Taken from the autumn/winter issue of Dazed:
Pearl Liaison, AKA Matthew James Lent, is a walking sensation. When she appeared on season seven of the reality spectacular RuPaul's Drag Race in March, she presented an inscrutable persona quite unlike any that had gone before her on the series. She was beautiful, flawless and bored out of her mind.
Like most reality TV shows, Drag Race humiliates its stars as much as it celebrates them, but while other queens were falling over themselves with thirst to pander to the production, Pearl remained unfiltered and unflappable. The classically beautiful look she painted on to her face each week was tinged with a kind of emotion not politely packaged for public consumption, and as the other contestants revelled in telling tidy, tiresome sob stories, Pearl remained steely and calm. Week after week, as the show’s ageing judges tried to build a storyline around her not expressing her emotions enough to snag a mainstream audience’s attention, an army of online fans proved them wrong by flocking to her anyway. When, inevitably, the show did break her down, she expressed herself in a way that was fully raw, making no apologies for feeling totally fucked up. While other queens might insist that they stand out for their humour or their dancing or their really good wigs, Pearl rose above the rest with her refusal to fake it, even in drag.
Now, Pearl is transcending the bounds of the RuPaul Industrial Complex to become a cottage industry in her own right. She’s found herself on a gruelling world tour, making special guest appearances at the Miu Miu club in Paris and releasing a self-produced EDM album, all while dealing with an unfalteringly adoring fanbase. Just before we meet in London, she attended a meet-and-greet in Ireland, where a 13-year-old boy approached her. “You make me feel safe to be who I am,” he said. “You’ve changed my life.” The girl is a triumph in the importance of aesthetics and self-expression. Living proof that you can change the world with just a look.
No other queen in the history of Drag Race has had the kind of reaction you have.
Pearl: I know. I applied just because I made a video and thought it would be a fun thing to submit, and from the moment of getting the call to tell me I was on the show it’s been, like… The feeling is like if your fucking dog dies. I’m constantly thinking, ‘Oh my God, am I gonna get through this?’ But every day you just get up and do it.
How long were you given to prepare for the show?
Pearl: Oh, they give you like two weeks’ notice. They really like to fuck you up before you get on that show – and while you’re on it. It makes sense. If they gave you all kinds of time you’d be perfect when you got there and it wouldn’t be fun to watch. There have to be wrenches thrown in the system. They give you no time to get ready before the challenges, for example. The whole experience of being on Drag Race is a storyline that’s been written for you based on your first ten minutes walking into the workroom. It’s not like Project Runway, where you just go on and it’s solely based on your talent, or The Real World, where you’re just living your life.
Are they nice while they’re fucking with you? Do they do it with a smile?
Pearl: You spend most of your time with the production assistants, who are honestly just normal 20-somethings who haven’t watched the show a whole lot. Anyone can walk in and apply to be a production assistant and get hired. So you can hang with them and they’re cool and laid-back; sometimes they’ll slip you a bit of pot on set. But as for the real producers, you connect with them, but there’s a wall, you know. They can’t add you on Facebook, they can’t get your number, they can’t follow you on Twitter.
“I can’t possibly do this for 20 years the way I’m doing it. I’d be lucky to, but, girl. It’s not good for your body. It’s not good for your skin. My dick is in my ass all the time, my ribs are crushed by a corset, I have bruises on my hips” – Pearl Liaison
Do you get to see RuPaul at all while you’re making the show?
Pearl: Only when you’re filming. But it takes hours to film with RuPaul. She has an earpiece in the entire time, and she recites her lines from it over and over. She doesn’t fuck it up, she just redoes them a million times: different funkiness and different this and that, and she talks to herself because she’s talking to the guy in her ear. It takes forever.
So she’s not holding your hand, so to speak?
Pearl: No, sweetie, it’s like living in a fantasy world! If you’re far off on the stage and she’s talking to you, she’ll look at the camera so it seems like she’s looking at you, but she’s actually not. So you’ll be crying about your dead dad, and she’s like, looking over your shoulder wiping her eye.
Pearl: It is fucking weird. But she’s amazing – I don’t blame her for being who she is. I would probably be the exact same way, but I’ll never be where RuPaul is, so I’ll never know. RuPaul paved the way. She’s making money, she’s changed lives, she’s changed the way people see drag queens, she’s changed what gender non-conformity is. She’s got it going on, and I will never not respect her.
Do you see yourself growing into an old queen? Are you going to make a career of it when you get to Ru’s age?
Pearl: Uh-uh. No fucking way, girl. I took two weeks off last week, and by the end it was like, ‘Oh my God, I kind of miss Pearl!’ I miss that bitch, but I can’t possibly do this for 20 years the way I’m doing it. I’d be lucky to, but, girl. It’s not good for your body. It’s not good for your skin. My dick is in my ass all the time, my ribs are crushed by a corset, I have bruises on my hips, my toenails are falling off. I just got a manicure because I had glue residue all over my nails. I can’t do this forever.
What if you have to pee?
Pearl: Well, I don’t tape. So I just pull it out and shove it back in there with my pointy stiletto nails on. I get bruises everywhere, my eyes will be red from rubbing all that make-up off… I used to wear a lot of glitter on my eyes, and it got to the point where I couldn’t keep scraping glitter off my eyes every fucking day.
