Jonathan O'Brien

Jonathan O'Brien

Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Jonathan O'Brien: I'm Jonathan O'Brien, and I guess I got into drag about six years ago. It had been something that I was kind of interested in from a young age. I sort of first got interested in it in high school when we were studying feminist art, and I felt like I connected with a lot of what the feminist artists were trying to say in the '70s.

So, I decided that if I was ever going to be a drag queen my name would be Judy Chicago, after the feminist artist who did The Dinner Party. That's probably one of her most famous pieces.

Gareth: What were some of the things that you keyed into at high school? What were they saying, the feminists?

Jonathan: Anyone can be anyone. So, like Cindy Sherman posing in a lot of her self-portraits as all these different stereotypes of women and sort of deconstructing them and reconstructing them. So, if you're able to deconstruct an identity, you can create a new one out of anything. And that's kind of what drag is like for me.

Gareth: At what age were you thinking those thoughts?

Jonathan: Well, I had sort of gender/sexuality issues in high school where I was thinking about what it means to be gay or what it means to be gay if you were raised Catholic, what it means to be a boy. Like, I'd wear pigtails to school and see how people reacted, and so I just tried to destabilize boundaries that I found quite restrictive. And growing up in white, middle-class Papakura I just started playing around with how I dressed and how I thought.

And it wasn't really until I went to university and moved into Auckland city that I met other people who were gay and were queer and were performers, and I figured that drag was the kind of performance direction that I wanted to go in.

Gareth: Just going back to your high school days, how did other people react to what you were doing?

Jonathan: My teachers all thought that I was lovely and troubled, and most of the other guys at school were just like, oh, you're a fag. And I was like, yes, but what does that mean? So I was kind of trying to get more out of them, and it didn't really work. But I had a fairly supportive school counselor who was like, don't worry, things will sort themselves out when you leave high school.

And the college that I was at was Rosehill College, and now they have a really good queer sexuality support system in place.

Gareth: So, at that age how do you have that kind of inner strength to challenge stereotypes?

Jonathan: I don't know. Where does anyone get their inner strength from, really? Mum? I had a pretty fierce mother and a fierce grandmother. I had lots of really strong female role models. I lived with my mum for a long time after she kicked dad out, and then I lived with my grandmother and grandfather for a while. My grandmother was this bolshy Jewish holocaust survivor who lived inner strength, so it was probably a lot from watching people like her.

Gareth: And so from those high school experiences, what did you take out of that?

Jonathan: That people react to difference in different ways, and I guess I learned more about how I responded to their reactions. So, if their reactions were negative, did it actually affect me? And by the time I was finishing high school it didn't, and that sort of set me up for being comfortable doing whatever I felt like doing, I guess.

Gareth: How did your family react?

Jonathan: When I first came out to my dad I was probably 18, and he was all fine with it, and was like, "I guess we've sort of known that for a while, but do you want to be a woman?"

And I was like, "No dad. I'm gay. I like the idea of two cocks together. That's the point."

And then two years later I started doing drag and I didn't really know how he'd react to that, because of the question he'd asked when I first came out. So one night – I was living with him at the time – he and my stepmother had gone out, so I was just practicing makeup at home and got into full drag, and then I was just sitting in the lounge watching TV and they came home from being out. And I was just in there with a big blonde wig and bright blue dress, and dad just walked in and looked at me and said, "Hi son. So, will we be seeing you like this more often?"

And I just said yes, and it was fine.

Gareth: So, how do you see drag? Is it a performance thing or is it something more?

Jonathan: Originally, when I first started doing it, I guess it was something more. I wasn't really sure of my own gender situation and what being male or female really meant for me. And I'd been doing lots of theatre as well, so I sort of mixed the issues together and found myself a drag mother and started doing drag regularly.

And then it kind of became a shield or a suit of armor, and I think that's something for a lot of drag queens is that being in drag is kind of like putting up a defense almost, or a mask that affords you a lot of confidence and distance from people. So, I didn't have to worry about whether or not a guy liked me because I wasn't out looking for sex; I was out being glamorous and tragic [laughs] and outrageous.

At that point, in the early point when I was first doing drag, my drag character was quite distinct from me as Jonathan. And I guess I wasn't sure who I wanted to be so sometimes I'd spend a lot of time in drag and maybe go to university in drag.

