Queens tell us their stories of why and how they got into the flamboyant world of expression and excess
While drag may currently be experiencing something of a renaissance, with the more glamorous elements seeping slowly into the mainstream, for the most part it remains pretty cult, confined largely to the queer scene. The UK’s own buoyant drag scene, however, has long championed the camp and experimental, the transgressive and subversive. For the queens themselves, their journeys and motivations for persevering with such an unconventional art are equally disparate and typically nonconformist.
Thom Glow, 26, fell into drag almost by accident. As an 18-year-old student at the University of Glasgow, he had a natural curiosity towards alternative and unconventional performance, and Halloween at the local gay bar presented the perfect opportunity to explore drag. After honing the character’s persona and sourcing the look from eBay, everything from the corset to the wig, he stepped out as the imperious Vanity Von Glow.
“I wanted to create a character that had enormous conceit, enormous narcissism and enormous vanity, a character good at all of those traditionally negative qualities,” says Glow, reflecting on the kind of queen he wanted to embody. “It was a feather bustle, pseudo-burlesque look. I mean, it was awful. I must say it's not a high point for the species. But I probably spent more time preparing that look for the first time then I have ever given now.”
At the time it was only intended as a one off Halloween costume. But Glow’s display as Vanity had left its mark, and when one performer from a Girls Aloud drag tribute act dropped out from a show weeks later, he was asked to step in. A career as a professional drag queen was not something he’d anticipated, but after a year of performing he was ready to host his own 90-minute show at another of Glasgow’s gay bars, Delmonicas. In the true spirit of drag, it didn’t quite go as planned.
Technical incompatibilities between the bar’s equipment and the backing DVD he’d prepared to accompany the show meant his entire repertoire was redundant. “So I just sat at the piano and made fun of the world,” he continues. “That’s when the voice of this character spoke for the first time. I remember somebody heckling and the tone that I now use is basically Vanity’s tone of voice. It felt like without everything going wrong I would never have seen that. I don’t know if I would've continued; if you can't find your voice in something you're not going to do it.”
For Glow, the aesthetics of drag are a tedious necessity; his interest lies in crafting a personality that audiences want to believe is true. Vanity’s own domineering, imperious persona was inspired in part by the way many female icons are lauded for their charisma, rather than any discernible talent. By channelling this he can captivate audiences with Vanity far more effectively than he could out of drag.
“Strangely, I wasn't too comfortable performing as a boy because I couldn't find a flow that would successfully connect to the audience in the packaging of a 20-year-old boy,” he says. “I don't really know how a 20-year-old boy is supposed to command a room from the stage. I don't know how I would have done it in a way that was authentic to me.”
While Glow’s career as Vanity was born out of curiosity, chance and one bar’s flawed wiring system, for Alex Clow it was artistic intrigue that led him to Alexus De Luxe. While at the University of the Arts London, Clow undertook a project that focussed on the way people are judged by their physical appearance. As his project evolved he began to explore issues around gender conformity and drag, something he wanted to witness first hand.
“I wanted to experience how people judged you and perceived you, offended you or appreciated you for going out as something you aren't - so I started doing drag,” says Clow, whose first public appearance in drag, as Alexus De Luxe, took place at queer club night Sink the Pink. “It was fun, it was outrageous and I think I got into it pretty quickly. I realised that actually no one was giving two tosses about however I looked.”
When Clow first started experimenting with drag his goal was to look as feminine as possible. But over time the compulsion to look as fem as possible waned. He’s liberated himself from what he sees as another “border of wanting to look a certain way” and now puts on a look he describes as “sci-fi sportswear” – an androgynous combination of mesh, silver and neon.
The evolution of his look is a mark of how performing has amplified his confidence, both in and out of drag. He no longer cares about how those outside the queer scene perceive him in drag, he’s less concerned about wearing masculine clothes as a boy and he feels more comfortable in more certain social situations.
“I think knowing that I have that personality in me, that I have Alexus, definitely gives me a bit of attitude,” he says. “I definitely have a lot more confidence. When I started doing drag I found myself more. I realised I can do this and this is what I wanted to do. I found it quite expressive and quite fulfilling to do this and not be held back and caged in by having to conform.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Tim Redfern. While working in corporate events, he spent much of his time living vicariously through the artists he was putting on events for. Desperate for creative fulfilment, his boyfriend found a ‘drag queen in a weekend’ workshop, taking place on the Battersea Barge. He took to it and shortly after found himself fronting a three-man band as his drag alter-ego, Timberlina.
“I fell into it by accident,” says Redfern. “I think it also fed into this lingering frustration to want to project something. The real reason I do this is because I'm questioning everything I'm doing. I'm doing this because I don't fit into the mainstream. I don't understand 9-5 jobs, I don't understand that culture that has been created around us.”
After a decade long career that has taken him as far as New York and seen him collaborating with the likes of Jonny Woo, Redfern now hosts his own weekly Bingo Show at the Royall Vauxhall Tavern. His route to Timberlina and reason for persisting are typical in their unconventional, accidental nature. But with shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race permeating the mainstream in all its fabulous glory – and with a handful of queens even achieving global recognition - the motives for getting into drag are changing.
None of Vanity Von Glow, Alexus De Luxe or Timberlina, expected to be professional queens when they first discovered drag, let alone achieve superstar status. For them it was a creative outlet, an opportunity to explore themselves, to escape the mundane. Their serendipitous journeys may have been as heterogeneous as their acts, but the confidence it has instilled in them is uniform.
“I've always thought everyone should have the opportunity to just sit in a white space room and do what they want, to just express themselves,” says Redfern. “As somebody who's always wanted to perform and never really thought how they would, but also as somebody who never fitted into a particular group or scene, it was really a great way for me to just find myself with this character. She's been very helpful.”