So you never hook up with anyone when you’re in drag?
Pearl: Oh my God, no! It’s just so not my thing.
You’ve been called the hottest Drag Race contestant ever.
Pearl: I mean, obviously I’m aware that’s a thing, but I learned a long time ago that reading things online is really not good for me. I barely read my own comments on Instagram because there’s always something negative there and that’s the only thing you see. So yes, I’m aware that people want to sleep with me, but I don’t really get into it. I don’t have time to sleep with anyone, honestly. When am I going to have time?
When you’re at home?
Pearl: When do I go home?
You just had two weeks off, remember?
Pearl: That’s true. I slept with someone during those two weeks. But that’s rare! Don’t get me wrong, it definitely happens, but, girl, I was a bigger whore before all of this. I’m not even close to being a whore now. When am I going to sleep with someone? Between taking my make-up off and calling a cab? In the cab? With the cab driver? Like, I suck off the cab driver and that’s my sex life? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried.
“If I ever had questions when I was growing up about who I was supposed to be, those questions were answered when I started doing drag. I don’t have a deep philosophical reason for doing this. I just like doing it” – Pearl Liaison
Did you ever think you were going to have the fanbase you have? I mean, you have teenage girl fans who are otherwise idolising people like One Direction.
Pearl: Hell, no! Honestly, when I did Drag Race, I was just like, ‘Bleurghh, here’s my video,’ and then I was on and just kind of got pulled through all these doors. This has only been happening for six months, and every day there’s some kind of reality check.
How do you mean?
Pearl: I don’t know. Maybe I take it for granted a little bit. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Holy shit, there’s 500 people at this meet-and-greet! I’m hot and my feet hurt and I just worked this entire party and I’m exhausted and I haven’t slept for days and this and that.’ But by the end, I’m like, ‘How could I have felt that way? These people stood in line for hours to meet me for about 15 seconds.’ That’s a reality check.
A lot of your fans feel a real connection to you. I think you represent something important to them.
Pearl: Well, that’s good for me to hear because I don’t always think that. I don’t always know how people really feel. I mean, at shows, when I’m looking into the crowd I’m like, ‘Why?’ Literally all I did was dress up as a woman. Literally.
But I think people forget that this generation is very visually literate. You can be important to people just by doing your own thing.
Pearl: That’s what I’m saying, and I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with it perfectly. Because I don’t want to say I’m a role model for people, either. That’s a bit too much responsibility for me. If people want to look up to me for being a successful, independent person, I’m happy to be there saying, ‘Hey, you can do it too.’ That’s where I’m willing to go with it.
When did you first dress as a woman?
Pearl: It was Halloween, when I was seven or eight. My sister did my make-up and I wore this brown wig, a dress and a jacket and a pair of boots. I just wanted to be a girl for Halloween. I never did it again until I did drag as an adult.
So it’s just drag for you? How do you consider your gender identity?
Pearl: Oh, I’m not confused at all, I love being a boy. If I ever had questions when I was growing up about who I was supposed to be, those questions were answered when I started doing drag. I don’t have a deep philosophical reason for doing this. I just like doing it, it’s fun, that’s it. When I started, I still had a day job, so it was different for me than it was for some other drag queens in that they were so thirsty. I did drag because I wanted to, not because I had to. I wasn’t that thirsty bitch at the bar trying to get noticed and get a gig. I was just going out with my friends who were in drag too. I wasn’t working in Starbucks and then, like, babysitting someone’s kid and scratching around for a gig. I graduated hair school when I was 17 and I was working in a salon before I was 18. I had a good job and I was able to pay my bills. I think the struggle came from my reasons as to why I had to be that self-sufficient person, which was that I had no support system from a really young age.
That’s something a lot of people responded to on the show. I think you on the main stage, crying when Ru asked you to talk to your five-year-old self, was the most emotional reality TV moment ever.
Pearl: I mean, girl, I never thought I was going to go on Drag Race and cry. Watching myself cry on TV is the hardest thing I have ever had to go through. I rejected all invitations to host viewing parties, because I just wanted to be at home with a few close friends under a blanket, you know. It’s fucked up. It’s a weird, unnatural, bizarre thing. The thing is, I’ve been through things but I have completely grown, and I’m almost thankful. I would rather have gone through those things and be who I am, than be someone who has had things handed to them their entire life. I’m not a victim, and I was afraid that if I ever opened up about ‘my story’ then I was going to come off as one. But in the end I was much more emotional than I thought I would be. Maybe I just don’t go there with myself. Maybe there is still a little bit of a pain there. I don’t know, but I don’t think about it. I just live my life and that’s it.
Hair Luke Hersheson at Art + Commerce, make-up Peter Philips and Pearl, nails Shreen Gayle at Premier Hair and Makeup, set design Emma Roach at Streeters, lighting designer Romain Dubus, photographic assistants Willow Williams, Jared Beck, fashion assistants Reuben Esser, Rhys Davies, Elle Brit, hair assistant Sean Nother, make-up assistants Aminata Gueye, Kathinka Gernant, set design assistants Warwick Turner-Noakes, Patience Harding, digital operator Henri Coutant at Dtouch, production Floriane Desperier at 4Oktober, on-set production Ragi Dholakia, runner Michel Bewley
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