RuPaul’s Drag Race

Nymphia Wind, Drag Race Season 16 Winner, Says Drag Is ‘A Fight To Exist’

The season 16 queen talks to Teen Vogue about her approach to drag and what’s next for her career.

RuPaul’s Drag Race season 16 winner Nymphia Wind drops into our Zoom meeting, days after her victory, with a windswept, chaotic energy and a raspy British accent. (She is, notably, not British.)

“I’m always bananas,” the Taiwanese American performer, whose off-stage name is Leo Tsao, proclaims proudly to Teen Vogue.

To those who watched the competition, “bananas” is the norm for the queen, who regularly made fart noises with her mouth (“I’m breaking wind,” she would say). Her moniker says it all: “Wind” and “crazy” share the same pronunciation in Mandarin Chinese, which is Tsao’s mother tongue.

Bananas and Nymphia Wind have become inextricably linked for fans, due to the drag queen’s heavy emphasis on the fruit in her drag aesthetics. Move over Andy Warhol and “Hollaback Girl” —Nymphia Wind is bananas’ new best friend.

On stage, Wind is brazen and boisterous; cartwheels and splits are not uncommon sights during her performances. But offstage? “I’m really a boring person, to be honest,” she sighs dramatically. When we first meet over video chat, she’s sprawled out in bed in a yellow hoodie, munching on a Wendy’s hamburger. “Laying in bed and doing nothing” is her favorite hobby, although she rarely finds time for that these days. “I’m a working girl,” she trills. “I’m a workaholic, so I just work, work, work and really forget to feel, feel, feel.”

But as we all know, the feelings always catch up. During a rare tender moment in episode 13 of the season, Wind tears up while revealing her struggles with imposter syndrome. “I’m more towards the self-doubting rather than the self-confident,” she says, dabbing her eyes delicately to avoid smudging her meticulously-applied drag makeup. “Why am I standing in the way of myself?” This revelation of vulnerability was a reminder that even those who appear the most confident struggle with insecurities as well.

Drag, thus, becomes Wind’s escape. A liberation from self. “I do drag because I don’t want to see myself. I just disassociate,” she tells Teen Vogue. “Sometimes you look in the mirror, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m feeling myself.’ Sometimes you don’t want to look at yourself in the mirror, and that’s me most of the days.”

Wind was born in Los Angeles and raised in Hong Kong and Taipei. As a child, she was shy and effeminate, which made her a target for bullying. Her mother, Mimi, sent her to an alternative holistic education school to nurture her creativity and celebrate her difference. It was in a K-pop girl group club at that boarding school where she first started experimenting with makeup and cross-dressing: “I felt like I could really change up how I look and escape my face in a sense.”

Although Wind began her career in her beloved motherland of Taiwan, she quickly saw the limits to the locality. “Because Taiwan is so small, it feels like there’s a cap on how far you could develop your career,” she says.

So she lived out the timeless tale of an artist striving for success by moving to New York City in 2022. Like any true New Yorker, she experiences a love/hate relationship with the city. “I’ve never lived in a place that made me so angry,” she says. “The subway pisses me off. It’s unbelievable.”

This internal conflict plays a pivotal role in her drag, too. “People expect drag queens to be this confident creature and beautiful being, so to be able to be a successful drag queen, you kind of have to have a merge of your inside and your outside. They have to match,” she said. “By being Nymphia and doing drag, it forces [me] to play into the self-confident characteristic of drag queens, and in that, feel how it is to be self confident.”

Even in Taiwan, she grew up immersed in Western beauty standards and popular media where Asians were frequently relegated to the role of sidekick. Thus, the self-anointed “Banana Buddha” discovered empowerment by embracing the role of protagonist.

“Asians are beautiful. That is a fact,” she says now. “I feel like drag really taught me to be proud to be Asian. It really taught me to really reconnect with my culture.”

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The 28-year-old queen incorporated Asian heritage homages into many of her Drag Race performances, doing a traditional Asian sleeve dance during the first episode and highlighting Japanese Butoh in another. For her winning lip-sync battle in the grand finale, she transformed into the classic Taiwanese drink, bubble tea, with boba in the form of black balloons floating out from underneath her cape during a dramatic reveal. After being crowned the season’s queen of queens and the show’s first-ever Taiwanese winner, she announced: “Taiwan, this is for you!”

The finale aptly premiered during Taiwan’s second Gender Equality Education Day on April 20 to a nation cheering the queen on. For those in the know, the little island of Taiwan is a queer paradise. In 2019, it became the first government in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, and its capital, Taipei, hosts East Asia’s largest Pride march every October. Then-president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, congratulated Wind online after her win. When Teen Vogue asked for her reaction to the President’s comment, all Wind could muster was, “Gag. Died. Poops.”

A few weeks after our conversation in May, Wind got the chance to meet President Tsai Ing-wen when she performed a three-song lip-sync set in Taiwan’s presidential office. The president gave a speech after, saying, “I believe Nymphia’s growth and journey will bring courage to many young people in Taiwan, so they stay fearless and stay true to their hearts.”

Wind’s longer term goal is to become a cultural tourist ambassador for Taiwan and to produce shows that fuse the country’s culture with drag performance. “Seeing the reactions from Taiwan have been so heartwarming and just emotional to see, because it’s not a win for myself. It’s a win for a whole community,” Wind says.

With the crown freshly atop her head, the queen is ready for her breeze to accelerate into a gust. This summer, after performances from London to Texas, she’ll proudly represent Taiwan in a cultural showcase at the Paris Olympics. And after? “I want to jump off a plane,” she answers immediately. As to whether she would skydive as Leo or Nymphia, she quips: “[Doing it in drag] would be sickening, [but] my lashes would probably fall.”

Though her heart is in Taiwan and her home in Brooklyn, Wind flies all over the world for her performances. Wind particularly admires the activism in the Filipino drag scene, which flourishes despite the Catholic country’s prohibition of same-sex marriage. “It just really reminded me how drag is a fight and a political statement, a fight to exist,” Wind says. “You just see how pain is transferred into joy and how they turn their own pain and make it entertaining for an audience, so have fun, and it’s really like queer celebration and just a lot of joy and entertaining the crowd. It’s just fun to see.”

To Wind, beauty and suffering are as tightly wound as a Chinese button knot. She is drawn to performances that showcase “an upward battle, a fight for your life,” she says. “I think the darkness is to contrast the light, and to see how humans can dig themselves out of and walk into the light.”

She hopes to convert clouds to rainbows by sharing her struggles on the stage. After all, what is drag if not transformation? And in a culture of shaving, plucking, lasering, squeezing, bleaching, waxing—what is beauty without pain? For all her fart jokes and silly voices, there are equal parts self-deprecation and existential musing. The best things are blended from such contradictions.

“I’m not scared of death. Whatever happens, happens. If you need to take me, take me. I don’t mind,” Wind says. “That is, to me, a beautiful thing. I feel like a lot of people fear death, and I don’t think death should be feared. It’s another part of your life journey.”

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