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Daniel SällströmPhotography Kristin-Lee Moolman, hair Ali Pirzadeh, make-up Daniel Sällström, nails Sylvie Macmillan, model @innitbabes

Daniel Sällström talks wigs, tucking, and reclaiming crossdressing

TextAmelia AbrahamPhotographyKristin-Lee Moolman

Photographed by Kristin-Lee Moolman, the make-up artist and drag performer appears as his alter-ego, a mythological goddess

Welcome to Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity, a campaign dedicated to exploring what ‘masculinity’ means in 2019. With photo stories shot in Tokyo, India, New York, and London and in-depth features exploring mental health, older bodybuilders, and myths around masculinity – we present all the ways people around the world are redefining traditional tropes.

Make-up artist and drag queen Daniel Sällström sees ‘crossdressing’ as a term he wants to reclaim. “People think of older men who wear women’s clothes, typically in private, because they find it sexually arousing – not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he tells us. “There’s still a lot of stigma; for me, it’s a nice, accurate term for when I dress like a woman – or at least, a certain idea of what a woman should be.”

When Sällström presents as his alter ego, he does it for himself. It’s not drag and it doesn’t mean he’s trans, it’s just how he expresses his gender sometimes, how he feels sexy. It’s also an extension of his work as a world-leading make-up artist, who has painted the faces of Madonna, Kate Moss, Grace Jones, Arca and FKA twigs – a skill which lends itself to his immaculate contour.

When we asked Swedish-born Sällström to team up with South African photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman for a shoot, the idea was to bring together two artists whose work provocatively pushes at the outer limits of what we traditionally think of as masculine; Sällström does this through his personal articulation of his gender but also via his avant-garde and gothic-inspired beauty looks on others, and Moolman through her sublime and surreal portraiture. She is known particularly for her ongoing visual collaboration with stylist Ib Kamara – together they created the groundbreaking NYC exhibition Smooth Criminal, full of fantastical, effeminate and regal pictures of men of colour from around the world. 

For Behind the Masc: Rethinking Masculinity, Sällström and Moolman chose to present portraits of Sällström’s alter ego dressed as a mythological creature – a high-sex goddess that draws influence from both famous women in mythology like Medusa and famous women in pop, like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. An alter ego dressed as an alter ego seems to perfectly encapsulate what Sällström is about: layers upon layers of subversion.

Here, he explains the inspiration for the shoot, how crossdressing affects his sex life, and why all men should experience what it’s like to be seen as a woman for a day.

What does masculinity mean to you?

Daniel Sällström: It really means absolutely nothing. Obviously, from a societal point of view, it means shit loads, but I personally have never felt these things that people associate with masculinity: being protective, looking after your family, being tough. For me, those have always been feminine qualities. 

I have always been quite feminine-looking, so people have always misgendered me. When I’m in France people say, ‘Bonjour madame!’ and I’ll reply and when they hear my voice they say: ‘So sorry!’ Especially until I was 21, in Sweden, I was naturally very girly looking, even if I didn’t necessarily dress very feminine, I was still perceived as feminine because of my features. I have never minded because femininity has never been an insult to me, it’s always been something empowering. Especially looking at my mum who has always been my idol.  

For me, I couldn’t care less what gender you think I have, I’m very comfortable in my gender. That’s why masculinity doesn’t mean anything to me, because it is just made up – it is made up of old, structural ideas. There are qualities that men possess more than women because of testosterone, oestrogen or whatever. Most of what we think of as masculinity comes from ideas around patriarchy keeping men up and holding women down.

There’s a kind of deliberate duality to you have when you crossdress – you’re very muscular but also very high-femme, why is that?

Daniel Sällström: When Dazed Beauty asked me to do the shoot I thought: ‘I just want to explore my other persona even more.’ For me, it was about wanting to feel hot and sexy. I find it funny that a guy can look at me and not fancy me at all, then I put on a wig and some make-up and all of a sudden they’re completely mesmerised even though it’s exactly the same person. All of a sudden you attract ‘straight’ men, even though you have the body of a man. Even if I don’t wear a breastplate. It’s like you need to tick enough feminine boxes and then suddenly it feels acceptable for these people to be attracted to me.

Is it strange navigating the world when you have two personas, especially when they are two very different types of people who present quite differently?

Daniel Sällström: Totally, but I would never date anyone that was interested in me in drag because that would only be a fetishisation. That would never be realistic, they’re looking for a trans woman and I’m not that. But I get people looking for that all the time.

To go back to the duality, making hypermasculine and feminine exist at once, are you interested in how far you can take both things simultaneously?

Daniel Sällström: 100 per cent and that’s why, especially when I wear a breastplate, I never tuck. I really love the confusion it creates – this almost oversexualised porn image of a woman like Pamela Anderson, Victoria Silvstedt, or in Sweden we have these glamour twins called the Graaf Sisters. These women are seen as sexual objects, their whole aesthetic is seen as being very much made for the male gaze. 

That’s what I like to really challenge when I dress like them – I like the idea of having 30-inch, long, blonde hair, shit loads of make-up on and big tits, but also having my dick visible. It’s a mind fuck. I’m not trying to imitate a cis woman or a trans woman, I’m trying to question our idea of what we think of as feminine.

