Pan Pan Narkprasert is an LGTBQ+ activist, a waacking dancer and teacher, a community leader, and an art lover, but is most well known as the drag performer Pangina Heals, Thailand’s most famous and influential drag queen. Pan Pan is also the co-host of “Drag Race Thailand”, a Thai version of “RuPaul's Drag Race”, spotlighting the drag scene in Southeast Asia.
As part of our Rebellious X series, Pan Pan shares his thoughts on drag, representation, politics, coming out, and House of Heals, a space he created to cultivate happiness and inclusivity.
Back in college I took classes about feminism. What most people don't understand about drag is that we play on many attributes we consider to be feminine, attributes of a woman. Drag queens pick out certain signifiers, like eyelashes and heels. We take these certain attributes and tropes, put them on a pedestal, and exaggerate them.
We are inspired by strong women, like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and other divas. People may think of that as a stereotype, but it’s true for me in that I find strong women to be empowering. To emulate that and to continue to worship and find their attributes within myself is a fun experience. I learn from strong women. So for me to love people like Wonder Woman or Mariah Carey - whether they're fictional or real individuals - and then discover what kind of a drag queen I am through these powerful women, is a journey I enjoy.
When I first started doing drag, I was motivated by a lot of different things. I was doing a lot of dance before I started doing drag and entering competitions. My teacher was a cisgender woman and a waacker (a form of street dance created in the LGBT clubs of Los Angeles during the 1970s disco era). I think that when it comes to art, everyone has a place within this community and this world. For me, art has no gender.
When I started doing drag, I was very experimental. I would do random crazy things and sometimes people didn't understand.
For me, art has no gender.
Whether you're in business or you're doing it just for yourself, there has to be a certain balance. There are some people who say to me that if you come out and do a Lady Gaga or a Beyoncé number, people will always love it. But does that define me as a drag queen? Do I always perform songs that people like, or do I try to challenge the audience and do songs that I think people may try to absorb and learn something from?
I try to combine all of that, to make my drag educational and experimental; to make it for the people and to make it for myself. There has to be a balance. And to keep a good balance, I change it up all the time. So when people come to my show, they don't expect a certain thing, and that's what I love.
Most people say, “Oh, she's the dancing queen,” or “She's the funny queen.” But why put yourself in a box when you as a person have so many layers? Why limit yourself?
I get my inspiration from everything and everywhere. I love researching these goddesses, these "Glamazonian" women, like Rita Hayworth or Greta Garbo. I go back to the 20s, I go back to the 40s; and it's so rewarding to do your research and find out who these amazing people are. I get inspiration from the work and life stories of icons.
Why put yourself in a box when you as a person have so many layers? Why limit yourself?
On the Personal & the Political
I have never understood why society wants to put people in boxes. I never understood why society thinks that girls should wear skirts and boys need to wear trousers; sometimes a guy looks fabulous in a skirt and a girl looks amazing in a suit.
I always had this notion that society is not always right. When I considered instances where people were segregated or treated differently, that led me to think that we don't always need to take our cues so much from society.
From the very beginning, I felt that doing drag didn’t hurt anyone. And for me, as a gay man, I’ve always found dressing up as a female to be fun and liberating. And because I know that I'm not hurting anyone, it feels empowering to me.
For me, the personal is political. Drag queens are political figures by being who they are. Look at the Stonewall Riots. The first person to hit the cops with a brick in her purse was a drag queen.
Throughout history, there are figures who sacrificed, in order for me to put on high heels and a dress. That in itself is a political act and that is saying “fuck you” to society. In many ways, when I perform, I always think of what I can do to challenge what people think.
Drag queens are political figures by being who they are.
Sometimes performances are really political. For example, when I was in Hong Kong, there were huge protests. I decided that I wanted to perform “When you Believe” by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. I thought that was political because the lyrics are about hope in times of adversity.
When I have felt angry with the current situation with the government, I would, as a drag queen, go to the protests and voice my opinion because I feel silence is death.
Drag queens are not quiet, so we're going to say what we feel and believe because we're human. We're armed with art, and that just makes our voice louder.
For me, there are two levels: representation as an Asian person and representation as a drag queen. When I was growing up, I didn't see any drag queens. Most drag queens in the media are the butt of the joke, or they're in comedy, or they are to be laughed at, which is not necessarily a problem, but there wasn't that side where I felt that the art of drag was being respected.
When I found “Drag Race'', I watched all of Season 1 and 2. I was inspired by Ongina, which is why my name is similar. For the first time, I saw people who were like me. I saw myself as an Asian person who was doing drag, but I never really knew what drag was until I watched the show.
We're armed with art, and that just makes our voice louder.
I realised that I could choose to differentiate that I'm gay, and that I can do this art without having identify as a trans person. Learning to see drag as an art form and accepting that I don't need to be a certain way to do it was amazing and mind-blowing.
And then there’s the element of seeing Asians, who have lower visibility in the media outside of Asia, represented. That on its own is another dynamic.
On Drag Race Thailand
Thailand was the first country outside of the United States to continue the “Drag Race” franchise. I think the fact that Thailand is a country so rich with culture shows through so heavily in practising the art of drag.
When you're a Thai person, you're so proud of not only the fact that you’re Thai, but also Thai history, artistry, costume, music, even down to how Thai textiles are made. Drag is influenced by many things; music, designers, art, fashion, and the audience itself. And all those factors combine to make something intrinsically Thai and unique.
