Plastique Tiara is an icon for the ages

The Internet's most popular drag queen talks "RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars," and thriving at the intersection of being queer and Vietnamese American

Plastique Tiara on "RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars" season nine.

Pari Dukovic/World of Wonder/Paramount+

Words by Teresa Tran

Plastique Tiara, despite her name, is as real as it gets. Whether you watch her on television during the currently airing ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, or scroll through her social media accounts, she’s as confident in drag as she is out of it. Known for her head-turning fashion and makeup transformations inspired by Vietnamese and Asian culture, you’d never think that she grew up sheltered, or at one point in her life had tried to assimilate with the straight, white kids. But as many Asian Americans and immigrants can relate, we all have spent a portion of our youth attempting to blend in with the environment around us out of safety and caution, and Tiara is no different.

“I grew up in a very religious family,” Tiara tells me over Zoom from Los Angeles. “My mom and I had very conflicting views of the world. We had our tough times together. Because I look different and act differently and our culture is different, I had to essentially be normal to be taken seriously. But then I started watching Drag Race. When I was given the opportunity to move out on my own, I really took [drag] full force and Plastique was born on an amateur drag night.”

Tiara’s increasingly risk-taking choices have led her to the biggest drag stage in the world: her own stint on RuPaul’s Drag Race. As one of the contestants on the current season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, Tiara is part of RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Alyssa Edwards’ drag family “Haus of Edwards” and has cemented herself as a force to be reckoned with in the drag world. Since debuting on the show, she has amassed a combined global audience of 13.6 million followers on TikTok and Instagram, making her the most followed drag queen on social media.

Tiara competed in the 11th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2019, placing eighth overall. After the show, she participated in the Werq the World tour and was part of the rotating cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race Live! This year, she returned to RuPaul’s drag series to compete in the All Stars edition for a chance to be placed in the Drag Race Hall of Famewith an added twist. The queens will not be competing for prize money. Instead, Mama Ru has chosen this cast of queens for a unique All Stars season of giving back to marginalized communities at a time when the LGBTQ+ community is constantly under attack by far-right conservatives. The queen who wins this season will win a donation of $200,000 to a charity of their choice. The charity Tiara’s chosen? The Asian American Foundation (TAAF).

Drag queen Plastique Tiara, in a black crop top, shorts and boots, is carried across a stage by men also dressed black.

Plastique Tiara is carried across the stage in "RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars," season nine, episode one.

World of Wonder Productions, Inc./Paramount+

“This season was very, very special because we got a chance to essentially make a name for ourselves from our previous season,” Tiara says. “We’ve grown so much as individuals, as drag artists, as people in general. We’ve all worked together and are fans of each other. So coming back has felt like a celebration of our talents, ourselves, and our culture. Infusing that with the charity aspect of it all and our beliefs that we fight for, it’s been very special.”

Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Duc Tran Nguyen was raised by her grandparents until the age of 11, when she moved to Dallas to live with her mom. She created her alter ego Plastique Tiara after the My Little Pony character Diamond Tiara. She decided to switch out the Diamond with “Plastique” due to how common the former name was among drag queens and as a reference to the plastic that made up Barbie dolls. Indeed some of Tiara’s best and most memorable looks, like this recreation of Barbie and Ken, exude that glam doll-like vibe.

Tiara credits YouTube beauty gurus and drag tutorials as her teachers. She finally summoned the courage to purchase her own wig and bodysuit from Amazon and sign up for an amateur drag competition at the age of 18. “I snuck out at 10 p.m. to make it to the club and sign up for the competition,” Tiara says. “If you win, the prize was that you got to come back next week to perform three numbers. From that night on, I just never stopped.”

Tiara went from performing in drag once per month to once every two weeks. Then she experienced her first Pride. She met her drag mother Alyssa Edwards and they did Pride together. From there, she leveraged social media to gain influence and connect with fellow drag queens, eventually earning a seat at RuPaul’s table.

Drag queen Plastique Tiara in a silver unitard with cutouts, on a stage, against an orange and pink backdrop.

Plastique Tiara in "RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars," season nine, episode two.

World of Wonder Productions, Inc./Paramount+

Having now been on Drag Race twice, Tiara describes returning to the show as a new era for her. “It’s like a new resurgence,” she says. “When you’re on your first season, you get all these fans. This time around, it’s even more attention because it’s on an all-star scale.”

Her fame has skyrocketed so much in the past couple of years that she’s been repeatedly recognized by huge American celebrities and Asian talents around the world. “Ariana [Grande] and Katy Perry, I think, followed me,” Tiara says. “Celebrities in Vietnam have reached out and said that what I’m doing is so impactful for people over there. And of course, the response from Vietnamese fans and drag artists over there has been absolutely amazing and rewarding.”

Tiara has used her platform to spotlight Vietnamese LGBTQ+ creatives in every element of her performances and transformations. In nearly every photoshoot she posts on social media, the credits from the fashion to the hairstyling to the production houses are all led by queer Vietnamese artists.

“Oh my gosh, Vietnam is a completely different world to how I left it,” Tiara says. “People are now so welcoming. There is so much queer talent. Everyone who’s behind the scenes in the artistic endeavors in Vietnam, they’re all pretty much a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Not to out everyone, but I met so many talented business-minded queer people in Vietnam that it’s opened my mind to a whole new world.”

Tiara credits traditional values as the reason why queer people in Vietnam and LGBTQ+ Vietnamese Americans likely denied their sexualities and gender expressions. “For a long time, my family and I weren’t in contact very much. Honestly, expectations were at the root of it,” Tiara says.

