The Divine Queer Secrets of Berlin’s Post-Drag Sisterhood
I don’t know why I moved to Berlin exactly, but it certainly was not to become what a friend and mentor described as “the Weird Al Yankovic of drag”. I wouldn’t even say I moved here per se; that implies a conscious decision, while my arrival here felt like anything but. It was as if I was possessed by a force of nature, one that I have since come to think of as a ‘divine queer energy’. It is a very real, tangible power, and in the near century and a half it’s held sway over this city, it has been concerned with only one task: pulling together the world’s most precious, most radiant queers and giving them the space they never had to play and experiment, to live without fear and love without shame, to be free.
It is in this fertile breeding ground of identity that I discovered Cheryl, a woman who represents me at my most gloriously actualised – a physical rendering of my brain’s superego that has a Brooklyn accent, a boundless sense of wonder and an innate aesthetic urge to mix at least three prints at once. She has become a fixture of Berlin’s ever-expanding queer performance scene, treating everyone she meets to pop songs rewritten as treatises on gender, sexuality, bodily functions, and the insanity inherent in living in a non-stop nightclub.
She is one of many colourful personas that populate the back rooms and toilet stalls of this millennial-Weimar utopia, and it is an immense honour to now have the pleasure of introducing you to a few of these strikingly gorgeous and talented individuals. This is a group of the city’s best and brightest, a selection of my peers that are colleagues, friends and family in one. As a rag-tag group of émigrés whose origins span four continents, we do not mean to suggest anything so bold as the idea that we – are – Berlin’s drag scene, or that we fully represent it in the slightest. Few of us even feel comfortable using the term ‘drag’ to describe what we do, only relying on it as cultural shorthand to give a slight indication of our distinct blend of no-holds-barred gender-fuckery. Of course, the essence of our work thrives in its inability to be defined, and in an age where those leading the conversation are attempting to set the boundaries of what drag is and who can take part, it’s more important than ever to take up the mantle of subversion. Here, in the most limitless city for queer expression in human history, we are honour-bound by the legacy of those who came before us to share the ultimate lesson of the divine queer: only in shattering the rules of identity entirely can you begin to be free.
© Vitali Gelwich
My work is an act of a non-paralysing terror. It’s about being on the opposite side of something, the reverse side – the side that people choose not to see through. It desires to construct a world that goes only in ReveRso. The most important aspect is transformation, or, mutation. I love that idea – that I can just change. You introduce a character and you morph ‘it’ through an idea, so ultimately that character becomes ‘un autre.’ You emerge as an opposite, a reflection of someone else, someone transformed. When I’m ReveRso, it takes over everything.
Berlin has really helped me to build this persona; through my time here I know that my art comes from a place of honesty. It’s pushed my work to be more creative – it brought me to the person I am now. It’s accumulated so many interesting people from all over the world, and it doesn’t matter if you have money or not, people here are full of ideas. It’s beautiful and colourful – messy, even – and nobody cares. It has changed quite rapidly, which is fine, but sadly it’s less unpredictable now. Before there was always a bit of danger, every corner had something, there was more risk.
© Vitali Gelwich
To me, ‘drag’ is being self-aware of who you are, to the extent you can express anything. It’s finding something within you and liberating it. Drag is about creating the fantasy of a more playful self. However, I don’t call what I do drag, I’m a performer. When we’re talking about drag – what it means to be a ‘drag performer’ nowadays – I don’t want to fit that pattern. I’m not trying to impersonate a woman, I don’t want to be defined by my gender. I’m more into being a creature – a sense of being something else. The transformation of ReveRso is about how you can engage with that – finding out about your strengths, your weaknesses, your desires, your darkness and everything in between. The transformation is everything.
I see myself as gender fluid, and my work is about playing with both masculinity and femininity; what certain objects or choices say about your gender identity. The humour is very Berlin – it is very much created from the party scene; the drugs, the people, the sexuality, the queerness, the freedom. They’re things we can discuss in a light way that – at the bottom of it – are actually quite serious, or necessary to talk about.
There’s this certain magnetism about Berlin that’s indescribable. What drove me here is the celebration of personal expression; you can really find yourself and feel supported. As a performer, you have to be confident in your vulnerability, and the more honest and vulnerable you are, the better the connection you can create.
My drag persona is very much just me, but a more extreme, exaggerated version. It’s been different because I’m a woman, biologically at least. I feel very supported being a woman in this space. Whatever you do on stage, there’s a tension, because you’re already changing something. Drag has become so much more than perfect make-up, a wig, and miming to a song – it’s a performance space that is a comment on gender identity, and an outlet for people who feel oppressed and unable to express themselves, or unable to see themselves in society. It’s taking centre stage and saying “look at me,” instead of feeling the need to hide. Drag is really just about empowering people. That’s what’s needed for this community: to create not only a space where everyone feels accepted, but a space where you can be empowered. Fuck what people think, fuck the expectations. Do whatever the fuck you want.
