• Divafication: A Queer of Color Memoir

    1. Coco

    My first diva was Coco Lee. The year was 1998 when I first saw her on the television, dancing in a fire-red wig and a snow-white fur coat in her music video, “Di Da Di.” I was nine years old then, and from that moment, my life was never the same. There was something powerful, something liberating in her movements, her mannerism, and her outrageous looks. She was almost like a drag queen, or a female female impersonator. I did not know what a drag queen was then, but I did know that I wanted to be like her. By wanting to be like her, I was doing a kind of drag. A phantasmic drag. An identificatory drag. From then on, this is the kind of drag I would keep practicing in order to invent, and reinvent, myself.

    Because of Coco Lee, I made my stage debut. It was one of those “entertainment days” common at Taiwanese elementary schools back in the 1990s. Kids would pitch their ideas for performances, and I decided to perform Coco Lee’s “Di Da Di.” Though I still had my youthful, girly voice at the age of nine, I chose to lip-synch the song. Through lip-synching, I became one with Coco Lee. It was a combination of visual and audio identifications, a synthesis of physicality and vocality.

    The structural relationship between the diva’s voice and gay identification has already been noted by Wayne Koestenbaum in his seminal book, The Queen’s Throat. As he beautifully puts it, “a singer’s voice sets up vibrations and resonances in the listener’s body. The dance of sound waves on the tympanum, and the sigh I exhale in sympathy with the singer, persuade me that I have a body — if only by analogy, if only a second-best copy of the singer’s body… straight socialization makes queer people discard their bodies; listening restores queer embodiment.” Koestenbaum wrote about opera divas and American gay men in the 1970s, but in a uncanny, transcultural way, Mandopop queens meant something very similar to a Taiwanese gay man growing up in the 1990s. Like opera divas, Coco Lee gave me a body, “if only by analogy, if only a second-best copy of [her] body.” While it was impossible for me to emulate the grandiosity of her sound, lip-synching merged Coco’s throat with my own metaphorically. Through lip-synching and dance-covering, I invented, or reinvented, a body for myself. It was a body realized and materialized through the corporeal signs that Coco Lee performed in her music video. A body both personal and communal, universal and historical. A body shared by a generation of Taiwanese gay men enamored and infatuated with her. Coco Lee wasn’t just a pop diva. She defined a cultural moment. She gave birth to a generation. She embodied turn-of-the-century Taiwanese gay iconicity.

    My stage debut was well received by my teachers and classmates. One of the teachers said, “This kid belongs to the stage. He knows how to perform.”

    She wasn’t wrong about that.

     

    2. Yuki

    Two months after Coco Lee released “Di Da Di,” Yuki Hsu debuted on the music scene and became the symbol of 1990s Taiwanese next-door girlhood. One of the myths surrounding her was that she was discovered by a producer when she was singing at the balcony while drying her clothes. She was immediately signed by Rock Records, one of the most influential Taiwanese record labels at the time. The myth helped shape the star image of Yuki Hsu. She became the ultimate girl next door, an everygirl-turned-superstar, and, as later dubbed by the media, the “ordinary diva.” It was an oxymoron, a contradictory construct, but one that spoke to a gay kid growing up in the late 1990s. While Coco Lee’s high femininity equally enticed me, it was too fabulous, too phenomenal, too extraordinary to be fully achieved. Like the opera queen in Koestenbaum’s theory, Coco Lee could only be approached “by analogy,” and we could, at best, create “a second-best copy” of her body. Yuki Hsu’s girliness, on the other hand, was something that a nine-year-old me could replicate. Or she gave me the illusion that I could. The illusionary proximity between her and me led to another stage of identificatory drag. Through identifying with Yuki Hsu, I became the girl.

    My first Yuki tape was a copy made by a girl who was in love with me. It was in the days when we still listened to music with Walkmans and cassettes. The girl owned what was then an enviable cassette recorder, and out of love, made a physical copy of Yuki’s debut album for me. The Yuki tape, then, meant something very different for the two of us. For the girl, it was a token of youthful love. For me, it was my rite of passage into divahood.