Pradit Kaljaruek bought the rights from the World of Wonder to do “Drag Race” in Thailand. He's a genius. He approached me five years before we actually did the show. I was coming up in the scene and performing constantly. There were some really amazing queens, but he decided I should come and be the host.
I think the fact that Thailand is a country so rich with culture shows through so heavily in practising the art of drag.
He knew that I wasn't the best in terms of fashion knowledge, so we have my cohost Art Arya as the fashion icon. Working together, we created something kind of magical.
I was the performer. I knew how to emcee and control a crowd. Everything in terms of performance - aesthetic and aspect - I've got it down. But when it comes to fashion and knowing the history and how to construct a garment, Art Arya is a designer and knows everything.
She knows her shit. I know my shit. We make an amazing team. I am getting dressed up everyday in drag. What more could you ask for? Life is good.
On House of Heals
This spirit of Heals is that you enter the space one way, but you leave transformed or healed in another. I believe that drag heals people.
You might come to the show just after breaking up with your boyfriend. You laugh and enjoy yourself. You feel so much better because we're able to take you out of a certain situation through this fantasy we create.
It works both ways; I'm healing you, but you're also healing me too. I never call people who come to my shows my “customers”. I call them my guests because they are coming into my home. That's why I call it House of Heals. Every staff member needs to treat people with kindness and love.
I believe that drag heals people.
I think that many of the clubs just want the pink dollar - what gay people can pay and are willing to pay - because gay people spend a lot when we party.
Two years ago, I was working a lot of gay nights at straight bars. I realised that they didn’t have the correct lighting. The stage was wrong. The drag queens weren't lit correctly. The music and the sound system was horrible. I wanted to create a space where this art could be appreciated in the way that it should be appreciated; by curating a space that is warm and welcoming to everybody.
I have worked in the nightlife industry for 10 years. One of the things that bothers me most is when people go to a nightclub and they know they have to really dress up and pay lots of money to open a bottle, and they don't even dance and have a good time.
The Thai word is เครียด (kriat) - they are so stressed. And they are thinking about how they look. Is that even a good time? You're so stressed and not even dancing.
Some people think the point going to the bar is to find that person who completes them. In House of Heals, you don't need anyone else. You can come alone and dance. You are complete by yourself.
I also want to make sure that House of Heals is a safe and inclusive space, so I have an amazing security team.
My security staff has been working with me for five years. One of the reasons I hired my main security person is that once, outside of the club I used to work with, one of my showgirls was assaulted. Someone spat in her face and this security staff went up to that guy and punched him, and I was like: “You are hired for my new club.”
As a cisgender man, he didn’t have to do that. But because he has worked with us for so long, he knows that it’s about humanity; you can't treat people that way.
The second way that I protect the space is that I’ve never called it a gay club. Back in the day, gay people couldn’t get into certain clubs. That is one of the things I fight for. In Thailand, many of the straight clubs did not allow trans girls to go in. I find that disgusting. I want House of Heals to be a space for everyone, regardless of gender.
In House of Heals, you don't need anyone else. You can come alone and dance. You are complete by yourself.
We have many girls who come in and say, “I feel amazing, I love dancing here, I feel so safe.” I have straight guys who come in and say that they used to be scared of drag queens, but tell me: “You guys are amazing entertainers.” And they keep coming back.
I'm really good with people's energy so if I see someone being an asshole, I tell people to just ignore them. And if they are acting a fool, that’s what security is for.
On Advice to the Next Generation
The number one thing is that you never need to apologize for who you are. I don't think you ever need to apologize for wanting to be with a man or wanting to be with a woman; that's just who you are.
Number two, there is no particular day that you need to come out. You do that when you're ready. Some people do it when they're financially stable, or when they move out, or when they think their parents are ready to hear it.
Everyone's timing is personal, and you don’t need to pressure your friend just because you want them to say it. It is none of your business. You are there to encourage and love your friend, but never to pressure them to come out.
The number one thing is that you never need to apologize for who you are.
So never apologize. Take your time. Of course it's going to be emotional, but stick to the facts. Like, “Mom, I think I'm gay. I'm pretty sure I'm gay. I like a man, but that does not make me a horrible son. It does not make me a worse human being.”
One of the main factors that defines who you are is happiness. When I wake up in the morning, I usually do affirmations. Every morning I write things that I'm proud of and I read them. And before I go to sleep I read them again.
Every single day you should write down what you are proud of. It can be something small like: “I went to the gym today. I ate good food today.” You just make these lists and every day the list will grow bigger and bigger, and you will be more proud of yourself.
To be your authentic self is to know that you're not constrained by someone else's voice or even your own expectations. And sometimes you have to be your own harshest critic, step back and identify your own problems. Other people don't do that or even see it. It's good to be forgiving of yourself and to ask people when you need help.
Do things that make you happy. Do things that make you confident. Take care of yourself, define what happiness is to you, and do not give a shit about what other people say.
By Becky O'Brien
Becky O'Brien heads The F Word's Rebellious X column. She is a member of the Bangkok Rising Managing Committee, an event organiser, passionate about gender equality and an aspiring storyteller; dedicated to finding untold stories and bringing them to light.
By Kankanit (Gun) Wiriyasajja
Kankanit is a third-culture kid, journalist, Rebellious X writer, firm believer in freedom of speech, passionate about telling other people's stories and empowering others, and currently saying yes to new adventures.