Filmmakers Renee Mao and Savannah O’Leary explore 25-year-old Brooklynite Panthera Lush’s chameleonic style and her performer friends
“Everyone has the power to create who they are, and that’s why drag is so relatable,” says Panthera Lush, the drag alter ego of 25-year-old performer and visual artist Alika Hall. This powerful quote opens The Making of Panthera, a short film by directors Renee Mao and Savannah O’Leary. The 25-year-old Brooklynite and self-proclaimed “queen of reveals”, known for her ornate and sexually-charged aesthetic, is at the helm of a new generation of gender-bending, avant-garde performers stomping New York’s underground scene, whose chameleonic, self-made looks are pushing the boundaries of what drag can be.
A celebration of Lush’s “wit, craft, and vision”, the documentary short follows the New York performer as she navigates herself through Brooklyn after hours. From dressing room dialogue and backstage footage, to home video-style clips, and early morning diner run-ins, Mao and O’Leary offer a fly-on-the-wall snapshot into the life of the ever-transgressive drag queen and her wildly flamboyant troup of friends.
“I am my own muse, I am my own model,” says Lush, who likens drag to putting on a new foundation. “It starts with the smallest idea into becoming an act or a fantasy. There’s a state of ecstasy you experience when you create something from start to finish,” she continues. “You can create whoever you want.” The freedom and fluidity of flitting between looks is explored throughout the film, as the visual artist takes us through countless identities, from a low-key mini dress with flash-orange hair (which she models atop a string of washing machines), to a kinky pastel number avec latex gloves and a beret, naturally.
The characters we meet represent a broad, dappled scope for drag and performance, inspired by everything from New York art school, to Riverdance, Myspace, anime, and childhood Halloween experiences. We meet Magenta, Crystal Mesh, Jay Kay, West Dakota, Esther, Kuby, and Blvck Lae D. “I started doing drag as a performance outlet, and because the world needs more faggotry right now,” says Crystal Mesh.
“Drag for me was a big way of giving myself permission to do things I felt like I wasn’t supposed to do,” adds West Dakota.
Growing up, Panthera Lush says she didn’t like the clothes she found in stores, so she decided to make her own. “I asked my parents to sign me up for sewing lessons when I was 13,” she explains. With her trademark looks consisting of corsets and skullcaps, the 25-year-old still bones her own corsets using traditional techniques learned by watching Youtube tutorials. For Lush, fantasy is created, not bought.
Perhaps it’s this freedom to choose your own identity that makes drag applicable not only to queer people, but to everybody. It’s undeniable that drag has captivated today’s culture now more than ever, but why? Gone are the days of drag as female impersonation. Today’s performers see it as something more fluid – gender is a blank canvas. As conservatism tightens its grip on the world, anti-Pride and racist protests becoming commonplace, and reproductive rights are stripped from women globally (“someone could literally walk in and shoot me any minute for being a fag,” says Crystal Mesh), we are craving autonomy and creativity, and that is exactly what drag is.