    I remembered listening to the tape with my Walkman every night, trying to emulate the over-the-top sweetness of Yuki’s sound. Later, when I got a cassette recorder of my own, the first thing I attempted to do was to bridge our voices together. Through an amateur, manual editing process, I managed to insert my sound into the tape. This material practice distinguished my identification with Coco from the one with Yuki. While lip-synching merged my throat with Coco’s on the metaphorical level, editing the tape literally synthesized Yuki’s and my voices. The Yuki song that was most seriously edited by me was “I am a Girl,” in which she cheekily sings: “I am a girl, a beautiful girl / I am a girl, a sentimental girl / I am a girl, a weird girl/ I am a girl, you don’t understand a girl.” I remembered singing the second part of each line, becoming the beautiful, sentimental, and weird girl that she was supposed to be. It was more than a form of identification. It was like a kind of identity theft. Imitation and emulation were not enough. In order to truly become the girl, I needed to steal her line, appropriate her role, and eventually replace her voice with my own.

    Yuki’s girliness was anything but natural. She was too girly to be true. This is why her girliness could be understood as a kind of camp. Her camp was an accident, a coincidence, a historical happenstance that nobody could have predicted or maneuvered. In the Sontagian sense, Yuki’s camp was “naïve,” “pure,” and “unintentional.” Compared to Coco’s “deliberate camp,” Yuki’s camp “rest[ed] on [her] innocence.” She performed her girliness earnestly, seriously, albeit imperfectly. But it was exactly the imperfection that created a camp moment. As Sontag famously argues, “in naïve or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.” Yuki Hsu’s earnest performance of girlhood resonated with my desperate attempt to become the girl, and her imperfection echoed my personal failure. To make the camp moment happen, both seriousness and failure were required. If she were not earnest enough, or ever succeeded in achieving perfect girlhood, she might not have become a gay icon in 1990s Taiwan. Her camp marked a moment in Taiwanese cultural history that simply cannot be retrieved or recreated. Gay icons following Yuki Hsu were never as girly, or as earnestly girly as her. She became a memory, a recollection, someone who was always talked about in the past tense. On the personal level, she became my ghost, my melancholia, a part of identity that was forever lost and never returned.

    Despite a series of attempts, Yuki never truly came back to the music scene. In some ways, Yuki Hsu symbolized my youthful, girly voice. It simply disappeared and was never able to be recovered.

     

    3. S.H.E

    In 2001, S.H.E released their debut album, Girl’s Dorm. Upon their debut, they became a cultural sensation in Taiwan. Their cover of Destiny’s Child’s “Brown Eyes” — called “Not Yet Lovers” — would later be remembered as the song of the year. In the accompanying music video, S.H.E portrayed three girls falling in love with the same boy. Yet what truly matters in the story is not the budding romance between the girls and the boy, but their relationship to one another. While each of them builds up a connection with him, he is only a passing figure in their life. Throughout the video, the girls live together, cook together, fall in and out of love with each other’s company. Towards the end, the boy moves out of the building, while the girls are seen laughing and holding hands as they pass through a green alley. It was as if the boy had never existed in their life. It was as if the title of the song referred not to a stage of heterosexual romance but the structure of female homosociality. While female homosocial desire has frequently been seen as a passing phase soon to be replaced by heterosexual courtship, “Not Yet Lovers” provides a counternarrative where female relations take the center stage of a girl’s life.

    In many ways, the music video epitomized the cultural significance of S.H.E. While there have been many girl groups in the history of Mandarin pop music, none of them embodied female homosocial relationship the same way S.H.E did. Importantly, S.H.E structured a generation of female-female, as well as female-queer, relations in post-millennial Taiwan. It was no secret that thousands of young women and gay men identified themselves with S.H.E. While the female and queer communities took equal pleasure in imitating and desiring individual members of the group, it was ultimately the idea, or the ideal, of female homosociality that led to such an identification. With their fanbase, S.H.E soon became the enduring symbol of female and queer bonding in the Chinese-speaking world.

