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Munroe Bergdorf talks drag with artist Victoria Sin

In a new series, our LGBTQ+ Editor has frank conversations with her LGBTQ+ heroes. First up, is the subversive artist and beauty icon Victoria Sin.

As well as being a bronzed sex goddess, an important activist for transgender rights and an all-around 21st Century trailblazer, Munroe Bergdorf has managed to squeeze in the time to become our LGBTQ+ Editor at Dazed Beauty, and we're incredibly excited about it. This means that over the coming months Munroe will be speaking to her favourite LGBTQ+ icons about some of the most pressing issues facing the LGBTQ+ community today, as well as asking: when your identity is inherently marginalised, what does it take to feel beautiful? Below, the first in the series.

London-based and Toronto-born drag artist Victoria Sin has performed everywhere from The Serpentine Galleries to the ICA over the last two years, and their work has recently been on show at the Hayward Gallery's groundbreaking exhibition DRAG: Self-Portraits and Body Politics alongside Cindy Sherman and David Wojnarowicz. Spanning performance art to ephemera (like these oddly beautiful old make-up wipes), through to mesmerising video work (side note: check out the Nowness film they starred in here), Victoria's multi-disciplinary practice seeks to redefine high femme beauty from a queer perspective and challenge expectations of feminine labour.

"Victoria Sin is one of the most fascinating drag performers in London right now," explains Munroe Bergdorf on her keenness to meet the performer, "Not only because they look absolutely incredible, but their intelligence, humour and ability to articulate issues within the drag scene, makes them an inimitable force to be reckoned with... an icon in the making." Fresh from performing at Sasha Velour's 'Nightgowns' in New York, Victoria sat down with Munroe for a catch up about journeys, aesthetics and future goals.

So how are you? I saw you out in America repping us!
Victoria Sin:
I’m good! I’m a little exhausted, burning the wick at both ends, but I feel accomplished! A lot of things are happening. And yes, I was repping the UK drag scene there with Sasha at Nightgowns in Hell’s Kitchen.

So how was working with Sasha? I love how she’s bringing so many different representatives of the drag community together.
Victoria Sin: I mean Sasha’s so wonderful. I met Sasha opening up for her show in Bristol and then she invited me to perform at Nightgowns in London and New York. Sasha’s one of the RuPaul queens who is most clued up. In the shows, there’s always a huge representation of people of colour, trans people, people who are not cisgendered men. It’s really refreshing. And they always open with a speech that tries to communicate a sense of urgency; we need that because queer communities all over the world are in a state of emergency.

”It was through a process of doing drag and purposefully putting on a gender and then taking it off again that I realised I was non-binary“

Absolutely, that’s definitely what I got a real sense of – drag as resistance. What I like so much about your form of drag is that it’s educational without having to over-explain things. You are educating people with your existence, especially as a femme representing non-binary person. But what obstacles have you found?
Victoria Sin: When I first started drag I identified as a woman so my first hurdle was not being taken seriously. And it was actually through a process of doing drag and purposefully putting on a gender and then taking it off again that I realised I was non-binary. I participate less in the club scene than I used to because I got tired of always having to validate why I’m there in the first place.

Has that made you see your form of drag differently? Has that affected your drag rather than just the spaces you perform in?
Victoria Sin:
It affected my drag and it affected the context I chose to exist in. My existence is valid. Non-binary gender identity is valid. Femme identities are important. There is a lot to work through in those kinds of identity positions, so in order to do that, I found that the usual drag context and club context – at least more mainstream club spaces where drag usually happens – aren't the best contexts for me.

Why do you think that is? There was a story recently of a drag queen that identifies as female who got an offer to do a job with a brand and the brand actually rescinded the offer when they found out that she was a woman. It's misogyny, do you agree?
Victoria Sin:
Absolutely. I think that situation is so layered because you have a company that wants to use the image, idea and popularity of drag culture to make them look cool and edgy, but when they were confronted with where the queer community is with drag now, that’s not what they wanted. They wanted the most basic kind of representation, which is a cisgender man playing an idea of a woman. But why that idea is so basic and superficial is because it is an image that has been produced over many years by a queer community that has deep-rooted issues with misogyny, transphobia, racism, all of these things.

