When drag queen Rock M. Sakura burst into the hot-pink RuPaul Drag Race workroom for season 12, viewers might have thought an anime character walked off the pages of a comic and onto reality TV.
Rock, a longtime fan of Japanese animation, often paints on the giant, exaggerated eyes that characterize the genre. Wide blocks of bold color frame her peepers from above and below, and thick black eyelashes reach past her arched eyebrows to the top of her forehead.
Her wore on the red carpet at a Drag Race event last month, accessorized with matching arm-length gloves and a flirty pastel parasol. Or the winged red, white and blue latex Gundam robots-inspired getup she wears in promo shots for the show, complete with red and white horns popping out from under the bangs on her wig., many homemade, are drawn from anime too, like the bouncy, powder-pink short dress she
But the anime influence goes deeper than Rock's campy look. It imbues her alter ego's entire persona, says Bryan Bradford, the 28-year-old creator of Rock M. Sakura, whose name is a mashup of the toys Rock' Em Sock 'Em Robots and Sakura Kinomoto, the lead character in anime series Cardcaptor Sakura. It's a coming-of-age story about a girl with magical powers tasked with (no big deal) saving the world.
"Her strength comes from her heart," says Bradford, a fixture on the San Francisco drag scene. "I felt like if I wanted to do drag, that was something I really wanted to embody and something I wanted to bring to the world."
RuPaul's Drag Race season 12 premiered Feb. 28, on VH1, with 13 new queens vying for $100,000 and the coveted title "America's next drag superstar." The Emmy-winning show sees queens compete in challenges that measure their costuming and makeup finesse, as well as their acting, dancing, singing, comedy skills and overall charisma and creative je ne sais quoi. Judges this go-round include some big names -- Jeff Goldblum, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (yes, the AOC), Nicki Minaj, Whoopi Goldberg and Chaka Khan.
Since the show first aired in 2009, more than 135 queens from around the country and Puerto Rico have competed for the title. But Bradford, a gamer who's played Mario Kart and Tekken competitively and met a previous partner in a video game arcade, may well be the geekiest one yet to bring it to the runway, as the song by host RuPaul Charles goes.
"I'm getting floods and floods of nerds sending me messages saying, 'It's so nice to see representation on the show,'" Bradford says.
Over the phone, Bradford is animated and chatty, with a sharp, sassy wit. He came to drag via season 6 of RuPaul's Drag Race, which aired in 2014. At the time, he wasn't finding professional success as a comics illustrator and felt creatively stifled.
"I wasn't too familiar with what drag was, and to me it kind of seemed silly," Bradford says. "But the fact that people would do this art and get so much praise and support from people around them was very inspiring."
Bradford developed Rock M. Sakura and started performing in clubs, drawing heavily on his love of anime, manga, K-Pop and J-Pop, and his background as a dancer.
"Rock is one of the most ridiculous performers in San Francisco," says Noah Winshell, a fellow performer known, in drag, as Loma Prietta and a wig designer whose creations have adorned Rock's head. "She frequently has me doubled over in laughter while I'm waiting in the wings to go on and perform."
Bradford's been told Rock looks like the love child of two well-known Drag Race alums: Trixie Mattel and Kimchi. Season 12 viewers can expect "a lot of personality, a lot of high energy" from Rock, Bradford says. "You can expect look [fashion], and you can expect a lot, a lot of screaming. I like screaming. It's fun."
In the drag world, where far more performers go on stage as pop or Broadway icons than characters out of graphic novels, Bradford's happy to take up the geek mantle. If the competition gets intense, he might even channel his favorite superheroes -- Batman or Marvel's X-Men. He feels a special affinity for Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean Grey and gang since mutants, as a minority group, reflect the experience of many in the LGBT community, he believes.
"I think a lot of us LGBT people feel at times like we're given extraordinary power but it's misunderstood," he says.
Anyone who's watched RuPaul's Drag Race knows it can be snarky and full of queen-on-queen drama. It's also touching in a way few reality TV shows are. Many queens share painful, deeply personal stories of the rejection and alienation they've experienced as a result of their sexuality, and inspiring lessons learned on their journeys to self-acceptance.
Bradford is well aware of the show's reach (the season 11 finale drew more than 700,000 viewers, according to Statistica), and understands that along with the perks of being a contestant, including a potentially lucrative career after the show, comes a new level of scrutiny across the internet and beyond.
"There's no way anyone can prepare for that, let's be real," he says. "I like my art and I understand not everyone's going to like it. Part of preparing myself has really been preparing mentally, buffering myself, giving myself affirmations."
Filming is over, but Bradford can't share any spoilers now that he's packed up his boas and heels. He can say the experience has deepened his appreciation for the art of drag -- and made him stronger and more confident. And that whatever the outcome, his core message will remain the same.
"My drag," he says, pausing a beat, "is about spreading love, kindness and fun to everyone in the world."