One of Thailand’s most prominent drag queens, Angele Anang, the first transgender person to win “Drag Race Thailand,” has just unveiled the #prouddarker campaign. Angele talks with BK about skin-whitening, entertainment, her experiences abroad and at home, and the effort to promote skin and body diversity in Thailand.
What inspired you to start advocating for skin diversity and anti-bullying with your #prouddarker campaign?
When I was growing up, I wasn’t proud of having dark skin…the culture and the country value whiteness as a symbol of luck and cleanliness, but regular Thai people have dark skin. Deep inside, because of what I had been through, I felt I wasn’t beautiful. Sometimes I can still feel people judging me.
The biggest inspiration is from the Black [community] in the U.S., where they are fighting against racism. I look up to Beyonce and many other Black artists, because in Thailand we don’t have anyone who helps lift up people of color.
Why do you think this campaign is needed in Thailand?
I want people to realize that this [having dark skin] is really beautiful, and I don’t want to them to wait for validation; I just want them to recognize by themselves that they are beautiful. I wanted to do this campaign so people can be themselves. In my opinion, people who have darker skin have found it difficult to be recognized as beautiful.
Big industries built the idea that white is beautiful—all the models are white. You can see it in the [skin-whitening] trend. I mean, it’s everywhere in shops, and there are no products that support people of [darker] color. When I was young, I was trying to rub my skin [until it became white].
What do you think about skin-whitening products?
They’re useless for me and useless to people who already feel proud in their own skin. I think they’re useless because it is so hard to make yourself white. My friend has dark skin and took a lot of whitening products; now she looks really white and unhealthy. I’m like, “oh, girl.”
But she is what she is, and this is the byproduct of toxic beauty. I wanted to start doing this campaign to show [people like her] the real social problems [beneath the trend].
Do you think Thailand has a problem with bullying? Do you have any experience of this?
Yes, we do, especially in school, where I saw that darker-skinned girls were silent, because they thought they were not beautiful, and not talked about.
I was so different when I was young. I was crazy and trying to entertain people…I didn’t care if people looked at me differently. I mean, I was bullied, but I didn’t care. I was shouting back and so proud of myself, no matter what people thought. Adults could judge, like, “Why is this dark child so confident?” I am confident, and even if they didn’t think I was pretty, I thought I was pretty. I want to build this kind of [attitude] for the younger generation.
How do attitudes on skin tone in Thailand differ from those around the world?
In big cities like New York, people were looking at me like, “oh, you’re beautiful,” because they are really diverse, with a mix of people and cultures. They appreciate and respect each other. I was so happy when I was there, because people appreciated who I was, and they were looking that my skin tone as beautiful—same as how I feel.
It is very different from Thailand, where you aren’t appreciated because you have dark skin and you’re not [considered] as pretty as a Korean pop star. Except at night when I’m working at the bar where I perform; the appreciation there comes from LGBTQ people. But in the regular world and [during the] daytime, we don’t get the same [respect]. People are just like, “you’re so confident, but you’re not beautiful.” But in Europe and the U.S., they appreciate people like us all the time.
Either way, I feel proud no matter what people think. I mean, I live at night, I really love my skin tone, and the people there are so sexy and so strong.
Do you think we have it better or worse here, in terms of prejudice about skin color and equality in general?
It’s getting worst here. As China gets bigger, their culture is [becoming more powerful] in Thailand—white skin is praised as lucky, a symbol of beauty. That makes people like me second-class citizens. The big industries—cosmetics, entertainment, commercials—continue to reinforce the pop culture standards of places like Korea and China and of “white” Asia.
Do you think Thai people at large are aware of these problems?
This is an old, old culture that was built on the idea that being white is beautiful. Thousands of years ago, before you could become one of the wives of the king, you would have to paint yourself to look like an angel. You can see it in one of my “Drag Race” runway looks.
So [most] people don’t recognize these problems, because they already believe in those kinds of symbols. I don’t think [corporations] care, either, because they’re making whitening products for money and they’re making commercials for money.
Will the Black Lives Matter movement abroad and the passing of same-sex union bill in Thailand help push for changes in this country?
[Change] probably is possible if people can be open-minded. Right now, the government is controlling many aspects of our lives, from the social to the technological—you can’t really open your eyes and see problems like colorism or racism in the country.
I think they [Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ movements] should go along together, if Black people can accept the participation of LGBTQ people. There are some problems in the Black Lives Matter, where [some people still don’t accept] Black trans folks and, to me, it’s very sad. But there are also a lot of people that accept the participation of LGBTQ. The movement has been going on for a while; we have Pride Month, and it’s one of the biggest, most diverse social events. If we can come together, we can have a big voice against bullying. So, we have to work together, understand each other, and learn about what the other side has been through in their lives.
If you remember my “Beef Green Curry” look, it was a big problem with American fans, because they thought I was being racist. But, actually, I thought it looked beautiful and didn’t understand why people were so mad, and then I apologized and learned because, at the time, I didn’t know how serious racial issues were to these people. After that, I learned and started researching about Black culture and what they had to go through and why were they angry. Now, I understand, and I truly feel their pain. When we understand each other, we can co-exist.
How does being the winner of “Drag Race Thailand” and a seasoned queen give you a platform for pushing these campaigns?
Being a winner of “Drag Race” and in this position is such an honor, and I am so grateful for this transformation. It was a really tough life when I was looking for a job. I was working hard with little sponsoring, so I started my own thing, producing everything by myself, and now I use this platform to inspire people because so many young people look up to me. I want to teach them what I’ve learned in life, what makes me strong and confident. I just hope that I can give momentum to social changes and make people love themselves and make the world more diverse.
Who inspires you to use your platform for good causes?
My biggest inspiration is Beyonce, the Mother-of-All, because she is such a fighter and stays on top of the clouds yet still cares about the movement of the common people. And because of her, I recognize that I am beautiful as a person of color. Having seen her fighting for her rights for her race is such an inspiration for me to fight for my thing: LGBTQ and [people with] dark skin in Asia who have been ignored for a long time.
What do you think the fashion industry could do more of to encourage people to love themselves?
I think the fashion industry in Thailand should accept and appreciate more body shapes. While there are more skinny models, I would like to see more curvy girls being models on the stage. This would create a more diverse modeling industry. Right now, all you can see are mostly skinny and [white]. You should use what you have and make it beautiful and bring it to the fashion industry.
Are there any brands that you think are already doing this?
There are no brands I can think of in Thailand, but one brand that is very diverse is Fenty by Rihanna. You can see transgender models in her brand, Black girls with no hair, curvy girls, drag queens—it is inspiring, what she’s doing.
What is beauty to you?
Beauty is happiness; when you’re happy, you shine through, and it reflects from the eyes. You don’t have to be white or skinny. When you’re happy, you can see the beauty on your face. Happiness is the biggest trick to being beautiful. This actually comes from Lupita Nyongo.
Does the future look good for Thailand?
If we’re talking about big, influential people having power, then no, because they have no idea of what’s going down here in the public; they don’t care. But the common people, the children, the college students, they know what’s happening and they are trying to fight back. They know the Internet while the adults don’t; they don’t see a wider perspective beyond TV or news filtered by the government. Media is diverse, and with this we can go in the right direction. We can be freer.