“My First Drag Persona Was This Blunt Helga”: Ukrainian Drag Queens on Their Life and Work
“In the beginning God created Adam and Eve; a few years later, Shaniqua, the Garden of Eden’s first drag queen, came along and stole a pair of pumps from Eve.”
RuPaul, the most famous drag queen of our times, uncovered this episode from the Old Testament in 2009, in the first season of his famous reality show, RuPaul’s Drag Race. However, even without this parable the conservative part of the US population had something to worry about. The movement of drag artists — men who perform on stage as hypertrophied female characters — had been rather well-developed by the time the show was launched (even in Ukraine, Diva Monro’s team has been performing for eight years). However, for the first time in history men tightened their corsets, glued on artificial breasts, and danced on pumps to Madonna songs for the multi-million audience — and even competed who does it the best.
Professional drag queens, or travesti divas, as they are called in the post-Soviet territories, most often (although not necessarily) belong to the LGBT community. Despite the official tolerant attitude of the current Ukrainian authorities to the LGBT and the availability of shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, there are few such artists in the country — just about 15 people. The travesti platform was the most noticeable part of the latest gay pride in Kyiv, but only six divas had the courage to join it.
It’s hard to be a drag queen in Ukraine. Many say that despite the ‘eurointegrational’ agenda of the state, the attitude of Ukrainians towards LGBT people has worsened in recent years, and there is almost no demand for even the most harmless parody acts outside the gay clubs. Georgy Truba, one of the interviewees in this article, had recently left the country because of the issues with the locals caused by his homosexuality. He will be granted political asylum in Europe.
There is also good news, though. Despite these difficulties, Ukrainian artists have all four drag qualities praised by RuPaul: charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.
Gina Smile (Eugeny Saulyak) 32 y.o.
— When I arrive at my workplace in clubs — all tall and massive, wearing a simple “redneck” cap and glasses — nobody believes I’m an artist. But yes, I’ve been in drag since 2010.
Drag queen’s nicknames are usually formed from two words: the first one is derived from one’s own name, the second one is just fictional. Initially, Gina had another surname, but the legend goes that then she married Austrian baron von Smile. On their wedding night, he died.
I’ve been working in the tram depot in Odessa for 10 years. But recently, I gave up my position because I got literally squeezed out of business by the new authorities. And the reason was that I’m gay and I work as a drag queen in the night. Things started falling apart after several TV shows I participated in, and one very silly and staged show in particular. After this I was passed on a message that Gina Smile can’t be a depot director any longer… And I used to be a very experienced and successful specialist. My station was the very best in the whole city. We once collected the highest monthly taking ever in the city.
Simultaneously, I worked as a tram driver because I loved that job. All those passengers, the local folk, they were energizing me. I was keeping a ear out all the time, listening to how they shout and swear, what they talk about… On a tour, I would always give away some “living” phrase in local slang.
I got immersed into the drag queen thing through the artist community. I had a problem with putting on make-up, I would always draw these crooked eyebrows on myself. My first performance was at “Tema” gay club in times when Grizolda and Andrella Vodkina already worked there. A terrible story happened with Andrella a year ago. She died in a car accident that happened because of policemen. Now friends and admirers want to set up a drag queen monument at her grave. After her death, Andrella appeared in dreams of several drag queen community guys, saying: “Girls, how could you put me, the artist, in a coffin in a male costume! No wig, no heels…” It seems like the responsible police officer won’t be punished. Ukrainian “New Police” even failed to apologize to Andrella’s parents. A lot of people just said: “The faggot died, I don’t care”. This unjust and outraging situation didn’t get as sensational as it had to. It made me feel sad and even scared… But there’s no one to help correct such an attitude in Ukrainian society. Only us gays and drag queens.
People keep telling me: just leave this country. You’re bright, you’d be able to start a career and earn well in Europe, US… OK, me and our gang, this year we’ve been to Amsterdam where we took part in this major gay pride. But leaving Ukraine? I don’t think so. I want people from “there” to talk about us from “here” with admiration.
Shpilka (Sergey ‘Busya’) 33 y.o.
— My main occupation is costume designer and make-up artist at the local branch of the Ukrainian Deaf Society. From time to time, I act as a drag queen performer in nightclubs. I love making people smile and inspiring them. Performing is my life.
I lost my hearing in my early childhood after a course of antibiotics. My parents had no idea how to deal with me, they tried everything from acupuncture to bringing me to the best doctors in Moscow. Now I use the hearing aid. It’s enough to help me communicate and hear the music on stage.
My first act as a female impersonator took place in the Deaf Society’s Culture House. There were a lot of old and conservative people so I was terribly shy. They became indignant at first, but they soon got used to the idea that artists ought to be respected. Soon, I won the drag queen contest at the Palladium Club in Odessa. And that’s how it kicked off.
I mostly mimic female singers. One of my favorite heroines is Olya Polyakova. I construct different circlets and kokoshniks that correspond to hers. Once, she even invited me to join her ballet team during a concert. But on the whole, local stars steer clear of us. Maybe they think we can tarnish their reputation. It’s the other way round in Europe, where drag queens are invited to perform even at graduation parties, and everybody’s saluting them.
Last summer in Paris I took part in the Miss and Mister Deaf International contest. I presented an amazing pantomime performance and even made it to the finale. All-in-all the competition and the trip went gracefully for me. There was a very warm atmosphere around and zero rivalry.
Grizolda Storm (Hryhorii Truba) 39 y.o.
— I started my art career as a corny stripper. Then I opted for drag queen ballet — just to try something new. And here I am!
I come from a family of military border guards. My father is a colonel and my mother is a warrant officer. People think if my parents are in the military, they should condemn my lifestyle. But they don’t. Neither do my brothers, sisters, and nephews who’re all informed I’m gay. I’m a French lingerie shop owner, all the colleagues from the company’s chain know about me and they love me. I have no problems.
Also, people think if you’re gay or drag, you have to wear these feathers and rhinestones everyday. No, thanks! But of course there are enough bum heads to do so.
I realize that we’re fully unprotected. During the last gay pride parade, anyone could have easily dropped a grenade on our platform and then we’d only have the bones left. Ha-ha, one babushka yelled at us: “This is the apocalypse chariot! Burn the witches!
Of course, the 90’s were much more fun in most aspects. Being a drag queen thing was something new, there were more clubs and people accepted gay people better. I think the letdown has something to do with the aggression being spread through TV today.
My first drag persona was this mad and blunt Helga. I believed if I put on lenses and dabbed some color on my face, I’d become a super cool artist. But the formation process lasts till today. I’m only about to unveil my own vision of me and I don’t really know what Grizolda will look like in a year from now.
My last heroine, White Elfessa, was born out of the love story and real feelings I’m blessed to be experiencing now. Elfessa is hovering over the Transcendental forest on a pearly dragon. Her cold heart was stolen by a wonderful king.
I don’t want to be a woman, of course. It’s all just an extravaganza.