RuPaul’s Drag Race just completed its tenth season in the US. Thanks to airing on Netflix, it’s become a worldwide hit. It’s hard to think of the show without anyone else at its helm besides RuPaul. Hard … but not impossible.
Last year it was announced that Drag Race Thailand was being launched. Officially syndicated by the US version, Thailand TV production group, Kantana, picked up the franchise.
Why did the company decide to push to produce its own version of the show? That was down to one man: Executive producer Piyarat ‘Tae’ Kaljareuk.
Kaljareuk is an openly gay man who wields significant power in the Thai media industry. In a country where it’s traditional for businesses to pass down families, he’s the grandchild of the founder of Kantana. As such, he’s enjoyed a certain advantage when it comes to his career.
However, he says life has not always been straightforward for him. Attending private school in the US, he says he was often picked upon – both for being Asian, gay and ‘looking different’. It didn’t help that English was not his first language.
‘I went through a lot of difficulties growing up,’ he says. ‘I had a lot of depressions and I went through quite a lot of bullying, but I expressed myself through my creativity.
His love of music and performing arts proved his salvation. ‘So I put all of my energy and focus into that at that particular time, because my English wasn’t, still is not that perfect. I’m the third generation in my family business … so obviously I’m attracted to art and creativities.’
Drag Race ‘is something that everybody can enjoy’
Just because he’s an heir to his family’s media empire doesn’t mean he can do what he wants. He first proved he had an eye for what might work by buying the rights to model search reality show The Face, which has now enjoyed four seasons in Thailand.
On the back of its success, he began to look around for other TV formats that could work in Thailand.
‘Someone I actually dated for a little bit, he introduced me to Drag Race. I didn’t know a lot about the TV format at the time. But I looked at the program and I thought, “OK, I’ll just take a look,” and once I looked at it I thought, “Hey, this is something that everybody can enjoy.”
‘I was very intrigued. I tried to think of a way to introduce it to Thailand, because it was something new, and introducing The Face wasn’t easy either.’
He says that it took him a couple of years to persuade a TV station and advertisers to support The Face, and it took him a similar amount of time to find support for Drag Race Thailand.
However, the first season proved a hit. Kaljareuk is now working on the bringing the second season to the screen.
‘How do we find a RuPaul in other countries?’
The format sticks pretty closely to the US original with one big difference. Without one drag legend as host, it features two co-hosts: fashion stylist Art-Araya In-dra and drag performer Pangina Heals.
‘How do we find a RuPaul in other countries?’ asks Kaljareuk rhetorically. ‘We can’t replace something like that. He’s iconic. And so I thought about how we can present it and introduce it to the Thai culture with our own unique direction, so I come up in my own head with two hosts, sort of because that was how I produced The Face.’
Kaljareuk believes that having two hosts helps to educate local audiences about what exactly they’re watching, and provides an insight into drag and LGBTI culture.
The pressure to support the family
With his striking, androgynous appearance, and family background Kaljareuk has become quite a media personality in his homeland (with over 195,000 Instagram followers). He’s a passionate believer in breaking down gender barriers and heteronormative stereotypes. He also wants to speak out for marginalized communities.
His conversation today is a round-table conference with a handful of international journalists.
We’re gathered at the So Sofitel Bangkok for the country’s first LGBT+ Travel Symposium, where Kaljareuk was interviewed on stage earlier in the day about how his country is changing and embracing LGBTI tourism.
Same-sex activity is legal in Thailand, but there remains societal prejudice against homosexuality.
Families still expect children to marry and carry on the family business (Natalia Pliacam, the winner of this year’s Drag Race Thailand, runs his family coffin-manufacturing business when not doing drag!).
There is no Pride Bangkok. Although Phuket, in Southern Thailand, has an occasional Pride festival, the event is not taking place this year due to organizational problems.
Kaljareuk hopes that Pride festivals do soon begin in his country. He would also like to see same-sex relationships legally recognized. A bill to introduce civil partnerships in Thailand received cross-party support in 2014 but its introduction stalled in the wake of that year’s military coup and subsequent political upheavals in the country.
The current government, operated by the National Council for Peace and Order under Prime Minister and military General Prayut Chan-O-Cha, has been criticized for human rights abuses. It’s one area where Kaljareuk has to choose his words carefully.
‘I don’t know… I can’t say,’ he says when I ask him if he’s confident civil unions may become a reality soon.
‘But I hope that at least for the future, it should be legalized at some point.’
He points out that same-sex love and relationships are natural, and – perhaps as we’re discussing this at an LGBT+ Travel Symposium – allowing same-sex unions brings economic opportunities to Thailand.
‘Long-lasting relationship are something good. [And] at least I don’t have to fly out of my own country to marry someone that I really love somewhere else. So, I would like to see it. I’d like to get married!’
How soon he gets that wish remains to be seen. In the meantime, he has the search for Thailand’s ‘next drag superstar’ to worry about. Auditions for the second season will begin soon, with filming scheduled for the end of the year.
The second season of Drag Race Thailand will premiere in early 2019.