Sunday 1 June 2014

Kumar: From drag queen to Grammar Queen

Is this what they mean by the Queen’s English?

Last week, the Speak Good English Movement launched a new campaign with a series of videos starring comedian Kumar as the “Queen of Grammar”.

Wait, you say. Isn’t Kumar a man? Shouldn’t it be the “King of Grammar”.

Wrong word used. That is hardly very good English.

Well, Kumar is dressed like woman in the videos, specifically a queen with a tiara and all that.

So the Grammar Queen is also a drag queen.

Wait, you say. Why is a national campaign using a drag queen to teach us good English?

A drag queen is hardly a very good role model, especially for children.

Well, at least it’s not Phua Chu Kang.

But have you seen Kumar’s stage act? Not exactly what I would call family-friendly.

The thing is that there are actually two Kumars – the M18-rated stage version and the G-rated TV version.

This is how the comedian has reigned since the early 90s.

I first worked with Her Highness 20 years ago on a variety TV show on Channel 5 called Live On 5.

I was the “research writer” on the show although I did very little writing and even less research.

I spent most of my time at work watching my fat Australian boss play Doom on his office PC. Good times.

The weekly show had a movie review segment, for which I had to book a guest to review the movie.

One week, the movie was to be the Mel Brooks comedy Robin Hood: Men In Tights.

I thought who better to review a movie about men in tights than Kumar, who was then already famous for performing in drag at The Boom Boom Room in Bugis.

But my boss, during a cigarette break in between gunning down inter-dimensional demonic monsters in Doom, expressed reservations.

Kumar was a controversial figure.

He had been featured on the front page of The New Paper a few months earlier with the headline “Who says I’m gay?”

He claimed he was not, which no one believed (except me).

But in 2011, he revealed in the book, Kumar: From Rags To Drag, that yes, he is gay.

So everyone was right (except me).

Another reason for my boss’s reservations was that he thought Kumar was banned from TV after The Ra Ra Show.

Kumar was one of the stars of The Ra Ra Show, which was a sketch comedy series that was cancelled after complaints about Singlish and supposed sexual innuendos on the show.

One innuendo that the show was accused of involved a gear stick in a car in a sketch. You can imagine.

Kumar wasn’t even in that sketch.

Still, my boss was understandably reluctant to allow me to book such a controversial figure as it might get him into trouble and keep him from playing Doom.

So he asked his boss: Was Kumar really banned from TV?

To my relief, my bigger boss said no.

However, he was quick to add, the cross-dressing stage version of Kumar was.

But as long as Kumar was not dressed as a woman, it was okay to have him on Live On 5.

Fortunately, going drag wasn’t a requirement for the movie review segment.

When I called Kumar on the phone to invite him on the show, the first thing he said was “I thought I was banned.”

I told him what my bigger boss told me.

Kumar then agreed to be on the show and asked what movie he had to review.

I said Robin Hood: Men In Tights.

“Oh,” he said, “how appropriate.”

I thought so too.

I sometimes wonder if I hadn’t called Kumar back in 1994, would he still think he was banned from TV?

I might have changed the course of Singapore TV history and Kumar’s career more than I realised.

Since then, he has appeared many times on the small screen, even co-starring with Hong Kong star Carol Cheng on the Channel 5 sitcom Oh Carol! in 2002.

He can currently be seen on TV in the Channel 5 infotainment series Kumar Goes Back To School, not in drag of course.

I would like to say that Kumar has yet to be allowed to wear a dress on TV, but that’s not true.

I remember seeing him play a woman on a Channel 5 sitcom a few years ago, although I don’t remember the name of the sitcom.

I was then told Kumar was allowed to play a woman on TV, but he was not allowed to play a man playing a woman.

Did you get that?

In other words, it would be okay to cast him as the lead in the TV biopic of Zoe Tay but not in the TV biopic of Jack Neo.

You know, since Neo used to play women like Liang Po Po and Liang Xi Mei.

(I should point out that cross-dressing is not banned on TV per se as evidenced by Neo and Dennis Chew’s Aunty Lucy. Even on The Ra Ra Show, the character Bibik Belacan was played by a man in drag, but ironically, it wasn’t Kumar.)

The Speak Good English Movement videos aren’t produced for TV, but what you get is more or less the G-rated TV version of Kumar.

Except that he’s in drag.

But thanks to 20 years of Kumar on TV, Singapore has been conditioned to accept a drag queen as the face of a national campaign.

And I apologise for that.

Long live the queen.

- Published in The New Paper, 1 June 2014

EARLIER: Kumar lied! I will never believe celebrities again