Jon Wan: Complex Enchantment
Performer Jon Wan argues that kids are campy.
ABOUT THE GUEST Slipping in and out of drag skin Kiko Soirée, animagus Jon Wan serves an alluring feast of emotion - sensual, sincere, stupid. Kiko (@kikosoiree) is a queer comedian, host and drag queen, performing at venues like Club Cumming, Joe's Pub, The Bell House, Ars Nova, Caroline's, Union Hall, MoCA, Caveat, and UCB. They've been named by Time Out Magazine as one of the rising LGBT POC comedians to watch. Monthly, Kiko hosts 'A+, The Pan-Asian Drag and Burlesque Revue', in the Lower East Side, and seasonally, produces the original musical advice show, 'Dear Kiko'. Their Spanish is better than their Cantonese which hasn't made their mother proud but tracks for the American Born Chinese narrative.
ABOUT THE HOST Neil Goldberg is an artist in NYC who makes work that The New York Times has described as “tender, moving and sad but also deeply funny.” His work is in the permanent collection of MoMA, he’s a Guggenheim Fellow, and teaches at the Yale School of Art. More information at neilgoldberg.com.
ABOUT THE TITLE SHE'S A TALKER was the name of Neil’s first video project. “One night in the early 90s I was combing my roommate’s cat and found myself saying the words ‘She’s a talker.’ I wondered how many other other gay men in NYC might be doing the exact same thing at that very moment. With that, I set out on a project in which I videotaped over 80 gay men in their living room all over NYC, combing their cats and saying ‘She’s a talker.’” A similar spirit of NYC-centric curiosity and absurdity animates the podcast.
CREDITS This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund. Producer: Devon Guinn Creative Consultants: Aaron Dalton, Molly Donahue Mixer: Andrew Litton Visuals and Sounds: Joshua Graver Theme Song: Jeff Hiller Website: Itai Almor Media: Justine Lee Interns: Alara Degirmenci, Jonathan Jalbert, Jesse Kimotho, Rachel Wang Thanks: Jennifer Callahan, Nick Rymer, Sue Simon, Maddy Sinnock
JON WAN: I just took saxophone cause my friend was also gonna play saxophone, and I just played it through middle school. Then I just continued in high school, and then after freshman year I was like, I don't actually like this instrument. And I'm definitely not a jazz person. Cause I was having saxophone lessons with this person who was a very cool cat. And I was like, I am not understanding fundamentally why I'm here. This isn't clicking with me.
NEIL GOLDBERG: I'm going to really make a controversial generalization here. I don't think jazz is gay.
JON: Oh, no, I don't think so either. You have to be like kind of loose and like -
NEIL: Exactly, a type of casualness.
JON: Yeah, and like comfortable with your body and expression, and I was not - like I was learning classical piano from an oppressive Russian teacher, growing up as a Chinese American, closeted, in a primarily white town. I did not know how to express myself in a healthy way.
NEIL: Hello. I'm Neil Goldberg, and this is SHE'S A TALKER. I'm a visual artist, and I have a collection of thousands of index cards on which I've been jotting down thoughts and observations for about two decades. In SHE'S A TALKER, I explore the cards through conversations with guests and responses from listeners.
These days, the cards often start as voice memos I record throughout the day. Here are some recent ones: When a parent says to a kid, "Look at me," I'm suspicious and think the parent is probably a narcissist. Thick Sharpies are to thin Sharpies as water bugs are to roaches. Art project: drawing all the missing arms in selfies.
Today, my guest is Jon Wan. Jon, who often appears on stage as their drag persona, Kiko Soiree, describes themself as a Swiss Army knife performer whose work weaves together musical comedy, storytelling, standup, and beyond. Jon's performed at Club Cumming, Joe's Pub, the Bell House, Ars Nova, Caroline's Mocha, and has been named by Timeout Magazine as one of the rising LGBT people of color comedians to watch out for. We spoke in February at a recording studio at The New School near Union Square in New York City.
I'm so happy to have with me Jon Wan.
NEIL: Hi Jon. Thank you for being on SHE'S A TALKER.
JON: I'm enchanted to be here. Simply.
NEIL: Simply. What are the alternatives, in terms of enchantment, besides simple enchantment?
