Getting into character: The rejuvenating power of drag

Getting into character: The rejuvenating power of drag

[Written by Julia Hegele (she/her)]

[Photo by Alejandro Cartagena 🇲🇽🏳‍🌈 on Unsplash]

In the garden of this galaxy, humanity is but a collection of caterpillars, toddling mindlessly from leaf to leaf. We are an unextraordinary breed: alike each other in blood, bone, and brain. Our most vital similarity is the urge for more; the hope that one day we, regardless of our place in the garden, can grow into something extraordinary. Some seek this in wealth, in work, and some others have found this brilliance closer to home: inside themselves or in all of us. These individuals, through sweat, glue, and bronzer, have released themselves from the shell of mundanity and have created a brilliant new identity for themselves through the art of drag.  

Drag as the performance of gender expression is one of the most iconic and attainable identity shifts in the arts, born from the 1920’s LGBT ball scene and with heraldic claims to Elizabethan standing houses and Baroque operas. It is a process that increasingly belongs to anyone, no matter their gender. If you have a tube of mascara, a bowler hat, and a zest for something new, you can create any resplendent character you desire.  

These three things found me in a locked bathroom on the eve of my 17th birthday, having just watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch​, and with my newfound bisexuality on fire. I knew I loved everyone I had seen, like John Cameron Mitchell and his ice blue eyeshadow; Miriam Shor and her rugged goatee. I wanted something I had never known before. Not only did I want to be with them, but I also wanted to be them. 

If you move your head fast enough, scuffing mascara along your cheeks can pass for stubble. A stolen bronzer from your mother’s drawer can etch jawlines and cheekbones that would leave Michelangelo blushing. Throw your hair back in a black bandana, add a stolen flannel, and ta-da! Suddenly you are Kurt Cobain with hazel eyes, grumbling out-of-range notes to yourself until your dad shuts off the water you have been running to muffle your newfound exuberance.  

When I got home from school, I would race to the bathroom to paint on high eyebrows and pastel lips, or block out all my features for a smooth, alien facade that I would stare at for hours. I had a freedom that nobody knew about, something I was good at, something that made me feel exceptional and out of my body. I would show my friends, tucked in the dressing room, painting on blush, racking up tens of plays on the Hedwig Original Broadway Soundtrack. I took more selfies than I had taken in years of my new masculine face, in awe of my ability to transform. And in that awe, I had a newfound certainty. Despite the moderate confidence of any teenage girl, I was fucking badass. 

This breath of fresh air has carried me through the rest of my life. Thanks to those characters in my childhood room, I can now strap on 7-inch platforms, strut and speak my mind clearly without worrying about putting people off. I became my own idol in that room. Growing up I learned how drag has touched others in similarly beautiful ways. Now, I count myself among a star-studded group of individuals who eat convention for breakfast and live to perform.  

To get into character is to utterly revive yourself. Sure, it is not a spa day; you must be present for the whole event and it is hard work. You sweat and ache and are always on your toes (literally in some cases). But to explore the identity of another while bound to your own corporeal form is an exercise in creativity, self-awareness, vulnerability, and ultimately in beauty. When the paint comes off, the curtain closes, and the act is done. The art you have created is not hanging on a wall or reverberating from an instrument; it is you. Your body has the capacity to produce new forms, to create fun, to birth brilliance. This awareness of yourself and your potential multiplicity has the potential to revitalise your relationship not only with yourself as an artist, but as a human being worthy of care.  

Drag is an embodiment of whatever you want it to be.  If you are reserved and nervous in your normal clothes, allow yourself to step out confidently with flair the next time you drag up. If you are used to talking over people and stealing spotlights, relax and give space to others as a more benevolent character. When one expresses themselves by evoking another, the body becomes a grand canvas, ready to be drawn up however the owner choses. You can be anyone, and anything, so if you are feeling stagnant or lost, pick up an eyeliner and allow yourself some freedom.  Drag allows a shift in perspective, a revival of self, a transformation into anything you want to be simply by stepping into another’s shoes, no matter the height. 

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