“I like the idea of having 30-inch, long, blonde hair, shit loads of make-up on and big tits, but also having my dick visible. It’s a mind fuck. I’m not trying to imitate a cis woman or a trans woman, I’m trying to question our idea of what we think of as feminine” – Daniel Sällström

You’re taking the signifiers of ‘femininity’ and implanting them into a different context and then saying: do you still find this attractive? It’s a challenge to heterosexuality because it’s asking what it’s based on: something innate or cultural signifiers. 

Daniel Sällström: Totally. And I think that’s what always interested me. I think what also interests me a lot is when I dress up, I get to experience – not fully, but partially and superficially – what it's like to be a woman. To a certain extent, how women actually get treated by men in very normal situations, which as a man you would never understand if you haven’t been there because it is so insane and so fucking crazy. As a man or even as a gay boy, walking down the street if I dress up, I’m not viewed as a sexual object. Very few women or men are going to start screaming: ‘Sexy ass!’ at me. It just doesn’t happen, but as a woman, you can literally walk to Tesco, hungover as fuck, feeling like shit and still, someone will still yell: ‘Oi, sexy!’.

Do you notice a difference in the way you’re treated when you present more feminine? 

Daniel Sällström: It’s very interesting to start to experience how men treat you when you portray yourself as a ‘daring’, or ‘sluttily dressed’ girl. It gave me a glimpse of how fucking tough it is to be a woman. Especially if you’re a woman with big tits, or tick any of these ‘sexual’ signifiers. I spoke to my friend the other day and I found out she’s been wearing a blonde wig. She said: ‘I can’t believe how differently I’m being treated just because I have a blonde wig on rather than black hair!’ How men just see her straight away as this sexual object.

A lot of feminists argue that, with drag, it’s culturally appropriating an identity or trying it on and taking it off then going back to your privilege, but I don’t always feel like that. I like what you’re saying, which is that it could be beneficial for everyone to experience it…

Daniel Sällström: Yes because being scared of walking home, or being alone happens to men very rarely. I think it would be very important for men to realise it’s not a compliment shouting ‘sexy!’ out of a car window. It’s hard for some people to have compassion for something if you don’t have any knowledge about it. I think we see that all the time with racism in small villages where there isn’t enough diversity, or homophobia in places where you’re not surrounded by enough gay people. But also, I would like everyone to experience that it’s actually really liberating to step down from your born gender roles and just be a little bit more free. 

So many people – especially men – are trapped in securing their masculinity and not challenging it so much. And yet you’ll put the straightest man in a wig and all of a sudden he’ll do certain things that he’s just seen and learned, like a wig flip. Gender in our society is so sacred. If you see a cis woman and refer to her as sir, she would probably get very upset, but why? What’s the problem? Why do we hold such a possession to it, really? I understand it from the position of a trans woman or trans man why you’re so protective of it because you have faced so much shit regarding it, you really want to protect your identity. But for someone that hasn’t really experienced a gender struggle, especially from a straight, white, man’s point of view, why is still so important for you to not be feminised in any way? 

I find it really, really interesting that we’re so extremely terrified of breaking out of our gender roles, but I think that’s changing and I think it’s going to be really interesting to watch. I think with this progression, at least in some parts of the world, gender is going to become less and less important.

“So many people – especially men – are trapped in securing their masculinity and not challenging it so much. I would like everyone to experience that it’s actually really liberating to step down from your born gender roles and just be a little bit more free” – Daniel Sällström 

What can you tell us about the shoot?  

Daniel Sällström: The idea came from Kristin and I wanting to do something a bit otherworldly, but because it’s about masculinity, the first thing that popped up was my crossdressing persona. I used to call it ‘drag’ but I don’t anymore because drag to me is when you perform. Crossdressing is different, rightly or wrongly we have bad associations with it, but for me, it just means it’s not for anyone else’s pleasure but my own. Drag has also become extremely commercial with RuPaul’s Drag Race. Drag used to be the most punk thing you could do, for a man to emasculate himself. It was like: ‘Why the fuck would you do that when as a man you are dominant in this patriarchal society?’ The shoot is also asking that question.

What is the symbolism behind the snake? 

Daniel Sällström: We picked snakes because many mythological women throughout history have been partially snakes; Medusa, Lamia, and Echidna, they are all mythological creatures that were all half woman, half monsters – kind of feared beings. They were extremely sexual creatures, but the main goal was to kill them or else they would devour men. It’s that age-old fear of femininity from a masculine point of view.

How did your own beauty relate to that? 

Daniel Sällström: I did my own make-up for the shoot. We were quite limited with time when shooting because we only had the snakes for like three hours, so we couldn’t really go that crazy! I wanted to portray myself in a way that I deem as attractive. It wasn’t that extreme a look, I think in many ways it’s quite glam but it’s really about the power of make-up and what you can do with shadow and light.  

We wanted to challenge the idea of what is ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’. When you look at this shoot I think it sends very mixed signals; certain features are very feminine, others very masculine. What does that provoke in people? I think that’s what’s so interesting with beauty: you can kind of take on this different persona just with a beat. Literally, just by painting your face differently, or putting on a wig. Those things are so transformative, even when the core of who you are is exactly the same.

Photography Kristin-Lee Moolman, hair Ali Pirzadeh using AP Wigs, make-up Daniel Sällström at Management+Artists using Pat McGrath Labs, nails Sylvie Macmillan, model @innitbabes

Read more from Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity here.

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