Meet The Guy Behind the New Doc Celebrating Drag Artistry
When filmmaker Christopher Birk moved to New York City from Berlin in 2007, he never imagined he’d end up wielding a camera and following aimless drag queens around the city as they clucked from one bar showing to the next. But, as Chaka Khanvict reminds us in Birk’s documentary Dragged, there’s just something so cutting-edge and irresistible about New York City drag culture that demands the attention and documentation of all those around. Gag on that!
After premiering at a handful of film festivals in Korea, the documentary short is set to premiere in New York City at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center on Thursday, September 8th. The film, which features some of New York’s most popular drag performers (Hedda Lettuce, Bob the Drag Queen, Sherry Vine and Maddelynn Hatter), explores the evolution of drag artistry and the competitive nature of the scene today. Inspired by the personal, one-on-one outtakes on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Birk wanted to expand on the herstory of particular queens who are gamely galvanizing the transgressive art form into mainstream dialogues today.
With throwback interviews spotlighting the wickedly funny Doris Fish to cameos of treasured “Miss Congeniality” queens like Ivy Winters, the micro-documentary touches upon a range of issues that ceaselessly plague this particular ilk of performance art. And yet, even with the backlash the drag community is relentlessly served, the documentary shows New York drag culture reworking and subverting normative ideas associated with what it means to be a drag performer.
I met Birk at a cafe in Chelsea to chat about Dragged, where he began tackling a lavish plate of greens, as well as the evolution of drag, the impact of RuPaul’s Drag Race on queer performance, and how the media has covered this transgressive art form.
“It’s become more clear that it’s an art form and not a man in a dress.”
How did you get your start in the drag world?
I’ve actually only done it once! Many years ago, during a Denmark pride parade, a friend asked me, “Wanna be on my float?” Maybe I was half joking, but I said, “Only if you put me in drag.” I guess I wanted to be incognito. So, he did it! And I was the ugliest drag queen in the history of drag queens. This started my fascination with [drag culture]—being able to see things from the other side really changed my perspective. Many [queens] refer to themselves as “clowns.” They laugh, they’re funny and loud. But there’s often something very sad and tragic about clowns—even terrifying if you’ve seen Stephen King’s It. I wanted to know more about this persona and whether or not they’re allowed to be a real person, which it often seems like they’re not. We put them into boxes and they cannot stray or they won’t get work. It’s a mess!
How has New York City drag culture developed and changed in the last ten years that you’ve lived here?
It’s gotten more and more away from what seasoned drag queens would call “classic drag.” Now there’s drag trends like gender-fucking. Go out to the bars and you can see biological women doing drag, even straight men doing it. It’s become more clear that it’s an art form and not a man in a dress. It’s always been political, but I feel like now what’s happening is there’s more tension between drag queens and the [transgender community]. There’s certain words you can’t use anymore. There’s an urge to be politically correct. They even pulled RuPaul’s “SheMail” bit because there was so much tension. But, even in the gay community, you’ll find people who don’t know the difference between a drag queen and a [transgender individual]. Ten years ago, using terms interchangeably wouldn’t have been a big deal. But, this evolution is probably in part due to the loudness of the transgender movement.
Some would say that the public’s view on drag has not changed since the release of Paris Is Burning. What are some of the barriers the community still battles today?
One of the queens I interviewed from Baltimore is a 72-year-old queen who still performs. Hearing him talk about what it was like back then—how it was illegal, how you needed to wear a certain amount of male clothing to not get arrested, the casual abuse by strangers—it was scary then. Cut-to now, where you can see queens like Erika Klash walking the streets, not giving a fuck, in full face. It’s changed, but there’s still people who would call [drag] a mental disorder. People think creativity and deviation are scary things. There will always be the same old bigots—well, hopefully not forever.
It seems like a lot of people judge the success of drag queens by their involvement in RuPaul’s Drag Race. How has the show altered the landscape of drag performance, and the competitiveness of the community?
Ivy Winters talks about this a lot. There are girls who will hate other drag queens who have gotten on the show because they feel like they have less talent than them and are stealing what should be their spotlight. It’s not about if they have more or less talent, though; it’s about whether or not they have a TV personality. Lots of queens think you have to be on Drag Race to be someone nowadays—and that’s not always the truth. There [are] plenty of great queens who are doing amazing things without being on reality TV. But, I think Drag Race has done lots of good by bringing drag into the mainstream. Drag queens are now in music videos, getting on stage with Miley Cyrus, doing Marco Marco shows—there’s certainly lots of good here with this visibility.
“People have a perception of what drag is supposed to be—of course, there are some queens that will never fit into these boxes. But, what’s bad about that?”
There are some queens featured in Dragged that might be unfamiliar to viewers while there are also more recognizable faces like Ivy Winters and Bob the Drag Queen. What do these queens have in common, despite their various levels of success?
Drag is about many different things now. It’s not just about getting up, putting on a full face of makeup or getting on stage and lip-syncing the best you can. For some, it’s also about looking like women or doing circus stuff. People have a perception of what drag is supposed to be—of course, there are some queens that will never fit into these boxes. But, what’s bad about that? Once fame enters the picture, many of these queens feel like they’re automatically perceived as a bitch. There’s lots of pressure in the field. But, as you see in the film, they’re all doing it to make themselves feel good and express themselves. Getting famous only complicates this dynamic.
Do you worry that drag may lose some of its essential qualities as a transgressive art form as it becomes more and more mainstream?
I think certain things are not meant to be mainstream. What keeps drag alive is the mishmash of opinions and emotions around the art. Once it becomes mainstream, it can’t do that anymore—it must be uniform. It would just be like everything else. [Making it mainstream] would just clean up the aspects that make drag special. If mainstream just means accepted, then sure. But, if it means everywhere, all the time, then no. It loses something.
What would you say is one formative thing that you’ve taken away since filming?
I think the one thing is, as much as [drag queens] don’t want to admit it, there’s an incredible love between them. They think it’s more fun for everyone if they [are]… at each other’s throats the whole time. There’s a connection [among] them all that is very sweet, but hidden under a very high sarcastic level… There’s lots of words that mean something bad that [are] actually terms of endearment.
Images courtesy of Alpha Tree Productions and via SFGate.
Stay tuned to Milk for more on the always evolving drag world.