Photos courtesy Opalus Co., Ltd.
After a few years of playing in a metal band, I’d seen a thing or two. I’d seen full-grown men go through solid tabletops like they were made out of cardboard. I’d watched a diminutive, bespectacled, ginger-bearded Frenchman get lifted off of his feet and slammed headfirst into a brick wall, his forehead squirting blood like a spigot when he came down. I’d seen a man rush the stage before we even hit the first note: manic one second, passed out and frothing at the mouth the next. But I’d never seen anything quite like what I saw on the night of August 29, 2009, at the rec center in Sai Wan Ho, on the northeastern shore of Hong Kong Island.
My band was playing its first overseas show, at a small death-metal festival. The venue was the basketball court of a rec center called Hang Out. The promoter had set up a stage on one half of the court, stretching from the wall to the three-point line. During the middle of our set, I saw something so startling I nearly dropped the mic: In the center of the circle pit that had opened up during one of our numbers, amid a sea of mostly Asian faces, was a burly, sandy blonde–haired white man, throwing down in the middle of the pit like his life depended on a steady windmilling of his muscular arms and stomping of his heavy feet. Blue eyes, a strong chin wrapped in a close-cropped reddish beard. Every bit a man’s man, from the neck up.
From the neck down, however, this man, who was kicking ass and taking names in the hellmouth of lashing limbs and flying elbows, was outfitted in a greenish-blue thigh-high nurse’s outfit — the kind usually reserved for kinky Halloween club parties, not actual hospital hallways.
I wouldn’t know it until later, but I’d witnessed the first incarnation of a man called Ladybeard — the crown prince, or princess, of kawaiicore.
Fast-forward nine years. Ladybeard, a.k.a. Richard Magarey — trained stunt performer, onetime bit player in kung fu movies, and erstwhile voice actor for children’s cartoons — has gone from a local curiosity in Hong Kong to superstar status in Japan. He made the move to Tokyo in 2015 after the better part of six years gutting it out in conservative Hong Kong, a city where his cross-dressing pro wrestler–cum–extreme metal vocalist/pop singer character never achieved more than a modest level of underground buzz in the local wrestling and metal scenes.
Upon moving to Japan, however, Magarey, now 35, would take the last of his day jobs, singing Disney songs over the phone to school children to help them learn English.
“Actually, that job was the single biggest threat to Ladybeard, because I thought, ‘Hey, this isn’t that bad. I can come in, do this for six hours, then I can just go get drunk!” Magarey says of his first days in Japan, when success was far from assured.
Since then, kawaiicore, the musical niche he forged, has become a full-fledged global subculture. For the uninitiated, kawaiicore — a mix of the Japanese word for cute, “kawaii,” and the “core” from “hard-core” — combines saccharine Japanese pop and extreme metal. A song with a silken, upbeat intro, set to the strains of a clean and uplifting guitar or keyboard line, will often descend into triple-time blast beats and guttural screaming or esophagus-busting shrieks during the chorus.
If ever there were a niche art form — an evening passion that necessitated a more stable and regularly paid vocation during the daylight hours — this would seem to be it. And yet, Magarey found a way. Day jobs have long been a thing of the past, and the line between where Richard Magarey ends and Ladybeard begins is now lost in 18-month spans of relentless touring, local appearances, social media ops, fan meet and greets, special events and training. In July 2018, performances by Ladybeard had him jetting from Tokyo to Brazil to London to Taipei in the span of two weeks.
This is far beyond what Magarey ever imagined when, as a teenager, he started cross-dressing in his hometown of Adelaide, Australia, first donning his sister’s high school uniform for a theme party at age 14, then wearing dresses to regular parties and rock shows. It was the start of a lifelong commitment to individuality, a personal ethos that started mushrooming into something much bigger when he landed in Japan.
“My initial pop of popularity on the internet in Japan” — when his performance and music videos first gained online traction on YouTube — “it took so much hard work and sacrifice and struggle just to get to that point, along with constant faith that this ridiculous plan could work,” Magarey says. “That initial boom proved that I hadn’t been wasting my time and was actually creating some kind of value in the world.”
Back when he was just a gender-bending kid in Adelaide, putting on women’s clothing made him a target for those who didn’t much like the idea of a man wearing a dress, let alone the sight of it at house parties and rock bars. But few were willing to take him on physically. Often, the outgoing and well-spoken Magarey would diffuse the situation with words — and the fear of being the guy who got knocked out by a guy wearing women’s clothing did the rest.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been strange situations now that Ladybeard is firmly entrenched in Tokyo as a bona fide celebrity, hosting two nationally televised music shows and performing regularly as a wrestler and as a singer. Shortly after arriving, he was signed to a talent agency, assigned a retinue of managerial types, and immediately thrust into a world of idol singers and groups centered around (mostly) underage female performers. One of the first groups Ladybeard joined was a trio known as Ladybaby, which saw him paired with a duo of teenage female singers.
In songs like “Nippon Manju,” the trio heaps praise on the various things they love about Japan, from popular local snacks to the Tokyo Tower.
Ladybeard has seen the darker side of idol culture, where female performers are kept under close watch by management, some even signing contracts forbidding them to date (so that they might appear perpetually available to their male fans, attainable in a fantastic dreamworld way, if always ever so slightly out of reach). For their male fans, the appeal is in the ache of unrequited romance and the knowledge that they may love their idols but never possess them. That doesn’t stop some of the fans, though, from becoming insanely jealous of the brawny foreigner who gets to spend time around the women — their women, in their minds — with whom they can only buy small increments of time in the solo time, or cheki time, after the show. Fans pay extra to line up for cellphone pics and Polaroids with the idols, get a few friendly words in, and buy a signed poster.
