If you’re anything like me, the Drag Race off season can be a slow and boring time. Drag, and RuPaul’s show, is more popular than ever before, but sometimes the world of drag outside the show can be a little hard to keep up with. That’s why this is the perfect time to start our new series in which we’ll tell you about a performer you’ve got to follow. And we’re not limiting it to queens. Kings, club kids, queens and everyone in between will be featured in this series.
It’s the third Monday of June 2018. Chicago’s Berlin is a small nightclub, but tonight, like most Mondays, it’s positively packed. Crowds have gathered for Trannika Rex’s monthly “Plot Twist” show, where drag performers pull out all the stops trying to gag their audience. And no one snatches wigs quite like Aunty Chan, our next performer.
The curious crowd leans in as the stage manager scatters crumpled up tissues on the dance floor that doubles as a stage for the night. Trannika introduces Aunty with a laugh. After a few moments of suspense, we hear the beginning notes of Arianna Grande’s “No More Tears Left to Cry.” Aunty Chan emerges slowly from offstage covered in black from head to toe, complete with a tiny veil and two long braids, lip-synching the song as Wednesday Addams, “a muse for many goth girls today,” Aunty tells me later. She makes her way into the light, and I see that she’s got a plastic trash bag in one hand and one of those extendable trash grabbers in the other. The realization of what’s about to happen hits us all at the same time, and the audience. Right on cue, Arianna sings that she’s “pickin’ it up, pickin’ it up,” and Aunty Chan, still lip-synching, begins to literally “pick it up.” She uses the trash grabber to clean the stage, hilariously and awkwardly gathering those crumpled up tissues (presumably from wiping up all the tears she had cried before running out) into the trash bag. She doesn’t miss a beat throughout the performance. She uses her props masterfully, spending far too long trying to take just one audience member’s tip with the extendable grabber instead of her hands and even spanking herself with it.
This performance is Aunty Chan at her very best. This is Aunty Chan bringing her drag and comedy skills together beautifully to tell a full story through her performance. This is Aunty Chan finding the humor in the most literal and simple interpretations of life. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her perform several times, and I have never been disappointed in her ingenuity. She’s not only been serving community service hours picking up trash, but she’s also turned herself into a fountain. She’s twirled ribbons like there’s no tomorrow, and she’s given James Bond a run for his money by tumbling her way past high security lasers. For one Plot Twist she even set up a séance to revive the spirit of Duke, the talking dog from the Bush’s Baked Beans commercials, using the song “The Dog Days are Over” by Florence and the Machine. “Watching the videos, I was like, ‘Oh, I was a little horrifying. Perfect,’ Aunty muses on that particular performance. “I was kind of scared to see myself do that.”
If that doesn’t give you enough of an indication, as a drag queen, Aunty Chan embodies her name. She truly is the perfectly hilarious, judgmental, working aunty we all know so well. In her own words, “Aunty Chan is a goofy, conniving, mischievous lady who is in your business for no damn reason.” Recently, however, I got the chance to get in her business and ask her a few questions about drag and comedy. So, here’s what you need to know about Aunty Chan.
About two years ago—in October 2016, for anyone who’s keeping track—her campy persona was born from an improv bit she had been using in performances at Second City, the IO, and through the comedy degree she was pursuing at the time. “I was very heavy into character work,” Aunty explains, “and a lot of the characters that I would enter into imporv scenes were women. Aunty Chan was kind of like this trope that I would casually play. It was just this messy lady on the side. She always had hot T that pushed the plot forward.”
In these early days, Aunty was all business. She could often be found rocking blazers, cat eye glasses, and bobs. “She started out as a very campy Brandon Rogers character, very Joanne the Scammer-y, and it was just heavy heavy camp character study.” Now, Aunty Chan certainly isn’t afraid to glam it up: “I started exploring the queer identity, and that has changed how my drag is presented. I started doing better make-up, and I started doing more feminine performances. I got pads.”
But don’t get me wrong; her wonderfully kooky sense of humor manages to shine through. In fact, according to Aunty Chan, a large part of her performance style is “trying to be clown on stage, or just trying to be very mischievous on stage.” She continues, “I still try to capture beauty and all that fun stuff, but it’s also just finding a joke and milking it.”
Her new t-shirt is a great example of her ability to camp up glamour so effectively. The shirt design is an illustration of Aunty “literally just sitting on a bus” with the words “Chicago Chansit Authoritea” underneath. And don’t worry, Aunty Chan assures us, “I haven’t been reached out to by the CTA for plagiarism, but we’re protected by the parody law.” The story behind the shirt is just as funny and delightful as about everything else she does.
“I was coming home from Jackhammer, which is a bar all the way on the north side of Chicago, and I was drinking a lot at the club. I spent maybe $50 or something that night. And I said ‘you know what? I need to take the bus home. I’m not trying to call an Uber. I’ll save $3 and take the bus home. It was the dumbest decision of my life because I was sitting there with my friend, and she was like, ‘girl, you could have just taken a car home you look stupid on this bus.’ And I was like ‘yeah, I do look stupid. Can you take a picture of me looking stupid?’ And now that picture just burned in my head. I was like if the brand is stupidity, we’re selling that. So, the stupid shirt you can get on amazon.com today.”
And if stupidity is what Aunty sells, then she sells it like no one else, and she does so playfully and, ironically, cleverly. That all goes to say that when you go to see Aunty Chan live, you can expect high glamour right alongside absolute buffoonery. Oh, and puns. There will be lots of puns, as well as running gags and cultural references that she’ll always find new ways to keep exciting. “The audience explores with you,” she adds about discovering different roads she can take with a single joke. “Being a theater person, it’s fun to do live performances because you get to explore and make discoveries with the audience.”
Yet, as much as she loves live performances, Aunty Chan has proven over and over that she also thrives on the Internet. “The things that have brought me to where I am are definitely the Internet memes,” she cites, regarding mainly the two music videos that she made in collaboration with DJ Adam Joseph. The first video that brought her a taste of Internet fame was for Joseph’s remix of Maxine Waters’s iconic “reclaiming my time” moment. The video featured Aunty dressed as Maxine Waters, lip-synching and voguing in her kitchen while making ridiculous, punny references to clocks and time (my personal favorite moment is when she pulls out a jar of thyme).
A few months later, Aunty Chan found herself collaborating with Adam Joseph yet again, this time to poke fun at Vanessa Hudgens, who had recently guest judged an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. During her appearance on the show, Hudgens had claimed to be “so into voguing right now,” and the cringeworthy line became an instant meme. Joseph remixed it, and Aunty Chan brought it to life with a music video that satirized basic white girls everywhere and commented on the appropriation of gay culture. Hudgens even shared the video, which features Aunty eating avocado toast and Googling ‘homosexuality,’ and apologized for treating gay culture like it was a novelty.
Both “Reclaiming my Time” and “So into Voguing” went viral instantly, as Aunty Chan admits she has “some kind of a formula down” for what she aptly calls “Drag meets the Internet, ” and warns “I feel like I do it once every six months, so we’re due for another sensation.”
Check out her web-series, The Aunty Chan Vari-Tea Show, which she describes as “literally just a show of whatever I want it to be.” The show expertly parodies different aspects of pop culture from The Real Housewives to cooking shows to Cheaters. You can catch the first two episodes here. You can also keep tabs on her on Twitter and Instagram at @Aunty_Chan (“I took out the Cherry because people thought it was too difficult to remember two names”).