JON: Oh, very complex. Yeah. Like arcane magic, you know? Not for pedestrian folk.
NEIL: Yes. Complex enchantment. What is your elevator pitch for what you do?
JON: I am a drag queen, performer, comedian bopping around New York City. You might know me as my drag persona, Ms. Kiko Soiree, performing and doing shows here in this beautiful garbage city and really always aspiring to one day live within walking distance of a Trader Joe's.
NEIL: I see it for you. I really see it for you. You know, a Trader Joe's just opened opposite where Jeff and I live.
JON: No, which one?
NEIL: Uh, it's on Grand Street. Grand and Clinton.
JON: Oh, wow.
NEIL: It's the biggest Trader Joe's on the Eastern Seaboard, I'm told.
JON: That's crazy. So you live near not only a Trader Joe's, but a historic one.
NEIL: Yes, exactly. Uh, what does your mom, when she's talking to her friends, what does she say you do?
JON: Oh, (In his mother's accent) oh, Jon um, oh, Jon lives in New York City. (back to normal voice) And then she kinda just like shoos the conversation. I think, she knows I'm a drag queen. I don't think she publicly has the language to talk about it the way she might alternatively say, "My daughter works for a pharmaceutical company." Do you know what I mean?
NEIL: Right. Do you have a sister that works...?
JON: She does. Don't worry. It's a good pharmaceutical company.
NEIL: Oh yeah. Uh, what does your dad say?
JON: My dad, uh, is actually very vocally supportive of my creative life. He usually says, "He's a performer and a comedian, and..."
NEIL: What kind of performances does he do?
JON: "Oh, (In his father's accent) Jonathan does his funny stand up in New York City." And just stuff like that and yeah, I don't think they're, they're like ashamed of anything I do, but my dad came here for college. My mom came here when she was 13. They're kind of this transition generation, you know, they, they were really straddling both cultures and had to deal with the more brutish parts of assimilation. They came from traditional Chinese parents, but they're, you know, they're open-minded. They both grew up. They were like hippies. You look at old photos of them. My mom had like hair down to her waist. But, you know, you know, I'm the first drag queen of my family.
NEIL: That you know of.
JON: Hopefully not the last.
NEIL: Yes. What is something you find yourself thinking about today?
JON: Um. Today, I was thinking about how everyone is a walking advertisement. I was a sucker for the AirPods, the first ones that came out. They're just, I know when I put them in my ear, I'm going to feel very sexy, and I had this thought today as I was putting them in my ear. It's like everyone is a walking advertisement.
NEIL: So when you're wearing AirPods, you're an advertisement for...
JON: Yeah, for Apple. My AirPods now suck because I lost the original case and I bought a knock off one on Amazon for like 30 bucks and they do try to pair with everyone on the train.
NEIL: Oh really?
JON: I just kind of, but you can't do it successfully.
NEIL: It's like your dog humping strangers' legs or something.
JON: Truly. I can see on people's phones like something comes up and says, Not your AirPods. It goes all the time and I just keep my head down and I just. I didn't want to pay another $70 for the case.
NEIL: I've curated some cards just for you. Um, first card, Jon.
NEIL: All kids' names are campy.
JON: Absolutely. Cause kids are camp.
NEIL: How so?
JON: I used to teach, um, preschool in undergraduate. so I worked with three, four, and five-year-olds. And when you talk to a kid, it's very serious. It, it's of the utmost importance. And it's also insane.
NEIL: Which is the essence of camp!
JON: Which is the essence of camp. Um, but you know, when they're just playing, they're just talking very seriously about something. Or they're telling you an opinion, something they saw today, like. (imitates kid's voice) "Like, Mr. Jon? Today, I, I saw a dog and... Dog had a really long tongue." (back to normal voice) And they like will drop whatever they're playing with me to let me know about this thing, which neurologically like they're doing that thing where like, they have seen a new category that they don't yet understand and they're trying to integrate it into what they do, right? So I have to be there and say, "Daphne, tell me about the dog." You know, like I want to know more. Well, what color was the dog? You know what I'm saying? "It was, it was brown." I'm like, okay. All right. It was brown. I love that. So, but then it's also insane cause you're like, this is so crazy.
