Genderfucked Drag: Serving Bearded Lady Realness
If you haven’t heard of RuPaul’s Drag Race by now, then you must have been living under a rock – or maybe in Russia – for the last 6 years. LogoTV’s runaway hit has skyrocketed drag culture into the global limelight, but what we have seen on the show is a very specific kind of drag; it’s the kind that can be served up with a bow – and honey, the bigger the better – and digested easily by the public. Until very recently, it has been divas, dolls, clowns, and not much else. That is, until now.
Last week, the shows eager viewers were given a glimpse into the darker – and hairier – aspects of drag with the runway challenge “Bearded Lady Realness.” Since then, the show’s following has been all atwitter, reeling from the shock of seeing bearded queens on the mainstage. Suddenly, there is confusion about what makes a drag queen. Does the presence of facial hair or chest hair suddenly retract the title of drag queen, no matter how big the wig or high the heel? Of course it doesn’t! In fact, it’s not even new.
‘Genderfucked’ queens have been around since the infancy of drag in the club scenes of the 80’s in New York City. These queens revel in blurring the gender binary and provoking people to look deeper. The strongest bastion of these queens now resides in the Pacific Northwest cities of San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, where burly, bearded, gown-clad boys abound. Beauty is not the primary – or even the secondary – objective of this faction of the world of drag. It’s more about the performance, the expression of self, and the ability to precipitate emotional reactions. SF queens like Grace Towers, Ruby-Blue Gender-Bender, and Effervescence Jackson all lip-sync “the house down” while rocking beards and chest hair.
Effervescence Jackson, or Effy, as her close friends call her, spoke about her drag, “My drag is deliberately gender-ambiguous. For me, it’s not about being fishy or making people think I’m a woman. It’s about making them think. I want a reaction. I want to change their perception of something on some primal level. I want to change how people think about gender, how they think about drag, and how they think about art. That’s why I do what I do.” This is the effect many queens in this genre of drag wish to achieve; they want to challenge your preconceived notions of the world around you.
While many genderfucked queens deliberately avoid looking polished, others take pride in being flawless – from beard to toe. One such queen, who has been around since the days of Paris is Burning, is the creative producer of Drag Race: Mathu Andersen. An original New York club kid, this queen counts the legendary James St. James (whose memoir Disco Bloodbath inspired the 2003 film Party Monster), and the incomparable Mama Ru as their close personal friends. In fact, this self-proclaimed “wig whisperer” has been RuPaul’s personal makeup artist and wig wrangler for years. Andersen also recently made drag “herstory” by participating in the first major fashion show to feature only drag queens and men; presented by the preeminent designer – and go-go boy favorite – Marco Marco.
One glimpse of Mathu Andersen’s instagram will slam the door in the face of anyone who thinks bearded queens aren’t every bit as fierce as their meticulously manscaped counterparts. Andersen sports a Walt Whitman worthy beard that takes almost as many shapes as the queen herself. Mathu’s photos, mostly “selfies”, offer visual commentary on a gamut of topics including vanity, sex and sexual roles, beauty ideals, and ageism. On the first encounter, these photos are startling. On the second, profound. His instagram art has been so well received that it was featured in a show at the World of Wonder art gallery in Los Angeles, which was hosted by RuPaul – of course!
Whether it’s tinted hot pink, painted black, or tightly trimmed into a handlebar moustache, this queens facial hair adds a layer beyond the flawless maquillage that forces the viewer to reevaluate their perception of beauty, femininity and gender identity. Mathu Andersen no doubt brought the “Bearded Lady Realness” challenge on Drag Race to fruition, and it was an ingenious ploy to highlight the facets of drag that have, until now, thrived mostly on the fringe. These highly gender-ambiguous facets of drag are the most provocative and powerful, and therefore exhibit the most potential to drive change; a change that the US is struggling to come to terms with, but is being expertly coached through by Andersen, RuPaul, and the queens of Drag Race.
While Mathu Andersen was puppeteering the television premiere of genderfucked queens in the US, another queen was already garnering multinational attention on the stage of Europe’s biggest talent search. In 2014, Conchita Wurst, a queen with pipes like Christina and looks like Kim K – but with a beard – won the Eurovision Song Competition. If you are not familiar, think a more established and more successful Euro version of American Idol. This bearded bombshell represented the country of Austria, and was broadcasted into 170 million homes worldwide. She won by a landslide margin of 52 points and has since been dubbed the “Queen of Austria.”
Conchita’s participation prompted visceral reactions from all over the EU. There were petitions to edit her out of the telecasts in Russia, Belarus and Armenia (whose contestant offered to help Wurst decide if she was a woman or a man). In fact, some Russians even shaved their beards in protest. Ironically, Wurst wouldn’t have won the competition without the help of those notoriously anti-gay countries; she placed second and third in the polls of Armenia and Russia respectively. From the looks of it, tides are changing even in these staunchly conservative countries. (Much to Putin’s chagrin.)
Conchita was such a hot commodity in 2014 that she was ranked 7th in worldwide Google searches for that year, ranking just above ISIS and just below Flappy Birds. This 25-year-old queen has blown the lid off the world of genderfucked performance, and has inadvertently prompted a wave of acceptance all over Europe. People in Austria may have started to cheer for Wurst to win the competition out of pure nationalism, but soon they were rethinking their notions about drag queens and the LGBT community. Conchita Wurst, despite loathing the idea of being a political figure, has been given a platform to help usher in an era of LGBT acceptance in Europe, and thereby the world. What she will do with it has yet to be seen, but many advocates for LGBT rights are hopeful.
While genderfucked drag has been provoking thought and changing minds for 30+ years, in the past two years it has reached the world stage. With this kind of inertia, it only stands to reason that not only are beards an integral part of drag, but also that bearded beauties might even change the world.