It’s 3 a.m. in Bangkok, and Pangina Heals — co-host of the upcoming Drag Race Thailand — has just wrapped up a rather long evening. I had hoped to interview him on camera in full drag, but following the night’s gig he’s removed his face and is laying in bed shirtless with the webcam on. He’s a half-Thai, half-Taiwanese guy who’s cute out of drag — boyish with full coral lips, large brown eyes and a cursive tattoo on his left pec that says “Strive.” He’s also a little drunk.
I ask him to introduce himself.
“Who am I? I ask myself that every day!” he says. “My name is Pangina Heals.”
Conversation soon veers to the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race in Thailand. It’s a show that has changed countless people’s lives, he says. The series has singlehandedly brought drag to the mainstream and has allowed performers — like him — to be showcased as artists and affirmed around the world.
In some places around the globe, says Pangina Heals, people still think of drag as a form of perversion, born of a guy’s desire to become a woman. But now, he says, “People are understanding that drag isn’t about sex or gender, but about performance and making other people happy.”
But Pangina Heals insists most viewers of Drag Race don’t care whether a performer is male or female. It’s not about that. It’s about laughing and being whoever (or whatever) you are. Full stop.
We chat about the perception by those outside of Thailand that drag in the Asian country is nothing but “ladyboys” — young men who dress up as women to seduce straight men.
“You can’t make a generalization about anything in life anymore,” Pangina Heals says. “But Thai people are really accepting of transexual girls, especially with the popularization of the Miss Tiffany pageant shows.” (That annual beauty contest for trans Thai women is held every May.)
Trans women are considered women in Thailand, he says. “I would consider us under the same umbrella, but not the same thing. There is no Thai word for drag queens, so we call them ‘drag queens,’ you know?”
When asked about the differences between American drag and Thai drag, Pangina Heals says, “I think drag in general is about creativity and about art and about expressing who we are. And so with that comes culture and individuality.”
Though he admits many Thai people like the aesthetic of so-called “fishy queens” (those hyper-feminine drag queens who can pass for women), he adds, “But that doesn’t mean we don’t like anything else from the seafood genre.”
If Drag Race Thailand is able to achieve even half the response its American progenitor has received through the years, the series could become yet another worldwide phenomenon. So how did Pangina Heals find herself as this new series’ co-host?
“I sucked a lot of dick,” he responds, joking (we assume).
But the truth is that Pangina Heals is probably the most famous drag queen in all of Thailand. He’s a relentless self-promoter who won Thailand’s first reality TV drag competition — called T Battle — and he also competed on Thailand Dance Now and Lip Sync Battle Thailand, two other well-known Thai shows. He also hosts weekly parties at the Bangkok bar Maggie Choo’s.
As the co-host of Drag Race Thailand, Pangina Heals steps into the (literal) heels of Michelle Visage, a longtime friend of RuPaul who on the American series can be a foil at the judges’ panel and often acts as springboard for some of the show’s best one-liners. (Though he says his boobs are technically not big enough to qualify as the Thai version of Michelle Visage.)
Pangina Heals’ role on Drag Race Thailand will be opposite drag performer and fashion designer Art Arya, someone with whom he cites a great bond. He predicts their relationship on the show will come off as “more sisterly” than what we see between RuPaul and Visage on the American series. “But obviously I am a judgmental bitch,” he’s quick to clarify.
When asked how many contestant girls he destroyed during the filming — how many queens Pangina Heals reduced to tears during Season 1 — he says that while he tried to be constructive and not just say mean things, “They’re under a lot of stress and pressure, so obviously they cry. But I cry, too.”
“You have to understand,” he says, “when Alyssa Edwards says, ‘It’s drag, it’s not personal,’ I completely disagree, because drag is personal. It’s basically who you are, and sometimes it’s an escape from the world. And in this very judgmental gay world, sometimes when you get in drag you become the better version of you. And when that version of you is attacked, of course you’re going to feel negative and not OK, because that is where you go for solace and for healing.”
Pangina Heals is contractually obligated not to reveal anything from the taping of Drag Race Thailand Season 1, so questions about things like the craziest thing to happen on-set are off-limits. Instead I ask what he learned while filming.
“You have no idea what it’s like to sit there and judge people fighting for their future and fighting for their hopes and their dreams and basically fighting for survival,” he says. “It’s so impactful, and I didn’t expect that. The first week I was, like, mid-crying, but I didn’t show any emotion because it was so hard to digest.”
Pangina Heals expects that Drag Race Thailand will mostly be in Thai. (“Hopefully with subtitles,” he adds.) His contract keeps him from commenting on whether RuPaul himself makes an appearance on the show, but when asked whether he thinks the Mother of All Drag Queens — the “Supermodel of the World” — would think less of international fans who dare to pirate episodes of Drag Race Thailand to watch in other countries, he does have an opinion.
“I feel like because we worked so hard in filming and working on this show, pirating should not be allowed,” he says, “We should support these artists.”
Then he flashes a huge, toothy smile, his eyes opened wide, and admits — speaking out of the side of his mouth — that, yeah, he occasionally pirates things, too.
“But for porn!” he says. “Primarily for porn!”