"I did get ready in the cab and had a fun night. Alaska pointed me out 2 times from stage to comment on my look." - Miss Pepper.
*This interview was conducted verbally and has been edited for clarity.*
1. What does "Drag" mean to you personally?
To me, drag is a way to express pride in femininity rather than having it be something used to ridicule or bully me. It is also a way just to have a lot of fun, do something creative, learn a bunch of new skills, and also share a fantasy, or have a glamorous moment, play with some makeup. It is genuinely just a lot of fun!
2. When did you start doing drag?
I did drag for the very first time in October 2016, and then again in October 2017, but finally took it a little more seriously in 2018 by performing regularly.
3. How did you start doing drag?
It’s a fun story, me and my friends were really getting into Rupaul’s Drag Race and we were really enjoying it, this was in Vancouver in my final year of university, and so I decided “you know what, let’s just go all in.’ For my birthday that year in October 2016, I threw a drag birthday party and all my friends had to come dressed up in drag even though none of us had ever done it before! I found a makeup artist who was a student so she was quite cheap, and whichever one of my friends wanted to get their makeup done they had to come early. We made a menu of services with how much each person would have to pay depending on how intense they wanted their makeup to be etc. It was really fun! A few people performed, we had a runway, and all this was in my living room, it was great! At Least 20 people came dressed in drag! The second time I did drag was in October, 2017 in Bombay when Alaska (5000) from Drag Race was coming to perform and I thought the best way for me to get a chance to meet her and grab her attention was going in drag. I borrowed a wig and bought a dress and found someone who was willing to do my makeup, but unfortunately they backed out at the last minute. I was forced to borrow my sister’s makeup and I was doing the makeup myself at home while my family was out. My plan was to leave and get ready in the cab before they got home but unfortunately they got home early and saw my full made-up face! I explained it away as “it’s just a costume and it’s just for fun,” and yes I did get ready in the cab and had a great night. Alaska even pointed out to me from the stage twice to comment on my look, so it was a great moment, I had a lot of fun!
4. When was the first time you performed in drag?
I had a friend in Bombay, a really close friend, who is a stand-up comedian and he was doing a lot of open mics around the city. He took me along a few times and honestly the performers were really not great! I was interested in performing myself in drag and finding more excuses to get into drag so I thought maybe doing stand-up comedy at some of these open mics might be a great way to start, because honestly I couldn’t be any worse than the people there. So that's what I did, I took my friend’s help to register for some of the open mics and just got in drag at friends’ houses so that my parents wouldn’t know! It was a good time! I did a whole bunch of open mics around the city and eventually got noticed by a few people, I was invited to do a few curated shows and the rest is history.
5. How would you describe your drag style?
I would say currently my style is a bit eclectic. I am trying to work my way towards doing looks which are a little more avant-garde. To get to that I’m practicing my makeup and also learning how to make my own clothes to be able to wear clothes that are not off-the-rack. In terms of performance I really enjoy comedy, and in the online digital world of the pandemic I am trying to do more comedy/parody style things, so definitely trying to stick towards the comedy sphere while also serving some sickening looks.
6. Criticisms can either make you or break you. What were some critics you got when you started?
I started performing in straight spaces in Bombay where drag was new and had not been done before. People found it exciting, they enjoyed it, and of course since I was doing stand-up comedy I was making fun of myself. I think people really did enjoy it although some were confused, I remember after my very first stand-up show the host at the end of it, outside the venue, brought over a boy and made me tell him that I am not a woman, that I am a dude dressed up as a woman despite me explaining that during my set. He just didn’t believe it which was cool. So as such I didn’t really receive any harsh criticism since there was no one who really understood what I was doing. Eventually when I started performing with other queens, people were again very supportive, though I remember one queen once told me I should shave my hands. I thought okay I'll do it since I’m still learning but I know now that I don’t care about such small things because it’s not super relevant. It’s fun to mix up gender norms rather than stick to being a 100% a woman or a 100% a man, I don’t think there are really any boundaries that I need to stick to.
7. "Relevance of drag in India." What do you think?
I think drag is relevant everywhere, not just in India, because we live in societies where gender norms are very strong and this is true everywhere. With drag we can really show that honestly, there is no box we need to put ourselves in terms of clothing, behaviour, makeup etc. so it’s definitely relevant everywhere. In India specifically, there’s always existed some culture of men dressing or performing as women, that’s always existed but unfortunately we have lost respect for some of those artforms whether through colonization etc. I am sure there are a lot of factors. I think drag is one way of relegitimizing the artforms or the forms of entertainment that incorporated men dressing as women. I hope the other forms of drag in India, which are not this Western influenced form of drag also experience a revival. The way that we are doing it currently is hopefully growing, I see new performers all the time, but I hope that there are also new spaces and opportunities for us to share our art.
