How Poland’s oldest drag queen has rediscovered herself

7 Mins read

The Polish drag scene would not be complete without Lulla La Polaca, the alter-ego of 84 year-old Andrzej Szwan – an extremely colourful and energetic character who proves that age is just a number.

Andrzej was interested in fashion from an early age. Back then, he didn’t yet know what future awaited him. When he initially saw himself in a more feminine appearance, he was about nine years old.

“At that time I couldn’t dream of theatre yet, but there was this instinct in me. No-one was home. I found my mother’s dress, somewhere in the hallway, shoes that were too big for me, I took some lipstick from the bathroom and applied it to my lips lopsidedly. Next to my mother’s wardrobe there was a lingerie cupboard with a mirror, I stood in front of it, making faces and that’s when I thought I would be an artist one day,” he told Artefact.

Andrzej Szwan/Lulla La Polaca

He discovered his love for the stage a few years later, thanks to his Polish language professor who persuaded him to apply to drama school: “In middle school, I had to declare how I was going to direct my life further. My professor, whom I remember well, was constantly organising various commemorative academies during the Communist era. We had to perform, recite, and the professor chose me as one of three boys for this role. He later persuaded me to apply to the Polish Theatre Academy. That’s what happened,” Andrzej recalled.

It was 1956, and there were over 1,200 candidates for the theatre school in Warsaw at the time, and there were only about 20 places. I didn’t get in. Although a year later I was supposed to apply again with my friend, that didn’t happen. My mother fell ill and I had to go to work and, together with my father, earn money to support my family,” he said.

Born in 1938, exactly one year and two weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War, his childhood, as well as his teenage years, although they fell during an exceptionally turbulent and difficult period in Polish history, were not without colour, as Andrzej and Lulla’s many stories attest.

“During the Communist era in Poland, in the 1960s or 1970s, nobody knew what drag was.”

Andrzej Szwan

“During the Communist era in Poland, in the 1960s or 1970s, nobody knew what drag was. Now we know what kind of art it is. Before, we used to meet for ‘dress-ups’,” – he explained after we asked him about what his first encounters with drag were like.

The first creations of Lulla and her friends were united by a colour – intense red; as Andrzej recounts, for a while this was the only colour of fabric they could get their hands on, using it to sew dresses for their regular social gatherings.

“My friend Zbyszek a.k.a. Marylka worked in a chain of shops Sopłem and asked a friendly shop assistant for a bale of fabric. This bale was in one colour, red, and it was from it that our friend, so-called ‘Our Lady of the Gays’, sewed dresses for us. They were different length: mini, midi, but all in one colour.”

To fully present himself to the world and the wider public, he waited a long time, several years, in fact: “None of our circle of gay friends had flats. Each of us lived with our parents. I could organise get-togethers when my parents went on holiday from the so-called staff fund. I could invite my friends, we would dress up, but it wasn’t easy. There were no places in Poland where we could buy this kind of clothing in male’s size. We made a turban out of a towel, a cape out of a curtain. Over the years, as our gay circle widened, we borrowed wigs from my friend’s sister, who bought them in London, and we would snatch them from her,” he explained.

“Real drag started in my case with a meeting in one of Warsaw’s clubs with the cult Polish drag queen, the late Kim Lee, in 2008. We felt the spark and started meeting privately. It was she who, with my upcoming name day in mind, came up with the idea of organising The Lulla Show. There were maybe 50 people at that name day and it was Lulla’s first drag show, but it was after four years of knowing her, in 2012. At first I wasn’t convinced, but it was Kim who pushed me on stage,” Andrzej recalled.

Lulla La Polaca

In numerous interviews, Andrzej vividly recalled his parents, especially his father, who gave him a full acceptance. Life for gay people in Poland, in the second half of the 20th century, was not easy, but for Andrzej it was full of warmth and understanding. Although he never introduced Lulla to his relatives, he was outed yet still felt supported by his loved ones. 

