Krin Sopheap says the most difficult part of his transformation into Gaga Rainbow is applying his makeup.
“I’m not yet an expert at putting on makeup,” the 22-year-old native of Pursat province admitted. “I only know [how] to do about 50 percent of it.”
With pop music numbers like Men at Work’s “Down Under” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” playing in the background, Mr. Sopheap sat backstage at Phnom Penh’s Rainbow Bar on Wednesday prepping for the night’s drag queen performance—part of the celebrations for Cambodia’s LGBT Pride Week, which runs through Sunday.
His eyes focused on the reflection in a mirror, Mr. Sopheap first applied a layer of foundation before moving to the more detailed work of adding eyeshadow and eyeliner.
With minutes left until showtime, and Mr. Sopheap and his fellow entertainers still some way from being ready, it was time to focus.
“Ah, five minutes? Could I ask everyone who is not a drag queen to leave?” one of the night’s performers said. “We need some of the magic.”
Some 30 minutes later—the bar brimming with patrons—the show began.
Through the curtains entered Gaga Rainbow, wearing a blonde wig, black platform shoes, black stockings and a skimpy black cutout one-piece with sparklers attached at the chest.
Her frenetic performance—fittingly set to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”—featured bar top dancing, a strip tease, word-for-word lip-syncing and, of course, the lighting of the sparklers.
A year into her performing career, Gaga Rainbow is part of Phnom Penh’s lively drag queen scene, which has seen growth in both the number of venues featuring shows and in the quality of performances.
Doug Shakels, a Canadian expatriate who co-owns Rainbow Bar, said the increasing popularity of drag shows in Phnom Penh has coincided with noticeable changes in performers’ talents and abilities.
“We had shows here before but they were quite slow,” Mr. Shakels said.
“We call them ‘goldfish.’ You know the Khmer entertainers that don’t speak English, they couldn’t mime it properly and they would just stand there. And it just wasn’t very good,” he said, mimicking a fish’s mouth monotonously opening and closing.
Now, though, with the prevalence of smartphones and the easy access they provide to websites like YouTube, Mr. Shakels said Phnom Penh’s drag queens have the tools to fully immerse themselves in their acts.
“These kids are serious. They’re copying Beyonce, they’re copying Jessie J, and they’re copying their dance moves…. They all got nice smartphones or iPads or stuff like that and they’re constantly looking at the videos studying every motion,” he said.
“They’re really in tune to Nicki Minaj, Jessie J, Lady Gaga, Madonna, all that, whereas in the West [with] the drag queens…there’s camp and there’s humor. But here’s the opposite: They’re recreating videos when they go on the stage.”
Marcus Burroughs, a DJ who goes by Marcus Mucous, runs the “Shameless” drag show every Thursday night at Pontoon Club. He agreed that the city’s drag performers were tapping into a new level of creativity.
“When we first started here there wasn’t much of a competency in lip-sync…. But now there is more of a technical proficiency,” Mr. Burroughs said. “They come to me with the most incredible ideas, my dancers,” he added.
“They’ve watched a Nicki Minaj critique that says she’s in the Illuminati and she’s doing blood ritual sacrifices. And then to surprise me, they’ll put it in the show that week, they’ll do like a ‘blood sacrifice’ in a circle of fire—like they’ve lit pure alcohol—just to freak me out,” he said.
According to a 21-year-old drag queen at the Blue Chilli bar who goes by the name Gaga, the performances require a combination of both inherent ability and study.
When asked where his abilities as a performer came from, Gaga said: “It’s natural.”
Still, he admitted he spends plenty of his time watching online videos of his favorite divas including Diana Ross, Donna Summer and, of course, Lady Gaga—whose whole catalog he claims to be able to perform.
“Being a drag queen is not easy; you have to have an education to learn what the music is talking about to be able to perform,” he said, adding that even though he likes some artists, their songs are not a good fit for his talents.
“I don’t click with Nicki,” he said, referring to American pop star Nicki Minaj.
Even though drag performers now have access to countless videos online, drag queens still borrow from—or find inspiration in—routines from local bars and clubs, Mr. Burroughs said.
“Things go viral here. If one person does it, everyone nicks their ideas and it just gets very diluted in the process as well,” he said.
As a reaction, he added, he has tried to introduce less mainstream artists into the “Shameless” act.
“I’ve been doing Yoko Ono and Roisin Murphy and more obscure artists, just so they don’t plagiarize it because they would not be able to find the mixes.”
Other venues have gone in different directions to stand out.
The Classic nightclub—one of the city’s longest-running drag venues, which has performances seven nights a week—features acts that appeal to Cambodian entertainment tastes by incorporating physical, slapstick comedy, Mr. Burroughs said.
Khem Sokha, the co-owner of Blue Chilli, said that while his bar’s drag shows remain lucrative—estimating his sales see as much as a tenfold increase during weekend drag performances—he has decided that a makeover is in order.
“I want it to have more class, you know? I make it more like a cocktail bar,” Mr. Sokha said.
“Now is 2015, people want something new, something different,” he said. “Most of my clients are expats living here, so if they’re coming here every week they feel bored, so I change that.”
As drag shows continue to bring traffic into Phnom Penh’s gay bars, the reasons for becoming a queen are usually more personal, performers said.
“Since I was young, I wanted to be a star,” Gaga said.
“The LGBTI community, they come to stand and show the world, we are humanity. We can live and do anything.”
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)