Kumar Isn’t Letting His Crown Go Just Yet

Kumar has been a household name in Singapore from the 1990s. The fact that he is known by just the shortened version of his birth name, Kumarason Chinnadurai, is an indication of how far he has come to be the definitive Kumar in this country. Unlike performers whose fame has waxed and waned over the years, Kumar has been consistently famous for nearly three decades — although the medium of his comedy has changed from clubs to television and now the Internet.

In the ’90s he was known from his performances in the Boom Boom Room, a comedy club cum cabaret show in Bugis Street. He literally burst onto our television screens in pre-Netflix 1993, as one of the hosts on the comedy sketch show “The Ra Ra Show”. But although the show looms large in the collective memory of the generation that grew up watching it on Singapore TV, it aired on free-to-air television for just 10 months. Conservative society didn’t approve of its sexual innuendo and the liberal use of Singlish and it was eventually taken off the air. Kumar’s reaction is that of a realist. “They were not ready. I mean, in Singapore, there are some people who will never be ready.” Censorship, both by himself and by outside forces, is, after all, a recurring theme in Kumar’s public life.

Kumar wears Bulgari Serpenti earrings in yellow gold with malachite and diamonds, necklace in rose gold with diamonds and mother of pearl and bracelet in rose gold with diamonds and mother of pearl. Bottega Veneta dress. Jimmy Choo heels.
Kumar wears Bulgari Serpenti earrings in yellow gold with malachite and diamonds, necklace in rose gold with diamonds and mother of pearl and bracelet in rose gold with diamonds and mother of pearl. Bottega Veneta dress. Jimmy Choo heels.

Despite being short-lived, The Ra Ra Show had a huge and almost immediate impact on Kumar’s public visibility. It made him so famous that he once had to be physically lifted out of Takashimaya by a bodyguard, because of fans who mobbed him at a magazine’s live show. The incident left a deep impression on Kumar, who decided that it was all too much for him. When the show ended he was “very glad”, and ready to move on and continue working. “I couldn’t handle the fame, so I had to stop TV,” he says.

The Kumar today has crafted two very different personas. In person, he is quietly self-possessed and not particularly chatty, although he opens up more as our phone conversation goes on. When in full drag for our photoshoot, dripping in Bulgari diamonds and donning avant-garde pieces, he hams it up theatrically for the camera, brandishing his long pointed faux nails almost like a weapon.

Comme des Garçons dress and headpiece, available at Dover Street Market.
Comme des Garçons dress and headpiece, available at Dover Street Market.

But the line between performer and person is quite clear, through an almost casual and unconscious decision made earlier on in his career. “The one thing I did was I left the drag on stage. I didn’t go out in a dress, because I thought that once you finish work, you finish. I think that also helped pave the way for people to accept me because they knew that the fantasy was over and the real person was coming out now. It works because I can also just switch on and switch off.”

You must like what you see in the mirror. And it’s very important when you’re forced to stay at home and face every problem that you’ve ever had. It’s a make or break situation.

Bulgari Serpenti Seduttori watch in rose gold and diamonds, earrings in yellow gold with malachite and diamonds, necklace in rose gold with blue sapphire, malachite and diamonds and bracelet in rose gold with diamonds and mother of pearl. Prada coat. Jimmy Choo boots. Stylist’s own gloves.
Bulgari Serpenti Seduttori watch in rose gold and diamonds, earrings in yellow gold with malachite and diamonds, necklace in rose gold with blue sapphire, malachite and diamonds and bracelet in rose gold with diamonds and mother of pearl. Prada coat. Jimmy Choo boots. Stylist’s own gloves.

Kumar grew up in a very strict and sheltered household. He says that his father was abusive, and that things got worse in the home after his mother left the family, when he was aged four. If his father raised his voice, a young Kumar would sometimes hide in the cupboard for eight hours, as the situation at home was so stressful. Often, he felt alone, as there was no one to intervene.

He found solace in the dogs living in the SPCA quarters where his father was a caretaker, and today lives with his two dogs. Performing was another way that Kumar found his place in the world. Before that, he felt ostracised at school because he was effeminate and also because he was Indian. But after performing Indian contemporary dance on stage, all the catcalling and name-calling stopped. “The first time I went on stage in school to dance, I got everyone’s attention,” says Kumar. “I don’t know what it was, but they appreciated what I did. Dance became the relief to get away from everything,” he says.

 
Bulgari Serpenti Seduttori watch in rose gold and diamonds, necklace in rose gold with rubellite eyes and diamonds, bracelet in rose gold with diamonds and mother of pearl and B. zero1 rings in rose gold and black ceramic. Prada jacket, skirt and belt. Bottega Veneta boots.
Bulgari Serpenti Seduttori watch in rose gold and diamonds, necklace in rose gold with rubellite eyes and diamonds, bracelet in rose gold with diamonds and mother of pearl and B. zero1 rings in rose gold and black ceramic. Prada jacket, skirt and belt. Bottega Veneta boots.

His professional performing career started out with a stint as a singing waiter and when there was a position to act in Haw Par Villa he jumped at the chance to earn more money. Soon he started doing stand-up comedy in the Boom Boom Room, and started cross-dressing on stage in 1992. “I did it to get the attention of the audience. People do a double take when they see a cross-dresser. I thought I would get them at my fingertips, then I could start doing my humour. And it just worked very well,” he says. It also changed the public perception of drag queens who up till then were assumed to be sex workers. “That’s why we opened the Boom Boom Room in Bugis — it had a history there. It evolved and everything came together,” he says.