NEIL: To me, it makes perfect intuitive sense how that connects to camp. But could you, could you...
JON: I think it connects to, I mean, camp, I mean, treats itself seriously, but knows it's also ridiculous. You know. I mean, campy drag queens like divine, completely over-the-top makeup and personality, but acting and performing with a lot of conviction.
NEIL: The difference, though, may be being, and maybe it's a technical difference, do you think kids know that they are ridiculous?
JON: No. Absolutely not. Did you -
NEIL: Okay. So they're inadvertently campy?
JON: Unless they were like early stars and then they're like, Oh, okay, people are enjoying what I'm doing.
NEIL: Right, right, right, right. (flip card) I love the smell of a drag queen.
JON: Absolutely not. If you really smelled, uh, maybe the perfume that we put on at the very end, but if you smelled any of our undergarments or any of our clothing, that's, some of that, I mean, the vintage pieces maybe haven't ever been washed. Maybe just sprayed down with some alcohol and water. To get rid of the bacteria and the smell. Um. And I'm not washing pantyhose every single week. Are you thinking of the metaphorical smell?
NEIL: I have no idea what that is. And I'm all in.
JON: Every drag queen has a different energy and that can be very intoxicating. That's like half the fun, that someone's showing you something on the other side of the looking glass.
NEIL: Aha. But the literal smell for me is always about just powdery perfume. But you're saying beneath that is just... filth.
JON: I've, I guess I've, I've done it so many times. I'm no longer piqued by just the smell of powder and, and lipsticks and things like that. Just, that's kind of smells like the entrance of a, of a Macy's, you know? You know what I'm talking about, right? You walk into a Macy's and it's always like the perfume entrance, right?
NEIL: Yeah, yeah. That somehow seems like a euphemism. Smells like the entrance of Macy's.
JON: God, she smelled like the entrance of a Macy's. I'm not going back there, Charlotte.
NEIL: Um, I guess I have thought about like with padding and tucking, uh...
JON: Mhm. Machinery going on.
NEIL: Yeah. Which does involve compressing the body, or, or depriving the body of air circulation, which I guess could generate smells, right?
JON: Yeah. It's tight. I mean, if you're, I mean, if you're just, even if you're putting on hips, right? Let's say you're padding, some people, some queens are wearing four or five layers of tights, right? Just to make a smooth silhouette. Um, you know, and you're hot, you're moving around, your head is hot cause you're wearing a wig. My hair lines are glued down, so everything's sleek. So when I go, you know, getting out of drag is the best feeling.
NEIL: I can imagine. Do you get out of drag at the venue or at home?
JON: I am an at home queen. And I'm also a get ready at home queen, too. I just ride the train down.
JON: Yes. I mean, I'm in drag, but have like a winter coat on, and a scarf, and I have sweatpants over my dress, so I look like just like a, a gymnast going to a meet or something.
NEIL: To a Wheaties commercial.
JON: I look like a suburban mom going to Costco.
NEIL: That thing of posing people in nude photos, so their genitals are hidden by a raised knee or what have you.
JON: That's very Black Mirror to me.
NEIL: Oh really?
JON: Oh, just like it's on the cusp of this is, this is very sexy, and also, what are we doing, right? What the hell are we doing? This is insane. I think of Instagram immediately.
NEIL: Oh yeah, sure.
JON: People just like, a sexy photo of themselves. It's like, "You're naked." You hid, you moved your body a little bit. We're one centimeter away from seeing whatever it is, you know? But it's like, if you cover a little bit, Instagram's like, Oh, you're not nude.
NEIL: Isn't that deep?
JON: It's crazy. It's true. It's true. It's truly wild.
NEIL: I wonder if there is a fetish around obscured - like if there are people who get off on the actual obscuring.
JON: Oh, 100% yeah. 100% think that's a fetish. I mean, in the same way that just wearing a leather chest strap, that's totally nonfunctional.
NEIL: Right, exactly.
JON: Like there's not even a function to it.
JON: But I'm just imagining you in a different way. I mean, you know, cause you're an artist. Marina Abramovic's, um, performance where she stood naked, right? And she had a table of instruments.
JON: That was, I think like the exploration of like is, is this actually like. Well, it was exploring a lot of things. Like one of the questions I had was like, is this sexual? Like, she had a feather. She had a knife. She had a gun, right?
