After tying for the win in New York City's "Drag Queen of the Year" contest, Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) win a trip to Hollywood to take part in the even bigger "Miss Drag Queen of America Pageant". Before they depart, Vida persuades Noxeema to take along the inexperienced "drag princess" Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) as their protégé (they initially refer to him simply as a "boy in a dress" rather than as a fully-fledged drag queen). To do this, they trade in their airplane tickets for cash and buy a stylish but old Cadillac convertible with money given to them by John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt (Robin Williams). They set off for Los Angeles in it, carrying with them an iconic autographed photo of Julie Newmar (signed, "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar") that Vida purloined from a restaurant wall.
While on the road they are pulled over by the racist, homophobic, and sexist Sheriff Dollard (Chris Penn), who tries to rape Vida. He discovers Vida is not a woman and, in the commotion, he falls backwards and is knocked unconscious. They think he is dead, hurry off, and leave him behind. As they recover from the incident at a rest stop, their car breaks down. A young man, Bobby Ray (Jason London) from the nearby small town of Snydersville, happens to pass by and gives them a ride, where they take refuge in a bed and breakfast inn owned by Carol Ann (Stockard Channing) and her abusive car repairman husband, Virgil (Arliss Howard).
They become stranded in the town for the weekend as they wait for the replacement part for their car to arrive. Chi-Chi is harassed by a group of roughnecks, but is saved by Bobby Ray. While volunteering to help with the town's Strawberry Social, they decide its small band of women need a day with them, which consists of the following steps: get your hair done, pick out a new outfit, and then just sit in a cafe and talk. While searching for the new outfits, they are ecstatic to find vintage fashions from the 1960s in the town's clothing store and give the female residents (and themselves) a make-over.
Following their makeover, they are abused by the same roughnecks that attempted to attack Chi-Chi. Fed up, Noxeema handles the situation in a typically New York City manner and teaches their ringleader a lesson in manners. Vida, Noxeema, and Chi-Chi do what they can to be positive, and they set out to improve the lives of the townspeople, including offering assistance in organizing the Strawberry Social.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Dollard is ridiculed by his colleagues, who believe he was beat up by a girl. He goes off in search of the drag queens.
Vida, in the meantime, becomes acutely aware of Carol Ann's abuse at the hands of Virgil and, shortly thereafter, they overhear him giving her another beating. Vida decides to intervene and beats him up before throwing him out of the house.
Carol Ann is able to repair their car, but they remain for the Strawberry Social. Carol Ann reveals to Vida that she knew she was a drag queen all along due to her Adam's apple, which is less prominent in women.
Not too far away, Virgil runs into Sheriff Dollard at a bar and they realize that the newcomers are the same people Dollard has been searching for. They head back to Snydersville, and Dollard demands that the townspeople turn them over. The other townspeople, who now realize that their new friends are not women, begin to protect them. One by one they step up and confront Dollard, each one claiming to be a drag queen (in similar fashion to Spartacus). He is humiliated and flees. The Strawberry Social commences with everyone dressed in vibrant red outfits for it. The townfolk then say goodbye to their new friends as Noxeema, Vida and Chi-Chi prepare to leave. In honor of their friendship, Vida gives Carol Ann the autographed photo of Julie Newmar that has accompanied them on their trip.
They eventually make it to Los Angeles where Chi-Chi, after having received many tips from Vida and Noxeema during their ordeal, wins the title of Drag Queen of the Year. The crown is presented by Julie Newmar as herself.Wesley Snipes as Noxeema Jackson
Patrick Swayze as Vida Boheme
John Leguizamo as Chi-Chi Rodriguez
Stockard Channing as Carol Ann
Blythe Danner as Beatrice
Arliss Howard as Virgil
Jason London as Bobby Ray
Chris Penn as Sheriff Dollard
Melinda Dillon as Merna
Beth Grant as Loretta
Alice Drummond as Clara
Michael Vartan as Tommy
Jennifer Milmore as Bobbie Lee
Julie Newmar as Herself
Naomi Campbell as Girl at China Bowl restaurant
Joseph Arias as Joey Arias
Daniel T. "Sweetie" Boothe as Pageant Hostess
Lady Catiria as Herself
Laritza Dumont as Herself
Alexander Heimberg as Miss Understood
Candis Cayne as Herself (credited as Brendan McDanniel)
Clinton Leupp as Miss Coco Peru
Steven Polito as Hedda Lettuce
Jon Ingle as The Lady Bunny
Quentin Crisp as NY Pageant Judge
Flotilla DeBarge as NY Pageant Judge
José Sarria as NY Pageant Judge
RuPaul as Rachel Tensions
Robin Williams as John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt
Swayze and Leguizamo were nominated for Golden Globe Awards for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy and Best Supporting Actor, respectively.
The opening and closing scenes were filmed in New York City featuring dozens of its local drag performers and underground stars in small roles or as featured extras. Included in the mix were RuPaul, Joey Arias, Lady Bunny, Miss Understood, Candis Cayne, Flotilla DeBarge, Miss Coco Peru, and Quentin Crisp. The three stars had previously spent some time in the local drag scene while researching their roles. The ending scene, the anticipated Miss Drag Queen USA contest, was filmed at The John S. Phipps Estate in Old Westbury, New York, now colloquially known as Old Westbury Gardens. Much of the rest of the film was shot on location in Montclair, New Jersey, Loma, Nebraska, Lincoln, and Omaha. Though greatly faded, a "Welcome to Snydersville" outdoor mural remains in Loma.
Champions Tour professional Chi Chi Rodriguez sued the production company and distributor over the use of his name in the film, eventually settling with undisclosed terms.
The film is similar to the earlier 1994 Australian comedy-drama, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert which stars Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp, and Guy Pearce in the roles of the three cross-country cabaret drag queens. To Wong Foo has sometimes erroneously been called a copy or a remake of Priscilla, although it was already in production before Priscilla was released.
A DVD is available with several deleted scenes.
With a lifetime box-office gross revenue of US$47.8 million worldwide (equivalent to $75.1 million in 2016), the film was number one at the box office in the U.S. for its first two weeks in the theater. It received mixed reviews from critics, as it holds a 41% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 32 reviews. It has since become a cult classic.
The movie's soundtrack includes:
- "I Am the Body Beautiful" – Salt-N-Pepa
- "Free Yourself" – Chaka Khan
- "Turn It Out" – Labelle
- "Who Taught You How" – Crystal Waters
- "She's a Lady" – Tom Jones
- "Brick House" – The Commodores
- "Nobody's Body" – Monifah
- "Do What You Wanna Do" – Charisse Arrington
- "(Hey Now) Girls Just Want to Have Fun" – Cyndi Lauper
- "Over the Rainbow" – Patti LaBelle
- "To Wong Foo Suite (When I Get to Hollywood/A Day With the Girls/Moms Mabley/Stand Up)" – Rachel Portman
Music and songs not included in the soundtrack:"Gotta Move" – Barbra Streisand
"Theme From Wonder Woman" – New World Symphony
"Je Cherche un Homme" [I Want a Man] – Eartha Kitt
"Behind Closed Doors" – Charlie Rich
"Stand by Your Man" – David Allan Coe
"This Is a Man's World" – Sara Hickman
"Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me" – Johnny Mathis
"(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song" – B.J. Thomas
"1812 Overture" – Tchaikovsky
"Zampa Overture" – Ferdinand Herold
"China Girl" – Robert J. Walsh
"That Lady You're with Ain't No Lady" – Larry Applewhite/Gene Wisniewski