Because of his cross-dressing on stage, the Boom Boom Room ran into permit issues. “There was no book to follow, so as they were going [along], they were making up rules,” he says. Despite the climate and censorship, the club was actually able to thrive, due to curious crowds. “Slowly they [the authorities] began to loosen their grip as there were no complaints. In Singapore, it’s all about if anyone complains. In 1992, society was very conservative. But it was a controlled crowd of people coming to see the show, and it was the naughty thing to do at night. It became a phenomenon because it created its own culture of drag and comedy,” he says.

Kumar laughs at how when he meets people on the street, they sometimes share with him that they used to go to the Boom Boom Room in their 20s, but stopped after they married or “settled down”. It is clear that the comedy club, which relocated and eventually shut down in 2005, was a cultural touchstone. “Drag became my second skin. Now people don’t see me as a threat or a transvestite... but just as Kumar,” he says.

Bulgari B.zero1 rings in rose gold and black ceramic. Comme des Garçons dress and headpiece, available at Dover Street Market.
Bulgari B.zero1 rings in rose gold and black ceramic. Comme des Garçons dress and headpiece, available at Dover Street Market.

Kumar still performs comedy at clubs and shows, and ironically for someone who consciously avoids social media, has found new followers through clips that circulate on Facebook and the Internet. He is still very much invested in writing and performing comedy, and a lot of his themes and observations have been honed through years of experience. He has found his own niche, one that enables him to stay relevant among the fresh crop of comedians. “I can talk about history and Singapore — about how we had no telephones and handphones then. I can also talk about politics and policies because I lived through Lee Kuan Yew’s time. A lot of jokes revolve around daily observation. For people who come to watch me now, if they really think through my jokes they actually know I am trying to make some kind of statement somewhere.,” he says. “There is some kind of work I’m trying to do there, and if people get it they get it, if they don’t at least they can laugh for that one hour and not think of their problems,” says Kumar.

Bulgari Serpenti Seduttori watch in white gold and diamonds and ring in white gold an diamonds. 1017 ALYX 9SM dress, available at Dover Street Market. Stylist’s own gloves.
Bulgari Serpenti Seduttori watch in white gold and diamonds and ring in white gold an diamonds. 1017 ALYX 9SM dress, available at Dover Street Market. Stylist’s own gloves.

With that controversial edge that makes him both raucously funny and also truthful, Kumar’s voice is truly his own. Always working, he says he goes out in public to observe how people act — he can tell whether they are on first dates or deeply in love — and has a firm understanding about the issues that plague Singaporeans today, from the question of identity loss amidst an influx of immigrants to how as a society we cannot live without stress. “With comedy you can get away with anything... even murder,” he quips. To him, a lot of comedy is saying out loud what people are already saying behind closed doors, even if it’s about issues like sex and race. “Sex [jokes] are always the easiest to get a laugh from. People laugh because it’s uncomfortable,” he says. He also believes it’s important to talk about race because he has lived through racism, and because stereotypes and discussions about race are already taking place at home.

Bulgari Serpenti Seduttori watch in white gold and diamonds and ring in white gold an diamonds. 1017 ALYX 9SM dress, available at Dover Street Market. Stylist’s own gloves.
Bulgari Serpenti Seduttori watch in white gold and diamonds and ring in white gold an diamonds. 1017 ALYX 9SM dress, available at Dover Street Market. Stylist’s own gloves.

In his autobiography, Kumar came out as gay, as he believed that it was important to be truthful if writing a tell-all. He believes that his strict family had come to terms with this fact already, and that it was not “earth-shattering news” for most people. However, he eschews any labels, as he believes that one needs to learn to be human first. “I hate labelling and think it’s quite sad, but it is easier to judge people that way,” he says. He has a soft spot for the underprivileged in society, having grown up poor himself.

Looking back on his career, Kumar initially didn’t see himself as a rule-breaker. “I never thought about going against the norm. I was more interested in just working. I didn’t know that it created so many controversies. To me it didn’t even feel like controversies, as I was just doing what I wanted to do on stage,” he says. It was only later that he came to realise that much of what he was doing was actually quite scary at the time.

Today, Kumar still wants to try new things, like directing a stage production, and has found his own inner peace in a simple, credit card-free existence. Happily, his comedy career is still very much alive. Younger audience members are interested to see what a comedian has to say after three decades. “They are intrigued by how this person has carried the crown for 29 years and is still not letting go,” he says.

Kumar on one of the five covers of T Singapore’s “The Greats” November 2020 issue wearing Bulgari Serpenti Seduttori watch in rose gold and diamonds, necklace in rose gold with rubellite eyes and diamonds, bracelet in rose gold with diamonds and mother of pearl and B. zero1 rings in rose gold and black ceramic.
Kumar on one of the five covers of T Singapore’s “The Greats” November 2020 issue wearing Bulgari Serpenti Seduttori watch in rose gold and diamonds, necklace in rose gold with rubellite eyes and diamonds, bracelet in rose gold with diamonds and mother of pearl and B. zero1 rings in rose gold and black ceramic.
Photographs by Nicholas Ong
Creative direction by Jumius Wong and Jack Wang
Styled by Jenine Oh
Hair by John Lee using Keune Hair Cosmetic
Makeup by Ginger Lynette using Make Up For Ever Cosmetics
Manicure by Rebecca Chuang at Fluttery Tips
Producer: Michelle Kok
Floral art direction: This Humid House
Photographer assistant: Yann Cloitre
Styling assistants: Seah Liyi and Marisa Xin