NEIL: Uh, may have had a gun, uh, I thought she had scissors too. Or maybe I'm confusing that with Yoko Ono's "Cut" piece. Um, yeah, there were things that could do violence for sure.
JON: I think there was a gun.
NEIL: Yeah, that sounds right.
JON: Um, that sounds very Marina probably.
NEIL: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
JON: But, um, I think the reason why I thought Black Mirror at first, cause it's like we are so... We are surfing the simulacra of society.
NEIL: Oh my God.
JON: Who, Baudrillard? Is that the philosopher?
NEIL: Mhm. Society of spectacle.
JON: I am really smart right now in this hour...
NEIL: Oh my God. Um, it's funny you mention Marina Abramovic, cause one of the cards I have, or this is just an idea for an art project I would love to do, which is, you know, the artist is present where, you know, you would sit with and look into her eyes. But I'd like to do that with, butt warmth. You'd sit on chairs and then you would just switch. Like I could feel your butt warmth on the chair, and you could feel mine.
JON: And I'm going to, I'm going to build on this. The seats, to kind of give it some sort of like, um, sexy factor. The seats are thermo-visually dynamic. So when you sit, you can see the warmth, um, like a print? That the last person -
NEIL: The heat, the heat map.
JON: Mhm. The heat map of the last person.
NEIL: If that's what it's called. Our first collaboration.
JON: That's going to sell tickets at the MoMA.
NEIL: This is a card I found tucked under my, uh, the, the sofa in my studio, and all it says is: Anus.
JON: You know, synchronicity. Because we recently got a bidet. Um, which has quickly made my Top 2020 List of things to improve your life.
NEIL: Oh my God. Yeah.
JON: Um, bidet.
JON: Pretty, uh very affordable. There are certain models that are just like, even under 50 bucks.
NEIL: Oh, wow. Okay.
JON: Will change your life.
NEIL: Huh? I, um, I would be, cause I feel like I've seen some like bidets that border on like the geriatric medical in terms of their appearance, you know, where they look like an add-on to the toilet seat. And, I feel like I would embrace a bidet deeply, but I need for the aesthetics to be on point.
JON: I hear you. I'm also someone who is an obsessed aesthete. And also I'm very practical and functional. And I really saw no point of a bidet cause I had a, was doing perfectly fine for God knows how many years, right? But we won it in a Santa Swap, like a, you know, the white elephant thing. Um, so we brought it home. I took it through the airport. My bag was fully paused cause they thought I was carrying home a bomb. Like what the fuck is in your bag, right? There's like piping and tubing, and this big shape of plastic and a knob. So, um, so this one's pretty sleek. And a bidet is, it's like a shower just for your ass. And. And that's it. It's, it's like, it's like taking a shower, but just for your anus. I, there's no other way to feel it. And I thought, and then I, I'm, and now I've, I've talked about it in my office because if I'm excited about something, I must to talk about it.
NEIL: Oh, yeah.
JON: And I'm going to put it out there - bidets are very sexual, and every straight man who's out there is understanding the queer experience. I, or like, this is like, you understand. It's like, Oh that's right, butt play isn't just like a gay thing. It's like a universal thing. And uh, you know, the anus is a sexual region, so you let it go for as long as you want. Some people have heated bidets, and that's nice cause then it's warm water. Mine is not, we have a cheap kind. So in the winter time it's frigid. But I like it because it makes me feel like I'm alive, and it's a test of character, which I get off on. And then you're done. And then it's, and then it's like you took a shower.
NEIL: Ah. But you know, you should have front loaded the part that it's not heated. That might be a deal breaker for me. Although I also, like you, I'm energized by like, as a depressive. I love winter because it really brings out, um, a feeling of like, the will to live in me.
JON: And it's good for your skin.
NEIL: Cheers. But I don't want. I don't think I want, I don't know. I've never had that experience. I don't think I want a cold-water anal shower.
JON: Uh huh. Well, you know, and neither did I, I thought it would, it would never be on my radar. And that's why it's made my Top 2020 List.
JON: And I know we're just wrapping up the first month, but I think it's going to be on there.
