Niohuru X Turns Darkness Into Beauty
Story by Andrew Nguyen / Photography by Sarah Pardini / Styling by Marta Del Rio / Makeup by Kelton ChingNov 28, 2023
What is life after social media for an Instagram baddie? For Niohuru X, it's starring on a reality competition show, walking on runways, cameoing in Doja Cat's "Agora Hills" music video, and launching a jewelry and merch brand. What makes these accomplishments even more impressive is that the Los Angeles-based artist only started doing drag three years ago during the pandemic while she was in New York City studying fashion design. But life clearly had other plans. Once she began posting her looks on Instagram, she blew up.
Since the beginning of her drag and makeup journey, Niohuru X has always been inspired by her Chinese Manchu background, whether from folklore she heard growing up with mythical creatures or from stereotyping she's experienced as a queer Asian immigrant in the United States. The through line is always transforming darkness and negativity into something beautiful and empowering. She's become an extraterrestrial mermaid, reptilian goddesses, rainforest animals, aliens, futuristic vampires and even simply a bottle of poppers.
While AMC Shudder's Dragula season 5 is in full swing, Niohuru X found some time to chat with PAPER about immigrating to the United States, what it was like to see drag for the first time, being on TV and the brand she just launched with her best friend.
Tell me a little bit about your upbringing.
I grew up in a very small conservative town in China where there's no queer or drag community. I didn't even know it was a possibility to be transgender.
What brought you to New York?
I came to New York to study fashion design at Parsons, but because of the pandemic, it didn't really work out. I'm a quitter. I never finished school!
Was your first time seeing drag in New York?
Before the pandemic, somewhere in Brooklyn, was one of my very first times in a queer bar to watch a drag show. I didn't understand English very well, and I was so nervous not knowing what the performers were saying so I remember during the show when people laughed, I just laughed too.
And then you started doing drag?
During the pandemic, I picked up some makeup and brushes and started to create on my face. And I kind of just expanded from my face to my body, my hair and my outfits. Head to toe. I really fell in love with using my creativity to transform myself into different characters. The more I did it, the more I fell in love.
What did it feel like to be in a space like that for the first time?
When I first came to America, I immediately was intrigued by queer culture. My first few times in an actual queer space, I was staggered by how people freely expressed themselves and their creativity. Everything was so new and so mind-blowing for me. It inspired me to do the same.
So what inspires you now?
I'm very much inspired by mysterious creatures in Chinese folklore. It’s Niohuru’s interpretation of traditional Chinese characters. I always try to incorporate my culture as much as possible in my hair, makeup and outfits. I want to be ancient and futuristic at the same time.
What attracts you to darkness so much?
When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by dark Chinese folklore and creatures in Chinese mythology. It became my inner persona, but I was always too scared to bring it out. Now living in Los Angeles, I live in a supportive bubble surrounded by creative people. I have the courage now to live the way that I want and express my creativity 24/7.
Do you make all of your looks?
I design all my looks, and my friends help put everything together. I'm very grateful for everyone who’s helped me along this journey.
What about your makeup?
I do a lot of planning before I do a look — what I want to wear, what my hair will look like and what the accessories will be. I sketch out a general shape of the makeup before doing it. And then sometimes while I’m putting the makeup on, I improvise, too, because things don't always turn out as planned. That's part of the beauty. But three hours is my time limit.
What made you audition for Dragula?
For the longest time, I didn't feel like I was doing drag at all. Because of watching Dragula, I realized that although I don't fit into what it traditionally looks like, what I do is still drag. There's so many different aesthetics of drag out there. I could see myself doing my spooky sexy looks on the Dragula stage, so when I heard there was a season five, I just auditioned.
Is it weird seeing yourself on TV, or do you love it?
Oh, it's so weird! I watched the first episode the whole time from between my fingers. I was cringed out by myself so many times. When I first came to the U.S., my English was not good so I genuinely thought after a few years at this point, my English is really good. But I was too cocky. When I hear myself talk on camera, I think my accent is so crazy. My friend was saying they need subtitles to listen to me talk. And I was like, “Me too!” I don’t understand what I'm saying. I can't even get into a lot of arguments because I'm just clueless about what's going on. I didn’t even know what people were talking about. I wanted to be more vocal, but I just couldn't.
I can’t believe you hadn't really performed until Dragula!
I performed a couple of times before at open sets. I look crazy on social media, but I am very shy and have a lot of social anxiety. Putting myself in front of people is a little terrifying, so I just stopped. Then I got back into performing on TV.
What’s your performance style?
I actually have some stage experience in traditional Chinese Peking opera, and the way you present yourself on stage is very different. When I did that, I didn't enjoy being on the stage at all. I didn't like the way I looked. I didn’t like the attention. That's just before I transitioned. Now, I want to incorporate a lot of Peking opera moves into my performances. Very elegant, deadly, sexy and ultimately cunty. That kind of vibe. I've even been curating a playlist of songs I want to perform, like English remixes and pop versions of Peking opera.I still want it all to be relatable to a younger, newer audience while also keeping my authenticity.
What comes after Dragula for you?
I'm not sure to be honest. I think the possibilities are endless, and I'm very optimistic about it. I do want to perform more. I really enjoyed being on the stage. Maybe back then I wasn't so comfortable on the stage because I was insecure about my art, but at this point, I'm very confident in how I look and what I present. I have more fun on the stage now.
I'm also going to put a lot of energy into nurturing my friends. I want to create wearable jewelry and fashion that screams the Niohuru energy, and I want it to be affordable and accessible for everyone.
Is this a full-circle moment for you, going back to fashion?
I actually just launched my jewelry and fashion collection inspired by the Chinese goddess Nüwa. She’s half-demon, half-god and half-human, half-snake. I'm just very inspired by evil beauty. I’ve been working for a while with my best friend from back in China on my brand called NUWA1997. It’s really exciting! The first drop was six jewelry designs. I also released merch. I want to focus on both jewelry and clothing at the same time.
What is your design process?
I taught myself how to use 3D programs where I sculpted all the models myself. Then I test them using my home 3D printer to figure out the sizing and details before I send it to a factory in China to make it.
I need to know more about this first drop of merch.
I'm putting my persona and all the catchphrases and highlight moments from the show into this merch. I'm trans, and I think “Big Dick Girl'' is a really funny way to express my tallness and my big dick energy. But it's for all genders, of course. It’s for everyone who embodies the big dick energy.
And drag on top of all of that?
Drag is my visual persona. And my brand is like sharing parts of me that everyone can wear.
Photography: Sarah Pardini
Styling: Marta Del Rio
Stylist assistant: Brandon Michael
Makeup: Kelton Ching
Nails: Texto Dallas
Producer: Ella Cepeda
Editor-in-Chief: Justin Moran
Managing editor: Matt Wille
Story: Andrew Nguyen