This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Samir Narang, a doctor by day and drag queen by night. Samir is currently working at Weill Cornell Medical College as the Clinical Study Evaluation Committee Administrative Chair. When Samir is not presenting his professional profile in front of a largely heteronormative public, he entertains audiences as the saucy sari-clad South Asian named Lal Batti (which means red light in Hindi).
Though Samir recalled loving costumes and dressing up on Halloween since he was a kid, his interest in drag was ignited when he moved to Brooklyn after attending medical school in the closeted Caribbean for two years.
“After seeing more of the drag scene in Brooklyn and I began analyzing the famous queens to see how they had achieved this level of success. At the same time, I began to help coach and support two of my close friends with some drag pageants. That’s when I realized that I too can be doing this for money, on the side of course, still need that health insurance.”
About a year and a half ago, the South Asian Gay and Lesbian Association (SALGA) asked Samir to co-host a bingo event as Lal Batti for one of their fundraisers with drag queen Linda Simpson. Samir said that
“a lot of money was raised for SALGA that evening and when the event was done Linda asked me to come back to spokesmodel again for her, with the offer to pay me.”
According to Samir, what started as throwing parties once or twice a month as Lal Batti at various Bollywood bashes turned into three times a month and then into almost every weekend. Now, Samir is busy performing as Lal Batti at YUVA, Sholay, Linda Loves Bingo, as well as various other events in New York City and frequently makes his way to other states and countries to perform.
When asked about the boundary between Doctor and Drag Queen, Samir said that a few times he has walked into work with glitter remnants on his face (evidence from the night before). Most of his colleagues are open to his alternative identity and frequently ask him questions about it.
“You ask why they ask me so many questions. It’s probably because I’m the unicorn, something they have heard of but have never actually seen” Samir said.
Interested at this point in the interview in what it takes to become a professional drag queen, I quickly enrolled myself in Drag 101 with Professor Lal Batti.
“Drag is a great way to separate your day life and to become a different character by venturing out in a whole new light. You pursue it however you want to. It’s like a goosebumps book, you pick your own path, make-up, and persona. ” – Samir Narang
Samir said that his transformation into Lal Batti can take around two hours. When asked to list items needed to complete the transformation, Samir shared some of the items he needs: makeup (lots of it), jewelry, hair, hair jewelry, bra, socks to stuff in the bra, tight underwear to keep the tuck in place, a saree, bangles, and glitter.
I also learned that there is a start-up cost that is involved. In Samir’s case, he was able to reduce any initial overhead expenses by stealing his sister’s and his mother’s outfits and jewelry and by using a wig that was donated to him from a Halloween parade. What Samir was left with paying out of pocket for was makeup, which he purchased from his local dollar store.
“Now what’s left is the upkeep,” Samir said.
However much money Lal Batti makes each night, some of what is earned is used to maintain her image, and help her grow.
While Lal Batti has made a name for herself by performing in front of countless audiences, two people in particular will not become faces in this crowd anytime soon.
“My parents are not open, to anything. I never really came out to my family, they kind of found out. They wanted to fix me but were also paying for my college. So I just said it was a phase and continued my life hidden from them”
Nonetheless, Samir has not let his parent’s homophobia cramp his style. By performing as Lal Batti amid the odds, Samir has already helped illuminate and cultivate the Indian drag and gay scene.