And then as my life progressed and I got more experience with relationships and with sex I realized that, you know, being male was what I wanted to be, and being a man with a man was where I was most comfortable, and drag just became more of a performance space, a hobby, something fun to do, something to entertain people with, something to entertain myself with, and I didn't really need to hold it as that sort of magic feather. I didn't need to hold on to drag to be able to fly.

Gareth: I'm wondering if you could define drag. How would you define drag?

Jonathan: I guess drag, to me, would mean a member of one sex performing and presenting themselves in an over-the-top manner representative of the gender traditionally recognized as the opposite to what they were born into.

Gareth: But there's an element of performance. Is that the key things, then?

Jonathan: Yeah, and definitely, even if you're not onstage it's still a performance. Like, you don't just go out as a drag king or a drag queen, you go out and you are performing. You're performing in a character, really.

Gareth: How long did it take for you to find your drag character?

Jonathan: Well, I found three. [laughs] But it didn't take long at all, really. I had a really good drag mother. Her name was Ester C, and she was a very good makeup artist and very confident and very camp and very hilarious and witty. And I just emulated a lot of her behaviors and styles, and sort of found myself quite quickly and ended up winning Miss Drag Auckland about eight months after I started doing drag.

And yeah, I found that my interests were in high camp and old Broadway musicals and kitsch glamour and tragic heroes, and all those sorts of gay archetypal kind of characters that a lot of the night-club scene were unfamiliar with or weren't into. All those things sort of fell into my basket and nobody else was really doing them at the time, so it firmed up a character for me quite nicely.

And then as I just experimented with different looks and different styles of music and different styles of makeup and different eras and different aspects of performance and personality, I found other people to be Judy Chicago's alter egos.

Gareth: Just before we get on to a description of the personas, can you tell me how you go about finding a drag mother?

Jonathan: I'd been on the gay scene in Auckland for about two years before I started doing drag, and I'd seen all the drag queens around and I had no idea of how to get into doing that. I didn't just want to turn up in a wig and an ugly dress made of curtains, with a bit of makeup smeared on my face because you'd just get laughed out of town. So, one of my friends was friends with a couple of drag queens, and I met them at her 21st birthday and she introduced me to them. I got their number and then hung out with them, and then just said, yeah, I'd love for you to put me in drag, and so she did. You just find someone and latch yourself to them.

Gareth: What was that first experience like?

Jonathan: It was heady. It was mixed with a lot of drugs and alcohol and heels that I couldn't walk in properly and a dress from an op shop, but amazing hair and makeup. And I just felt like a movie star and felt like I had access to anywhere I wanted to go and could get away with anything.

Gareth: So, describe for me your personas.

Jonathan: Okay. Judy Chicago is sort of my base character, and she is more or less me now, really, in drag, but exaggerated so she's a lot camper and she's a bit fruity and she likes jazz and Judy Garland and floral and big, big hair.

And Gertrude Stain is quite ugly, but clever and interested in cooking and hideous '70s prints and curly hair and glasses.

And Nylon Polymer is a bit of a trip, and is usually in white-face and bizarre post-modern blends of things like laundry baskets and Marie Antoinette hair and Care Bears.

And the three of them get along well in my head.

Gareth: Do you ever find they're taking you over?

Jonathan: No, not at all.

I did used to feel that Judy Chicago was taking over when I was going through a bit of an identity crisis, and if I was feeling down, or whatever, I would fall back into that confident persona that I had constructed, and that confident persona just happened to be a drag queen. So sometimes I'd not feel like I could go out to a club not in drag, because I didn't feel confident enough or I didn't feel pretty enough or whatever.

Gareth: So talk to me about identity crises.

Jonathan: For a while I was living with my father, who lived on the [North]shore, so I had to come into town to socialize with anyone, and I had a lot of different groups of friends and I felt like I was a different person with each of these different groups of friends. And I was trying to work out who I was without them, and who I felt comfortable being, and who I wanted to be and who I wanted to be seen as being. At that point I just didn't really feel like being Jonathan, I guess. I didn't really know who he was, but I had a more definite idea of who Judy Chicago was, so she kind of took over.

And yeah, for a lot of other drag queens I've spoken to, they feel like their drag personas can take over a lot, as well, and sometimes you've just got to put the drag in a bag and hide her.

