Did you know: not long before Hirzi Zulkiflie launched his hit YouTube comedy channel Munah & Hirzi with Munah Bagharib in 2008, he was in a local play called Subculture: Punks vs Peranakans, in which he played a peranakan drag queen - stripper heels and all.
Fast forward to 2018, and the 29-year-old is set to take on another drag role for the stage once again in the reboot of Michael Chiang’s classic production Private Parts, which premiered in 1992 and has been brought to life three times, with the last being in 2004. This time, he forms one-third of The Dreamgirls, a trio of fabulous dancing drag queens who open and close the show.
During our interview at the unveiling of the cast yesterday afternoon, Hirzi shared that in addition to mastering his character’s choreography (prep work will include going for dance classes at co-star and fellow Dreamgirl Andy Cai’s studio at 9am on Sundays), he’s hoping to lose some “man weight” in time for the show.
“My body has changed so much over the past year because I’ve been going to the gym a lot,” he said, noting that his chest, shoulders and legs have become broader and more masculine-looking. However, instead of letting all that sweat and hard work go to waste, he intends to find a middle ground and channel women like Teyana Taylor or Grace Jones, artists known for their androgynous styles.
Another unspoken goal Hirzi has is to master the fine art of surviving a strut in towering stilettos. Harking back to Punks vs Peranakans and the beaded eight-inch (that’s over 20 centimetres, by the way) platforms his 18-year-old self had to wear while sashaying down a catwalk constructed out of columns of different heights, he recalled that one fine evening, he got a cramp in his foot - right before his scene.
Heeding a suggestion by one of his female co-stars, Hirzi removed the shoes to try and soothe the pain before putting them back on and preparing to go out there like nothing happened. Alas, just when it seemed like it was recovering, the blasted ache returned just as the curtain rose for him to make his entrance.
“I was like, there’s no way I can make it across that runway in heels, so I decided to sit by the door, remove my shoes, and walk barefoot,” he said. “So I do have a phobia and fear of doing drag again, but it’s been many years and I’ve been doing it diligently online [Ed’s note: he has a sassy drag alter ego named Syasya].”
Hirzi and Desmond Tan in 'The Big Day' (Photo: The Big Day/Facebook)
Channel 8 stars praised Hirzi’s performance in The Big Day
After a decade of being an internet sensation, Hirzi landed his debut film role in this year’s The Big Day. “I never imagined my first movie would be a Mandarin one,” he said, laughing. “I felt like I was thrown into the deep end because I had to pick up a lot of vernacular and phonetics, but the team was amazing and helped me a lot.”
The response to his performance as Desmond Tan’s best man, Hirzi reported, was a big thumbs up from the Chinese community at the gala premiere. Many of Channel 8’s top actors even approached him with encouraging words of praise, including a childhood idol of his.
“I’m such a huge fan of Zhu Hou Ren (I used to watch his gambling show The Unbeatables with Zoe Tay all the time), and although there was minimal conversation between us, he told me, ‘You good. You fast’ meaning that he thought my pacing helped the show,” Hirzi beamed. That was obviously the highlight of the night, as the rest of the evening “was such a blur”.
The downside of public recognition is, of course, a decrease in privacy. Aside from the daily annoyance of having random folks secretly snap photos of him on the train (just go up to him and ask if you want a picture, he said), there are the more unnerving incidents of Grab drivers trying to find out exactly where he stays.
“There was this dude who stood there [outside my block] for 20 minutes waiting to see which unit I go into; I had to go into hiding behind the stairwell and all! And this happens almost all the time,” he wailed, before leaning closer into our recording phone to emphasise his next declaration, “To all the Grab drivers out there, please don’t stalk me.”
Left to right: Playwright Michael Chiang, Hirzi Zulkiflie, Shane Mardjuki, Jason Godfrey, Chua Enlai, Zee Wong, Andrew Marko, director Beatrice Chia-Richmond
Chua Enlai on the pitfalls of being a funnyman
With all the travelling that Chua Enlai is set to embark on over the rest of the year, it’s no surprise that when we asked what his biggest challenge is when it comes to staging Private Parts, he quipped without missing a beat, “Jet lag.”
“I’m leaving this Saturday for the United States for a month, and then after that I will be in Europe, and literally the day after I come back, we start rehearsals,” said the 38-year-old. That’s not a long vacation he’s going on - he’s filming a new CNA documentary and will be visiting places full of “clever people” (as he described with a grin) like the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge in England, and Microsoft headquarters, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Silicon Valley in America.
Time zone-hopping woes aside, a more serious concern of his for Private Parts, in which he plays trans woman Mirabella, is how he will strike a delicate balance between light-hearted and weighty. “There are a lot of funny scenes, but the challenge is to be sensitive to this difficult and complex journey my character is going through,” he mused. That said, he added, don’t expect something as heavy as The Danish Girl, the Eddie Redmayne-starring film on transgender pioneer Lili Elbe.
Zee Wong, Jason Godfrey, Chua Enlai and Shane Mardjuki as their characters in 'Private Parts' (Photo: Michael Chiang Playthings Ltd)
Before we rounded up our interviews, we asked both Hirzi and Enlai (after reassuring them we will not go into topics regarding their private parts), “How different are you in private compared to how the public might perceive you to be?”
For Hirzi, he said that he’s “actually quite a serious person” with himself (who likes to “zone out” on occasion), although when he gets excited around friends, what you see on YouTube is pretty much how outrageous he can get in real life as well.
Enlai, on the other hand, surprised us with his revelation that he tends to “get anxious and stressed about things easily”, which could lead to short-tempered spells. “People don’t think anyone who does anything funny is allowed to be like that,” he lamented. “For example, if an artist who only does serious dramas is in a bad mood, people accept it, but if someone who does comedy is in a bad mood, people say, ‘Wah, so dao (arrogant), so fake’, but that’s not the case!”
“Basically, there is this perception that comedians have to be cheery all the time, but everyone’s just human.”
Private Parts is the first production under Michael Chiang’s new non-profit company Michael Chiang Playthings Ltd and will run from November 2 to 18 at the National Library’s Drama Centre Theatre. Visit SISTIC for more show and ticketing details.