A man wearing woman’s clothing is not only a fun way to disrupt traditional gender norms, it’s a subversive act that while celebrated in popular culture – Mrs Doubtfire, the Wayans Brothers comedies – isn’t always palatable in real life.
Especially now where there’s so much fear in the world. Trump, Brexit, radical Islam, Christian fundamentalists… Look around and you’ll notice that we’ve become more conservative, guarded, paranoid and scared. We’re living in a kingdom of fear, and what the queens are doing is trying to disrupt this, which makes the men in grey suits unnerved.
Not that the queens care what straights think. Drag isn’t about being polite or politically correct. There’s no kowtowing to the norm. Instead it’s about provoking and engaging and pushing people’s buttons. A man in makeup can be a powerful weapon.
“If we threaten people’s comfort zone we could get hurt. But we’re going to do it anyway.”
When Queezy says this last part he clicks his fingers in a Z-formation, like: Z-for-mate-chin! And like his larger than life gesticulations, the way he chooses to dress is also an exaggeration – this time of the female form. For Quaid to become Queezy everything must be amplified, turned up, and he does this to inspire people like him who may not be brave enough to reveal their true selves just yet.
Someone responsible for pushing drag culture to a new younger audience is the man behind this story, Gavin Mikey Collins, whose alternative club night Diskotekah was started as a platform for people like him to express themselves in a safe space.
“Drag queens are pioneers. That’s why I pitched this story. It’s a massive global movement. The title is actually a quote from Ru Paul who said that we’re all born naked and the rest is drag. It makes sense if you think how everyone has a mask that they put on, a presentation of themselves that they’re comfortable to show to the outside world.”
Aiming to look at transformation from a gender perspective, Gavin specifically sought out three creative young men that he knew could express themselves in a different form, and would look fierce in the outfits he created for them.
“Drag is very DIY and so I collected trash bags, danger tape, bubble wrap – things that are worthless once they’ve been used – and then gave them a new lease on life. I wanted to create treasure from trash. For each of the queens, I tried to work with them to create a reflection of who they are.”
Scroll down to discover who these queens are, why they feel empowered in a dress and what goes into their extreme makeovers.
Quaid | Queezy
Quaid Stephen Heneke’s dad loved Dennis Quaid so much that he named his son after the actor. Quaid’s self-given drag-name, Queezy, is a result of the nauseated reactions he gets from some people.
“I decided to embody that nausea. I have a little saying – ‘Queezy: She’ll make you kak naar’. It’s also a rap thing, where Lil Wayne is Weezy and Kanye West is Yeezy and I’ve always been attracted to that hypermasculine thing and like to play that type of rap music in my DJ sets.”
Despite only dressing in drag for a year now, the 24-year-old artist says that he’s been playing with gender roles since he was a teenager.
“In grade 7, I was Paris Hilton in the school play. Even though I was always out, I was still scared of what the boys would say, but they loved it and were all lining up to feel my fake boobies backstage.”
An overweight child, Quaid spent a lot of time alone and indoors drawing characters that he wished he could become. By exploring different gendered clothing and expressing himself through drag, Quaid’s proud of how he’s able to embody these early drawings of his, and with his confidence at an all-time high – haters are the wind beneath his wings.
“Dealing with hate is an everyday thing. I’m a lot better with it now because I’m so comfortable with myself. I’m now owning it and having a new relationship with men where they’re like, ‘Hey baby!’ So that’s something I’m enjoying exploring in my art – the relationship between gay men and straight men, particularly in the coloured community.”
Stuck in a deep depression stemming from a difficult home life, Queezy saved Quaid from doing something really stupid, and so instead of doing anything drastic after he left home Quaid reinvented himself in the boldest way possible.
“I told myself that I wasn’t going to be scared anymore, and started using my Queezy character to be braver, and to show people that they shouldn’t be ashamed or scared of expressing themselves.”
Dazed’s feature on Queezy, ‘South Africa’s genderfluid artist doing it for the kids’, made him reflect on what he was actually doing for the kids, and now he’s setting up a summer camp with Luke Doman from Corner Store.
“Basically we’re going to have different mentors in art, photography, fashion, music, film and writing, and we’ll get a group of kids hungry to create a career in those worlds.“
Then, having recently finished a fashion design degree at CPUT, Quaid’s now busy liaising with art galleries after a successful performance at Gallery MOMO last November.
“It was sort of along the lines of my dissertation, looking at hyper-masculinity and gay drag queens breaking the gender roles in fashion. I’m also DJing and want to bring more of a performance angle to that. I have too many fingers in too many things.”
Pierre | René Sans
As an artist, 24-year-old Pierre Karl Vermeulen sees drag as just another form of painting.
In fact, drag may not even be as left-field as his current bodies of work where, taking two-meter large gold leaf panels, he gets his body really sweaty and then rolls around on the panels so that when the sweat oxidises a few months later the images appear and he’s got what he calls a ‘sweat print’. Pierre also makes orchids out of hair. For Pierre, drag is just another form of self-expression.
