How a ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ finalist became an unlikely ambassador for Taiwan

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — From the moment she stepped onto the stage of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Nymphia Wind has embraced the color yellow not just as a fashion choice but as part of her identity.

For that first appearance, she stacked pairs of yellow sunglasses on her tall wig and wore a yellow overcoat, under which she concealed a stuffed plush banana at her crotch. Walking onto the stage, she performed a comedic slip after stepping on a banana peel. Since then, bananas have become her trademark and she has worn yellow more than any other color.

“Yellow represents the color of my skin,” she said in an interview ahead of the finale of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on Friday, preferring to let her outfits rather than her words remind viewers that she’s the only Asian contestant in the season. “By wearing yellow, I hope to raise more Asian awareness and appreciation.”

Nymphia Wind, the drag persona of 28-year-old Taiwanese American fashion designer Leo Tsao, has made it to the final three contestants, putting her on track to become only the second Asian winner in 16 years of the show’s main franchise. Her first name comes from a fairy-type Pokémon character, while “Wind” reflects her aspiration “to be free and invisible,” she said. In Chinese, “wind” is a homophone of “craziness,” and that has been the mood for her fans back in Taiwan ever since the announcement of her participation in the race.

Each Saturday — the day the show airs in Taiwan — crowds pack gay bars in Taipei to watch the latest episode, wearing yellow to support the queen they call the “Banana Buddha.” (She calls her fans the “Banana Believers.”)

With her ascendancy, Nymphia Wind, who was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Hong Kong and Taiwan, has found an international stage where Beijing — which often pushes Taiwan out of such spaces — has no influence and where she can promote the vibrant inclusiveness of Taiwanese society.

“Even politicians who work hard abroad may not gain this kind of exposure for Taiwan,” said Lawrence Jheng, 32, part of a cheerful crowd gathered at a Taipei club for the airing of the episode in which Nymphia Wind declared she was “very proud to call myself Taiwanese.”

“It never occurred to me that drag could have such power to break through Taiwan’s diplomatic struggle,” Jheng said.

Taiwan’s place on the world stage is often overshadowed by China, which claims sovereignty over the self-governing democratic island and won’t allow it to be recognized in most international organizations, including the United Nations. Its sports teams are even compelled to participate under the designation “Chinese Taipei.”

But while China stifles its LGBTQ community, Taiwan has a vibrant drag scene and promotes queer rights — the island’s government became the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. And Nymphia Wind is becoming a cultural ambassador for that openness: She will represent Taiwan as a performer at cultural events during the Paris Olympics this summer.

“The government of Taiwan is very supportive of gay rights. We are the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, and I’m very proud to say I’m Taiwanese,” she said.

Beginnings of drag in Taiwan

Cross-dressing is not a new concept in Taiwan. In the years after martial law ended in 1987 and Taiwan began its transition to democracy, underground drag shows started to appear in Taipei’s nightclubs. Male cross-dressers flourished on the local entertainment scene in the 1990s, performing traditional Taiwanese songs and bringing commercial success to shows that blurred gender difference.

Western-style drag performances took off about the same time, although usually featuring foreign queens. They became more popular as Taiwanese society became more socially liberal and inclusive, with the emergence of Taiwanese queens.

But Nymphia Wind’s rise to stardom helped the culture broaden its mainstream appeal.

Influenced by K-pop girl groups in high school, she ventured into cross-dressing and later embraced drag during her fashion design studies in London. Her first performance was at a Taipei drag competition in 2018 and propelled her into the spotlight. She has since been featured in documentaries and TV programs, broadening the reach of drag culture on the island, as she continues to perform in bars.

“Whenever she performs, she would fill the whole place with laughter,” said Alvin Chang, who has been hosting drag shows since 2001 and now runs Cafe Dalida, known as “the birthplace of drag queens in Taiwan.” He’s also hosting “RuPaul” viewing parties.

“She doesn’t just give you a talent show. She interacts with the audience to make everyone laugh. You see her and you just feel happy,” Chang said. Nymphia Wind’s mother, who has been supportive of her drag career since day one, often brings her friends to sit in the first row at the cafe to watch her perform.

Nymphia Wind still calls Cafe Dalida her “home bar,” but that stage was not enough. In 2022, to challenge herself, she moved to New York and auditioned — successfully — for “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

In the eyes of Taiwanese drag queens, Nymphia Wind has been an inspiration. “She’s ambitious and dares to dream, but she is also under immense pressure to represent such a huge community,” said Bagel Rimrim, one of Nymphia Wind’s six “drag daughters,” as her protégés are known.

“She always told us to stop doing things by halves and show determination, and you can see her perfectionism in her outfits,” she said. “If I’d been able to see her performances when I grew up, I would feel less lonely and see what I could become.”

While Nymphia Wind is a role model for younger queens, she’s trying to reach a wider — and older — audience in Taiwan.

She hosted a groundbreaking drag show at a Taoist temple in Taipei in October, unfurling a giant rainbow flag from a pagoda-like stage as young and old celebrated a queen who, as she put it, had “descended from heaven to bless the queer mortals.”

“Old people are my target audience. I just feel like they could have a bit more fun, you know?” she said in an interview after the temple performance.

She planned to continue her experimentation, incorporating traditional Asian folklore into her drag performances, and hopefully becoming a tourism ambassador for Taiwan.

“I won’t limit myself,” she declared. “Maybe in my next temple show, I’ll hop off a helicopter.”

Growing appeal across Asia

Nymphia Wind — who has sought to infuse her self-made outfits and her performances with Asian culture by incorporating elements such as Taiwanese opera, Japanese Butoh dance and traditional Chinese knots — is also gaining appeal across Asia. Her efforts have earned praise from judges for showcasing “Asian excellence” on the runway, and she has been booked for shows in Japan and the Philippines.

But she won’t be going to China any time soon.

In fact, Chinese fans of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” seem to be going out of their way to avoid talking about Nymphia Wind’s success, apparently afraid of being caught up in the escalating tensions across the Taiwan Strait. “Drag Race” fan accounts on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo said they would minimize discussions about Nymphia to “protect their nascent drag scene.”

The episode in which she spoke about Taiwan as a country in its own right has drawn attacks on Chinese social media.

To capitalize on her success in the show, Nymphia Wind wants to promote drag culture across Asia.

“The concept of modern drag queens is very Western, so I think I need to use drag to show more Asian perspectives,” she said. “I just wanted to showcase more Asian drag aesthetic. Giving everything an Asian twist.”

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