Naomi Watanabe is big in Japan. Like over 5 million followers on Instagram, always on TV, and 2016 Vogue Japan Woman of the Year big. But in a country where the average woman is about 115 pounds, Watanabe stands out in other ways too.
“In Japan, a pretty skinny country in general, if there’s a 200-pound girl dancing, there’s a wow factor,” she told me via her translator before a recent show in New York. “Everyone is surprised.”
The instantly recognizable comedian, impressionist, and dancer has a penchant for red lipstick and constantly changing her hair color. While Watanabe is known nowadays for her recurring roles in Japanese sitcoms, her performance shows are a mix of comedy sketch, lip-syncing, and dance. She recently wrapped up a sold-out tour through the U.S. and Taiwan.
Watanabe favors outfits that are bright and tight—to get noticed, she says. It’s all part of her plan to mainstream plus-sizes in Japan, where women are four times more likely to be underweight.
Part of Watanabe’s schtick involves inviting fans to take turns throwing marshmallows and pork buns at her, which she catches in her mouth. The act is an homage to the term “marshmallow girls”—which was first coined by La Farfa, a Japanese magazine for plus-size women—to counter the disparaging Japanese word for “fat,” debu.
“When big people walk down the street in Japan, there are cat calls and people shouting negative things at them. Plus-size girls usually wear a lot of black and cover up,” Watanabe says.
Despite her campaign for body positivity, Watanabe isn’t immune to the stigma. “I don’t want to show my legs because they might be too thick.” But instead of hiding herself, “I flip that and show my legs [on purpose].” Watanabe also wears white to “look more expanded,” she says, and tighter-fitting clothes to “show my body line.”
“I started incorporating messages of body image in my comedy and people started laughing. They weren’t laughing at me but relating with me. It became a positive message. Now there’s more of a feeling that these girls can wear what they like to wear and not cover themselves up just because of their size.”
Watanabe first realized her calling when she was a kid watching TV. She was raised by a single working mother, and the people in the sitcoms and variety shows (a staple of Japanese television) she watched became part of her family, she says. Watanabe wanted to deliver that same energy, warmth, and laughter to others.
As a drama student, she spent years honing her skills in the the Japanese comedy style monomane, which translates to “imitation” and involves exaggerated spoofs of celebrities. It was during one of the small comedy shows her school frequently hosted that she caught another comedian’s eye and landed her first TV spot in 2008 on Sanma no Manma, a long-running variety and talk show. She lip-synced two Beyoncé songs.
I had always been a Beyoncé fan, a Destiny's Child fan, but I was really influenced by the Dreamgirls movie. It was so powerful, I had to do Beyoncé,” Watanabe says. “She's not just a singer, but a pure entertainer.”
Her infectious, gyrating, bare-footed, and over-the-top impression of Beyoncé was so popular with Japanese viewers that she started getting invited to perform at events across the country and on TV.
That same year she was invited to perform for Beyoncé herself when she and Solange were appearing as guests on the Japanese TV variety show Waratte Litomo. The performance went over so well, Beyoncé told Watanabe that when she returned to Japan they’d perform together.
Already a sensation in Japan, Watanabe’s star is steadily rising in America. On her recent tour, she told jokes in between lip-syncing Beyoncé and Mariah Carey songs, accompanied by her backup dancers, to an audience largely made of up young Japanese American women.
In the last few years, Watanabe’s revolution has become more mainstream in Japan. Chubbiness, a girl group comprised of all “marshmallow girls,” strode on to the stage in 2014. Piggy Doll, another group made up of three plus-size girls, came before them in 2011.
Since she started performing, Watanabe has been pivotal in promoting La Farfa by appearing on its cover multiple times. In 2014, she also launched her own clothing line PUNYUS, which offers fitted clothing for a variety of body types.
It’s about not hiding, she says.
Though she just wrapped up a world tour, the social media icon and comedian says she wants to focus on Japan. There’s a lot more work to be done there, she says.
Nadya Agrawal is a New York-based writer. She edits the South Asian diaspora magazine Kajal, and her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, PAPER, and Vice's Broadly. Follow her on Twitter @nadya_agrawal.