Word and images by Madeleine Magin Betelu and Laura Sodano Ballestero
All factors count. Every detail is curated to the millimeter.
Each way of acting, every way of being.
Each wig, hair by hair and covered by a thick layer of lacquer.
The eyeliner, eyebrows, corset or vinyl clothing. It does not matter how late it is, neither does the heat, pain or discomfort matter as long as perfection is reached.
There are many drag queens who walk, do their shows and ask their audience for acclaim in the streets of the Left Eixample in Barcelona and its night clubs, also known as Gayxample.
In a shared apartment, between metro stops Urgell and Sant Antoni, every weekend Ácido and David, who plays Elektra, both go under the stage name Gorgona. It is an apartment shared by people in their thirties or less who gather in front of the TV to watch music videos, Eurovision rehearsals or shows about finding the perfect wedding dress, all while chatting about anything.
As the evening progresses more people cross the entrance door to the point of not knowing who is invited and who lives there. What is certain is that David drags from his house an extra large suitcase to the apartment where the meetings are held, which contains his Gorgona outfit.
Gorgós is an ancient Greek term that means “terrifying”. However it would certainly sound more common if it is explained as the name referring to three female figures who are considered monsters in Greek mythology.
It is about three sisters who have snakes for hair, golden wings and bronze hands, and a glare able to turn anyone who made eye contact with them into stone. Their names were Esteno, Euryale and Medusa. Today, in the skin of these supernatural women, hated by their power, you have Elekrta, Ácido and a third name that remains unknown due to the departure of the third member of the group.
The costumes and wigs are completely customized. From David’s suitcase pops out a large and voluptuous custom made electric blue tulle skirt, and a top of the same colour that combines transparency and vinyl. Proud of the result, he shows to each person passing by the living room the great artwork that some professionals have made with his platinum blonde wig. It is a hairstyle with such spectacular waves going from side to side of his head.
You could say it is inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s esthetics but in a more exaggerated way. Just as expensive and equally unconscionable is Ácido’s wig, all black with a platinum blonde wick that gives a vampiric touch, and which is exposed on the dining table for anyone that passes by to see.
The evening starts at 21:42. There are about two hours of makeup assured. Skin colored stocking socks are placed on their head and while David uses a glue stick to create a flat surface near the eyebrows, he decides which will be their makeup for the night.
The glue stick is the same as the one any child may carry in his backpack to go to school, and the same one that almost any drag queen chooses to have in her vanity case, perhaps because of its effectiveness. While waiting for all the layers of glue on his face dry, he begins to shave his beard in the sink. It is vital to have a waxing session before each transformation to achieve the desired esthetic.
[pullquote align=”right”]“Transformation is not always the desire for a gender change, but another way of expressing feelings and emotions”[/pullquote]
In Ácido’s room at least four large suitcases filled with makeup products are laying on the bed. Gorgona uses brands used by the most famous YouTubers like Nikkie Tutorials, Manny Mua, favours and of course Jeffree Star, from Nars, Too Faced, Yves Saint Lauren, to Huda Beauty, L’Oreal and NYX. He chooses the black eyeliner to draw a line that goes from the eye to the hair growth, Lady Gaga style. The singer, defender, revolutionary and feisty singer by LGTBQ rights is one of Gorgona’s biggest sources of inspiration and not only for her ideas, but for her aesthetics.
It is customary for many drag queens to use this appearance as they find it to be the closest step to a change of gender. There are several reasons for it. Taking a step like this is not easy, almost nothing that makes the “definitive” alarm go off is presented as a crystalline choice.
It is in no way judgeable the fact of feeling part of another body, the feeling of being born with the wrong body and for that reason wanting to change it. But the transition is never easy as long as it is given importance to basic minds that qualify it as unnatural or abnormal. This and other reasons that belong inside each person mean the only step that can be taken for the time being is dressing up to create a new personality.
The alter ego is the other reason to create a character that differs completely from the person who usually is shown. A name, a personal aesthetic and a new behaviour are adopted and are worked on day after day. In no case is it a forced decision, but a way of being that dwells within each individual and sometimes manifests itself through aesthetics.
