Story and photos: Kyle Malinda-White | June 3, 2016
UPDATE: Khairul succumbed to his ailment on Aug 28, 2016. Our thoughts are with his family.
Muhammad Khairul Ihkwan wants you to know him now as Venus Scepter, complete with the wigs and make-up.
Why? Because after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and given only two months to live, this fierce young Singaporean has outlived his death sentence by months and is fighting his illness through art, makeup and androgyny.
“I’m giving myself a driving force. Why should we depend on someone to encourage us? If you’re born alone and dying alone, that answers it all – you’re supposed to go through this life yourself,” said the 23-year-old National Serviceman to Coconuts Singapore.
Greeting us in his Sembawang apartment, Khairul was fresh off playing a video game; he counts Final Fantasy among his favourites. Coincidentally, it sparked the birth of Khairul’s alter-ego, diving into an exploration of sexuality, self and appearance that would see him repeatedly change the moniker of his other self. Five times.
The names represent different aspects of his life, he says – a testament to a tale of a flower in bloom. From the Final Fantasy-inspired epithet “Flower Fallal”, his names tell a story of emptiness (“Petals Fallen”), an empowerment of negativity (“Flaring Gold”), spreading love to others (“Pollen Pixies”) and conquering personal battles through love (“Venus Scepter”).
“When I change names at certain times in my life, it allows me to remind myself of that point when I was feeling a certain kind of way. It was more of marking down my records in life… a history of me,” he said.
“It’s not ‘hey, this is me now’ but ‘hey, this is my phase now’ – not characters, but phases.”
Khairul first began his road of self-expression after his O-Levels. Between that and his student enrolment in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, he had come out to his family and endured bullying due to his plus-sized frame and flamboyant mannerisms.
Citing Lady Gaga’s outfits as inspiration, Khairul was also inspired by former male dance group Voguelicious, which caused a nationwide splash by blurring the lines of sexuality through vogueing, heels and makeup.
Then a dancer, Khairul’s chance encounter with the Voguelicious members at a dance session at Republic Polytechnic led him from being a fan to a friend. Khairul started wearing leggings and makeup and recalls receiving weird stares whenever he went out in heels and eyeshadow.
“No one dares to go out like that, and I feel that kind of empowerment in that way. What I’m trying to portray is me being an artistic person and expressing myself on the street. It has got nothing to do with people trying to have a conversation about it,” he said, emphasising that he is not purposely stoking controversy by wearing female clothing but merely expressing himself.
His exploration culminated into participating in the second season of drag queen contest Drag Academy, organised by then-gay club Play. Debuting as Seks Kandi, he would then go on to perform at events including a closing act for Singapore LGBT pride month IndigNation in 2014.
He doesn’t consider himself to be a drag queen however, preferring to describe his style as androgynous, citing creatives such as Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen as his inspirations.
“I like to dwell in both masculine and feminine worlds. I wouldn’t want to deny that my makeup is drag-inspired; I also like to do face paint. Sometimes, I don’t block out my eyebrows depending on the look.”
He also spoke of the troubles of being a drag queen in Singapore. Khairul recalled accompanying his drag queen friend Vanda Miss Joaquim to her residency at popular gay bar Tantric and witnessing her receiving criticism from fellow gay men to change up her look.
“It’s a challenge. I don’t have that kind of ability,” he mused.
The same rejection of labelling comes when he discusses his sexuality, preferring not to let the gay label control who he has feelings for.
“Knowing that you are gay or lesbian is some kind of formality, but I feel that it’s more of the connection and communication with one another.”
“We all have the same purpose in life: to find love. What you identify yourself as doesn’t really matter – if I know you as your name, as a person, I’m willing to accept whoever you are.”
He embraces his androgyny but is aware of the backlash he may receive from the public. To that, Khairul understands people might not accept him because they do not know his background.
“If you want to be different, you must be prepared for the consequences. You can’t tell everyone to understand you but you can engage them and through that, hopefully they will change and realise you are a normal person.”
From contour to cancer
Khairul’s life took a turn for the worse last year, when he was sent to the emergency department of Khoo Teck Phuat Hospital seven times. Each time he was there however, doctors diagnosed him with severe migraine.
Despite medications and injections, his condition continued to worsen – from developing tinnitus, he soon lost his hearing on the right ear and developed double vision, alongside anxiety attacks.
It was not until he was hospitalised at Singapore General Hospital last September and underwent scans that doctors soon found out he had Stage 4 colon cancer as well as a fist-sized tumour in his brain. However, his mum chose to hide the severity of the cancer from Khairul until late December; by then, he had gone through four chemotherapy sessions.
In his backbone, doctors placed a tube that connected to his stomach, which flushed away excess water and stopped the migraines, vomiting and anxiety attacks. A stoma bag operation rerouting waste into a colostomy bag attached to his stomach also sped up the chemotherapy process.
The doctors initially gave him two months to live. Right now, it has been six months since that prognosis was given. Khairul said he “couldn’t care less” about the prognosis and focused on fighting the cancer.
Battling the cancer however wasn’t the most difficult part: it was momentarily losing hearing ability on both ears.
“It was just loud noises in my brain. To suddenly try to adapt to losing my hearing was the scariest thing I’ve ever encountered in my life. My mum was there with me every day, but at night, I was alone in hospital. I was feeling more scared about being alone,” he said. “My only hope is to regain back the sounds of the world because as an individual, music is an important sense in my life to get inspiration for my work.”
He also gains inspiration from the tales of other cancer survivors he heard from nurses.
“They have shown me the strength in life and how much it takes to endure their pain. They harness their pain to the point where it becomes something inspiring that we all can take something from. If they are not giving up, why should I?”
Khairul went ahead with life by channeling happiness and devoting it to his passions into fine art and self-expression. After looking back at his pre-cancer photos and videos – he has over 5,700 of them on his Instagram account – Khairul felt inspired again to do what he was happiest at.
“If I lose my memory, this is a way for me to recollect my past. I don’t transit, I only transform – when I transform, I can return back. That’s what I’m doing right now – it’s a way for me to dwell on reality and how I can make the future better for me,” he said.
“I’ve already accepted my fate. I just want to live my life normally now.”
His recent art exhibition HOPE last April was a collaboration with seven other artists featuring artworks documenting Khairul’s spirit and tenacity as he battled cancer. The exhibition drew a turnout in the hundreds and was even attended by Acting Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung, who is also the member of Parliament for Sembawang where Khairul lives in.
Khairul hopes to turn his passion for art into a career as an art director dabbling in fashion film and photography. He sees a connection between life and art, regarding the latter as a guiding light.
“If I don’t have that, I’ll just be lost.”
As he opened his makeup bags to put together a look for our cameras, he spoke of his intention to give back to society by teaching fine art to disabled children. His passion to help others and stay true to himself comes from watching documentaries about human rights.
“(The documentaries) give me the whole spectrum of different kinds of human beings and their struggles. It really opens up my mind and it made me realise who I want to be as a person. I’m still discovering myself but stay true by doing something that you’re passionate about and holds you tightly to your future,” he said.
Khairul still carries a part of his struggles in his art. Growing up lonely and bullied, he cried and ranted to his imaginary friends – Barney and Po stuffed toys.
Today, those toys are subjects of a painting Khairul did that is hung on his balcony. In the painting, the toys are seen looking forlorn into the distance, resting against a wall with peeling grey paint.
“The door of trying to be myself has been shut because I feel I’ve completed that phase. The door of having this disease has already been shut because I’ve lived through it. Now, it’s my door to recovery – this is my challenge.”
“I see my life as closing doors and moving on to the next door.”