B-SIDE celebrates Pride and PinkDot Singapore 2019 in June! This month, we’re dropping a special 3-part series, profiling some Singaporean queer creatives who are making waves in the community.
This is Part 3 of 3.
Read PART 1 – SWING MAG here.
Read PART 2 – OF METHODIST here.
Superhero. Superfreak. SuperSingaporean. Bobby Luo wears many hats. No, literally. He wears many hats. DJ, party organiser, ballroom afficionado, boutique owner, set designer, club kid, nightlife personality who once styled Lady Gaga – the man knows where all the great parties are, and has been throwing even better ones since the 90s (think Zouk, Butter Factory).
This month alone, his maximalist multi-label boutique Superspace at orchardgateway gets an even queerer makeover, rebranding as SUPER FREAK; his first ever book Freakdom, which chronicles his 2017 quest to wear a new outfit for every single day of the year, launched to a sold out run at Dover Street Market. He is also a mainstay in the grand spirit of Pink Dot month festivities, helming a flurry of hyper-queer club nights like Miss SuperFreak and YUM YUM DISCO CAMP. Homophobes need not apply. The beloved queen of the local queer disco scene rounds off our Pride month interview series in a whirlwind of sequins that comes as fast as it goes.
B-SIDE talks to the man of the hour about early days, long nights and chasing the new underground.
On interview day, he arrives with armfuls of glittery pink bags – they’re the new packaging for his boutique – and they make everyone on set squeal. It’s like gay Santa visiting the children on Christmas and delivering them from everything mundane. Such is the joy that Bobby’s campy repertoire brings.
But it wasn’t always the case. As a young gay man first being introduced to nightlife many years ago, I remembered being afraid of people like him. People who dressed up. Aliens. Drag queens. Creatures of the night. It always seemed like they cackled in secret codes, no doubt click-clacking their heels off to magical parties I was not privy to. Walking past them was a technicolor blur. I had never seen anything like it before. There was a god-like glow about them (read: glitter and wholesale rhinestones) that took the words away from my mouth each time. It was only years later that I realised these secret parties were unfolding right before our inebriated faces. The party was called freedom, and it is nightlife’s best kept secret. It is the impenetrable queer subterfuge, drawing from a rich history of trauma and celebration. And people want in.
We talk as we get the makeup on. He tells me this is his Transformations by James St. James moment. I tell him he has great skin for someone working in nightlife. There’s an array of materials in our suitcase to choose from: iron on patches, dried corn husks, holographic sequins, postage stamps – an unconventional sandbox of sorts, to jog the imagination. My team kindly reminds me there is a 40 minute timer ticking away. So we settle on a bunch of pink pom-poms, whip out the spirit gum and get cracking.
When we are done, the makeup looks like a gay tumour. Everyone laughs. Perfect. Queer people have historically been labelled as genetic aberrations (amongst other things). Mutated. Nature vs. Nurture. Now reframed and reclaimed as a tumorous growth on the skin which is pop culture, a growth whose momentum can no longer be excised from the heteronormative imagination.
Then the boots go on. Bobby is towering at 7 feet, far into the stratosphere, bathed in neon. Surrounded by screens and mirrors. From earth he feels more like a gentle giant, lifting us all on his shoulders with his brand of expression. Nydia, our photographer, coaxes her lens to take it all in.
“What does the rocket man sees from space?”
“Um. I can only take small steps.”
“That’s ok. It’s more than enough.”
Bobby: Whenever you are.
K: To kick things off, tell us about your early years.
B: I grew up with fighting parents, my earliest memory was - actually they packed up and left. My mum packed up and left the house but then she came back a year later and took me with her. But most of the time I was alone at home, with nothing to do. So I hung out at school.
In ACS I hung out with all the troublemakers because they seemed to have more fun, and when we hung out together there was nobody who would mess around with us you see. We would play truant. And cause some of them were hooligans , nobody would mess around with us.
Back then we didn’t know I was gay, but even then.
K: Was that when you got hit by the creative bug?
B: Yeah. When I was 17, my mum and I went on holiday to LA. Melrose Avenue was the hip place back then. If you Google “Melrose Avenue 80s", they had a lot of cool shops there, like Wacko, Soap Plant and Drake’s… they made it very cool during the 80s. I was blown away by the colour and I kind of fell in love with the arts scene.