Yes. Let's come back to that. So, to change the subject a tiny little bit, talk us through the Victoria Sin aesthetic.
Victoria Sin:
When I started doing drag I didn’t really have a defined aesthetic in mind, I was just concerned with learning how to do drag make-up. Once I had the tools to make myself how I wanted to look, that was when I started drawing from various iconographies of Western femininity that I’ve always been obsessed by. So obviously it’s Marilyn Monroe or Marlene Dietrich, but then with my body it’s Kim Kardashian – a really exaggerated figure – and in my make-up you can see Jessica Rabbit. These are images that I was always really obsessed by. Amanda Lepore is my drag inspiration pinnacle, and I think that is really important and that has to do with my whole concept and how I approach drag. Amanda Lepore is a trans woman but the way she does her gender every day is purposeful. She does her gender on a level that is a thousand times more extravagant and beautiful than many drag queens, but she’s not a drag queen.

With all of those references and Western beauty icons, would you say that taking on these icons is a kind of political performance?
Victoria Sin:
It is but when I started doing drag it wasn’t to be political. The first time I did drag was on my own and I didn’t tell anybody that I was going to do it.

Tell us about that moment...
Victoria Sin:
I’d been thinking about doing drag for a long time. I remember using my fake ID to get into big gay clubs and drag shows in Toronto when I was 17. I always had an obsession with it but at the time I didn’t know I wanted to be a drag queen because I didn’t know it was something that was available to me. When I moved to London I slowly started meeting people and realised with drag you could just do anything, you could be anything; an object, an animal, a person, it didn’t matter. The first time I did drag I remember I bought a really cheap shake-and-go white bob. It was in the evening and I closed my blinds and I put on some music (I wish I could remember what it was now) and I put on a YouTube video (again I wish I could remember which one).

”The transition, it’s personal but it's not personal because at some point everyone else has to see it.“

What year would this be?
Victoria Sin: This was... I can't remember! I've been doing it for about five years now. So 2013?

Miss Fame was around that time...
Victoria Sin: Yeah, it was before Miss Fame was on Drag Race.

So you put on some music...
Victoria Sin: And it was a really intimate moment. I had admitted to myself that buying the wig was beginning this process; that I was going on this journey that I had wanted to go on for so long. It’s an incredibly vulnerable place right, to admit to yourself something and know that you’re going to have to go through it. The transition, it’s personal but it’s not personal because at some point everyone else has to see it. When I do drag now I have the same kind of reverential attitude to it, where every time I do it it’s a ritual. It’s a very intimate transformation where both of my identities – I hate to say both because I don’t think I put on a persona but I do – both change.

But don’t we all when we dress up? I think that’s part of what makes it exciting - it brings a different aspect of ourselves to the surface. It’s pretending, but at the same time, it’s existing.
Victoria Sin:
You said when you dress up you change a little bit but that’s the amazing thing about the transformation, I don't think that I change. What I do know is that it definitely changes the way people treat me, especially when I walk through a gay bar. When I started to do drag I noticed that all of a sudden people got out of my way when I walked through the bar! I’ve had to literally elbow my way through a crowd of white middle-aged bears at those clubs and pubs we’ve all been to, only to have someone mumble “fucking lesbian” in my ear. But all of a sudden when I’m in drag people are like “Oh my God, you look amazing, please step this way”. That also has something to do with the fact that they have no idea what I look like out of drag.

Victoria Sin: 
But there was something else as well in the transformation. It’s like a really special intimate time when there’s this moment between identities. Because when I’m not in drag I’m still performing something but in a way that I’m less conscious of, and when I’m in drag I’m performing an identity that's very constructed purposefully, but both of them are identities that have been carved out over a period of time. And that time in between is like limbo.

Yeah I feel that.  
Victoria Sin: 
Yeah and the limbo is almost like the most interesting place, you know?