    I was only 12 when S.H.E first entered the music scene. It was around the same time I met two of the most important friends of my life, Yi-Ho and Yu-Chieh. As a group of three, we easily became S.H.E. Though my favorite member had always been Selina Jen, I decided to be the Ella Chen of the group. In early years, Ella was the butch, the tomboy, the masculinized figure that balanced Selina and Hebe’s femininities. By playing Ella, I could easily translate my effeminacy into androgyny and enter the female community. It was also the period when I started to lose my smooth, girly sound. I could not hit the high notes I used to reach with ease and my voice frequently squeaked. For the 12-year-old me, it was not just a loss of voice — it was a loss of selfhood. A piece of me was gone, and I knew it was never going to come back. Luckily, my changing sound matched Ella’s deep, mellow voice. Singing her part became an alternative way for me to regain the female sound, albeit an androgynous, boyish one. Ella thus embodied a queer space where male effeminacy and female masculinity met, where the fairy and the tomboy converged.

    At another entertainment event at our high school, Yi-Ho, Yu-Chieh, and I decided to perform S.H.E’s dance hit “Remember.” The night before the performance, we met at Yi-Ho’s house, choreographing the dance moves and trying on different outfits. It was then that Yi-Ho took out a pair of heels belonging to her sister and encouraged me to put them on. “My sister’s feet are bigger than mine,” she grinned, “so they might fit.” I had always been trying on my sisters’ shoes in secret, but never had I worn them in front of anyone else. The night at Yi-Ho’s house was a surprising drag moment of my life. While S.H.E had never been regarded as drag icons, they became my accidental drag. But what mattered more was how the drag structured my relationship to women. It was a kind of female-queer bonding that S.H.E helped cement in post-millennial Taiwan, a kind of queer sociality formed between young women and gay men of my generation.

    Because of S.H.E, I finally became one of the girls.

     

    4. Jolin

    If, like Koestenbaum has argued, “the opera queen must choose one diva,” my diva would undoubtedly be Jolin Tsai. I am not an opera queen, but reading through The Queen’s Throat, I have found the uncanny similarity between American opera queens in the 1970s and Taiwanese gay men in the 1990s. As Koestenbaum continues to note, “the other divas may be admired, enjoyed, even loved. But only one diva can reign in the opera queen’s heart; only one diva can have the power to describe a listener’s life.” Throughout my life, Jolin Tsai is the diva. Like the Koestenbaumian queen, she reigns my heart and describes my life. In some ways, Jolin Tsai is me.

    As a queer icon, Jolin Tsai meant something very special to the gay men of my generation. If Coco Lee embodied drag femininity, Yuki Hsu camp girliness, and S.H.E the ideal of female homosociality, Jolin Tsai epitomized queer struggles. Throughout her career, she failed, tumbled, and sometimes even disappeared from the music scene. But no matter what happened to Jolin Tsai, she came back. Her entire career could be understood through this dialectical relationship between failure and resurgence. Her first comeback moment took place in 2003, when she reinvented herself with her fifth album, Magic, after a one-year hiatus. It was with Magic that Jolin Tsai transformed herself from a teen idol into a pop icon. It was also with the same album that the “gay history” of Jolin Tsai truly began. Self-refashioning has always been central to diva worship and gay iconicity, and the fact that Jolin Tsai was able to resurrect her career turned her into a gay icon for the millennials.