8. What was the initial reaction of your family and friends when you told them about you as a drag performer?
My friends have always been supportive of me doing drag, they have always all been interested and curious and supportive whether or not they really enjoyed it. WIth my parents, I tried not to tell them for quite a long time but eventually they found out on their own and I still don’t know how! They were immediately supportive but they didn’t quite understand it, I remember they sat me down and said they had heard I was out performing on stage dressed as a woman; it was really sweet, they asked me if I was trans and if I need support, I assured them I am not and this is just a way to have fun and perform on stage. I thought my dad won’t get it but he said he’s seen a lot of male comedians dress up as a women on TV so he wasn’t shocked. Other than that I’ve told a couple of my cousins who then came to see me perform in a show and they enjoyed it, but I haven’t told my entire extended family yet. I believe they will be supportive. They might enjoy it, who knows? We will find out!
9. "Drag is political." Do you agree? Present your thoughts on the same.
Drag is definitely political. Anytime you do something that is breaking down norms in society it elicits a strong reaction and it’s something that can be politicized, it messes with people’s heads. What we are doing is breaking down gender norms and boundaries which is definitely influencing society, so it is political. Other than that, drag queens themselves are often leaders in the LGBTQ community because they are so visible and often support the fight for LGBTQ rights in whatever country they are in, especially because we are marginalized in a lot of places. Drag performers have always played an important role in building the rights movements for queer individuals around the world.
10. Do you feel drag needs to be inclusive? Why or why not?
Drag has to be inclusive. The point of drag is breaking gender norms and gender boundaries, and a part of that is being inclusive to all gender expressions. If we’re trying to break gender norms we can’t say one or the other gender is unequal or less than. We definitely have to be very inclusive, especially towards trans folk because they’ve played a crucial role in the drag community’s history. We have to be inclusive.
11. Do you believe drag culture is compromised?
If this question is referring to the effect that Drag Race has had on the drag community, I don’t think it has been compromised because it is not a static artform with a long institutionalized established history. It is an artform that has kind of always been on the fringes of society supporting marginalized folks, and so getting some mainstream attention has been very good for the drag community. I do think drag in India especially, in its modern form, has been heavily influenced by the show. So I don’t think drag has been compromised, it is evolving and we are getting a more mainstream audience.
12. What are your thoughts on "Drag patronizing"?
Patrons can play a very important role in supporting artists in any sort of artform and I believe a lot of artists or artforms do rely on wealthy patrons or the patronage of governments, organisations, or whatever body provides funding to survive. This probably applies to drag as well but I do think the appeal of drag is to a mass audience, that’s where we will have the maximum impact. This is especially because drag is mostly not a high-brow style of entertainment, it is a form of entertainment consumable by anyone as long as they are willing to put their prejudice aside. I think building a larger audience of smaller patrons with individuals who are willing to come to our shows, buy tickets, tip us etc. is more important than necessarily individual larger patrons. And also because drag queens live off of the attention of the masses!
13. Were you ill treated/abused because you perform in drag? Please share your experience if comfortable.
I’ve been very lucky that I have not experienced any abuse in drag despite doing drag in a lot of places. I remember I used to often start doing my makeup while going to shows, travelling in a rickshaw or a cab while stuck in peak-hour traffic. Once I even did my makeup on a local train, luckily no one has ever said anything so I’ve definitely been privileged in that sense.
14. What is your vision through the art of drag?
My vision or my fantasy is just to have fun and create some really cool looks and express my creativity. I do think that if you want to actually pursue drag as your career then you have to find a niche to really focus on, and grow, and become the best in that niche, whether it is in the clothing, in the make up or in a particular type of performance. You really need to find that one space to gain commercial success and make your skills commercializable.
15. A message you'd like to give to young aspiring drag artists.
My message to young drag artists would be, I guess I could be corny and say, “have fun, just go for it, you’re doing great sweetie, you look amazing.” But seriously, if people are interested in this then they should just try it. It’s a lot of fun, you don’t have to look good, no one looks good their first time. Just try, why not? It’s a good time and at the end of the day you can just wash it all off so just try. For drag artists who actually want to take it seriously I would say there are a lot of different skills to do it, and the way to do it is to focus on one skill at a time, there’s a steep learning curve, don’t get disheartened. Once you get a little good just focus on getting better at one skill at a time, and over time you will.
Follow Miss Pepper on Instagram to support her and see her upcoming work at https://www.instagram.com/desidragdiva/
*This interview was conducted verbally and has been edited for clarity.*
About author : Miss Bhenji is an Indian aesthetic drag queen. She's a dancer, actor and a comedian. She's based out of Nagpur and her interview talk show is called Baatein with Bhenji. Baatein with Bhenji was an initiative taken by Miss Bhenji to interview the queer artists of India to give them exposure for people to learn more about them.