JamRoom Diaries: West Dakota on Plastic Bags And Katy Perry
West Dakota is complex in more ways than one. To start, she’s both young, and ancient; wise, and naive; on point, and totally off base (in an eccentric, gap-toothed, DIY-dress way). And her slayage is getting noticed, big time: recently crowned at the (Mr)s BK pageant hosted by Thorgy Thor, this drag queen is making her mark, in NYC and beyond.
We hopped on the phone with an exhausted Dakota (fresh from a late night at the studio) to talk more about her emergence onto the NYC drag scene, the evolution of her character(s), and where she’s headed next; check our full interview below.
Who is West Dakota?
West is all about contradictions. Her body is young but cosmically she’s ancient. She has lots of incarnations, and like this deep reservoir of knowledge within her, but she’s really young and naive at the same time. So she has moments that are really close to being profound… and then she’ll miss it by that much.
And why the name?
The name comes from people asking [if my name is] “North or South [Dakota]” People thinking they’re being cute. On the one hand it’s just a smart ass response to that, like something outside of what people expect.
But I also think the name is playing on pop culture, like North West.
When did you first perform in drag?
I first performed in September. I was out with my friend Natalie and I ended up finding this skirt, a pair of heels and a wig that were so perfect for each other and was like, “we’re going out tonight”. We ended up going to this bar that night where Merrie Cherry was hosting. She was like, “you’re performing, do you have a song?”
I was freaking out and she said, “just perform and see what it’s like, maybe you’ll like it maybe you won’t. Just see and make that decision.”
So I did. I did Mariah Carey’s “Emotions.” My wig wasn’t even pinned down and it literally fell off halfway through the performance.
I’m trying to confront things like how whiteness mediates our perception of beauty and so many aspects of our culture right now.
What’s your new look?
It’s the London look [English accent. Laughs.] I don’t know, it is very much taking different tropes of the fashion industry and pop culture.
I usually do the gap tooth. I remember talking to one of my professors [at Columbia] about how it’s an exception of the fashion industry, something that’s seen as a flaw but then sort of becomes fetishized through the lens of fashion.
How did this look come to be?
I’ve always really loved fashion and art but I’m suspicious of the seductive quality of fashion imagery and advertising and my role as a consumer. I’m trying to confront things like how whiteness mediates our perception of beauty and so many aspects of our culture right now.
So I like to take something that feels really beautiful and powerful and make it really stupid. Like make it really stupid and then sort of add some complexity back into it.
Do you make all your costumes?
Yes. Basically the last two years I was studying Studio Art at Columbia I was making clothes in all my art classes. I was making sculpture that was referencing clothing or fashion or advertising. Once I graduated I had all these things, all these objects I’d made that were just sitting there and being stored. Like this tote bag that was 4 ft tall. I realized with drag that I could really activate these objects through performance.
Have you always been a performer?
I mean I did a cappella and theater. I was always so nervous on stage. I was never presenting work that was my own. It was always, doing a show that was directed by someone else. This is the first time where I’m performing but also directing and writing and sound editing and making the costumes. It’s a really involved production process.
Tell us about your “Plastic Bag” performance.
It started out as an idea to do a performance where I was lip syncing to the scene in American Beauty where the plastic bag is blowing around in the wind. It’s supposed to be this really deep moment and I wanted to contrast that with this very iconic illusion of the plastic bag which was Katy Perry’s opening to “Firework”, do you ever feel like a plastic bag? For me, [the song] brought a roundness to this metaphor of the plastic bag being a symbol of fleeting beauty.
At the start of the performance, I’m wearing this massive plastic bag that I sewed out of a plastic sheet and then when it transitions into Katy Perry I get up and all of a sudden the waist is cinched. It’s this really pop fashion moment. A fierce bag moment.
And that was the original idea for the performance, then the week before I saw other people perform and I was like, “fuck people need to be entertained every moment.” So i ended up splicing in these other references to plastic or plastic bags. it ends with “Plastic Bag” by X-Ray Spex which talks about how the mind is like a plastic bag because it’s always collecting trash from advertising.
I was thinking about the plastic bag as a symbol of beauty and what that plasticity represents, how it can reflect something that’s artificial or contrived or how plastic can represent this fleeting quality that you’re crashing through the world. Or it can represent, like, trash you know.
What’s in the pipeline for you for the rest of 2017?
I’ve been getting a lot of bookings. I don’t know what a lot is. There are queens who do 3/4/5 shows a week. I’m obviously not at that level. But I also don’t know if that is the end goal. I really love nightlife but it is exhausting and I’d love to be able to take my drag into more of an art setting where I could explore ideas through performance and not have to always cater to entertainment value.
How’ve you found the drag community?
Everyone’s been really warm and welcoming. There was definitely tension being new to the scene and competing against other queens but I’ve so many friends through the process.
What are a few things about drag that most people don’t know?
I’m trying to think what other people think of drag, like what straight people think of drag. Maybe, let’s come back to that.