    But the story of her survival did not stop there. After a series of successful albums, Jolin Tsai again retreated from the public scene in 2009. The album she released that year, Butterfly, was a commercial success but a critical failure. During the promotion, she also sprained her ankle by accident and was never able to dance as she used to. While she sang about beauty and glamour in the title track, she was, ironically, wounded like a butterfly with broken wings. But after another hiatus, she came back with the critically-acclaimed Myself and Muse, and launched what was then the biggest world tour of her entire career. Such a dialectic of suffering and resurrection became the central motif of her star image. Though Jolin Tsai has frequently been dubbed “the Asian Madonna,” and she often cited the pop queen as her major influence, one could easily find that she is more of a Judy Garland than a Madonna. In his classic article, “Judy Garland and Gay Men,” Richard Dyer identifies comeback as the “defining motif” of Garland’s gay iconicity. It was Garland’s struggles that “made possible a reading of [her] as having a special relationship to suffering, ordinariness, normality,” and it was her comebacks that “structure[d] much of the gay reading of Garland.” Similarly, Jolin Tsai’s falls and rises, failures and revivals rendered a gay reading of her possible. To the gay men of my generation, Jolin Tsai is more than a comeback queen—she has become a queer martyr.

    When Jolin Tsai released her eighth album, Dancing Diva, I was a second-year student at Chenggong Senior High School, a prestigious all-boy institution located in Taipei. By then, I had already gone through a series of phantasmic and identificatory drags — from Coco Lee’s high femininity, Yuki Hsu’s camp girliness, to Ella Chen’s playful androgyny. Being at an all-boy school, however, I lost the female community that I built up five years ago with Yi-Ho and Yu-Chieh. I knew there was no way for me to reform an S.H.E, so I decided to reinvent myself. It was by then my identification with Ella Chen shifted towards Jolin Tsai, when the androgyny returned to the femme. During lunch breaks, I secretly practiced Jolin’s dance moves at a school corner, trying to preserve my femininity against the disciplinary force of the male homosocial space. It was a daily ritual, a survival tactic, an everyday practice in a de Certeau way.

    The Jolin song that redefined my body, and perhaps the body of a generation of Taiwanese gay men, was her 2006 megahit “Dancing Diva.” During that year, thousands of young women and gay men practiced yoga, gymnastics, and ribbon dance because of the song, and I was no exception. At a school event, I chose to perform “Dancing Diva.” Having been practicing the dance for months, I was eager to return to the stage and restore my divahood. Unlike my stage debut, however, my performance was not celebrated by the boys. Gay, fag, niang — the Chinese word used to humiliate effeminate men — were thrown at me at once. I was shocked, mortified, horrified. Despite public humiliation, I went on, and the performance ended with my defiant pose.

    Looking back now, it was the defining moment that cemented my identification with Jolin Tsai. While I was equally attracted to her glamour and empowered image, it was ultimately her struggles, her vulnerability, and her falls from grace that shaped my identification. Since then, I have gone through even bigger failures, even greater humiliation. But every failure and humiliation brought me closer to Jolin Tsai, until it blurred the boundary between the diva and the self. It was a kind of negative identification, one that could only be achieved through shame, degradation, and humiliation. Becoming Jolin Tsai was therefore riskier than becoming Coco Lee or Yuki Hsu. It involved a stage of self-degradation, and a form of self-annihilation. Without these experiences, however, one could never truly become Jolin Tsai. This was why she had become a martyr figure for the millennial gay man. In a queer, religious way, Jolin Tsai’s suffering was no longer personal and has become a collective symbol of gay suffering. The blurred boundary between her star image and gay subjectivity made it impossible to tell whether she suffered for us or suffered like us. But perhaps the difference does not matter anymore, because in many ways, Jolin Tsai has become the gay man.

    A friend of mine once said I am just like Jolin Tsai. I said to her, “I am not just like Jolin Tsai. I am Jolin Tsai.”