Gareth: Now, drag wasn't confined to those personas, because you were also doing some study around that area as well, weren't you?

Jonathan: Yeah, I was doing a degree in psychology and linguistics, so I was quite interested in gender and language. And I was also the cultural affairs officer for the Student's Association. I got Judy Chicago to run as that position, which just made it a little bit more fun for me and for anyone else, really.

And I did a research project on how drag queens in Auckland spoke, and how that differed from how they would speak as gay men or how they would speak as men in general.

And I just looked at the intersectionality of the different cultural groups around Auckland, and the influences that they all had on drag culture. There's a strong Polynesian and Maori influence on a lot of the phrases that people say, and that's probably because there's a high population of Polynesian and Maori people who are involved in the queer community in Auckland, especially in the performance industry, as well, and some of the best drag queens in New Zealand are Polynesian and Maori.

And also just looking at the influence of African American drag or African American gay culture on gay culture in New Zealand and how that affects the way drag queens speak and act and the looks that they adopt, as well. And then looking at our trans-Tasman relationship with Sydney, and Sydney has a very polished, glamorous drag image, and at the moment Auckland is looking a lot more like Sydney, drag wise.

Gareth: Can you give me some examples in terms of speech or looks?

Jonathan: I guess there's just all sorts of little things like: a lot of drag queens will say gnirl instead of girl, and it's a gay thing as well; and kia ora sister, and talking about someone being whanau, like, is she whanau? Is she gay? Is he gay? Is he family? And little polari phrases like riah and uber-riah when you're talking about a wig, and zhooshing and trolling and pudaganussy. There are just lots of little idiosyncrasies that strong personalities have that rub off on others, as well, like Ribena has a way of talking that is very loud and scary and powerful, and a lot of people put that on sometimes.

Gareth: Just for the uninitiated, could you go back through some of those words and define what they are?

Jonathan: A pudaganussy is a drag queen's pussy, and it's usually covered up by three pairs of stockings. An uber-riah is a lace-front wig. Trolling – you know, trolling for trade, stalking for boys to have sex with or johns, clients, whatever. “Cracking it” is basically prostitution.

Gareth: Is prostitution a big thing in the drag scene?

Jonathan: Not really, no. I don't know many drag queens who actually work as prostitutes in drag just because it's so much effort to get in drag; you don't want it to all get smudged off by some big eager man that's probably not really worth the trouble. Doing drag is relatively expensive if you're doing it well, I suppose. Although, in saying that, you can actually do drag really cheaply and amazingly; it just depends on what look you're going for, really. The $2 Shop in the Warehouse is most drag queen's favorite shops, I think. But yeah, I know a few girls who do it sometimes – maybe for a new wig or whatever – but I don't think it's a large aspect of drag culture.

Gareth: So, what were your findings in your research?

Jonathan: I guess I just found the importance of understanding the way other drag queens spoke so that you could speak their language and be part of the community; so, reinforcing solidarity through this stylized form of discourse. And it's a sense of belonging, a sense of exclusivity, almost, and a sense of family. And I think for a lot young gay men coming into the gay scene, they're kind of lost, and you see this drag sisterhood as a ready-made group that you can be adopted into. You just learn the customs and the practices and you have a family.

Gareth: So it's quite friendly. There's not a competitive edge?

Jonathan: I'd say it's very competitive, but that competition, in itself, reinforces the friendships. So, you're constantly trying to make yourself better and your friends are trying to make you better and make themselves better, and you give each other a hard time to make each other try harder. So it can be really bitchy, but it's in jest most of the time and you know you can rely on your sisters if you need to.

Gareth: Have you found that it's mostly gay men that do drag, or do straight men do drag as well?

Jonathan: Well yeah, a lot of straight men do drag. I mean, with Queen of the Whole Universe in New Zealand, that kind of presents an opportunity for a whole lot of people to do drag in a really structured and safe environment. They go through rehearsals, they get told how to dress or what style to dress, they have someone else doing their makeup for them, and I guess people who do drag occasionally aren't really drag queens as such, because they're not immersed in the culture and the practice, but it's something they can do for fun. I know with Queen of the Whole Universe we've had large numbers of straight men and straight women and gay women, and mostly gay men, come through and perform as queens every year.

