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Mommie Dearest meets Tim Burton: getting into character with Juno Birch


TextAlex Peters

We talk to drag artist Juno Birch about female aliens and Adam's apples

What do you get when you mix the tragic fabulousness of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest with the sickly kitsch of Tim Burton, add in a touch of Stepford Wives with a few drops of acid and top it all off with the lips of Jennifer Coolidge?

The answer, of course, is the work of artist and drag performer Juno Birch who makes retro-futuristic sculptures in an array of pastel colours and has recently started styling herself after her miniature models. “I build up so much energy and character when I’m sat in my chair painting the bitch and I just want to be her,” Birch says of her recent decision to dress up as and perform as her characters.

Making art ever since she can remember, Birch would use it as a creative outlet to express the femininity she suppressed while growing up as a boy. “I always identified with female things,” she says. “The femininity I lacked I drew out on paper.” At the age of 14, Birch began her transition, and after a period of insecurity and discomfort with being “artificially sexed,” now embraces and celebrates her body and gender – both the feminine parts and the residual “alien” masculinity. Through her art, Birch is able to celebrate this duality, creating characters that are both hyper-feminine while at the same time having broad shoulders, stubbly chins and Adam’s apples.

With her drag performances gaining momentum and a recent collaboration with Alexis Stone under her belt, we spoke to Juno about her artistic process and how she found her Stepford Wives meets extraterrestrial aesthetic.

Tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?
Juno Birch: I grew up in Frodsham and Runcorn. Growing up as a boy was difficult as I always identified with female things, a lot of my suppressed femininity as a child I guess came out a lot through my art as I got older. The femininity I lacked I drew out on paper. I started to transition at the age of 14 in high school.

Do you remember the first time you were aware of your appearance?
Juno Birch: Honestly, no I don’t remember, but when I reached puberty I started to hate my appearance the more masculine I became.

Did you always want to be an artist? How did you actually get into sculpture?
Juno Birch: Yes as a child I drew all the time, different characters and monsters. I’ve been making art ever since I can remember. I started making sculptures because of Tim Burton. I loved his old claymation movies and always thought it would be too hard to create my own characters with clay, turns out it's not actually that hard and it's incredibly therapeutic.

What is the story behind your ceramic characters? What inspires that very specific aesthetic?
Juno Birch: I’m very inspired by John Waters and Tim Burton, but not the gothic side of Tim Burton more of the opposite, I love his extremely sickly kitschy perception of the world. I look at a lot of old decor and fashion art from the 50s, 60s and 70s and retro-futurism and the space age. The characters I create are usually more flamboyant and sassy versions of myself but with loads of different personalities.

Tell us a bit about your creative process.
Juno Birch: First I will make the sculpture out of tin foil and then start layering polymer clay all over and basically mould it with my hands, stick it in the oven and then paint it.

How do you use the idea of gender in your work?
Juno Birch: I was always insecure about being a trans woman or being ‘artificially’ sexed, using drugs and surgery to look a certain way. But when I finally reached a point in my transition when I no longer felt dysphoric about my body and gender I started to embrace those things on my body that are still masculine. I started celebrating the ‘alien’ part of me and to show that being trans is actually beautiful. That's why I always create my female alien characters with stubble chins, broad shoulders and Adam's apples.

At what point did you decide to become your art and start creating yourself in the image of your characters?
Juno Birch: I really wanted to animate my characters but doing it on stage is so much more fun because I build up so much energy and character when I’m sat in my chair painting the bitch and I just want to be her.

Have you found that your personality changes when you are in the make-up?
Juno Birch: Maybe sometimes, I think it depends on what kind of mood I’m in or what I’m wearing. Clothes give me energy sometimes, like if I’m wearing something really fabulous then I’ll want to act fabulous and dance or if I’m wearing pyjamas then I will probably just be tired. But I think most performers are like that too.

What factors go into the decision of whether you will be pink/blue/yellow purple that day? Do different colours have different characters?
Juno Birch: I think I go through phases of liking certain colours like it totally depends on what colour outfit she’s wearing. For example, if she has blue skin then she can’t be wearing blue clothes, it needs to be pink clothes. The blue one is the leader she’s the one that appears the most, shading and contouring with blue is my favourite at the moment. It’s also kinda like the Muppets, like how they all have different unnatural tones of flesh and fluffy textures.

Your make-up skills are impeccable. Where did you learn to do make-up?
Juno Birch: Why thank you very much darling! I started using make-up at the age of 15 but I’m not a professional. My eyeliner is usually lopsided or wonky lipstick but I just embrace it.

What do you enjoy about performing? How would you describe your performances?
Juno Birch: 
The thing I love most about performing is being able to bring these characters from movies that have always inspired me onto the stage and just be them. For example Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, I just love all the quotes and the tragic fabulousness of it all. My performances are usually extremely camp and kitschy. I usually edit my tracks with quotes from characters that are fabulous but extremely feminine and dramatic like: Jennifer Coolidge, Meryl Streep, Catherine O'Hara, Joan Crawford and I could go on...

You recently worked with Alexis Stone. How did this collaboration come about?
Juno Birch: She mithered the life out of me and wouldn’t leave me alone. No, I’m just kidding. She’s so friendly and lives near me and she wanted me to paint her as if I was painting one of my sculptures, it was so fun and we had a right laugh and didn’t take it too seriously.

Have you considered doing your own make-up tutorials?
Juno Birch: I haven’t really been interested in doing that myself at the moment, I’d like to concentrate more on my costume skills and putting outfits together and performing on stage more.

How has your relationship with beauty evolved over the years and particularly since you started embodying your characters?
Juno Birch: Years ago I would do my make-up to look so natural and blend in. But nowadays I’ll go to Sainsbury’s with a full bright blue lid and an orange lip. I express myself a lot more with beauty nowadays as I’m not as concerned about what people think about me. I just wear something because it makes me feel good even if I look like a muppet. Kind of like when I was little and I would put on my mum's high heels, I would wear them for myself, not for anyone else. That's kind of where I’m at now, I wear things cos they make me feel fabulous which results in me having a fabulous day.

What does beauty mean to you?
Juno Birch: If someone thinks they are beautiful and owns it then they are beautiful. Everyone should at some point in their life look in the mirror and say I am fucking stunning. Life is short so you might as well do what it takes to make yourself feel beautiful, but it’s extremely important that you be beautiful for yourself.

How do you think our understanding of beauty has shifted with the evolution of technology?
Juno Birch: I think beauty now is more of an artistic expression rather than in the 1950s way of impressing your husband. People use technology now to express their art and get a closer vision of what their idea of beauty is.

What are you working on at the moment and what can we expect next?
Juno Birch: I’m continuing to create and sell new sculptures all the time, and I will be travelling around the UK soon and performing drag in different venues I will announce more details soon @junobirch. It’s gonna be fabulous.

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