When you’ve got one eyebrow on and you’re like “Who am I!”
Victoria Sin: Ha!

No, but completely, it’s a vulnerable place. It’s somewhere where you’re confronted with yourself and you’re almost forced to see part of yourself come into existence that you may suppress in other situations. I feel stronger in those situations. It’s almost like a battery recharging.
Victoria Sin: Yes, that is a really perfect way to describe it actually. You’re confronted, and also for me when you’re in drag and you’re out of drag, I have a better perspective of what the other identity is doing. It was through doing drag and leaving my everyday persona behind that I could look at it and be like: “That’s not a woman,” you know. “That's not who I am, that's not where I place myself”. I think that doing both inform the other.

What would you say to someone going through the transition who may have similar intersections to yourself?
Victoria Sin: 
That you have just as much right to be here as any of these other queens, and your voice and your perspective as someone on the intersection, as someone who doesn’t usually get the gigs or isn’t validated or respected by a lot of the community, that is what will make you powerful, and what will make your voice more important.

What would you like to see change within the drag community?
Victoria Sin: 
Oh gosh so many things! An end to bigotry. The drag community fosters and supports so many queens who do drag without any thought to what they’re saying with their drag. I’m not saying all drag has to be political but all drag should be self-aware because drag is embodying something that you don't usually.

Well, it is kind of a political act without meaning to be. Queer bodies are political and politicised.
Victoria Sin: I think you’re absolutely right and what I meant to say is that drag is inherently a political act, so by not thinking critically about what your drag is doing, drag can be a very dangerous and violent space. If you are a cisgender man pretending to be a woman and your jokes are about women then that’s just fucking shitty. lf you are a white drag queen and you are doing drag as a working-class black woman, which is something that happened not too long ago in a popular venue in London, and was a weekly act, what are you doing there? And it’s often the queens who do drag that is racist, misogynist, classist, ableist that are the first people to cry cultural appropriation at those who are women and doing drag. I don't think it’s a coincidence.

I wanted to touch on what your opinion is on certain queens like Bianca del Rio or Trixie Mattel whose comedy is a little more cutting but still they hold a certain privilege. Trixie Mattel was recently filmed saying a cotton picking joke about Latrice Royale and she said: “drag is inappropriate, drag is not politically correct”...
Victoria Sin: That just sounds to me like people crying “political correctness gone mad” whenever people who need safe spaces are trying to make them, or whenever someone who is actually extremely problematic is being called out. I think that if the humour that is cutting is being used in service of cutting down things like racist or misogynistic attitudes in the drag scene then yes, I’m all for it. But it’s always about who’s being cut in the cutting humour, right? And I think that the personas doing the cutting are usually the ones that are not up for any kind of self-reflection, not up for looking at their own attitudes or being called out. It’s a very defensive kind of drag that comes from a place of pain, usually.

Absolutely. I always say that, hurt people hurt people.
Victoria Sin: Yes and I think that’s absolutely true, but there’s only so much that I think we should allow people. Just because they’re hurt it doesn’t mean they can hurt others. Especially when those people are already being systematically marginalised. Just because you experience homophobia doesn't mean you don't have to look at how you contribute to other forms of structural oppression, especially ones which are rampant in your community.

The last thing I want to discuss is the face prints on the wet wipes… I love it! It really harkens back to Hedwig and The Angry Inch, that movie that I was obsessed with. It’s like, forever immortalising the night...
Victoria Sin: Exactly, and that’s really what they’re meant to be! They’re an archive of the performance of gender, of identity, of everything from that evening or that day. They are also a record of the feminine labour that was produced on the occasion to say that it happened and this is proof, but they are also performative pieces in themselves as well. Some of them are going to be shown as part of an exhibition opening later this month at Sotheby's S2 alongside my film series Narrative Reflections on Looking. They’re important archival objects and I keep all of them. I don't show all of them but I keep them because I think it’s almost like proof to myself... that I was there and my contribution is important.

That seems like a perfect note to end on. Thanks, Victoria.