NEIL: Oh, I'm so confident in that, I'm so confident in that. I think if they called it a cold-water anal shower, it wouldn't sell as many units as a bidet.
JON: It would only sell in niche markets for sure.
NEIL: Uh, next card. The way you can tell certain people won't age well.
JON: Yeah. Um, you can just tell. Uh, for me it's just like an impression.
NEIL: Yes. It's not based on facts, for me.
JON: Truly not based on facts. A lot of it really just has to do with their energy.
JON: Absolutely. Like their energy, the way they carry themselves, the way they think about themselves. Did you read that Roald Dahl book, The Twits?
JON: The Twits. I can't recap the entire plot in entirety, but there's this one part of like, they think ugly thoughts and then they became ugly. And it was, you know, he is an amazing writer. But yeah, that never left me as a kid. And I think that continues to apply today. Even there are people who are old, but they just. They look and appear and they feel so young. And they're aging like, “Oh my gosh, you're aging beautifully.”
NEIL: Right. I love that.
JON: It's not about having wrinkles or things like that. There really is a disposition, the way you carry yourself.
NEIL: Yeah. I find also, I think that card for me came from like, it, it can be a strategy or it used to be a strategy for managing, like desire. Like I would see someone who was hot to me, but then I would mentally age them and be like, No, as a way to... Yeah, manage my desire.
JON: Yeah. I mean, I'm not petty, but I recently went to a high school reunion and I said, I loved that I did not peak.
NEIL: Oh my God.
JON: I'm still ascending.
NEIL: Oh, you so are. You totally are.
JON: Oh, thank you. And you are too.
NEIL: Um, I think I, I don't know where I am.
JON: You're aging gracefully.
NEIL: Thank you. I'm trying.
JON: That's, and that's the goal. Yeah. No. Cause it's like some people that were like super hot in like, in high school and you're just like, Oh wow. I think we, I think our people had a different kind of strategy. We had a different strategy.
NEIL: Yeah. It's like, um. I just read this book called The Overstory, which is all about trees. I don't know if you heard of it. It's so good. I recommend it, but, uh, it talks about the different things different trees' seeds need to become activated. Like some seeds need extreme cold. Some need to be set on fire. Um, so I think the gay seed... That sounds bad.
JON: No, no, no. Perfect.
NEIL: Um, benefits from not having peaked in high school.
JON: Yes, absolutely.
NEIL: Can I ask how old you are?
JON: 29. 29, my numerological golden year.
NEIL: Oh, what does that mean?
JON: Everyone has a life path number. Okay, so mine breaks down to 29 slash 11 slash 2. If you're a, ever all my die-hard numerologists out there. Um, and so 29 is the first reduction. And so I'm 29.
NEIL: I love it. Um 29 and 11 are both prime numbers, aren't they?
JON: Mm, I studied visual arts in undergraduate, so I'm going to pass on this one. But you know, you calculate your number by just adding your birthdate across like... So mine is zero plus eight plus zero plus two plus one plus nine plus nine zero equals 29. Two plus nine is 11. One plus one is two.
NEIL: I love it.
JON: And then they all have meanings. You know, there's a whole book. You can Google it.
NEIL: Yeah, I can imagine. Wait, so you were born in August? Was that what I heard? Leo?
JON: I'm a Leo. Are you a Leo?
NEIL: No, I'm a Virgo.
JON: Oh! I have a lot of Virgo friends.
NEIL: I have a lot of Leo friends. Well, Virgo teaches Leo. You're taught by the sign that follows you. So Virgo is taught by Libra. Leo is taught by Virgo.
JON: Yes, yes. And. The sign before you teaches a person after to remember that they didn't have to give up the qualities that they left behind.
JON: Virgos are famously the perfectionists, right? Natural at managing their immediate environments and, you know, being very meticulous and they could run the whole system, but then they forget that they're also, you know, they can allow themselves to shine. They don't have to be so critical of themselves.
NEIL: That is such a beautiful, um, flipping of the teaching thing. I love it.
JON: You know who is a prime example of a Leo-Virgo cusp?
JON: Beyoncé. So you can tell she has the Virgo energy of like, everything must be perfect.
JON: Um, and I'll think of my idea and then I'll present it to you. But then she's also, you know, still carrying her Leo energy of like, I am a star.
