Duration: 20 min
Podcast host Chloe Chotrani (assisted by Chan Sze-Wei) uncovers the world of vogue culture and voguing in Asia from legendary mother, Koppi Mizrahi, who hails from Tokyo, Singaporean drag queen Vanda Miss Joaquim and Singaporean dancer Amin Alifin. The interview was done shortly after Singapore’s first vogue ball, Crystal Ball, was held on 27 April 2019 at The Projector, organised by local group Vogue In Progress. Whether you’re a fan of Paris Is Burning or a newbie, you can learn more about why voguing matters, the significance of “houses” as safe spaces and why that death drop may not be a death drop.
Note: The podcast ends with a chant that contains explicit language.
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Podcast Transcript (transcribed by Chan Sze-Wei)
Chloe: Hello everyone, welcome to the ArtsEquator podcast. My name is Chloe and this session is an exciting one. We’re all still on a high from last night’s Crystal Ball, Singapore’s first ever vogue ball. We had people fly in from all around Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar as well as Macau, Hong Kong, Australia, Japan, of course locals, and more.
Vanda Miss Joaquim: Yaas, darling.
C: So we’re so pleased to have here the people who made it happen and share with us how the vogue scene is flourishing in the region. We have legendary mother Koppi Mizrahi from Tokyo, Japan, of the House of Mizrahi. She became a legend in ballroom culture, an underground subculture created by the LGBTQ community. Koppi is also a vogue teacher, MC, DJ, Producer and dance choreographer in Tokyo. Damn, girl! And we have Vanda Miss Joaquim.
V: Yaas darling.
C: She returns to us hot off the press from Thailand’s Drag Race Season 2 where she came in fourth, and also a drag mother to the House of Miss Joaquim, bearing 6 fiercest and fabulous queens under her wing. She’s the hostess with the mostest and will be bringing her sass and chanting talents to the night.
V: Darling, that was last night. Don’t judge me for it!
C: And we have Amin Alifin. Amin is a versatile and recognised freestyle dancer known for his genre-fusing style in waacking, lyrical, commercial dance and jazz. A regular winner of regional dance competitions, he often travels around the world to train, teach and choreography. Yes!
Amin Alifin: Thank you.
C: So last night was truly a unique gathering of all kinds of people, and the energy in the room was so explosive and expressive. So this is really history being made. For our listeners who aren’t familiar with voguing yet, can we give them a brief description of voguing, for people who aren’t exposed to it?
Koppi Mizrahi: Let me explain about voguing quickly. So voguing came from posing from the cover of magazines or modelling. It was just posing originally, but it evolved to incorporate other dance styles like breakdancing and hip hop and popping and other elements, like even from martial arts and it really evolved into dancing. So now voguing is really more acrobatic, more feminine. It’s not just posing, so we have to have more energy. It’s not just a dance style, we need to have attitude, absolutely. And we can throw shade at each other. Without touching, we can throw shade with our attitude and hands expression and face.
C: For people who aren’t familiar with voguing, what is shade?
K: It’s not serious, but you need to present that you’re better than others. You can say “You’re ugly, I’m beautiful” and use hand expression to throw shade.
V: Shade is like something of an insult, but not saying it directly. You can show it through your movements, or “Girl, you know that you’re not beautiful but….” (gesture). So you don’t have to tell that person that “You’re ugly” but you know, just using words with expression with it.
A: It’s very witty, actually. People who throw shades are actually smart and witty. I think the question you ask about voguing – Vogue culture is more than just voguing, which makes it so interesting. What Koppi did talk about previously is just the voguing dance itself. But she can also share if you would like to know there’s so many kinds of categories in vogue culture that made all of us so fascinated and [made us] want to be part of this and that’s why we want to make it happen here.
C: Amazing. One thing that really inspired me from voguing aside from its origins in New York in the ’70s mainly rooting in the LGBT, these vulnerable communities. [Voguing] really gave them a sense of home and family and solidarity with each other that we really felt last night when people from all different backgrounds, class, race, it didn’t matter where you were from but people came together. And in voguing you’re usually adopted by a house, is that right?
V: It’s different from the generation before us and now. For me, coming from House of Miss Joaquim, I created this because I wanted to educate these kids, my girls, about drag essentials, how to do your drag properly. To educate them because in RuPaul’s Drag Race, they use voguing terms, such as “death drop” and whatnot. Thanks to Koppi, her education, she corrected us that there’s no such thing as “death drop”, you need to use the correct term such as “dip” and no “Shablams”, and the proper kind of way to educate the community.
C: Can you share a bit more about these vogue families and houses and how that journey for you began?
K: The house is not actually a vogue house, it’s a ballroom house. The ballroom scene is not [just] about voguing. We have many other categories like runway, and face and sex siren and realness. Realness is very fundamental category back in the day. Because gay people and LGBT people were so under discrimination from society so they had to protect themselves from attacking and bullying. They had to pretend like they’re straight guys, straight women. Because of that reason, houses happened to protect the kids from the street. The Mother and Father is not just leader of the house. It’s like real mother and father so that they can take care of the kids and educate them and how to make money, how to do drag and make up and vogue. It’s really for education for the kids.
C: How did your journey with House of Mizrahi begin?