And the whole bio-queen movement is growing all over the world. A bio-queen is a woman who dresses up as a drag queen, so you could almost say Lady Gaga is a bio-queen, but my favorite bio-queen would be Phonique, who's an amazing performance artist. She's involved in the Trannyshack group in the States, and she's just fierce.

And we've also got a few bio-queens in New Zealand, as well. It's just girls kind of seeing that hyperfemininity is this arena that isn't really open to them very often any more, and they want to draw their eyebrows up high and put ridiculous amounts of eye shadow on and giant wigs. Why have an excuse to do it when you can just go out and be a queen?

Gareth: What do you think is the biggest thrill for you doing drag?

Jonathan: I have the most fun in drag when I'm with other drag queens and performing, so getting the buzz of rehearsing and putting together a show, and then being onstage with the people you've been working with, or in front of people and being a spectacle. Yeah, a lot of it is just about making something fabulous and having a good time doing it.

Gareth: Is drag all about the present and the now, or does it have a history? Are people aware of a history in drag?

Jonathan: Yeah, definitely there's a long, long history. I've done a lot of research on the history of drag and looked into different forms of drag all around the world, and different forms of gender transgression or subversion or whatever, and I find all of that really interesting, whereas other drag queens are just like: Britney's so fuckin' hot; I want to look like her right now. And that's cool, you know. You don't need the history to be amazing, but it's fantastic to know that even in New Zealand we have a strong local history of drag going back about 50 years.

Gareth: And how is that passed down. If you hadn't gone and researched, is it within the community, within drag queens themselves, who are passing that history down?

Jonathan: In Wellington we lack a lot of drag history now because most of the older drag queens have moved on, and so we've got a lot of orphan drag queens, or motherless drag queens. [laughs]

But in Auckland there's a fairly steady generational handing down of the knowledge of drag and knowledge of the girls who came before. And we have things like the Cartier Trust and that sort of thing that recognize that these people had been pretty fabulous and had been around for a while, and the knowledge of who these people are is definitely around. Like, most of the drag queens around today would know about performances in the early '90s and '80s at The Studio and The Staircase and things like that.

Gareth: And how is that history seen of those older drag queens and their memories? Are they celebrated or are they set up as something that was kind of weird?

Jonathan: Again, it all depends on which drag queen is around. Some older drag queens are just seen as a bit weird, and then some of them are celebrated for being completely outrageous and of their time or before their time, and some of them are still the most fierce bitches around. [laughs]

Gareth: Do you think there's any kind of age limit for people in doing drag?

Jonathan: Definitely not. Peter Taylor is still doing drag and he's probably like 100 years old by now. [laughs] And he's still fabulous. And the youngest person I know who started doing drag was probably about 14.

But there's also blurry lines with transgender issues, as well. Some people start out as a drag queen or doing drag or cross dressing or whatever, and then they start doing it more often, and then that person becomes who they are and who they want to be or who they've always wanted to be. So there are strong links between drag communities and transgender communities and people and individuals.

Gareth: What do you think the hardest part of doing drag is?

Jonathan: For me probably the hardest part has been juggling drag with a partner. Gay men are gay men because they're attracted to men, and my partner is not attracted to drag queens, even though he met me when I was in drag. He just came to see me as a boy, and that's who he likes, so when I'm in drag he kind of feels like I'm a different person, and not the person that he's in love with. But he understands that I'm still there, I'm just playing. So yeah, juggling my sisters with my boyfriend has probably been the trickiest part of being a drag queen.

Gareth: And the funnest part?

Jonathan: The funnest part is stumbling down to a kebab shop with a bunch of drag queens whose lips have been getting bigger and bigger all night, and gorging yourself before getting a taxi home, and just the looks on everyone's faces around you, with these three tragic queens, or four tragic queens, or two, or five – whatever – just looking completely conspicuous and out of place.

Gareth: So, talk to me about reactions, like when you're walking around in town. Do they vary from city to city?

Jonathan: Yeah, reactions definitely vary from city to city, and street to street as well. Like if you're going down K Road it's kind of known that that's where drag queens live, and if you're going to K Road on a weekend night you're going to bump into a drag queen, so you're on their turf pretty much.

I think once somebody said to me, "What makes you think you can get away with wearing that?"