“I never disclosed Lulla to my parents. My mother died in 1963, when I wasn’t thinking about performing, and although I had a very good relationship with my father, it wasn’t something to talk about at the time. He went in the direction of accepting me as a gay. Some of my friends were thrown out of their homes back then, even in the middle of winter, they had to cope with life on their own. But how many young people, today, face the same thing. They are driven to suicidal instincts by rejection from their parents,” he said.

How did this gay social life differ from what it is like in Poland today? “Gay life from my youth may have flourished similarly to how it flourishes today, but on different terms. Back then, no-one talked about it specifically, there were no associations for LGBTQ+ people like we have today, where you could turn for support,” Andrzej admitted.

“The fact that my father, who was a soldier in a Polish Military, was tolerant towards me. My mother didn’t talk to me openly about gay topics, but my father did the opposite. When I brought my partner home for the first time, he planted us on his laps, hugged us and told us that he was happy to have two sons.”

At the same time, Andrzej points out that although it is 2023, in Poland LGBTQ+ people still cannot fully express themselves and have to face many obstacles on a daily basis.

“There is a very big resentment being created in Polish society by those currently in power against us as a minority, against LGBT+. And so I ask myself: ‘Why?’ Are we hurting anyone by being ourselves? What President Duda said, that we are not people but an ideology. How can that be? I am as much a human being as a priest, a prostitute, a policeman, a surgeon or anyone else. I have the same right to stand in the same line with them on the street. They insult me with this and I will not allow myself and my community to be insulted,” he told us.

Although he combines two, slightly different identities, he immediately points out that they are fully inseparable for him. “Andrew and Lulla are one. There is no Andrew without Lulla and there is no Lulla without Andrew.”

Lulla La Polaca

When asked about the stage inspirations that have accompanied him on his journey of self-discovery, he points to Marilyn Monroe, as well as two Polish female artists.

“I love Marilyn Monroe as a lady of cinema, her character as an artist who used to be changing like a chameleon. I also have my favourite Polish artists. My favourite is Hania Banaszak and the first lady of Polish song, Irena Santor, whom I know personally.”

In interviews, Lulla is often listed as the “oldest Polish drag queen”, but she doesn’t mind pointing out her age. In fact, she treats it as a symbol of recognition, an opportunity to share stories and the journey she has taken in the process of reinventing herself.

In 2022, Lulla performed in a play at the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, while her fans could also marvel at her independent drag initiatives or during Pride Month, when she participated in the Equality Marches.

So, what is the process of Andrzej’s transformation into Lulla like? “Now that I’m performing in a real theatre, I have two wardrobe girls, two make-up artists. I arrive at the theatre two hours before the show starts. I get dressed for Lulla in a dressing room to which I have been invited by a professional actor, Arek Brykalski, who also performs with me in the play Orlando. Biographies” Andrzej explains.

Lulla La Polaca getting ready for her show

Observing Andrzej and Lulla on social media, following the projects in which they take part, as well as in the conversation itself, it is impossible not to feel the energy, optimism and infinite power beating from them. These are the subsequent projects that are fuel for them.

“Andrzej is experiencing his second youth and love. The year 2022 was like winning a lottery ticket. Interviews, meetings, the play Orlando. Biographies at the Powszechny Theatre, where I had the opportunity to play with professional actors, but also guys in transition who were making their debut on stage. For me it was the fulfilment of a youthful dream,” he said.

The play in the theatre, however, is not the only big project that was realised in 2022. The other one is the documentary film Boylesque, which tells the story of Andrew and Lulla.

“The documentary film about Andrzej and Lulla called Boylesque was being made for over five years. It has toured six festivals including Bergen and Toronto and was given the awards at each of them. What drives me into those actions? I think it’s the fact that I’m not dependent on the help of third parties, I can handle everything myself. I can’t imagine a life like that.”

At the same time, he says he is still open to proposals for new projects. He doesn’t want to slow down and is eager to get the most out of life. His fans also hope that he will not leave the stage for a long time and that it is a testimony that age is not an obstacle to living life at its best.

“I’m open to any interesting project. I can’t slow down, sit in an armchair, put my foot down, stare at the ceiling and wait for Lulla to come off the stage. No. As long as I can, as long as I have the strength, I will act.”

Featured image courtesy of Andrzej Szwan.

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