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Lj Marles "Montero (CMBYN)"
via Instagram @littlegaybro

Meet the circus artist going viral with his Lil Nas X tension strap routine

London-raised Lj Marles talks queer expression through circus arts and getting noticed by Lil Nas X for his ‘Montero (CMBYN)’ performance

Lil Nas X’s newest music video for his single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” sparked outrage online among angry parents and conservatives for its use of religious imagery – the video sees the rapper descend into hell on a stripper pole, before giving Satan a sensual lap dance. Responding to the criticism, Lil Nas X explained that the visuals reflected the track’s themes of queer expression and sexuality. “The song is literally about gay sex what y’all want me to do, play the piano while baking a cake?” he said. 

Two months after the music video dropped, London-raised and Birmingham-based circus performer Lj Marles uploaded a video of himself performing to “Montero (CMBYN)” on TikTok, recreating the rapper’s pole routine and video look in a club on tension straps suspended from the ceiling. “Call me when you find this,” Marles captioned the post, calling for Lil Nas X to take notice. The video quickly gathered over two million views on the platform, with fans commenting in admiration of the magnetising performance. 

According to Marles – who has worked as a professional circus artist for the past ten years since applying to a training company on a whim – his “Montero” act follows suit with Lil Nas X’s music in celebrating Black queer talent and expression. Marles’ viral set was a part of a show by LGBTQ+ rave company Little Gay Brother, which supports queer, POC, and non-binary performers and hosts shows with politically-centred themes. This specific show, Squirt, featured a triptych of performances by queer dancers, each depicting a different section of the “Montero (CMBYN)” video to represent the challenging ties between religion and queerness.

“It was very much a showcase of queer Black excellence,” explained Marles on the show. Otherwise, the performer draws his inspiration from his drag persona, Déjà Da’Bomb – combining circus art with traditional drag elements to deliver dynamic and intensely creative sets. 

After 22 days of fans tagging him in the comments and sharing Marles’ TikToks online, Lil Nas X reposted the video to his Instagram stories – a long-awaited sigh of relief for the circus performer. Here, we speak with Marles about his start in circus art, celebrating queerness through tension straps and drag, and (finally!) getting noticed by the rapper.

What led you to circus performing?

Lj Marles: I got into circus by accident. I was a dancer before I started my training. A few friends and I were in a dance group together, we competed and performed in a few talent shows and dance competitions locally. One of us found a flyer for circus company Bassline Circus, which was in town at the time, and they were looking for local youths to create a show with. We thought it would just be a talent show in a circus tent which we thought would be cool, but they ended up teaching us some circus skills and I enjoyed the new way of using my body. 

I was the only one from the dance group to continue on and make the show with other youths who got involved using the new skills they taught us. When the shows were over they encouraged me to continue circus training and told me about the National Centre for Circus Arts in Hoxton. I went on to take part in the youth program for one year, after which I turned 18 and then decided to apply for the degree program they offer. I didn't have any plans to attend a ‘normal’ university, so I saw this as a way to continue my circus training and get a degree out of it. I finished the three-year course with a first class BA (Hons) in circus arts.

Do you have a favourite moment from performing?

Lj Marles: Many, but one in particular would have to be the reaction I got from the audience after my act performing to “Montero”. I have performed in arenas and stadiums to thousands of people, but nothing compared to the roar of cheers that came from the relatively small crowd when I finished. The energy of the room the whole night was electric and felt different to other performances I have been a part of. 

You also perform in drag! How does this tie in with your circus performing? 

Lj Marles: I started doing drag as most people do these days – because of watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. When watching some of the lip syncs as a performer I would think “I could do that, but better,” except I was lacking the makeup skills. A drag queen friend of mine, Valerie Hex, gave me a list of the basic things I needed for my first makeover, and like most people’s first time I looked horrendous. I was doing a show where I had the opportunity to practice my make-up skills and over time they got better, I got more confident, and Déjà Da’Bomb was born. I wanted to bring a queer element into my circus performances, and once I began performing in drag I discovered I was channeling and expressing my queerness in a way that I couldn’t when I was on stage as Lj – I felt sexy and powerful. 

Why did you decide to showcase your tension strap performances on TikTok?

Lj Marles: I’ve been pretty precious and protective about sharing my tension strap work in the past, as I was afraid people would steal my ideas, but I feel I have established myself and my work in the circus community enough that people will recognise it, be respectful, and appreciate it. Initially, I uploaded it to Instagram as I use it more, but soon after I posted it I realised it was getting more attention than most of my posts do – a lot of people were tagging Lil Nas X and sharing it on their stories. I knew Lil Nas X used TikTok a lot and thought it might also get the same attention there, and it sure did. I went from having two followers (one being my Déjà Da’Bomb account) to thousands pretty quickly. It was a very overwhelming feeling, as though I had to keep checking to see how many likes and followers I had gained and also to see if he had seen it yet. 

Lil Nas X explained that he created the “Montero (CMBYN)” video to normalise queerness. Did this play a role in your decision to perform to the song? 

Lj Marles: My act was a small part in a much bigger show with a company called Little Gay Brother (LGB) for one of their shows called Squirt. LGB existed as a queer rave before COVID, and Squirt was born out of a necessity for the company to continue to be visible, but also to create a safe space for queer people to be able to join together and express themselves. They felt it was important to be able to generate income for queer artists and performers during a pandemic where many of us didn’t get much or any support and generally rely on nightlife and performing. Their shows combine a selection of queer, non-binary, and POC dancers and performers, alongside music with political messages. The theme for this Squirt show was ‘heaven and hell’ and was influenced by the killing of gay Iranian citizen Alireza Monfared, who was murdered in Iran by his own family. 

Busola Peters – the choreographer of the show – explained to me how he wanted to infuse the idea “Montero”, which ridicules religious beliefs, with the movie Moonlight, which shows the struggles of growing up black and gay. Much like Moonlight, in this section the show three performers that portrayed Lil Nas from three different moments in the music video, Dak Attack was in the Garden of Eden and up for judgement, I was falling from heaven into hell and presented the pole dancing element of the music video with my tension straps and Aaron Porter descended into hell to seduce and conquer Satan, played by Busola Peters. I was very honoured and happy to be a part of it – I had wanted to make an act to the song because of the similarities between pole dancing and my tension straps, but this felt like the perfect opportunity to do it on a much larger scale.

What was your reaction when Lil Nas X reposted your performance? 

Lj Marles: I had randomly woken up at three a.m. and couldn’t sleep so decided to check my phone. After a while I began to receive a new wave of likes and comments on the video, and one person commented that Lil Nas X reposted it – my initial thought was “ABOUT TIME!" It took 22 days for him to see it, and a part of me thought and accepted that he wouldn’t see it or he had and didn’t think much of it. It would have been a shame if he didn’t like it, but I would still be just as appreciative and thankful for all the people who liked it and shared my work. I'm glad he saw it though! 

Is there anything you would say to Lil Nas X if you could? 

Lj Marles: It would be amazing to perform this live with him, so: let me know when the tour starts so I can make sure I have enough time to pack and rehearse! Also, thank you for being a positive representation of the black queer community, keep being authentically you and inspiring.