Ahead of the season finale of 'RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under', Adelaide-based superstar and Pasifika drag queen Kween Kong opens up to CityMag about blowing up on an international stage and remaining firm in the face of Swarovski-laced adversity.
Kween Kong on reality TV and representation
Thomas Fonua – who goes by the drag stage name Kween Kong – has been a hero to CityMag for years.
The Tongan and Sāmoan dancer and choreographer, originally hailing from New Zealand, first came to our attention in 2020. The performer, who had worked with Black Grace before migrating to Adelaide in 2013 to work with Australian Dance Theatre, was hosting a drag night with sponsorship from his drag collective, Haus of Kong.
Before the event, we spent a day at the dancer’s apartment by the beach to learn about the drag house, which was helping young members of the local LGBTQI+ community find family. Back then, we got the indelible impression that Thomas cared enormously for his drag babies and the transformative power of dress-up.
A couple of years later, we met with Thomas again. In March, the larger-than-life bombastic Kween Kong featured in the Fringe show Black Puddin’, a meta, genre-blending cabaret performance about how to respond to lacklustre apologies.
Four months after that, Thomas co-starred in Windmill’s Rella – a children’s theatre production reimagining Cinderella. During this time, Thomas was also gallivanting across the country performing as Kween Kong and working as an independent choreographer.
Having watched Kween Kong’s career gently rise from simmer to boil, we felt a a small amount of parochial pride in Thomas’ success. But on 30 July 2022, when the first episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under season two aired, Thomas’ alter-ego stopped being a solely Adelaide darling. He now belonged to the world.
“Walking down the street, even out of drag, people were recognising me daily,” says Thomas, who is one of 10 contestants from this season of the cult reality television show. “And it wasn’t even like one or two people. Every second person I’d walk past would be, like, ‘Kween Kong, oh my god!’”
Thomas speaks to us in early September just after finishing 29 days at the Edinburgh Fringe performing in 27 Briefs Factory. He calls from Melbourne, where he’s taking some time off to do Drag Race media interviews and appearances.
Thomas cannot divulge the winner of his season of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under (he says he doesn’t even know, as all three finalists create three separate versions of themselves as victors), but he does reveal to CityMag what it was like to exist in an environment where producers eke out drama for viewership.
“I was worried that a team of non-PoC (people of colour) producers, with my storyline, wouldn’t know how to balance my values and speak about my community in the way that they had to be spoken about,” says Thomas, whose paternal grandfather was a talking chief in Tonga.
“I was worried how they were going to receive me, not only as a queen of colour, but somebody that is an activist, that’s really strong-willed around equitable practice.”
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While the producers were there to do their jobs – generate excellent television – Thomas was conscious of remaining cool in the face of confrontation and sparkly, spangled competition. Watching the show unfold now, months after filming in January in New Zealand, he says he wouldn’t change a thing.
“The journey was actually really beneficial,” Thomas says.
“There were so many situations I found compromising from a value perspective, and I didn’t want to rise to their version of what a reality television character was.
“If anything happened – like drama would happen – I wanted to resolve it how I would normally resolve things. As Thomas.”
Thomas believes the producers gave Kween Kong the “redemption edit”. Audiences were led to believe she was a “monster performer” and the person wearing the makeup and frills matched that mammoth constructed persona. They were wrong.
“I don’t think anyone really anticipated what I would be because they’re just expecting me to be this arrogant arsehole,” Thomas says.
“They don’t understand the complexities of what it takes to get to that monster space, especially when they see just the three minutes of the stage as opposed to the person that is struggling with anxiety and depression and also just trying to find a place in this world that fits.”
Viewers got their first taste of Kween Kong from the Drag Race introduction video, where, over its two minutes, the gilded and glamorous performer proudly announces she is in the contest to push for “visibility and representation” for her community.
Between pirouettes and twirls, Kween Kong also says she was confident she would win because of what she represents: “A lateral style of leadership which is more hearing, more negotiable and more inclusive”.
“We need great leaders. Our world is littered with absolutely shithouse men in power,” she says.
While Kween Kong’s profile has now risen to an international level, Thomas has remained loyal to his Adelaide-based costume-maker, Sheri McCoy.
Sheri says she spent something like 330 hours in three and a half weeks making four of Thomas’ outfits before he flew to New Zealand for the show. “It was a lot,” Sheri laughs. “There was not a lot of sleep.”
Sheri studied dressmaking at TAFE but “[found] it boring”, and worked at the Adelaide Costume Shop on and off from 1999—2019. She met Thomas there three years ago, while she was behind the counter mostly repairing and darning costumes. She now works as a sole trader under the moniker CostumeCreater where she creates commissioned ensembles mostly made from DK Fabrics.
While working in the decades-old retail shop, Sheri got in the habit of approaching interesting-looking customers, such as burlesque dancers and drag queens, to see if they needed bespoke costumes.
To this day, Sheri enjoys sewing and stitching together performers’ outlandish garments, as they can be “punk” and subversive, she says. So when Thomas came in search of a suit jacket in 2019, the duo were drawn to each other.
“We just started chatting and [I] shared my Instagram handle with him, and later on he liked something that I’ve made and he would just occasionally come into the shop to buy lashes,” Sheri says.
“It feels like it happened suddenly, but I guess it was over a year that we got to know each other.”
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When Thomas received confirmation he would compete in Drag Race, he immediately went to Sheri to compile four of his looks. And Thomas says he has stuck with Sheri because of her ability to go “above and beyond” with his requests and sensitively infuse stories from his culture and context within the outfits.
“She would do so much research and then come back with just a really well thought out concept, as well as a super respectful take on how to blend Western costume construction with Indigenous storytelling,” he says.
“I will be using her for the rest of my career.”
Kween Kong will appear in the RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under season two finale, airing this Saturday, 17 September, on Stan.
Win or lose, she’s the Kween of our hearts.