When we think of drag, we may not necessarily think of China. This “Drag Divas” series will show you just how the scene is very much alive in China’s urban slash underground culture. Temper contributor Rochelle Beiersdorfer chats with Beijing Queen Velvet Teese about her origin story, artistic philosophy, and, of course, her personal fashion sense.
China’s Drag Queens. Fashion That Is Non-Binary Identification
In 2019, Temper tapped a seasoned drag show judge for his prediction on drag art in China. At the time, he defined the scene in Shanghai with one word: “booming.”
Since this prediction, the drag queen boom hasn’t just sent shockwaves through the Pearl of the Orient, but has also reverberated throughout the Middle Kingdom as a whole.
One such queen that felt the blast and found her inner diva is Beijing’s Velvet Teese.
Velvet Teese is a drag queen, makeup artist and college student who deems her drag persona as “a romantic piece of extravagance.” With the optimal word being extravagance, Velvet’s makeup, wigs and ensembles are nothing but unparalleled glamour that pays homage to vintage pizzazz. And with her show-stopping looks that are reminiscent of the golden age of Vaudeville, Velvet’s chosen performance style is naturally burlesque.
The cabaret dance style that is nowadays primarily thought of as burlesque didn’t come about until the 20th century. In fact, burlesque as a form of striptease or ‘hootchie-kooch’ dancing wasn’t a thing until a performer by the name of Little Egypt performed at the1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.#TemperTeachings
The nom de guerre of Velvet Teese similarly seeps with nonpareil allure and timeless charm. In other words, it’s an elegant enigma of sensual euphoria and physical sensation. “The name ‘Velvet’ actually signals the moment when I take off the velvet gloves during burlesque,” Teese tells Temper, “…Velvet is also the kind of fabric that I always love to land my hands on to touch, to feel. That’s what I want other people to feel about my drag. [I want them to feel] like a plushness caresses the bare skin, an insatiable thirst.”
And what about the tease…we mean Teese? “And about Teese, first of all, you probably notice that it’s from Dita’s name, Dita Von Teese,” Velvet continues while explaining her name’s origin, “She [Dita Von Teese] is my all-time favorite [American vedette/burlesque dancer] and one of my biggest inspirations. Also, it sounds like velvet tease, which is exactly what I do in drag: striptease. People usually just call me Velvet, which is fine, but for myself I wanna pay homage to Dita. That’s why I chose this as my drag name.”
Strut Your Stuff
Most drag origin stories start with curiosity quickly followed by a drag mother and duct tape. In Velvet Teese’s case the curiosity came first with no drag mother to show her the ropes or gray adhesive in sight. Being a kid in the digital age, Velvet’s first exposure to drag culture was through social media while a tween. “I first saw pictures of Violet Chachki on Instagram [IG] when I was in junior high school,” Ms. Teese recollects, “At that time, I had no idea what drag was so I took it for granted that she might be a fashion model or something.”
Scrolling through Violet Chachki’s YouTube, Velvet discovered the seventh season (“Violet’s season”) of the drag competition show that is “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” “That’s when I started to know about drag culture, mostly through Drag Race and social media, but I still thought it was only a thing in the U.S. and people did drag just to look pretty; stuff like that,” Velvet states.
That mindset of drag as something foreigners do to doll themselves up “just to look pretty” was flipped on its head once Velvet Teese moved to Beijing for college. “It was mind blowing for me to know that people were actually doing drag here, in China,” our queen du moment explains. Once in Beijing to study translation and interpreting, Velvet’s destined progression from bedroom enthusiast to star of the stage was set into motion.
She began schooling herself on how to apply makeup via following Chinese drag queens and makeup artists on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. But at this time actually getting into the spotlight and strutting her stuff was still not on Velvet’s immediate radar. That is, until she met her partner.
China’s LGBT Culture In Fashion: A Non-Labeled Androgynous Aesthetic
When it comes to drag as a creative movement and performance style, Velvet regards it as an art form where the ends justify the means. As the saying goes, through pain one finds pleasure. “Drag for me is kind of a fetish because I’m willing to suffer the pain and discomfort to present myself the way I want […] [When] I’m feeling it, feeling my look, I feel sexy and powerful. So is fashion to me. It doesn’t necessarily mean ‘uncomfortable’ though,” she states, “Fashion is like my defense mechanism, my armor. Rihanna said, and I quote, ‘she can beat me, but she cannot beat my outfit.’ I feel you, Riri.”
“I always believe there is no specific way to define sexiness, regardless of outfit, body shape, gender identity, etc.,” Teese explains, “I hope my drag can give people a more diversified perspective on sexiness, beauty, gender expression and self-exploration.”
This fierce fashion challenge to the status quo that Velvet possesses while in drag isn’t just a gimmick to get attention. On the contrary, it extends into her out-of-the-limelight boy life as a dissident act against the white heterosexual male ideology that domineers.
“Fashion is also…my way to rebel against this heteronormative society and the gender norms. Back in high school, every time I tried to dress up cool or put on something ‘girlish,’ my parents always accused me of not being masculine enough. I felt restrained and depressed [because] I genuinely didn’t agree with them on how boys should dress,” states Velvet.
Since then, our queen has developed her own gender-free style. “I no longer care what people might think of me when they see me wear something totally unacceptable to them. I mean, I’m the one that would wear high heels and crop tops to the classroom on Monday with a pair of big-*ss pearl earrings.”
Close-Up: Chinese Men and Their Love For Icing the Fashion Cake
Taking such a bold, I’m doing me stance when it comes to individual style, what does fashion mean to Ms. Teese? Allow her to explain:
“Fashion to me means that I have total control of how I present myself and the freedom to show my creativity. Fashion gives me the power to put myself first and to just unapologetically be my true self. That’s why I think fashion is not about a Prada bag or a pair of red bottoms. Fashion is for all who dare to let their true colors shine through.”
Through her chosen performance art, striptease/burlesque, Ms. Teese strips away the gender binary BS, leaving behind beauty, authenticity and pure art. What’s not to love!?
Don’t be a drag, dahlings, and follow Ms. Teese on IG: @velvet.teese
All images come courtesy of Velvet Teese
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