Rebecca Chan, 21, has risen to become one of Cambodia’s leading drag queens and LGBTQ+ activists, overcoming family barriers and social norms to live the life she has always dreamed of.
Growing up in a small family consisting of two sons. Preap Thearit is the eldest son, but always knew that being in a man's body did not align with his soul. He knew from a young age that he preferred feminine things, such as wearing makeup and high-heels, and singing and dancing whenever no one was around.
Growing up, he started to wear makeup, which made him feel confident and pretty, but he kept it a secret from his family.
“Going to school, I put on not just a little bit of make-up but a lot, with some shady eye shadows. I was so young, I just did whatever I felt like doing it. I didn’t really think too far,” he recapped.
I look like a woman
One day, his life changed forever when he discovered drag queens and knew that fitted with his personality and passions from a young age when he loved lip sync and dance with emotion.
During Khmer New Year in 2017, one of his friends invited him to watch a drag show at a Phnom Penh bar. At the time, the bar was lacking drag queens for that night’s show, so his friends pushed him to give it a go for the first time. He recalls being so scared but also excited and curious to try it when he saw the beautiful makeup, clothes, wigs, and dancing.
“I was too shy. But that shyness didn’t compare to how much I wanted to do it. Shy but I wanted it so much, so I let them dress me up. To be honest, compared to right now, I looked so messy and not well put together,” he said laughing.
He added, “But somehow, I was so happy. There was a mirror in front of me. I looked (to myself) left and right. I was like ‘wow, I look good. I look like a woman. A very good-looking woman’.”
Even though Thearit was just 16-years-old at the time he made his first performance on stage, the audience was so impressed with his talent that the owner of Blue Chili bar asked his to be a drag queen here. Around this time, Thearit became Rebecca Chan and is identified as a woman.
Despite her enthusiasm about the job and the fact she accepted it without hesitation, when she arrived home, she started to worry about how her family was going to react to her dressing up as a lady as her family had always recognised her as a son.
However, this failed to stop her. She would sneak out at night to do her makeup and perform at the bar, asking her younger brother to lie to her mom and say she was already asleep. One day, her mom found out the truth and refused to accept that her son had transformed into a woman. Her dad was also shocked seeing his son being transgender.
Even though her parents did not like what she was doing, she still pursued her dream job as a drag queen by calling herself Rebecca - the name of a female main character in a movie she watched. She was inspired by Rebecca, who is portrayed as beautiful, genius and brave enough to stand up for herself. She has used her mother’s last name since she first stepped into drag life.
What is a drag queen?
A drag queen is a man who dresses in women's clothes and performs before an audience. Drag shows (typically staged in nightclubs and Gay Pride festivals) are largely a subcultural phenomenon.
According to one report from Transgender Equality in Washington DC, drag is a type of entertainment where people dress up and perform, often in highly-stylized ways. The term originated as British theater slang in the 19th century and was used to describe women’s clothing worn by men.
Today, many prominent drag artists still identify as men and present themselves in exaggeratedly feminine ways as part of their performance. While some drag queens live their lives as men outside of their drag personae, people of any gender can be drag queens.
Drag kings, who wear men’s clothing and perform stylized forms of masculinity, are less common, but exist. Many drag kings are women, but people of any gender can be drag kings as well.
There is no specific information about the amount of drag queens in Cambodia, but according to Rebecca, there are not many drag queens due to the lack of bars in Phnom Penh that have drag shows and other places in Siem Reap province.
Behind the Sparkling, Drag Queen that You Never See
It can take many hours of preparation to perfect the look of a drag queen. Many have to arrive in the early-evening to get themselves ready on time, spending between three and five hours to get ready for the show that usually kicks off at around midnight.
Rebecca mentioned that being a drag is not convenient, like some people view it from the outside.
“This job that I have, drag queen, really requires a lot of effort from getting ready and going up to perform, to undressing. There are so many processes. People think it’s fun, lots of laughs and easy, but it’s more than that,” Rebecca said.
Since Covid-19, drag shows have been restricted and drags, including Rebecca, faced financial hardship. To support her livelihood, she was forced to take up work in a bank during the pandemic while she was also studying at university.
But she missed her drag career and craved to get back on the stage to entertain the crowds once again. In 2021, when the bar reopened, she was able to pursue her career once again.
While the profit she gains from one show to another varies as she dances for two bars every week, they are not enough to pay for materials such as makeup products, high heels, clothes, and jewelry. Many of these items are expensive due to the fact they have to be ordered from abroad and tailored to create her unique look.
“If we talk about the price [of clothes, shoes, makeup materials], it’s a lot. If we talk about stuff that we use, we cannot find it in the market easily. They have to be designed or ordered from abroad because it is difficult to find them in our country because some necessities are not common. We don’t see a girl going out and wearing them,” Rebecca mentioned.
She added, “Sometimes the income that I get from this career is not even enough for our expenses on buying materials for performances. But in this kind of job, if we cannot gain income, we do it out of love; out of passion. So, it’s worth it.”
Despite these challenges, Rebecca loves her job and wants to pursue it for the rest of her life. “The drag career right now is a part of my life and also my passion, and I look forward to doing it every weekend. I cannot guarantee for how long I will continue this career, but as long as I have the energy and strength, I will continue to do it.”
She is also known as an LGBTQ+ activist and works with organizations to promote and inspire other transgender people who face challenges with their family and society as she has done.
“I recommend everyone to try the drag. In my experience, everyday we face problems around us all the time. Like family, stress from work and school,” she said.
She added, “As I mentioned, being a drag queen allows us to be another person of ourselves. We can relax, enjoy and have fun, and we live in another dimension. We don’t care about what we are doing and it helps a lot in terms of inner peace.”
Now, after many years, she has noticed her parents recognize who she truly is and open their hearts to accept her.