Being a drag queen does not mean going in search of femininity, it is an option that is taken as any other and the reasons are endless depending on each person.
Being Lady Gaga and not Beyoncé, being expressive through exaggeration and not for femininity is the definition and reason of being for Ácido, a drag queen who never would define himself as a woman, who believes faithfully in his way as a man.
A 28 year old man who, after chasing the dream of being a professional makeup artist, realized that modern art in today’s society is fashion, cosmetics, hairdressing and everything that a person can wear. He realizes that transformation is not always the desire for a gender change, but another way of expressing feelings and emotions.
Exactly two hours later, after a mask made of eye shadow, fake eyelashes and pronounced contouring, only twenty minutes is left to reach the hotel where they work. Axel Hotels is a chain that has been recognized for its full commitment to the LGBTQ community and seeking their full integration into society. It organizes evenings dedicated to these people, parties like any other that you can attend without feeling judged alongside drag queens like Ácido and Elektra, or other well-known Barcelona names like Michelle Divine, Bushido or Moon Diva.
They work at these events to enliven the atmosphere and the attendees, to whom they suggest other clubs, usually gay ones, to go on to. PK2 (pronounced ‘pecados’, which is Spanish for ‘sins’) is a new space in the Tango room that opened this week and the idea was to convince as many people as possible in Hotel Axel and other bars nearby to go and enjoy the company of the drag queens who appeared on the lineup.
Twenty minutes turned into forty between clothing and hair styling. Elektra surrounds her waist and abdomen with Scotch tape to stick her underwear to her body before putting the majestic tulle skirt and vinyl crop top. The skirt cannot be put on before leaving the room because she would not fit through the door, or through the dining room to get to the front door.
Ácido wears a vinyl black body, with puffed sleeves and leopard stockings. When he puts on the corset he loses all mobility and needs a third hand to put on the black boots that make him two heads taller than normal. All clothing is designed exclusively for them, they pick ideas from what they see on the street, in magazines, at concerts and red carpets and fuse everything they like into a unique and spectacular design.
Placing the wig on their heads is the final touch that turns them into Gorgonas, completing a spectacular transformation. Liquid glue is used to stick the net of the wig on the head and attach overnight. More lacquer is used, all necessary to finish the same evening that since the beginning, and keep the glue on the bag share for contingencies that may arise.
They hail a taxi with five seats that barely fits Elektra’s skirt so that they can get to the hotel as quickly as possible. At the door the others, their bosses and other drag queens from the club’s lineup are already waiting for them. Pink paper bracelets are distributed to give to customers of the bars so that they can come to the opening party at the Tango Hall.
It is a large group, at least six drag queens walking around the streets of Barcelona with spectacular dresses, wigs of all colors, violet, pink, blonde, scandalous makeup and shoes with vertiginous platforms. In small local bars they already know them and expect them to arrive every Saturday; some offer them shots and others observe them from a distance, not surprised, but with admiration.
Some ask them for pictures and are always ready to pose or outshine the other ones. Wherever they go they build a scandal, their screams are heard from the distance when they are talking, because if the wardrobe is not enough, everyone should notice they’re there. They criticize one another, laughing and joking, but sometimes not so much. They are almost like the top models of Gianni Versace acclaimed every time they walk the runway, and they know it.
When it is two am they must head quickly to the club before the performances start. Some decide to walk there, while others take a taxi, and meet directly at the Tango Hall backstage.
[pullquote align=”right”]It meant to show the world that you could choose to be a different gender. [/pullquote]
A living room with a sofa, a wardrobe and a mirror is the space they have to rest and prepare before leaving for the podium. They get drinks and consume them standing up while talking. The backstage area is behind a door guarded by bodyguards next to a sort of abandoned warehouse with very white lights, empty boxes, badly painted walls, nothing to do with the club room. At the entrance photos of the looks of the night are taken to post on Instagram the next day.
The work they do has evolved over the years. In the 90s, according to one of the most famous drag queens at that time and who is now transsexual woman, dressing up this way was a claiming a body that did not correspond to the one you had. It meant to show the world that you could choose to be a different gender. Karla today accompanies them during their work throughout several clubs in Barcelona but does not think the purpose of being a drag queen is the same today than what it was two decades ago. She explains that today they don’t dress up in a certain way because they feel it in them, but simply dressing up for the heck of it.