K: I was watching YouTube a lot and I wanted to learn about voguing. I found the ballroom scene on YouTube and I found there’s so many houses, like House of Ninja, House of Mizrahi, House of Chanel. I found two of my favourite voguers, Andre Mizrahi and Leiomy – she used to be Mizrahi – I really loved those two and I wanted to be a part of a house with these two of my favourites. So I decided to message the Father of Mizrahi, Andre Mizrahi, and I asked him I wish I could be a part of Mizrahi. He asked me to send him my videos and I sent, and he allowed me to be a part of the house. He didn’t expect that there was voguing in Japan.
C: I see. Were you one of the first?
K: Yes, I was the first Mizrahi in Asia.
C: Beautiful. So do you have many Mizrahi children in Asia now?
K: Yes. Actually. We have 10 members in japan, 4 in Taiwan, 1 in Thailand now, 2 in China, and 8 (correction: 10) in the Philippines.
C: Now that voguing is flourishing here in Southeast Asia, how is it different compared to its origins in New York?
K: People are really so passionate about learning voguing and the culture here. People are really respectful and humble with each other. Nobody complains about judgement that judges made. But it’s not like that in NYC. (laughter)
A: It’s a scary, scary scene out there.
V: I don’t think I’d be prepared for that. I think we’re very grateful to have Koppi to educate us the proper way. The scene in Singapore back then, there were only two people practicing voguing and it was only from YouTube. We didn’t know the right terms, we didn’t know what’s the proper name for that move or this move. Last time we just went “Oh shablam, oh yes bitch, yes!”, “Yeah just catwalk, catwalk!” We just saw on the video and we just followed whatever they do. Now that we have this opportunity – we had Koppi last year and you know it’s such an eye opener for us, for me especially. I was really passionate for vogue fem especially but because now it’s like I’m getting older, my bones start breaking and shit… ahh dammit. But seeing the younger kids, they’re lucky to learn from the legendary mother of Mizrahi, Koppi. We didn’t have this kind of privilege back then. All I can say is that kids, really take advantage of this chance to learn.
A: Back to the question of how different maybe New York versus the region here is – I think it has to do with our culture. First of all, we’re not born in that space, that era, that Black-Latino culture in New York City. And part of the Asian culture is that we’re very respectful towards each other. So it’s a very supportive community and encourages people to try and grow the scene. That’s the amazing thing about the ballroom scene in Asia. This is just coming from the perspective of someone who’s been to maybe less than five balls but from what I’ve seen so far, that’s as much as I can say.
C: It’s really amazing how your community and your team, Vogue in Progress, brought this ball to Singapore. Maybe you want to share a bit about how voguing provides a sense of solidarity for people, for the community.
A: Personally for me, vogue culture is for everybody. There’s a space, a category for everyone whether you like to do model walk in the runway or you have a beautiful face or you’re into the voguing dance itself. It’s for everybody. That makes vogue culture so empowering and inspiring at the same time. It makes people feel like “Wow, I’m actually at home, I’m part of this.” It’s not exclusive. That’s all I can say. It makes people inspired to want to be part of the culture.
C: Watching last night also, it was really inspiring because everyone was just feeling themselves. Even if you’re just watching, you really feel yourself. It’s beautiful to experience that together. Do any of you envision a hope for something for the vogue community in Asia? How do you envision it to further flourish in the coming years?
K: Asian ballroom is definitely getting bigger and bigger. But it depends on the countries and cultures. Like in Japan, people are still hesitating to come to the ball because Japanese people are so shy. They don’t want to try every new thing. But I’m trying to push people to walk the ball, or just come to the ball to watch how we’re doing it. You can’t really know deeply about voguing without watching the culture. Like I said, voguing is not about the dance style. It has deep culture and history. You have to know that to be a better voguer. Ballroom is not just for dancers. Like Amin said, anybody can join. If you have a beautiful face, even though you can’t dance, you can join. And there are so many categories besides dance, voguing and runway and fashion categories. In future I hope more and more people from the fashion industry can join, like real models.
A: Depends if you talk about region itself, I don’t think I have the voice to speak for the region, but to speak for Singapore for now – I did envision that when I do this even with Vogue in Progress – because Singapore is such a mashed culture, we are so rojak, it makes us “us”. So one of my biggest visions is to put people from the different dance scenes in the same space. It was so successful at the ball, because at the ball we had last night we don’t just have LGBTQ, we had the straight community and apart from that we actually had dancers from the street dance scene, dancers from contemporary companies, dancers from ballet companies. We had theatre people – Ivan Heng and Glen Goei were there. Some of the Phantom of the Opera cast came because they were so interested. We were like “Whaat? We’re so nervous, are you serious?” And people who are working in the clothing industry were also there. It’s a vision that we want to put everyone in the same space, mash together, understand each other. That’s something that I feel is special about Singapore. Even though it’s going to take some time for people to accept. But I think it’s worth trying first and I believe that in the future everyone will be more accepting and this is a great start to reach the vision that I have.
C: Beautiful. To think that this is just the first! So we have so much to look forward to. With that said, are there any upcoming vogue events around Southeast Asia that we can look for?
A: Specifically Southeast Asia, we have one coming up in the Philippines, the Eclipse Ball on 16 June and in November there will be a Diversity Ball in Thailand.
C: If people want to be updated with these vogue events, is there any website they can go to?
V: I think we can actually just post in on Vogue in Progress on FB. If not you can just add Amin or Koppi and we’ll update with events.
C: The power of social media!
A: Speaking of that, I think Koppi herself has a channel on YouTube. She actually talks a lot, all the important information in detail and history and culture. If you want to know, please go to her channel.
K: “Koppi Mizrahi”. Please search on YouTube.
C: To close this podcast, can we please have a sample chanting for our listeners to get a treat?