It was during that trip that I went to watch the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Kenneth: Rocky Horror is a gateway drug.
B: After Secondary 4 I refused to go back to school. For awhile I also worked as lighting controller at a hooker bar called Tropicana. There was a backroom called Rasa Sayang. It’s a hooker bar, and back then their favourite song was Gladys Knight’s Love Overboard. And that song made them jiggle their titties to the strobe lights and all. Went to Singapore Poly after, didn’t like it. Went to a few art schools - Nanyang, Lasalle, also didn’t like it.
B: Not really interested. But even before that, I would express myself by decorating my own room. Some friends who knew me when I was in school, they saw the installation I recently did at Dover Street Market for my book launch;
they said it reminded them of my bedroom when I was a teenager.
When I went to Nanyang and Lasalle. Back then I felt like I went there just to find out what my homework was. I wasn’t learning anything. Maybe I was just impatient back then… I don’t know! Before I knew it I had to go to army. My dad was so glad for me to go do my NS When I was living with my mum, she knew that I was gay, I think she knew…
K: To sidetrack a bit, was there a coming out moment?
B: No. My friends were all straight so I think she didn’t suspect anything. But I think people knew lah.
Because I’m always the strange one. The strange kid.
To me, I didn’t identify as gay, but I could tell that this person is good looking, that guy is good looking. I had girlfriends too. I only had my first gay encounter in the army. And that was it lah. That was my coming out.
K: People always say that army is the most homophobic place, but it’s also very much the opposite.
B: Haha, they put me as a storeman, in charge of army uniforms in the officer cadet school. So you have all these officer cadets coming in and out so it was like “ah okay.” And it’s next to the school of PTI, people with short shorts –
K: And the rest is history.
B: *laughing* Moving on –
K: Was that also the time you discovered Club Kid culture? Was there a defining ‘aha’ moment?
B: When I was a teenager I would buy Face Magazine, Blitz, Details Magazine . These magazine would write about interesting characters like Susanne Bartsch, but I was more interested in the music scene. The first time I heard about Club Kids was in a cover story of New York magazine.
My cousin who lived in New York came back for Chinese New Year and was telling me how I should go there - but I hadn’t been to New York before so she brought an issue of the magazine and there was a cover feature of the Club Kids. Not sure if I remember correctly . Back then it was not even Michael Alig’s time, I remember reading about Zaldy, who designed outfits for Michael Jackson – a lot of things were happening at that moment and I was in love with the culture lah, not so much the Club Kids. It was 86’ or 87’. Yeah.
K: My first introduction to the culture was the film Party Monster. And I always thought it was Michael Alig who started the Club Kids…or at least that’s how the urban legend goes.
B: I think he was the next generation I’m not too sure . James St. James was part of Zaldy’s crew. I’m sure Rupaul was also part of the crowd. Susanne Bartsch gave Rupaul his first job.
K: Did that buzz feel like, oh my god I have to get myself to New York?
B: Not really. I was more in love with nightlife itself and that there were these crazy kids dressing up. Not so much New York. At the same time there was the British Invasion with the Boy George in the 80s and Culture Club, Blitz Kids, Leigh Bowery.
K: Yup, iconic. If we look at some of the most exciting makeup artists like Val Garland and Pat McGrath, you can see the influence it had on their work till today.
B: It was called “The Cult With No Name”, because all the different sub-cultures like the disco crowd, Goths, New Romantics and punks gathered together but towards mid 80s, they didn’t have a name.
K: Did that make you want to start something like that here?
B: Nope! I’ve always wanted to do a club since secondary school. Yup even before I was of legal age to club. Where I get to do fresh things that haven’t been done.
In the end you always have this voice saying “Nah, that will never happen here” even though at the back of my mind I really wanted it to happen. And one day it did.
That’s how the Butter Factory started. But I’m jumping many years forward.
K: Ok don’t jump yet, haha.
B: After the army I worked at this designer furniture store in Promenade called Abraxas where they had Phillipe Starck furniture… And since I have been decorating my room for a few years, I screwed around with the window displays a little bit, dress it up, make it themed. We would have themes like “Plastic Surgery Disasters”, “Love Is A Battlefield” or “The Spy Who Loved Me”.
K: In a furniture store.
B: Just the windows! Like a fashion window display. Anyway, there was an opening for a set decorator at Zouk Since my bosses liked the windows that I did, they asked me to decorate for Zouk.
