Katrina Cervoni’s intimate snapshots capture some of the most vivacious performers from across the world
At a time when trans rights are more under threat than ever, the spring 2019 issue of Dazed takes a stand for the global creativity of the LGBTQIA+ communities and infinite forms of identity. This article is a digital companion to the issue. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here, and see the whole Infinite Identities campaign here.
Drag is a culture that cannot be contained to any one stage or country. From Russia’s underground club scene to Paris’ cabaret-drag fusions, pockets of performers can be found worldwide, having created a safe haven for self-expression, inclusivity, and experimentation. For many people outside of these underground pockets, their drag awakening came via the explosive mainstream success of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which took drag from the clubs to primetime TV – despite criticisms that it barely scratches the surface of the culture.
Photographer Katrina Cervoni’s relationship with drag began when she started taking snapshots of friends as they realised their drag personas before parties; applying exaggerated make-up, padding, and costumes. This led to her lensing some of the most renowned drag artists in the business: Milk, Kim Chi, Sasha Velour. Her extensive series of shots is the product of several years’ documentation.
But there is no doubt, she says, that the acceleration of drag’s popularity via RuPaul encouraged her to dive even deeper. She explains: “Drag’s ascent to the mainstream led me to discover other facets of it – ones that were already existing but have been recently illuminated, partially by virtue of RuPaul’s ‘gateway drug’ to drag culture for hetero people.”
Recently, Cervoni immersed herself in the thriving drag scenes in Chicago, Athens, and Amsterdam, and spoke to three of the artists challenging the genre’s conventions to find out what really goes on behind the scenes.
IMP QUEEN: TRANS ARTIST/PERFORMER BASED IN CHICAGO
Katrina Cervoni: Seeing you perform is so riveting. To me, you emanate a magical blend of grace, fantasy and power. What do you want it to feel like for you? What feeling are you after when you perform?
Imp Queen: I’m wary of virtuosity as a concept, of the idea that the performer is doing anything particularly extraordinary. Our culture misuses the word “genius” to describe an individual possessed of innate gifts, when the word “genius” should describe a temporary state of sensitivity to the whispered suggestions of the universe. Genius is atmospheric; it flows around us like wind. A good performer becomes an open door, allowing the collective energy and knowledge of the universe to pour through them into their audience.
“I’ve had bosses who verbally abuse me, who misgender me to my face, who sexually harass me with impunity” – Imp Queen
Katrina Cervoni: In an interview you did with ALOK, you mentioned the harassment you face as a trans woman while working nightlife and the monetary or material consequence of voicing this violence within the community. Can you elaborate on this and perhaps share any advice you may have for other trans women navigating the politics of not being “man enough” for drag?
Imp Queen: Drag, like most industries, is male-dominated. Setting aside the fact that the highest paid drag queens are all cis men, if you look at any drag show from small local gigs all the way up to big Ru-girl tours, the people leaving at the end of the night with the majority of the money are not drag queens. The majority of the money goes to cis male promoters, club owners and managers. These men extract capital from the financial exploitation of talent – which is pretty standard fare for the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, these men also have a lot of control over performers' pay rates and access to bookings, which forces us to befriend our bosses. Again, this is pretty standard capitalism. But this can become more difficult for trans girls because our cis male bosses often do not understand the issues we are facing, and are sometimes the direct cause of these issues.
I’ve had bosses who verbally abuse me, who misgender me to my face, who sexually harass me with impunity, who grope my breasts and genitals. And that’s not even mentioning what patrons will do. I’m sexually assaulted at work with such regularity, it isn’t useful for me to sort these experiences as violence. I just don’t have the capacity to carry all of it. So, you hold your tongue and learn to be very careful about how much you say and to whom, because you have to if you want to keep working. You don’t want to be labelled “difficult” or “unprofessional” or “crazy”.
Katrina Cervoni: What’s the most fun thing about performing for you?
Imp Queen: Feeling the audience. That kind of energy and attention becomes an addictive high that you chase. And like most addictions, it comes with profound withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes it feels like I consume a whole month’s worth of serotonin in a single show.
Katrina Cervoni: What have you yet to achieve that you’ve always wanted to?
