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Bodybuilders_Laura Bowels
Laura BowelsCourtesy ALIEN

In pictures: the alien ‘bodybuilders’ haunting the UK underground

Existing mostly on the internet, a new generation of drag artists are pushing the boundaries of queer aesthetics

Flick through the pages of Bodybuilders, and prepare to be transported. From the folkloric experiments of Sgàire Wood, to the extraterrestrial looks of Dazed 100 alumni Salvia, the photobook profiles 30 of the most exciting young drag artists in the UK. Made by Alien, a queer artist and DJ from Milan, Bodybuilders is not intended to be an exhaustive document of the scene, but rather a snapshot of an emerging subculture. It includes images of well-known performers like RuPaul UK contestant Dakota Schiffer and Lewis G Burton, founder of London’s elusive queer techno party Inferno. These figures are pictured alongside underground artists that are pushing a “niche within a niche”: from looks drawing on goth culture and manga, to those that fuse the satanic and medieval. 

Having moved to London six years ago, Alien became familiar with a few of the artists through east London’s clubbing scene. But it wasn’t until the lockdown of 2020 that they became aware of the breadth of the subculture. Like everyone else in the country, Alien was spending a lot of time on Instagram. “I started seeing people doing drag, but in a way I hadn’t really seen before,” they say. These artists were reaching far beyond the traditional definition of drag, using makeup and prosthetics to push the boundaries of queer expression, subverting not only the conventions of gender, but the human form.

Alien soon discovered the ogre drag of Shrek666, and the wonderfully weird creations of Jenkin van Zyl, an artist and filmmaker that builds characters inspired by fantasy and horror. Some of them are practising artists, but a large portion “live mostly online, and they delete their accounts pretty often,” says Alien. “They come and go, they change their names, and it’s hard to grasp what they do, or know that they even exist, unless you seek them out.” Part of the motivation behind the book was to record and document this movement before it evolved, or disappeared.

Alien’s own background placed them in a fitting position to make this work. They worked for years as a stylist in Milan, before picking up photography on the go while assisting at Street Studios in Haggerston, East London. Alien is also a DJ and a member of Milan-based transfeminist collective Tomboy’s Don’t Cry, which hosts events, film screenings, and exhibitions for the queer community. 

Fashion, youth, and subculture are at the heart of Alien’s interests. “Because of my background in styling, I’ve always been interested in creating characters,” they say. With Bodybuilders, the characters had already been constructed, and it became important for Alien to depict the performers how they wanted to be seen. Every image in the book has been approved by the performers, and most importantly, every individual was paid to take part – thanks to a grant from MAC Cosmetics. “That was a very important ethical and political choice,” they say. “They perform at a bar or a club and get paid. So why not get paid when they come to a photoshoot? Paying them was also a respect to the work they do.”

The hardest part of the project was choosing its title. “Some people didn’t feel that they were drag queens, or club kids,” says Alien. Bodybuilders fit the bill. Not only is it an ironic nod to the hyper-masculine practice of bodybuilding, but it aptly reflects the act of self-assembly practised by all 30 artists. As Helen Hester – professor of gender politics at the University of West London – articulates in her opening essay: “Each person photographed here has to some extent built themselves… channelling not only personal aesthetics, cultural reference points, and intellectual ideas, but also unconscious forces.” 

Bodybuilders is available to buy on Alien’s official website.