And I just said, "Because I can," and they were like, oh, okay, and it was fine.

And then in Palmerston North I did a gig with a friend, and the gig was at Club Q – I think that's what it's called there – and when we finished I go, "Right, let's go hit the town," and we were denied from about four or five different clubs because we didn't meet the dress code. And we weren't even wearing anything particularly outrageous or skimpy, it was just clear that we weren't welcome there. We ended up finding one place that would let us in, but reactions weren't particularly positive.

And then in Wellington, on Cuba Street pretty much everything is fine, and then you walk down Courtenay Place and you get called faggot by a bunch of guys, and beautiful by their girlfriends, so it just depends on who you bump into and who's out at the time.

Gareth: Do you get more reaction in drag or just as a boy?

Jonathan: Definitely get more reactions in drag. As a boy I mostly just wear black and grey and blue, and in drag I mostly wear purple and fuchsia and lime and bright colors. And people really appreciate it in most places that I end up in. A lot of people just come up to me and are like, thank you for just adding a little bit of color. And that's really nice because that's a big part of the reason why drag queens do it is because they want to bring a bit of color to something and make people happy and make sure that people are having fun. And sometimes that fun isn't welcome, [laughs] and that's fine, too.

In Wellington there's not much of a drag scene, and the gay community isn't really that keen on drag and drag performances, and I just think that's because there's no real strong drag coordinator.

We used to have Polly Filla living in Wellington, and she was great at holding a drag community together and organizing events and being a great role model for people, and when she left I think a lot of that just dissipated, and so Wellington is waiting for its next true diva to stand up and unite the queens.

Gareth: So we were talking just before about drag mothers, and I'm wondering: Are you now a drag mother? Do you have drag children?

Jonathan: Well, now that I'm an elderly six-year-old drag queen, yeah, I do have drag children. I didn't for a long time because I didn't really know anyone who fitted what I would want in a daughter, but one of my dear friends who shared a lot of my interests in gender and performance and color and film and theatre and music, he had watched me do drag for about two years, and I suggested that maybe he would be interested. I was living with him at the time, and he was just like, oh yes, yes; oh God, yes, I want to be your drag daughter please.

And I wanted someone I could share my style with and share the films and history that had sort of inspired me, like a lot of John Waters' films and Andy Warhol's films, and the drag queens of New York that I was really interested in, and The Cockettes.

So yeah, I just showed him all of that and then one night I was like, right, here's a bunch of old costumes that you can have, and did his face and showed him how to do her face, and put her in a few wigs, and started taking her out. So yeah, I have my own little daughter, and her name is Gaia Octavia Seizure, and she's very much an earth-mother in sequins.

And I also have a step drag-daughter, as well, whose own mother passed away, and so I sort of adopted her.

I guess for me, being a drag queen has been really useful in finding out who I am and finding out what I can do and who I can be, and I've made a lot of really, really, really good friends through drag, where sometimes all we have in common to begin with is the fact that we want to dress up in ridiculous costumes and run around town screaming, and progress from there. So yeah, I just really appreciate everything that I've gotten from my involvement with drag and drag performers and the performers associated with that culture.

Gareth: What's your ultimate drag act?

Jonathan: I really like drag and theatre and acting and comedy. I really like the drag that happens in New York. A lot of it's a little bit edgy and it's less defined in its boundaries of what is drag. Like, some drag queens will say that to be a drag queen you've got to be wearing a wig or you've got to be wearing heels or whatever, and then others will be like, all you need is some lip gloss and some bright eye shadow, and who gives a fuck about wearing tits or whatever. And yeah, I like those destabilized performance types.

But I also really like the high glamour that happens in female impersonator shows where people dress up as Liza Minnelli or Cher or anything like that.

One of my favorite shows that I ever did was a half male, half female – or half man, half woman – cabaret act for the Auckland Festival in 2005. And that was a lot of fun because it was quite challenging actually creating a male character who had to be just as extreme as the drag side. So, I already had Judy Chicago established as a persona, but Jack London needed to find himself, and so he just became this revolting, sleazy, Jewish, used-car salesman, wannabe stand-up comedian. So for that show, Judy sang and Jack interrupted her and kept trying to tell jokes. And it was in a really intimate space, in the Winter Garden in the Civic, and I really enjoyed being involved in something like a cabaret like that.

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