NEIL: Right, exactly. That's deep. You have forever changed how I think about, um, the Zodiac.
JON: And that's my time today.
NEIL: Yes. (flips card) What's a bad X you'd take over a good Y?
JON: What's a bad X you'd take over a good Y? Oh gosh. I would take a bad massage over a good meal.
NEIL: I'm with you, totally with you.
JON: I had to really think.
NEIL: Yeah, you look a little spent right now.
JON: No, I mean that, that took the, the, the final juice of my brain. Yeah. We have, we have gone to the trenches of my brain and pulled everything out. That was it. I mean, like, that's it. That's my, that's my ethos.
NEIL: Have you had a bad massage?
JON: Absolutely. And would I take it over a good meal? 100%. I'm a little, I'm a little surprised that I haven't vocalized this earlier in my life, but that's how you know this is the genuine response. Bad massages? Oh, I don't care. Someone's touching me, oh, I melt. I like, I think I'm like in a constant state of low-grade ecstasy when someone's touching me. Right?
JON: It could be terrible. And I have had my share of terrible massages. You know, Chinatown massages have a spectrum.
NEIL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JON: No frills. You can't complain.
JON: Good meal? Okay. But I know I'm gonna be hungry again. You know, like... Meal goodness to me is controllable cause you could let yourself go to the brink of like, I can't see, I'm so hungry and anything will taste good. Yes. Sometimes I do that. Sometimes I let myself get so hungry if I'm, if there's a meal I'm not thrilled to eat. I'd be like, Oh, I'm more vegetarian now, but when I would, when I was less, I would hang out with some of my friends, I'm like, Oh, I'm going to go to their place. I'm going to let myself get famished cause then it won't matter what I eat.
NEIL: Cause they're not good cooks, potentially?
JON: Cause like, Oh, I really wanted meat. But like who knows what the vegetarian meal will be. A crap-shoot. But I'll be so hungry. It's going to taste like milk and honey from the Bible.
NEIL: You found a way to turn - you've made it predictable. You've managed it.
JON: I mean the gamble is, you do become more irritable and you have to kind of like have a lot of self-control.
NEIL: Right, right, right.
JON: People want to small talk with you. You'd be like, okay, when's dinner?
NEIL: When's the shitty dinner that I'm starving for?
JON: A shout out to all my vegetarian friends. I love coming over to your house and don't stop making food from me.
NEIL: On that note, Jon Wan, thank you so much for being on SHE'S A TALKER.
JON: Oh, thank you for having me, Neil.
NEIL: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of SHE'S A TALKER. Before we get to the credits, there were some listener responses to cards that I'd love to share. In my conversation with Buddhist teacher Kate Johnson, we talked about the card:
I can imagine thinking as I'm dying, "Here we go again."
In response to that card, David Coleman wrote, "The one time that I ever really thought I was about to die, all I could think was, 'Wow, so this is it. Nothing more than this.' It was a feeling of peaceful surprise. This story is from 9/ 11. My building was so close to the World Trade Center that when the first tower started to collapse, it appeared as though it was going to fall to the East, which would've completely flattened my building, and I felt so sure I was about to die. Actually, for the next several months, I had this little secret thought I'd never shared that maybe I really was dead. But then again, my neurologist also said I was the only person he'd ever heard of who enjoyed having a stroke. So don't go by me."
Thank you, David. If anyone out there listening has something that you'd like to share about a card on the podcast, email us or send us a voice memo at email@example.com or message us on Instagram at shesatalker. And also, as always, we'd love it if you'd rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or share this episode with a friend.
This series is made possible with generous support from Still Point Fund. Devon Guinn produced this episode. Molly Donahue and Aaron Dalton are our consulting producers. Justine Lee handles social media. Our interns are Alara Degirmenci, Jonathan Jalbert, Jesse Kimotho, and Rachel Wang. Our card flip beats come from Josh Graver, and my husband, Jeff Hiller, sings the theme song you're about to hear. Thanks to all of them, and to my guest, Jon Wan, and to you for listening.
JEFF HILLER: She's a talker with Neil Goldberg. She's a talker with fabulous guests. She's a talker, it's better than it sounds, yeah!