I have a special place in my heart for Zouk. I remember the night Zouk first opened, I saw my partner Ritz for the first time. Back then there were only two males allowed to dance on the podium – the doctor and Ritz. My ex-girlfriend who didn’t know I was gay at that time said oh you have to see this guy he’s very cute. And then a few nights - ok I spent every night at Zouk but after many nights I met him and got to cut hair at his place and just hit it off.
In Zouk, everyone would dress up. During those pioneer years, Ritz would pull some of the dancers over. And the models, fashion kids…
K: A whole ecosystem.
K: Was Butter Factory born from a need to do something completely different from Zouk?
B: In Zouk, I got to realise everything I wanted to create. Butter Factory came 10 years later in 2006. We still dressed how we dressed but we didn’t have the budget to keep changing and doing things. Zouk is considered a super club right, but Butter was a 250 capacity club in its first location at Robertson Quay, then 500 at Fullerton
After the first year at Fullerton, we decided me and Ritz were the only two gay co-founders of Butter Factory. So I said lets just do an alternative night for gays who don’t like to go to mainstream gay places.
K: How was the response?
B: Mad. Our guest list hit 800 pax. The security was like ‘are you sure you want to let all of them in?’. We advertised on flyers that we were Singapore’s first alternative gay night for gay people who don’t like to go to gay clubs.
B: We didn’t have any rules. Our artwork said “Straight people pay money” with actual dollar signs for MISMATCH. But free for gays. Sign on this guest list if you are gay. And everyone would just sign their name. But if you are straight you have to pay to come in.
K: I’m sure people lied but -
B: - yeah but we wanted to elevate nightlife by putting queerness in the foreground.
K: Did you think the success coincided with a cultural shift?
B: Yeah. Back then Grindr just started. So nightclubs all over the world, gay bars, people were not going out anymore to hook up but for more of a social thing. You need to come up with new stuff. Back then, the electroclash and nu rave music were the hot thing. We got in Larry Tee (who produced RuPaul’s early songs) and Jodie Harsh the drag queen DJ. When we ended MISMATCH it was start of the EDM phase. But even before that it was a weird shift in music.
K: Right. When you revived it via YUM YUM DISCO DONG was there another cultural shift that you sensed?
B: Yea we recognised a gap in the queer scene. And it was also something that we’ve been wanting to do for years during Fullerton. But never got a chance to explore.
We wanted to bring the groove back, reclaim the dance floor and give tribute to the rich queer origins and history of disco and house through the decades.
K: Is it still important to have a space of your own?
B: I mean it’s a different set of problems because if you have an actual venue, you have rent and wages going on and you cannot screw around by being experimental. When we had Butter Factory we were able to have a smaller room to be like a laboratory for trying out new stuff.
I don’t think we’ll be able to try out new stuff now if we have a venue because of rent and overheads , we need to make some sort of revenue, to be sustainable. That’s why pop-up parties work for us. Once it starts being mainstream, I want to just kill it. Or change. I’m still at this point that I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
K: Do you feel a tension, or pressure to have queer nightlife be palatable to the masses?
B: No I don’t. Queer nightlife need not be palatable to all. It’s more interesting when the mix is a bit more diverse. And you get to explore and make new discoveries In the day time I’m comfortable with assimilating, but the night is when you have an escape. So you get to take it to the extremes. When you do parties like that you get to escape once in awhile and when it’s over you come out and blend in - it’s fun that way right? Because if you do it all the time it wont be fun anymore, right?
K: Right, it’s more transgressive that way. A wink, a nod. So, the ability to assimilate is something queer people should also strive for?
B: I think you should. You need to celebrate that difference. Even in the queer community there is a darker and lighter side. You need to accept everything for what it is.
K: In order for the underground to exist, then the other side must exist, because it's a spectrum.
B: Eventually, when something becomes palatable to everyone it becomes vanilla. It crosses a bridge once it’s accepted, then gay and queerness is no longer underground, then a new underground will come.
K: Like post-modernism, people keep finding new modes –
B: - to keep it evolving into something else.
K: So circular lah basically.
B: Ongoing. Yeah.
wearing PLEASER, Tata Christiane and headpiece from Bubbles and Frown
Creative Direction, Makeup
Kenneth Chia, using Fenty Beauty
with special thanks to