progressive social change.

“Cambodia will soon be like Thailand,” Khem says. “People here don’t care…they don’t have any problem. Here you can be whatever you are. You can be gay or transgender or bisexual. People don’t say anything, it’s your life.”

He lights up while discussing the close family of drag queens he has fostered at his bar. When asked what it truly means to be a “reigning queen” he says, “To be a good drag queen, when you’re performing, you have to make people support you. You have to make people happy. You make people enjoy your art. It’s not only about ‘oh I’m so beautiful’…it’s about how you make the people around you feel.”

People perform during a drag show at Blue Chili.
People perform during a drag show at Blue Chili. Jade Sacker

There is no better example of this than Fenti, a nearly seven-foot tall glamazon in six-inch heels, a smiling mask of perfectly crafted contour and winged eye liner.

“Drag means the world to me,” she says, having begun her drag career two years ago. “I love doing drag because I love to entertain people. I love hearing applause and cheering. I love looking beautiful on the stage and I love getting compliments.”

She was introduced to drag at Blue Chili’s annual drag competition, Miss International Blue Chili. Although she didn’t earn a title that day, she discovered a passion for performance.

“[It was] fantastic. My dreams came true… That’s what makes me feel so happy and proud. I dream to one day do drag full time,” she said.

Although drag has become mainstream internationally due to the mass success of the reality television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag culture in Cambodia is in its infancy. Most Cambodian drag queens learn how to cultivate skills in dance, lip-syncing, makeup, and visual aesthetics from YouTube. Being that many are self-taught, Fenti stresses the importance of individuality.

“You have to be who you are. Create your own style. Don’t copy others. You have to find a way to make yourself unique. The most challenging part of drag is to always step outside the box and find something new to impress people,” Fenti said.

That is an important aspect of the intrigue of drag performance – every night is different. The relationship between the artists on stage and the crowd that cheers for them is visceral and changes with each performance. You have to constantly refine your craft and make it exciting for those who frequent shows.

Regarding Cambodia’s growth in LGBTQ awareness, she says, “I think the LGBTQ community is getting more recognised and more accepted here. My family, at first they 100 percent did not support me, but after I came out to them I tried to explain that I do this because I fight for myself. They are very okay with it now. Not even just okay, but very supportive.”

Every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, Blue Chili hosts Cambodia’s longest running drag show, and Khem can be found at every performance. The allure of drag is more than feathery gowns and sequinned bodices. Behind every choreographed dance number and homemade costume is beauty of brazen self-acceptance.

The need for self-expression in a country that has only recently started to accept the LGBTQ community is the heart of Cambodia’s drag scene, and what has made a small stage nestled in a quiet lane so successful.