It’s true that in the last few centuries, Vietnam hasn’t been so welcoming to LGBTQ+ people. While same-sex weddings have been allowed in Vietnam since 2015, same-sex couples and partnerships are still neither recognized nor protected under the law. Many conservatives argue that Vietnamese people don’t accept queer people, but historical archives suggest that pre-French colonization and pre-Buddhism and Confucianism influence, queer people had always existed in Vietnam and Vietnamese people had much more flexible attitudes towards homosexuality, cross-dressing, and transgender folks.

Most recently, in a show of progress for Vietnamese queer rights, the Vietnamese government declared in 2022 that health care personnel and medics could not “interfere nor force treatment” on LGBTQ+ patients as being queer is “not an illness.” While legally, there’s still a lot more progress to be made, socially, we’re seeing laxer and more accepting attitudes among this generation’s Vietnamese families and youth.

Tiara has experienced this acceptance herself. “My family has now completely 180 turned around,” Tiara says. “My grandma is on Facebook commenting on my posts. My cousins in Vietnam are always sending people my magazines. I recently landed the cover of L’Officiel Vietnam, which is one of the most prestigious magazines in Vietnam.” 

In another story, when Tiara and her boyfriend of more than two years went on vacation to the country together for the first time in 14 years in 2022, they attended a drag bingo lotto show (one of the few Vietnamese drag shows in the country) where she was pulled up to the stage to introduce herself and to her surprise, received thunderous applause.

“Drag in Vietnam is really just beginning,” Tiara says. “In the past year or so, everyone has said to me that drag is becoming a thing there. But before that, I essentially was the first Vietnamese drag queen to be on television. So the world is changing and it’s amazing to see.”

She felt so welcomed in Vietnam that it ignited a spark in her to share her love for the country and her heritage on a larger scale. “[Going back to Vietnam] gave me the kind of hope and recognition I needed to go back to All Stars,” Tiara says.

Much of Tiara’s success can be attributed to her unapologetically embracing her Vietnamese heritage in her drag performances. She made history in 2019 as the first Vietnamese American drag queen on RuPaul’s Drag Race and wore a white ao dai, the Vietnamese traditional ceremonial dress, on the runway. In the seventh episode of the current season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, she once again wore an ao dai, this time a custom-printed silk blue dress adorned with cranes that symbolize purity, wisdom, and the soul’s journey to heaven, with an added regalness to her performance reminiscent of ancient Vietnamese dynasty rulers.

Tiara writes in an Instagram caption that “one thing I love more than serving a look is educating the masses with a look.” Her goal with wearing the Vietnamese ao dai on such a public American stage is to “challenge the assumptions about what constitutes appropriate formalwear, which are often rooted in Americentric perspectives.”

Beyond Vietnamese culture, many of her references in her drag looks also pull from Asian-inspired anime and K-pop, like this Sailor Moon-inspired look. Despite her persona being her primary source of income, she’s not afraid to publicly show herself both in and out of drag. In fact, she can often be seen with a sleek black lace-front wig emulating the likes of Asian beauty queens and idol singers, or wearing a hoodie over a tank paired with a simple pair of pants that still manages to look effortful and stylish. This confidence was, however, hard won.

“I used to be very shy and so scared to speak publicly,” Tiara says. “Plastique was something that I could just borrow whenever I needed confidence. Now I’ve basically become the same person in and out of drag, with little differences here and there.”

As to how Asian American drag communities compare to Asian drag ones, Tiara thinks there’s still space for more growth. “During the pandemic, there was so much hate on AA+PIs,” she says. “Right now, drag itself is a diversion tactic in the political space.”

Tiara is likely referring to the way far-right conservatives have used drag as a fear-mongering tactic to spew transphobic and homophobic messaging, especially recently.

“I think queer Asian Americans experience very similar experiences across the board of being ostracized by not only the way we look, but for the way we feel,” Tiara says. “So coming back [to RuPaul’s], as an Asian drag queen, I feel even more empowered than ever to make my voice heard and to fight for my community and to represent it so fiercely because this is my life. [Drag] saved my life. So I’m willing to save it as well.”

“The idea of young Vietnamese people becoming a version of our parents’ hopes and dreams is gone now. We can be even greater than what they had expected for us, you know?”

The winner of the ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars is yet to be revealed and I wasn’t allowed to ask for spoilers during our interview. But whether Tiara won the actual competition (it’d be nice and deserved), it almost doesn’t matter. In many ways, she has already won big for herself and for the LGBTQ+ Vietnamese community in the United States and abroad, just by virtue of being herself and sharing her message. “The idea of young Vietnamese people becoming a version of our parents’ hopes and dreams is gone now,” Tiara says. “We can be even greater than what they had expected for us, you know?”

No matter where Tiara goes after Drag Race or where her career takes her, one thing will always remain true: Everything she does, she does it for queer Vietnamese people all over the world. Signing off our call like a true Asian beauty queen, Tiara shouts, “For Gaysia!”

Published on June 26, 2024

Words by Teresa Tran

Teresa Tran (she/her) is an American-born Vietnamese writer and filmmaker based in Atlanta, Georgia, with a background in theater and community organizing. She has a B.A. in English and Women’s Studies and a B.S.Ed in English Education from the University of Georgia and studied British Literature at the University of Oxford. She is currently writing and directing her own short films and working on her debut novel. You can find her on Twitter at @teresatran__.