Taiwan's Next Drag Superstar

Taiwan Drag Queen Nymphia Wind has made history on RuPaul’s Drag Race - Ron Hanson has the details.

Taiwan was elated late last month when Taiwanese-American drag queen Nymphia Wind was crowned “Next Drag Superstar" on MTV’s RuPaul's Drag Race. Wind is the first winner from East Asia of the legendary Emmy-winning television series, breaking what she described as the show’s “Asian curse”.

Performing in the final in a spectacular yellow banana dress, Wind dazzled the crowd, including her mother who had traveled to the US from Taipei and sat beaming in the front row.

“For those who feel like they don’t belong,” Wind said upon being crowned, “just remember to live fearlessly and have courage to live your truth… and Taiwan, this is for you!”

Taiwanese drag queen Nymphia Wind took the world by storm when she won RuPaul's Drag Race earlier this year. Image: MTV

Among the millions eager to express their congratulations was Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen who tweeted in English:

“Congratulations to you, Nymphia Wind, for being so accomplished in the difficult art form of drag, and for being the first Taiwanese to take the stage and win on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

“Right after being crowned queen, you said ‘Taiwan, this is for you.’ Taiwan thanks you."

The victory marked a climactic moment during the Tsai administration which has been forthright in its support for Taiwan’s LGBTQ community. In 2019, Taiwan’s government became the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.

Last year, Taiwan Vice President, and now President-Elect, Lai Ching-te marched at the annual Taipei Pride parade, becoming Taiwan’s highest-level government official to have done so.

Drag came to Taipei from the west more than two decades ago, Back then it was a small and underground scene where foreign-born drag queens dominated. Today, Taipei is in the middle of a drag resurgence with a small community of performers both locals and expats. 

Nymphia Wind is the creation of Leo Tsao. Born in Los Angeles in 1995, Tsao spent his early childhood in Hong Kong before moving to Taiwan at the age of six. After being bullied in elementary school, Tsao’s mother placed him in an alternative holistic education school where he demonstrated an early aptitude for art.

Tsao later studied fashion design in London and developed a passion for fashion and drag. After graduating from university, he returned to Taiwan and spent six months in the fire brigade as an alternative to compulsory military service. In 2018, Tsao started performing at drag shows in Taipei; beginning his meteoric rise. He moved to New York in late 2022 to further his drag career.

Nymphia Wind’s drag performances are notable for their dynamism and the element of surprise. Upon introducing herself on RuPaul’s Drag Race, she described her “imaginative, creative, artistic, high concept for drag”.

Nymphia became known for her high-concept drag and dynamism in the show. Image: MTV

As a child, Wind says she felt bombarded by images of Western beauty standards. She uses drag to reconnect with her Asian heritage and counter conventional aesthetic notions. Her self-made costumes abound with Asian elements, from Japanese Butoh, traditional Peking opera to Boba milk tea.

In the final of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Wind appeared on stage wearing a cape and crown adorned with enlarged sequins resembling tapioca pearls. These are the bubbles from the iconic Boba milk tea beverage invented in Taiwan, now a global craze. Upon opening her cape a stream of black balloons were released, ascending heavenward.  

In 2020, Wind began wearing her trademark yellow and incorporating bananas into her costumes. Bananas have come to symbolize her Asian identity while eliciting overt sexual connotations. She calls herself the “Banana Buddha” and her fans “banana believers”.

Nymphia Wind was the first East Asian winner on the popular drag competition. Image: MTV

New Zealand drag queen Taipei Popcorn has known Wind since before she began performing. The two have worked together on countless events including a ball organized by Vogue magazine. They collaborated with photographer Manbo Key on two editorials for Marie Claire, one with the Chinese-American film star Bai Ling.

Popcorn witnessed Wind’s first-ever performance at the event CUM in 2018 and says they knew instantly she would become a star. “You can see how much dedication she puts into her craft,” Popcorn says. “She’s studied various forms of dance, gymnastics, and nail art, and has continued to create garment after garment, each iteration a slight improvement on the last.

“She is very intelligent in how she blends and references fashion, art history, fantasy, international pop culture, and traditional Taiwanese culture. She takes all these things and creates the most exquisite looks with such an eye for detail, sewing, sculpting, stoning, metalworking, and embroidering. She’s a master of so many art forms.”

Popcorn watched the final of RuPaul’s Drag Race at a major event organized by Alvin Chang at Red House in Taipei’s Ximending. Chang is the owner of Café Dalida, which Popcorn describes as the “beating heart of the Taipei drag scene”. Taipei’s drag community turned out enmasse for the night.

The viewing event featured performances by Taiwanese queens from Wind’s drag family, the Haus of Wind. Popcorn was among numerous attendees who dressed fully in yellow for the event. When Wind was announced the winner, yellow streamers filled the air. Many were brought to tears of joy.

Taiwan's Drag scene is small but growing/ photo Banana Magazine/An Rong Xu

Later this month, Wind returns to Taiwan to headline the second Taipei International Drag Festival. The day she was crowned, tickets sold out instantly. 

The growth of the Taiwan drag scene has been explosive. “It's really in such a flourishing state right now, Popcorn says. “More established Taiwan performers are now traveling overseas and sharing what they do, and becoming more confident to represent Taiwan internationally. And we have performers coming to visit from all over the world.”

Nymphia Wind’s victory at RuPaul’s Drag Race is sending the scene into the stratosphere. “She has truly shone a spotlight on Taiwan drag,” Popcorn says. “Millions of drag fans from around the world now know much more about Taiwan and the scene that exists here. They can see the talent it produces and I think after this win a lot more people are going to visit Taiwan.”

- Asia Media Centre