I met Sweet Valentien around late noon as he’d just stepped out of the studio. Knowing he hadn’t been able to grab a bite to eat, I jokingly asked, though in earnest, if he was still feeling up for our conversation.
“I can go on all night alright,” the young man assured me with a grin.
The allure of a drag queen on him was exuberant in every corner of the room. It left me wondering if everyone else who’s ever met Sweet Valentien also secretly wished he were that one person they woke up to every morning, so they could start a new day with the same exhilaration in them as his — a truly rare sight to see.
Sweet Valentien is a household name among Vietnamese drag queens that has appeared in the pages of multiple renowned fashion magazines, such as Đẹp, Harper’s Bazaar and L’Officiel Vietnam. He also represented the country on season two of Drag Race Thailand in 2018, ultimately finishing in the top 20 finalists.
The drag queen stepped out of his usual costumes, make-up and glamor to sit down with Vietcetera about his lifelong journey.
What are some common misconceptions about drag queens?
That you only need to dress in women’s clothes, wear some make-up and imitate their manners to become one!
The truth is, it takes so much more. The job of a drag queen might involve different art forms, hence calling for a variety of skills, including but not limited to: lip syncing, live singing, contemporary dancing, acting, designing, catwalking, performing stand-up comedy…
Visually, a drag queen is painted out to don the most fabulous fits and pompous wigs, their faces a blank canvas to be tinted with allusive finishes.
Therefore, drag is by no means simply the impersonation of women by men, but a neat culmination of creative expressions that requires proper investment.
Is being a drag queen considered a career?
The answer used to be no, but today’s society has mostly adopted a different outlook on doing drag.
In certain places across Thailand, a drag queen can perform for four to five nights a week and count on it to be their main source of income. Here in Vietnam, the majority of shows take place on weekend nights: Friday and Saturday. Since the pay isn’t as dependable, most of us only do drag on the side as a passion project.
Drag is often said to be expensive, the reason being you can only earn handsomely from it if you have poured in a comparable amount.
Devotion to the making of your outfits, ultimately your brand and image, is a must once you’ve decided to walk this path. It all starts with how much you’re willing to invest.
A drag costume can range anywhere from 4 to 20 million VND. The costliest one I’ve ever designed was valued at nearly 30 million — and that’s excluding hair and make-up!
When I was only starting out with drag, I would gear up for at least a year before actually owning those expensive fits. My budget was super tight, but it was what inspired me to be inventive with the materials I already had lying around.
Is there an age limit to being a drag queen?
Perhaps not. Thirty-something isn’t exactly young anymore, but I feel my prime time didn’t truly come until now. I’ve watched many contestants appear on RuPaul’s Drag Race with almost 40 years of experience under their belt. A drag queen can age like fine wine — their performance only gets more enticing and mesmerizing with time.
If I must give up drag for whatever reason one day, I’d love to be a fashion designer. To make hip and haughty garments — that’s my purpose in life.
Has any drag queen ever had regrets about their choice?
The first time doing drag is an addictive experience for anyone in the business. Under the limelight of the stage, they’re free to unleash an entirely different persona — a blazing charge they weren’t even aware they’ve been withholding inside all this time!
When they feel empowered to slip into that radiant costume and put on a show for hundreds of gawking eyes below, a queen’s poise and pride become untouchable.
If someone has chosen to give up, it’s most likely for they realized how much time and money the drag queen life can take away from them, and less because of a genuine disinterest in the art.
Speaking of giving up... Was that something needed to be done with your past self, to make way for Sweet Valentien today?
I wouldn’t exactly consider the make-up I wear to be a disguise or the face of someone I wish to become. To me, drag is that one art form made to break the existing barrier between fashion and installation art. It’s something I’ve come to depend on as my own creative outlet.
Realistically speaking, I can’t spend every day looking all dolled up only to tiptoe around the house. But I also can’t rock the stage with the same grace if not for Valentien’s luscious locks and dressy robes. Daytime Tiến and nighttime Valentien are fundamentally different identities, but I wouldn’t give up either one. I’m only complete with both of them.
Did you let go of any relationship then?
It’s not rare to hear about instances of parents disowning their children after finding out that they identify as LGBT+, or drag queens in particular. When I came out back in middle school, my dad was so livid that he even beat me up. It took years for him to eventually come to terms with who I am.
I’d never once tried to resist or convince him at all, though. Instead, I chose to live my best life every day, so that my success could speak for itself. Now, whenever I appear on television or score a gig abroad, there’s no way my mom would let it slide. She’d nudge me jokingly, beaming with pride:
“Just saw this pretty girl on TV that looks exactly like you.”
I’ve found letting go of old friendships to be the hardest of them all. I still recall how it felt to have an envious best friend giving me the cold shoulder. There were days when I would come home rushing to weep in a corner of my room, without a care for basic necessities like food, desperate and hopeless about what I’d possibly done wrong. Every single attempt I made to salvage the relationship was to no avail. Ultimately, I chose to call it quits, to keep the best memories we ever shared together intact in my mind.
At the end of the day, though, I’m fortunate to have gained more than what I lost since embarking on this journey. I can say that I value and appreciate every relationship that’s come and gone in my life.
If you were stranded on a deserted island and had to leave all but one item behind, what would it be?
A lace front wig, the premium type that provides the illusion of a natural hairline. I could probably create something to wear with leaves and plastic bags adrift, but making a wig is on a whole other level!
I’m certain there will be a boat or helicopter passing by every once in a while. Then, if what the navigator sees is a guy, they may very well mistake him as a tribal man who could fend for himself alright and move on. But when it’s a woman with flowy, long locks, strutting in a flashy gown… I think there’s a much better chance of me being noticed and rescued to safety this way!
Translated by Jennifer Nguyen