     

    5. Divafication

    Do gay men always dream of divas? Koestenbaum claims that “the opera queen is a dated species — very 1950s. I am an anachronism. After sexual liberation, who needs opera?” Koestenbaum’s lament was at once nostalgic and forward-looking, self-deprecating and self-defending. By seeing himself as an “anachronism,” Koestenbaum historicizes the opera queen. The opera queen became a specimen, a museum item, a material object located in a queer space. Wandering at the museum of divahood, I wonder if it is possible to see myself, and the Taiwanese gay men of my generation, as another example of anachronism. Are we, like American opera queens in the 1970s, a “dated species”? After the queer liberation, who needs a “pop queen”? The pop queen, after all, was a product of the 1990s. He embodied a historical moment, a queer temporality that could only be recalled but not recovered. But like Koestenbaum, I want to reclaim the pop queen and theorize my fetish. By theorizing my fetish, I gave myself a history and wrote myself into being. That history was what I would call a process of “divafication.”

    I am by no means the first one to use the term. In her 2001 article, “Divafication,” Linda Lister explores female fans’ identification with prima divas and argues that the “practice of ‘divafication’ seems to have removed the derogatory connotation of the term ‘diva,’ thereby helping to dismiss another negative feminine stereotype.” For Lister, diva worship is a celebration of “female empowerment,” which “enable[s] both the worshiped and the worshiper.” Upon discovering Lister’s article, I was both excited and disappointed. While I appreciated Lister’s feminist reading of diva worship, there was something, or someone, missing in her theoretical framework. Lister does not seem to notice the gay man’s identification with the diva, nor does she acknowledge the homoerotic desire between the female fan and the diva. Could we imagine an alternative history of “divafication,” one that accounts for not only queer longings but also what José Esteban Muñoz has called “identities-in-difference”?

    In his important book on queer-of-color performance, Disidentifications, Muñoz builds on Chicana feminist writings, in particular those by Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, and Norma Alarcón, to advance a new concept of identity politics. Muñoz’s identity politics is not based on an assimilationist, nationalist model of universality and sameness, nor is it rooted in an essentialist, separatist form of otherness and difference. His sense of self-making, famously defined as a process of “disidentification,” is a “reconstructed narrative of identity formation that locates the enacting of self at precisely the point where the discourses of essentialism and constructivism short-circuit.” For Muñoz, minority subjects must strategically negotiate mainstream, sometimes negative images of queerness in order to recreate themselves. Such a history of negotiations not only produces “emergent identities-in-difference,” but also creates “a counterpublic sphere.” Should I, then, understand the pop queen as another example of “identity-in-difference,” and “divafication” a process of “disidentification”?

    Looking back to the history of my diva worship, and the history of Taiwanese popular culture, I have come to discover another route of identity formation. While “divafication” is a historical process not without its own ambiguities and ambivalences, the pop queen was too in love with star images to even negotiate with them, and the fantastic world of divahood is too immersed in popular culture to be considered “a counterpublic sphere.” Instead of “identities-in-difference,” what the pop queen and the diva exemplify could be understood as “identities-in-translation.” It is an identity politics marked by transition, transformation, and transfiguration. A subject formation realized through refashions, reinventions, and resurrections. While S.H.E translated Destiny’s Child’s love ballad into a story of female homosocial love, the pop queen translated such a love into a female-queer relationship. While Jolin Tsai translated Madonna’s postmodern aesthetic into a tale of self-invention, the pop queen translated her fairy tale into a survival manual. The diva and the pop queen are always in the process of crossing, transing, and becoming. They are always in the flux of gender, sexuality, and culture makings.

    Divafication is not just a historical process. It is also a futuristic vision. The pop queen does not just have a history. He also has a future. The museum of divahood is where queer historicity and queer futurity converge, where generations of loves, wounds, and tears are folded in the figures of the diva. The pop queen may be a “dated species,” but he is also a future genus. In his manifesto of queer futurity, Cruising Utopia, Muñoz once declares “queerness is not yet here… put another way, we are not yet queer.” In a similar way, the diva “is not yet here,” and we are, after all, “not yet divas.” Divahood is a forever changing landscape where we collectively move backward and forward. In divatopia we cruise.

     

    Photo Credit: Elle Taiwan

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