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Birmingham Drag Creative Queer
Lacey LouPhotography Antony Collins

How Birmingham is diversifying the art of drag

An emerging creative community is challenging perceptions of drag, using politics, prose and performance to construct subversive alter-egos

It’s undeniable that the mainstream profile of drag has skyrocketed over the last few years. RuPaul’s annual Drag Race is about to return to screens for the eighth time after scoring its highest-ever viewing figures last season, whereas a handful of the show’s fashion forward alumni are racking up serious fashion credentials; Milk is amongst the faces of Marc JacobsSS16 campaign, while Violet Chachki was recently shot by Steven Klein for the pages of Vogue Italia. With its polished aesthetic, backstage drama and lip-sync performances, the appeal of Drag Race is evident but strays slightly from the original intent of drag. The initial idea of a man in a dress was deliberately subversive and never meant to be palatable – at its core, drag is designed to disrupt traditional gender norms and have fun doing it.

Despite the initial concept of “dragging up” being to “wear” an exaggerated aesthetic to parody gender binaries, commercial portrayals of drag largely focus on performers aligning themselves with visual ideals of femininity. Although previous Drag Race contestants have experimented with non-traditional visuals, the show has rarely featured gender-fuck queens and has never given exposure to a rising community of female queens. A growing creative community in Birmingham has noticed this exception and tapped into its potential – from performance artists like China Dethcrash to female queens Boo Sutcliffe, Lacey Lou and Amber Cadaverous, and genderfuck creations like Paul Aleksandr, the movement successfully transcends typical drag and incorporates all elements of the queer spectrum.

The connecting thread between various drag artists in Birmingham is a rejection of elitism. Instead, the emphasis is on community and inclusivity; a focus which has led to a series of immersive nights for people of all backgrounds to unite. It seems fitting that the UK’s second city is finally emerging as a creative hotbed. Naturally, the British capital has had a monopoly on the drag scene for years, with nights like Sink the Pink and alternative drag pubs such as the Glory offering an antidote to more commercial gay venues. Manchester is quickly catching up too – only last year Dazed spotlighted Cha Cha Boudoir, the Manchester institution whose creative family and elaborate balls look back to the innovative portrait of New York’s queer scene painted in the iconic “Paris is Burning”.

“Drag is more powerful than a megaphone, that’s for sure. People don’t listen to facts and statistics” – China Dethcrash

Birmingham is different. The queer spectrum is represented as a whole and, although lip-syncs are still common, artists are transcending the classic drag medium and using performance art, creative writing and the construction of alter-egos to get their point across. Crucially, their point is often political. Meet Leeds-born China Dethcrash, alter-ego of Tyler Duke. China is a queen whose left-wing stance has seen her write, illustrate and perform her own backstory, using it as a vehicle to explore modern politics – particularly in relation to Tory government’s stifling of creativity by removing funding. “Drag is more powerful than a megaphone, that’s for sure. People don’t listen to facts and statistics. It’s so easy to tune out of politics and not care, so I really want to tell people not to do that. The easiest way for me to do that is through drag.”  

China asserts that the key to success is to cloak a political message up in a hyper-feminine aesthetic, using accessible beauty as an elaborate ruse to create a character that people actually listen to. Her performances are sensual and feminine, as are her outfits – although China often adds a pair of ram’s horns or a lick of sludge-like body paint to subvert things slightly. Arguably the purest representation of her ideology was a recent performance at newly-established event “Second Self”, established by Dan Brown and staged in cabaret bar the Village Inn. To an audience comprising of the local queer community, China performed a slow, sensual dance routine to the tune of Iranian musician Sevdaliza’s “That Other Girl”. The artist used the lyrics and their alter-ego narrative to tap into the duality in her own personality, starting out soft but soon erupting into chaos. A montage of women graced the screen behind her, depicting characters like Anjelica Huston in The Witches and Salma Hayek in Dusk til Dawn – cinematic portrayals of “bad-ass, beautiful women that all have that element of something ferocious.”

The queen’s performance was one of many, one of the highlights of a night which was inaugurated to combat homogeneity within the gay community. Speaking to Dazed, founder Dan Brown highlighted his intentions –  “I felt it was either alternative or old-school cabaret and that was it. I wanted to create a space not just for drag, but for everybody else that either has an alter-ego or wanted to have one.” Far from the competitions of Paris is Burning, the idea was to give queer creatives a space to express themselves free of judgement, like performer Scott “Queeny” Gethings. As La Cage Aux Folles’ I Am What I Am” blared out, Queeny presented a performance piece that smudged out a polished, monochrome aesthetic with litres of rainbow-coloured paint. The look was symbolically topped off with a rainbow fascinator; “essentially I was saying ‘I look a painted mess, but as long as I pull the look together with a pretty fascinator, you can’t judge me. Be proud of whatever you are. Add feathers and be proud’.”

“Second Self” isn’t the only vehicle for queer creatives to express themselves – the city’s biggest gay bar, the Nightingale, has employed four regular ‘Housewives’; Jack Oliver, Lacey Lou, China and Queeny. Their role is not only to introduce an element of excitement that looks back to the original club kids, but also to encourage young creatives of any gender or sexual preference to feel comfortable expressing themselves visually and creatively. Female queen Lacey Lou has taken this ethos to the next level with her night “GlitterShit”, a club night designed to “allow people to be their crazy selves and to explore in safe spaces without fear of judgement.”

As with “Second Self”, the root of “GlitterShit” is inclusivity – “this isn’t solely a gay event, we accept and encourage anyone wanting to come and explore.” It’s an unfortunate fact that female queens can face discrimination, or have their talent discredited on the basis of their sex, and Lacey is keen to emphasise that the ideology behind her drag is to reduce the body to a canvas, regardless of whether it’s male, female or non-binary. “I'm an artist, it’s ingrained in me. I see, think and dream in colours, shapes, glitter and ideas. Drag is my medium, my face and body are my canvas – my drag character is more confident, strong and mind-opening than I am. It’s designed to challenge people’s perception of gender, art and drag.” Caring for the local community is also important to Lacey – a portion of profit made from future “GlitterShit” events will go straight to a charity of the organisers’ choice.

“I see, think and dream in colours, shapes and ideas. Drag is my medium, my face and body are my canvas” – Lacey Lou

Crucially, the new wave of queer creatives in Birmingham are moving away from increasingly ‘traditional’ depictions of drag, expanding at the same rate as society. A queer night out in the second city will introduce you to female queens, genderfuck, drag queens with a subversive message and young queer and trans kids looking to let loose and enjoy themselves. Nights like “Second Self” and “GlitterShit” have established themselves as an important platform for the queer community, giving everyone the opportunity to get on stage and construct an alter-ego for a crowd of like-minded creatives. Far from the element of competition that defines the ball culture, the Birmingham scene encourages a messy aesthetic and fuses drag with performance art, using the result as a vehicle to explore art, culture and politics. The polished ‘Drag Race’ aesthetic is slowly losing its appeal, and in its place come the likes of Paul Aleksandr, whose looks have previously incorporated decapitated Teletubbies and cracked-open Christmas baubles. No longer is drag an inaccessible art – instead, it is a connecting thread that links a frustrated community bored by homogeneity.  

All photography Antony Collins