It is 11pm on a Saturday night. Glancing over the crowded room at Blue Chilli, the excitement is evident on the faces of the crowd. Then, the spotlight shines on centrestage, demanding attention from every pair of roving eyes in the room. It is time. The music starts and the rest is showtime. In the midst of sweaty bodies gyrating against each other, one star caught the curiosity of Anith Adilah Othman. This is the story of the youngest drag queen on the scene, better known among local drag fanatics as Fendii Charms.
Ever since he was a little boy, Kim Sothsi Phandeth had always been certain of his sexuality — or rather, homosexuality. It was not until he was 15 that he realised he was born to put on a wig and strut his stuff on stage as a woman.
“I was in Grade 9 when I first got my hands on an iPad. I was watching a lot of makeup tutorials on Youtube — I had always been fond of makeup — when I stumbled upon a video by a drag queen,” Kim, in fluent English, told Good Times2.
“It was something completely new to me. I have never seen anything quite like it and it really piqued my interest. I started watching more drag queen makeup tutorials and discovered Rupaul’s Drag Race,” he said, referring to a reality competition television series which seeks to find America’s next drag superstar.
Now in its 11th season, Rupaul’s Drag Race has become a staple for most queer fans. With more than 20 Emmy nominations, the show is deemed influential for providing a space of visibility and reference for the global lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Kim said the show inspired him to learn more about the local drag scene and the madness surrounding it.
“I still remember going to my first drag show when I was 16. It was not at a bar or anything like that… it was a public show and my jaw dropped to the floor. I immediately knew then that was what I was meant to do,” he said.
Armed with the little knowledge of what drag is, Kim signed up for a pageant called Miss Blue Chilli Queen 2015, where he lost to other seasoned queens. However, the manager of Blue Chili, who was also in the crowd, saw his potential. After just one audition, where he performed a lip sync to The Pussycat Dolls’ Hush Hush, Fendii Charms was born.
“The manager asked if I wanted to perform as a drag queen at Blue Chili. Without even considering how I am going to juggle this with school — remember, I was only 16 — I said yes,” Kim recollected, with a huge grin.
Asked how he got his drag name, Kim said: “It was the name of a female protagonist from this novel that I really love. When I saw the name I was like, ‘Okay this is my drag name’.”
“And the last name…well, because I figured I am fabulously charming, so why the heck not,” he giggled.
That is how every single conversation goes with Kim. What you see is what you get. He is honest, straightforward and unapologetically himself.
All his life, Kim was always complimented with what a pretty boy he was and he owns up unabashedly. But the 19-year-old said he had never felt more beautiful than the first time he caught a glance of himself in a tight dress, bright makeup, long wig and high heels.
Today, Kim is one of the most sought-after drag performers in Phnom Penh with over three years of experience under his corset. The very second Kim, or Fendi, steps out on stage in his Violet Chacki-esque silhouette, the crowd goes wild. The sequins-studded journey, however, has not always been a bed of roses.
“I don’t think people realise how much hard work goes into doing drag. I was 16, penniless, still in school and living under my parents’ roof. I had to make do with what I had. I bought lingerie from thrift stores, added rhinestones to them — anything sparkly at all just to sprinkle a little glam to the look. Boy, was I ugly,” he said laughingly.
“Now I have a few friends in the fashion industry who’d graciously help putting my looks together and I also learned how to sew. It feels more satisfying when you bring your imagination to life with your own hands,” he said.
He added the stigma surrounding the LGBT community in Cambodia also made things a little more difficult.
“In Cambodia, unfortunately the misconception is that if you are gay, it means that you are a transwoman. The confusion was more apparent when I told my parents I wanted to do drag. All they heard was – horrors! — their nightmare coming true.
“But that is not the case. I like being a boy. I’m just a gay boy who enjoys playing dress up and entertaining the crowd. There’s a huge difference between being a drag queen and being a transwoman. It took a while for my family to understand but over the years they have become more and more supportive,” he said.
While it appears to be all glitz and glam, Kim said drag performers rarely make enough to even cover the cost of their outfits.
“A casual drag look from head to toe would cost about $100 and I am not even talking a full pageant glam. I only make roughly $25 dollars a night. We are on the losing end, always. I guess that is why a lot of drag queens before me decided to give it up and get a day job instead. I don’t blame them,” he said.
“Please, please tip us! We live for the applause and cheers but we also need to make a living. You don’t know just how much your $1 means to us. To me, it is just more special as it comes from the audience’s heart. So the next time you see us on stage, do tip us alright?”
Kim also has a special message for young gay people who are still closeted or aspiring drag queens who wish to one day take the stage in Phnom Penh by storm.
“Like Rupaul said, ‘unless they are paying your bills, pay them b**ches no mind’. That was the best advice I have ever heard, honestly. Do not listen to others and their negative vibes. Be the most authentic version of you and don’t ever apologise for it.”
Shall we hand it to ‘her’ – for stark honesty?