“They hated me because I got to spend time around the young girls,” Magarey says. “When I was in Ladybaby, they’d give the girls a present at the signing session, then whisper something like, ‘Eat shit, you dirty foreigner,’ in my ear. Then those same people hated me when I left the group.”
At a meet and greet after a show in Tokyo, “one guy said he was gonna get a gun and shoot me,” Magarey says. He informed his management team, who were used to dealing with obsessive fans, including Ladybeard’s own female fans (one woman, an elderly matriarch from Okinawa, said she was going to move to Tokyo just to be with him). Yet he was taken aback by their response.
“I told the managers, and they said, ‘Oh, that’s just the way [that fan] is,’” he recalls. It wasn’t the first time he had to deal with the ugly side of the idol world, and it wouldn’t be the last. The level of devotion to kawaiicore groups and the larger idol scene, which some say borders on depravity, is a testament to the success Tokyo talent agencies have had in branding the groups, conditioning their fan bases through savvy marketing ploys.
“The machinery is always on display,” says Ian F. Martin, a music journalist and author of the book Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground. Over the past several years, he has scrutinized the Tokyo music scene and the various subcultures it has spawned.
“Idol groups are very good at holding onto fan bases. So much of the machinery isn’t about music, it’s about personality. Also, it’s about building and maintaining this kind of sense of intimacy with fans, and finding ways of scaling that without losing the sense of intimacy. It’s very sophisticated, how they do it.”
A couple of years ago, I witnessed firsthand the depths of devotion the kawaiicore idols have to plumb to satisfy the sometimes perverse and masochistic requests of their fans. My family was visiting me in Taipei from Canada, and Ladybeard was in town for a solo show, his first since his initial tour of Taiwan in 2012. Naturally, I decided to drag my family along. During the show, I got a shout-out from the stage, as Ladybeard thanked me and another longtime denizen and staunch supporter of the Taipei underground, Steve Leggat, for “being nice to me when I was just some weird guy in a dress,” earning me a few hearty slaps on the back from my younger brother, Bryce.
After the show, Bryce and I waited for Magarey, planning to head out for a post-show bite and a drink. But he had a bit of business to attend to first, the after-gig meet and greet, or checki time. The merch tables are always piled high with T-shirts, photo books and CDs. Every form of intimacy short of the lewd has a price tag affixed. The idols handle it all with the grace of a flight attendant, honoring most any request with a smile and humble acquiescence. Bryce and I stood back, not wanting to interfere, but Magarey broke away from the line of fans and beelined over to us, looking concerned.
“Do you mind standing just behind me?” he said under his breath. We asked him why. “That girl wants me to headbutt her,” he explained with a shrug, pointing to a bright-eyed young woman with a hint of the unstable in her gaze, adding that he didn’t have his own security, and that it might be nice to have us (more so my brother, who is six feet tall and weighs more than 200 pounds) standing nearby in case things turned weird, violent, or both. And he did it, rearing back his head and ramming his skull into hers, without inflicting serious damage, as only a trained stuntman and wrestler could do.
“She wanted me to headbutt her, so I had to do it,” he says, recalling the incident a couple of years later. “Stuff like that happens a lot. People want me to choke them, put them in wrestling holds. They ask Reika [his partner in another group, Deadlift Lolita] to kick them in the ass. That’s a thing in Japan, getting kicked in the ass.”
“Seeing these groups in Japan is truly something that needs to be seen to be believed,” says Manuel Figueroa, general manager and editor in chief of the Japanese pop culture site A-to-J Connections. “The crowds can be extremely intense one second and then fall completely silent (and I mean silent) when the moment calls for it. These antics also extend to solo time with the groups, where it’s not exactly uncommon to see some idols choke, step on and even bite their fans.”
Two years after the headbutt incident, Ladybeard is back in Taipei. It’s the summer of 2018, and he has returned as half of Deadlift Lolita, alongside female bodybuilder and champion professional wrestler Reika Saiki. The two of them perform to an adoring crowd, made up, predictably, mostly of otaku — nerds, geeks, mostly men, in their late 20s, 30s, some in their 40s, who immerse themselves in the online realm, the world of anime and comics, and now, in the music of kawaiicore ensembles.
The audience sings and dances along as Deadlift Lolita put themselves through an hour of frenetic singing, dancing, stomping and screaming that would leave even the most seasoned and well-conditioned performers calling for the oxygen canister. It’s a testament to their conditioning — the countless hours spent rehearsing in the dance studio, lifting weights in the gym, and doing lung-busting cardio sessions. All of which makes it easy to wonder why Ladybeard does what he does. Why put yourself through such punishment, day after day?
“One of the reasons I do what I do is I just don’t have the ability to do anything else,” he explains over the phone from Tokyo, a few weeks after returning from Taipei.
It’s after 10 at night. He’s just out of a rehearsal session and on his way to the gym, the muted sounds of the Tokyo metro bleating softly in the background.
“I’ve had jobs before where at the end of the first day I just wanted to kill myself,” he says of his former life. “That’s why I’ve worked so hard to become a performer. I just can’t do anything except this.”
Joe Henley is a freelance writer, author, scriptwriter and musician. Based in Taipei, Taiwan.