It is clear that times have changed, and this community is growing but still has trouble expressing itself as it would like to. Ácido does not distinguish between himself dressed as a man or as a woman. When Elektra puts on the wig and make up and dresses as a woman she feels more powerful. She never stops doing what she wants and how she wants it whether she is Elektra or David, but as a drag queen she feels a different energy, perhaps because it is not recognized or perhaps because it offers an incalculable confidence.
When something is done it is done for oneself, but often to transfer a certain feeling to others.
For most this work it is defined as scarce and poorly paid. Jobs are few and limited, and drag queens in Barcelona are countless. It is not possible to maintain a normal and stable life while doing this: not even the whole expenses of the clothing, makeup and hairdressing are covered.
“For love of the art” would be the best definition for doing what they do, because they continue doing this even if they do not provide anything economically. It can be complicated to understand, but that’s the life of an artist, which is what these young people are.
At first the preparation of these characters was not as intense and elaborate, and it gradually has been growing and becoming more serious until the moment it became a job. On a normal night at Arena or Ultrapop, gay nightclubs in Barcelona, they do not go out to drink and dance dressed as drag queens, because they would be giving away something that really should be paid for.
The room is slowly getting crowded and people are spread across the pop and EDM zones. The drag queens wait their turn to go on stage to dance by walking through the club or meeting backstage. Wigs are retouched and more glue is added around their face to make it last a few hours longer. Their makeup must stay perfect until dawn, with brush strokes they remove illuminations in the face created by sweat and that may highlight a recently shaven beard.
Everyone goes down to the dance room to take a walk, to be seen, to show off their very elaborate costumes, their wigs, their hours of work, which is what they are paid for. One of them remains backstage: she seems new to dressing up as a woman, or at least doing it to give a show. She secretly poses in front of the mirror and likes what she sees.
When the experienced drag queens talk about the rookies they do it in two ways, the first is to criticize them negatively. If a new drag queen wanders around the clubs without being paid, it gives the owners an excuse not to pay any of them.
On the other hand, there are those who defend them, because we must never forget where everyone came from. Everyone must start from scratch and has to sell themselves however they can. Some reach the target and others do not, but either way they should not stop doing what they like and what fulfills them. On the contrary, we must fight for this kind of artistic expression to be as valued as any other job. The new ones, who crazily seek to be seen, even convey tenderness because they are people who are slowly growing up and forming themselves in this world, free of prejudice.
Some start going on stage, everyone wants to be the first to do so, and everyone wants to spend as much time as possible on it. But here it is the boss who decides the rules and these end up not being the same for everyone. This is one of the roots of the fights that may arise overnight. Anyone who takes the stage without being called is dragged away, and if the environment is very heated, perhaps end up with a drink thrown in their face.
Fights may arise from different factors, but the objective is always the same: grab attention and be unique. A fight can start over something as simple as copying someone else’s wig. Each one has her own style that completely reflects their character, but perhaps copying is an exaggeration. If there is to do a survey to find out which color of wig would one buy it would probably come out platinum blond. It is one of the most used hair colors, especially by the famous, when one wants to create impact by making a radical change of look. But in the world of drag queens if one creates her character based on her hair color and the next week someone else uses it, it may be reason for conflict.
Seeing the atmosphere up close and speaking with the representatives of this movement can make it seem as if there is no point to being a drag queen. They all talk about being a drag queen as something that is not profitable at all. Simply taking a wig to get brushed can cost 70 euros, not to mention all the makeup (the best brands, of course) and costumes that are custom-made or purchased in specialist stores. True, this depends on how one wants to be, they say, you can manage with much cheaper materials but this means less quality and repeating outfits some nights.
It is not a well paid job and all these expenses come directly out of their pockets.
Anyone who wants to live as an artist must take into account these factors and look for another job to cover rent and food, because living like RuPaul today is almost impossible. What is clear is that since the 90s the condition of the drag queen has undergone visible changes, going beyond a sexual condition and evolving to another level and type of expression. It is a way to talk to others, to create sensations through fashion.
Being a drag queen is an art.