I spent my second year of university in a student house, which I shared with five other people, one of whom was an amateur drag queen. He was constantly coming and going at all hours of the night. He’d been wrapped up in the East London drag scene and our house became a frequent destination for after-parties; all manner of riff raff he’d picked up along the way would attend.
He would fill the house with strangers and the party would go on for days, leaving every single liquid receptacle sticky with alcohol or dirty with fag ash. I was being enlightened to a very gaudy, unpleasant side to the scene. But there’s a lot more to drag artistry than initially met my eyes.
For some people it’s a form of artistic expression in which they take on a whole other persona internally as well as externally. Some perform in a typical lip synch or cabaret format, while others exist like a living installation. For some it provides them a licence to do what they please. It gives them a night off from their own identity. It gives people the chance to be a star for the night.
“I’d say the drag community in the UK is a very inspiring scene”
Sat front row at a drag show I saw the power of expression that performing as a drag queen can portray. Lydia L’Scabies was the name of the drag queen and her performance was very powerful. It wasn’t camp or flamboyant as I’d expected. L’Scabies’ The Street Urchin was a dark observation of the dangers of addiction.
Speaking to Lydia about the show, she explained what led her to arrive at this disturbing performance: “It’s called The Street Urchin – I took the idea from observing pedestrians on my way home when the club was shut, and there’s always this token person stumbling down the street.
“You can’t see their face, and they’re either sobbing or trying to watch where their feet are landing, but it just disturbed me; the urge to want to help them and see if they’re okay but at the same time you have no idea what their story is. With this I made an urban myth about a girl who was swallowed by the scene and made into a demonic salvager of souls to take to the club and entrap people in a hellish Dionysian dream.”
I started to question what other misconceptions I’d been making about drag queens. It’d always seemed very random and haphazard, seeing lanky boys in dodgy wigs teetering as they stumbled through Old Street station in heels they were borrowing from an understanding big sister.
I asked what had inspired Lydia to become this character.
“Well ‘Lydia’ was born April 4 2013,” she explains. “I’d say if the parents could be anything, then Mum and Dad are the Club and the Street. Being a night owl was really interesting in regards to building the character. To some people I was this ‘green fairy’ that would only appear when people were wasted, just to counsel them.”
Meet some drag queens in London:
I began to realise that there was a lot more to her than at first glance. She doesn’t talk about it as a hobby or a pastime but more like a business network, even a way of life. “I’d say the drag community in the UK is a very inspiring scene – people you meet/clock/see online – there’s so many amazing new exciting names and work popping up and it is motivating.” The more I listened, the more I realised that drag is a culture rather than a crowd.
“We all come from the same place. Everyone who’s on the scene now were the rejects at school. Now I finally feel appreciated. All the rejects come together on the drag scene, but drag comes in so many different forms now.”
Speaking to another queen, Matthew Kenny, I learnt about how people come onto the scene to be appreciated for the way they represent themselves. “It’s a form of expression and an outlet for our creativity for people who understand and appreciate it.”
“Getting paid is a complete bonus. I would do it every night if I could”
When asked about being labelled a drag queen, Matthew insisted: “I don’t consider myself a drag queen. I don’t think everything needs to be labelled. When I dress up I am still me, I don’t have a ‘drag name’ because it’s still me. If I had to label it I’d call myself a gender illusionist.”
Matthew is a club host in London working alongside big-name drag DJ Jodie Harsh. As a designer, creative director, club host and big name on the scene, he intends to go global with his brand which he explained has many branches. He doesn’t consider it work because he loves it all so much.
He invited Artefact into his home so we could look at the transition he goes through before each event. Sitting in Matthew’s flat, it was exactly what I’d expected: a beautiful new build in East London. Every room was filled with polystyrene heads modeling different coloured wigs. In his room there’s a table dedicated entirely to sunglasses. A mannequin sits in one corner of the room, sporting a tailored silver jacket he made.
In the other corner, Matthew’s work station, he creates a different look for each night of the week. Watching the transformation and his attention to detail made me appreciate how important it is to him.
Everyone has different reasons for wanting to dress in drag. For some it’s a fetish, for others it’s an artistic expression. “I have always known I wanted to dress up. Whenever I had a babysitter I would do her hair and make-up and I would always try on my mum’s shoes.”
The way Matthew builds towards his final look reminds me of an artist working on a painting. It requires time, layers, breaks and most importantly concentration. He’s full of useful tips on how to achieve his look and many unusual methods for creating the futuristic androgynous figure he becomes when he goes out.
“I’m not trying to be a woman. I’ve never felt like I was born in the wrong body or wished I was a woman.”
He becomes prickly every time I use the term ‘drag queen’, insisting that it’s not as black and white as that. He explains to me the definition of ‘fishy’: meaning a drag queen who looks like a biological woman.
“Yass! Fish!” says a friend of Matthew’s as he bursts into the room half way through his own transformation with dark eye make-up and a mass of black synthetic hair on his head. Ryan, better known by night as ‘Lucy Trash’, is accompanying Matthew as he goes to work as a host at Room Service, a gay club night which pulls in some of the most creative and elaborate artists on the scene.
Matthew tells me that having a signature look and a presence on the scene is paramount to success. “Getting paid is a complete bonus. I would do it every night if I could.” It seems that Matthew really does it for the buzz, for the appreciation and glory rather than for the money.
“If you are quiet natured, it’s difficult to make a name for yourself on the scene. People need to be interested in you and your look. Your look has to be original. It’s about choosing something that represents you and then having the confidence in yourself to work it.”
It seems clear that Matthew, despite his brash, no nonsense exterior really does have a sweet message – that drag is about acceptance of people’s uniqueness. With drag popping up more and more in regular culture, I think we’ll see an explosion of its influences.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has already had huge success in the mainstream media and gives a lot of hope to the young queens who might have previously felt restricted as to how to express themselves. It’s time for this acceptance to be spread, so the talent of people like Matthew and Lydia can begin to be appreciated by all of us.
Photography by Isabelle Andarakis