“Having all this make-up is so much fun. It’s like painting and I get to plan an outfit, conceptualise something and look amazing. The world needs drag queens and it’s brilliant how it’s growing here. There are a lot of us, the new guard, and to see it merge into performance art like with Queezy, and even Athi-Patra Ruga, that’s amazing.”
But besides the obvious self-expression, why does Pierre keep playing dress up?
“It’s an extreme way of letting go of any form of conformity, letting go of self, a form of escapism. For me it’s about fun and happiness, but you can arrive at drag from any point, whether that’s a place of insecurity or even anger. Or maybe you just decide to explore it for the sake of it? For me the most magical moment is when someone who is new to drag looks in the mirror and sees themselves for the first time, and then starts acting how they think their new character or persona should be.”
As someone who is very timid, shy and soft-spoken, it takes Pierre a lot longer to warm and connect with people than most. He also doesn’t really love attention, and so for René Sans (a play on Renaissance), formerly known as Eda Poes Duplex (a play on Oedipus Complex), who before that went by Cher Dankie (his response to receiving a glass of champagne one night), drag is a way to use the energy that he gets from those around him to up his confidence and force himself out of his comfort zone.
“Drag is an art form that requires hours, no, years of work to get into your character. It’s a very high-skilled act. I want to see how René grows and perhaps once I’m happy I will do a project with her.”
Besides performing, is there anything else that Pierre would like to achieve through drag?
“Anyone can do drag, that’s the thing, it’s not specific to anyone, and one day I’d like to shoot a family portrait – my mom, dad, sister and myself – where we’re all dressed up in drag.”
Mohammed | Inkwell Moon
Unlike Gavin and the other queens featured in this piece, Mohammed Mollagee doesn’t have the whip-thin frame that’s conducive to creating a fishy queen. In fact, the first impression is of a hypermasculine bro, all pumped-up biceps and shoulders rippling from underneath a tight vest, short shorts and flip-flops.
Because of this Inkwell Moon, is more than a woman and what Mohammed describes as “an otherworldly type creature that is part woman, part alien, and part ghost.”
“I don’t look feminine enough so I need to err more on the campy side of drag. There are beautiful men who make beautiful women. I’m not one of them. So that influenced coming up with this character.”
Mohammed’s love of gym and lifting weights in the gorilla pit does have its pros, though. That trick that Kim Kardashian does where she keeps her breasts afloat in an evening dress without wearing a bra? That’s a drag convention that’s been used for years.
“I’m lucky where with my big chest because it’s easier to make boobs. I can just push these babies together, lift my chest up, wrap with duct tape and automatically have a great pair of boobs.”
Still, Mohammed has to constantly think about silhouettes and can’t simply slap on a beautiful dress because then he’ll just look like a man in a dress – which is fine if that’s what you’re going for – but Mohammed wants to dazzle.
“So I have to change the shape of my body and even out the proportions a bit.”
Ever since attending a Halloween party in drag, Mohammed has been learning more and more about himself, challenging his masculinity, and getting in touch with his feminine side, where there’s a constant conflict between the two.
“It’s fun to explore. Inkwell Moon is just another side of me. An escape from the real world. I’ve been working in corporate for four years now and I’m not shy about her at all. I don’t hide anything. I embrace all the different sides of me.”
Even though he doesn’t consider himself an artist, Inkwell Moon is still Mohammed’s art. He goes on to explain how flipping his gender is merely his current form of expression, even though he can’t say whether he’ll be doing it forever. However, the benefits so far are plentiful and he’s learning a lot about himself through drag.
“My drag persona gives the boy me a bit more confidence, knowing that I can put in time and effort to create something amazing, regardless of how people react, is testament to my daily life. ‘Just suck it up, Mary. You can do this.’ Creating something like I have, on the budget and resources that I have – no other queen does what I do, and so I like to remind myself that and it’s a huge confidence booster.”
Make no mistake: drag takes balls, and can be a tough decision to make when instead of being treated like royalty, life can literally become a drag.
“Drag is about being super out there and attention-seeking. It’s a conversation starter, and the whole thing boils down to why pride is important. It’s not just a big party where gay men get drunk. It’s so important with all the hate crimes still happening that we encourage people to do whatever they want to do. We may think we’ve come a long way with gay marriage and other things, but there’s a big difference between the law and public sentiment, which is still so backwards. Let your freak flag fly, the queens will be there to support you.”
There’s no identity being mocked here, because identity itself is being dismantled. Drag is not a parody: bigger than that, it’s a slap in the face of conformity, diluting the male vs female binary that so many of us still hold dear.
Drag is a subculture that’s not strictly limited to the queer scene: like other elements from the culture, some of it has eventually seeped into the mainstream. Make of it what you will, there are points here that each of us may take away: that the street is your catwalk, to never be a wallflower, and most importantly, that it’s essential to love yourself.
Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photography: Ollie Kruger | Styling: Gavin Collins
This article was first published on the The Way of Us blog on superbalist.com.