Jokes Apart

The Ha Ha Queen of Singapore

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In a country known for strict censorship laws, the most famous comedian is Kumar, a drag queen of Indian descent who pulls no punches

On stage, the resident drag queen of Singapore and its most famous comedian introduces herself thus: “Good evening, I am Kumar. Friends call me Aishwarya Rai.” Like Ms Rai, Kumar dons sequined gowns and grand saris, and has an uncanny ability to read his audience. Unlike her, he has a sharp wit and does his own make-up. Kumar is fluent in English, Tamil and Malay. He has done English TV comedy shows, hosted Tamil travel and cooking shows; he’s acted as a Bangladeshi dishwasher in local musicals, and most recently, performed solo shows at the Esplanade theatre, Singapore’s largest performing venue. But most of all, he’s a stand-up comedian who makes Singaporeans laugh like no one else can.

Kumar’s popularity is partially due to his satirical expertise on local issues. “His jokes on racial stereotypes and the local government resound with Singaporeans,” says Shane Pereira, 29, a Singaporean Eurasian. Kumar himself views humour as a tool of social commentary. “I don’t rehearse, I just read a lot about current affairs,” he says. He never loses sight of the risqué humour that he is famous for. “Sex jokes sell very well, so I try to have a good mix,” he says. No topic is sacred when he’s performing. “You can get away with murder in comedy. When people are uneasy, they laugh. And when they leave the room, they think about what they were laughing about, and see the truth beneath,” he says.

Watching him perform on stage at the 3 Monkeys Café in Holland Village, it is difficult to imagine him without an audience laughing at his feet. But there was a time like that. His career didn’t begin with laughter. The 42-year-old began drag comedy on a moonlighting stint in 1991. He was an actor at a local theme park when a now-defunct cabaret asked him to wear a sari for a show. Stand-up comedy was then uncommon in Singapore, and dressing in drag even more so. “Drag was taboo. The police didn’t allow it, and society was another problem altogether,” Kumar recalls. “I cried every day, and no one laughed. My family thought I was a prostitute.” To make matters worse, Singapore’s censorship laws were at odds with the stand-up comedy routine in which all aspects of social and political life are targets. “The government said, ‘No politics, no sex, no race, no religion.’ Then I said, ‘Talk about what? You and me?’” says Kumar.  He’s been accepted now. In fact, in 2004, when the Singapore Tourism Board ran a ‘Uniquely Singapore’ campaign, he was acknowledged as a ‘national treasure’.
Kumar has since transcended the local sphere. He has performed in various parts of Southeast Asia and toured India, most recently performing at Kyra restaurant in Bangalore in 2009. There was an excellent turnout for his shows in India, but he had to watch himself. “Most of India is still a bit conservative. Indians can’t poke fun at themselves and can be easily offended,” he says. 

How offensive can humour actually be? “Kumar can’t please everyone,” says Gwen Khoo, Kumar’s manager and boss. She recounts an incident where the day after a performance a member of the audience called to demand an apology. His offence: having used the term ‘senior citizen’ in a joke. Kumar speaks of another incident where he said, “Bhais wear helmets” while referring to the Sikh turban, a familiar article of clothing in Singapore. An offended patron walked out of the show. “There was one table of Punjabis who had been laughing at all my other jokes about other ethnic groups. But they could only laugh at everyone else, not themselves,” he says. “People have to come with an open mind.”

Off-stage, he’s dressed in simple T-shirt and trousers. “I’m very different when psyched up with make-up and dressing. I become colder—it is work,” he says. “The most irritating part about going off-stage is when everyone expects you to be funny all the time. People always say, Kumar, tell us a joke! Who is funny all the time? I’d be popping pills if I were.”

Despite the simple off-stage attire, the attention to skincare detail betrays traces of the inner diva. “I have to maintain my looks, use good skin care, and constantly go for facials,” he says of his beauty regime. “Eventually, it becomes a religion.” And then there is the trail of perfume in his wake. Vithya Subramaniam, 21, was Kumar’s dresser for the musical Sing Dollar in 2009. “I remember that after a day’s worth of rehearsals and performances, his costumes were the only ones that would still be fragrant,” says Vithya. Kumar and Gwen both cackle upon hearing this. “I finish 100 ml of perfume in one week,” Kumar discloses. “I spray ridiculous amounts.” When asked about his signature scent, he refuses to be specific because he does not want copycats. “It’s floral lah,” he says, “comes with the Indian blood!”  

What is less known are Kumar’s thoughts on homosexuality. His flamboyant drag routine is merely work, though often used by the public to infer his sexual preferences. Kumar has been in a stable relationship for three years now, and has surprisingly not wound up in the advocacy of homosexual rights in Singapore. “I like the underground lifestyle,” he admits. “I understand both sides of the controversy. But why would you want to be mainstream? If it is so open, then why go all the way to Australia for Mardi Gras?” For transgendered or homosexual individuals, Kumar serves not just as a national icon, but also a gendered one. “They look up to me as having made it easier to come out. There is better acceptance in society now, and tolerance levels are higher,” says Kumar.
Lined up for the future are community projects Kumar and Gwen plan to embark on with a group of friends, including building wells in villages near Chennai, and adopting orphanages nearby. From self-made comedian to beauty-queen philanthropist, Kumar continues to surprise and amuse. He says, “I just want the public to understand me better—my life is not all about fake eyelashes and sequined dresses.”