Drag Racer Kim Chi is an undeniably spicy dish who went from drag to riches
SCOTT HUFFMAN | Contributing Writer
Five years ago, Sang-Young Shin’s initial foray into the world of drag was little more than a lark. It was Halloween — “drag queen Christmas,” he quips — and his best friend, Matt, wanted to go out in a wig, dress, heels and makeup. When Matt asked Shin to join in, he casually agreed. Both were drag novices, and neither, it seems, had an inkling as to what was about to unfold in their lives.
“The first night we went out, we got booked for a show,” Shin recalls. “A few weeks after that, we went to Neverland, which is a production company in Chicago. They were throwing this crazy party. At that party, they hired me to be their host. A year later, I was hired to be their art director. It’s been nonstop ever since.”
Today, we know Shin by his nom du drag Kim Chi, a Season 8 finalist on RuPaul’s Drag Race. We also now know Matt as Pearl, a Season 7 finalist. Given their incredible successes, one is hard pressed to contend that the Halloween escapade could have been anything but fate. Shin, in fact, eloquently describes his early drag experience as “discovering a passion I didn’t know I had.”
Although Kim Chi — a name Shin chose for both its femininity and the dish’s importance as a staple in Korean cuisine — did not ultimately take his season’s crown, he acknowledges that the competition was a major turning point in his burgeoning career. As the first Korean-American contestant in the program’s history, Kim Chi quickly garnered fans from around the globe. The attention also created a stream of interesting — and welcome — work opportunities for the struggling entertainer.
“Right before going on Drag Race, I was spending so much money on my costumes that I was always broke,” Shin says. “There was one time I was trying to dig quarters from the bottom of my couch to find money to buy a McDouble to eat for dinner that night. So, from a financial aspect, it’s been helpful. Not only has it been helpful, but I’ve been able to help out my family and charities as well, which is amazing.”
Such triumph, however, also exacts a toll. Last year, Shin’s travel schedule grew so taxing that any down-time became a rare luxury. With countless appearances, he found himself in drag so frequently that the line dividing Shin from his Kim persona began to blur.
“That was a big deal last year,” Shin says. “I was working sometimes seven days a week in seven different cities, like nonstop. This year I decided I’ve got to be me, too, and not just Kim Chi. I’ve taken some time off. I’ve gotten Lasik surgery for myself so that I don’t have to worry about wearing glasses or wearing contacts. I’m in a much better place this year … not that I was in a horrible place last year, but I’m eating better and finding time to work out.”
Just how much the rest has impacted his performance you’ll soon be able to judge for yourself. On Oct. 19, Shin will appear for a Dallas stop of the Werq the World Tour. The show is hosted by Drag Race judge (and RuPaul bestie) Michelle Visage whom, according to Shin, many of the queens consider “a mother figure.” The cast also includes, among other former Drag Racers, Peppermint, Valentina and Dallasite Alyssa Edwards.
“This summer we toured Europe with [the show], but the American version is going to be bigger and better,” Shin promises. “We went from two backup dancers to four backup dancers. There are going to be more queens. A lot of people are doing completely new numbers. So if you’ve seen the number online or whatever, it’ll be something completely new. All the queens come out in a different country’s outfit. I’m obviously going to come out in a Korean outfit representing my country.”
His background even affected his drag name choice. When they came to the U.S., Shin’s parents gave him the “American” first name of Eric — a common tradition in Asian-immigrant families … and not one he feels altogether comfortable with.
“I guess it’s kind of like whitewashing in a way, when you think about it,” Shin says. “It’s just for American people to pronounce your name correctly and easily. And my parents gave me the name Eric because, growing up, my favorite movie was The Little Mermaid. I would get really excited when Prince Eric would come on. How they didn’t know I was gay back then is still a mystery to me. So I went with Eric until I got into middle school, and my last name is Shin. So when you say Eric Shin really fast, it sounds like erection. I got made fun of a lot, so I just went back to my Korean name, Sang.”
Korean pride or not, drag ensembles are something Shin, who claims to “eat, breathe and live fashion,” takes quite seriously. He regards all fashion, especially looks from high-end conceptual designers, not as clothing but as “sculptural art.” Fashion, he says, is a main reason he got into drag.
“When I first started to do drag, in every
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 6, 2017.