Imp Queen: For the first time in my life, I’m not completely obsessed with work. Creative ambition has been the driving force of my life for so long; I worked non-stop to avoid dealing with my trauma, to avoid my transness, to avoid actually living. But right now, most of my energy is focused on my transition. It’s a challenge. I’m trying to value myself beyond my productivity, to be okay with slowing down and getting back in touch with who I am without an audience. I feel like I’m standing at the threshold of an exciting new phase in my life and my art, trying to be patient while I wait for the door to open.
DAGLARA: ATHENS-BASED ARTIST, DESIGNER, PERFORMER, AND MOTHER OF THE HOUSE OF DAGLARA
Katrine Cervoni: I was so happy to meet you at BeQueer. Being in Athens was really insightful and I got the feeling that there aren’t many queer spaces in the city. What’s it like being a drag performance artist in Greece?
Daglara: Drag culture and performance, in its contemporary form, in Greece is still somewhat elementary. There isn’t a rich local tradition or an old guard of performers to draw from, so it feels very new and uncharted. There isn’t a supportive structure, enough venues or an educated audience but there’s a lot of excitement and interest. We’ve yet to escape the RuPaul’s Drag Race paradigm and American pop culture but I’m trying to disrupt this wave and challenge these expectations.
Katrina Cervoni: You’ve mentioned your fascination with trans-speciesism and your “desire to create an image that transcends the limitations of the human condition.” What draws you to trans-speciesism?
Daglara: Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with monster narratives, mythical hybrids, zoomorphic deities and therianthropes because they represent the union with the divine. As a queer person, traditional-heteronormative beauty standards feel uninspiring and oppressive and that’s why the fantasy of trans-speciesism is a way for me to evade these constructs and seek something that’s truly liberating. It’s not just about exceeding human limitations but being in synch with our primordial origins.
“As a queer person, traditional-heteronormative beauty standards feel uninspiring and oppressive” – Daglara
Katrina Cervoni: What’s the most fun part about performing for you?
Daglara: What’s most exciting about performing is that you get the chance to manifest and project all this fantasy to an actual setting. Being centre stage and able to command an audience is gratifying and feels very empowering.
Katrina Cervoni: To me, Daglara transcends the digestible, pop-stardom-level of drag. Do you see any drawbacks to the recent recognition of drag as mainstream culture?
Daglara: I believe drag going mainstream is mostly a good thing; it legitimises our art and created a whole new economy and outlets. I don’t see any particular drawbacks in finally being able to capitalise on our craft, but it’s each performer’s choice to be critical or superficial, to use it as a political tool or just for personal gain.
NIGHTCLUB DISASTER: COLLECTIVE OF PERFORMERS IN AMSTERDAM'S CLUB SCENE
Katrina Cervoni: You and Dennis Schreuder, as the mother and father of Nightclub Disaster, are both working within fashion, and it shows in the sense that everyone is always decked out to perfection. How else does fashion factor into Nightclub Disaster’s mandate?
Indiana Roma Voss: I think Dennis and I try and keep NCD away from our fashion careers, because we want to be perceived as more than just crazy drag club kids. That being said, our eye and fashion aesthetic will always shine through in what we do. So just from an aesthetic point of view, we incorporate fashion in NCD. Other than that we keep away.
Katrina Cervoni: What do you like more, getting ready or the performance itself?
Indiana Roma Voss: That’s almost an impossible question to answer because both are so amazing in their own way. We usually all get ready together and since we don’t get to spend time so much time together as a group it is really a cherished moment getting ready before the show.
”Our eye and fashion aesthetic will always shine through in what we do” – Indiana Roma Voss
Katrina Cervoni: It was a pleasure to see you all perform because you emit the spontaneous DIY energy that I wish Amsterdam had more of. What do you hope to bring out in the city?
Indiana Roma Voss: Exactly that. A little more DIY, punk, spontaneous attitude in clubland.
Katrina Cervoni: What direction would you like to see NCD go in 2019, and how does it fit into the greater drag landscape?
Indiana Roma Voss: As far as the drag landscape, I’m not sure we fit into the category of drag queens since we have both cis and female performers among the group. This is a good conversation to have though when trying to define the drag landscape – where do we fit? I guess we consider ourselves more club kids than drag queens, because for us drag queens really give you a show and we don’t actually do anything during our performances except be weird and act crazy. Maybe our direction for 2019 should be to determine who we think we are and what the fuck we’re doing, LOL.