© Vitali Gelwich
I describe my art, my drag, as an explosion, one that would be perfect if it could be snapped or teleported on stage to create the explosion itself and be instantly taken away after a show. Nothing should happen before or after; I appear, explode, and then disappear. I like the idea of art creating itself, but also deconstructing itself, and I like to make people feel uncomfortable – I don’t really want to entertain. My natural look, my movement, and my body is not something people would normally think of as ‘cute’ or ‘beautiful’, and I exaggerate those qualities in my drag. Psoriasis is very aggressive and loud, she takes up every space; she’s too big, too dysfunctional. And just too much, mostly. As Psoriasis I feel like I have the right to scream and be loud; I can call someone out and say what needs to be said, and people will listen, because I’m huge and colourful and screaming.
When I finished high school I thought, ‘Okay, I need to move to Berlin, become a drag queen, and go crazy.’ So I put on make-up every night, went to see drag shows at every queer club. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was trans. There’s a big misconception of seeing trans women as drag queens; that they are ‘dressing up as something.’ For some time I thought I couldn’t be a drag queen, because I wanted to be trans. But I realised they are completely different things. I want to create ‘me’ as the real identity, as the person I want to be, the person I am deep inside, but there’s also the stage identity – the persona, the character that needs to be created. Trans and drag are not exclusionary, nor should they cancel each other out. They can exist next to each other. For me, drag is not about femininity or about impersonating women. It’s about being crazy and expressive with your own art, finding an outlet to channel everything you feel into the world. Literally anyone can do it, and anyone can call what they do drag.
I write songs first and foremost. I was writing a lot about my gender identity and trying to find where I fit in through my music, but currently I’m getting more into the spiritual side, my place in the universe and writing about bigger journeys. It wasn’t until I spent time in New York – where I found like-minded people I connected with in a more drag club, nightlife, sense – that I started experimenting with my look. Now my drag performance side is coming together with my melodramatic songs.
When I perform I’m trying to make people aware of the potential higher self they can be; and the experience of being on stage expressing that can really feel like flying. The people in the audience don’t get to have those moments; there’s something very therapeutic about being in the middle of a room, controlling the space, controlling the energy and giving my story to them and having them connect with it.
I don’t want to say what I do isn’t drag; in every city I’ve lived in I’ve been part of the drag scene, the drag culture. It is drag, but everything is drag. Life is drag. It’s just different levels of what we’re seeing and how we present it. Now, drag is being free and doing whatever the fuck you want to, without having to call it drag or without having to be something in particular. I very rarely go out clubbing not in my look for instance, but it’s more about wanting togo out and be that persona. When I’m in drag or dressed up, that’s my higher self. It’s being the best human I can be, and that’s what I want to present to the rest of the world. I have a motto which is the only rule I have for drag: ‘If you’re not taking yourself out of your comfort zone, you’re not doing drag.’
What I do as Collapsella is very diverse. It involves music, dance, video, and it’s very absurd. I use absurdity to convey real emotions. There’s a lot about identity, whether it’s one’s gender identity or identity as the construction of your personality. And I discuss issues that queer people face in general. For instance, I recently made a performance on the chemsex culture in Berlin, and another about the ‘twink-daddy’ dynamic. They can often be political. Collapsella is a character, but it’s (which is Collapsella’s preferred pronoun) an abstract version of a very, very incensed, loud version of me. As if you would pump me up a lot. Collapsella is the abstract; the “Picasso” version of that. It doesn’t give a fuck about anything; about what anyone else thinks or about being obnoxious. By using it as a vessel to express these things, I become more grounded, more human.
I don’t define drag. There are many influences from drag culture in what I do, but I wouldn’t call it drag; it’s something that I’m constantly thinking about. But the difference between calling something ‘drag’ and calling something ‘performance art’ is your intent with what you do. I’ve done performances that I’d call ‘drag’ when my only intent is entertainment. But if there is something I’m trying to say, when I want my audience to go home and think about my performance, that goes beyond what I would define as ‘drag.’
Cher Nobyl is a journey of artistic experimentation. We’re related to a very, very large extent. Maybe our aesthetic is not the same, but what I see, what I live, and what I learn influences the way I perform as Cher.
I love Berlin because I see freedom and I see people blossoming. Everybody comes here as a bulb and blooms into a totally weird and original flower. It’s the perfect laboratory for contemporary identity. It made me blossom into a strange flower as well; I felt the change, and so did my family and friends back home. I was received so well performing as Cher Nobyl that when I returned to Bucharest it made me think twice if I should come back here. But Berlin is my biggest source of inspiration, and I don’t feel that all my lessons here are learned.
Drag is what you are, combined with what you know, and a dash of what you’re learning. It’s wearing a braver side of yourself, perhaps a more polished or opposite side, and taking a stance, hoping that someone will hear you. It’s not just about wearing the wig, the make-up, and the heels; drag has no such rules anymore. Well, maybe the heels. Some of my peers wouldn’t consider what I do as being a drag queen, but that’s what I’m doing – queer drag activism. Drag taught me how to avoid being stuck on the spectrum of identity and embrace fluidity – walking in heels for more than one year definitely has an impact on you and how you see identity and gender. It’s taught me how to listen, not just hear. And ultimately it brought me closer to my mother. I’ve always loved her a lot, and I’ve found a way to express that artistically, through embodying her grace with Cher Nobyl.
© Vitali Gelwich
Martini Cherry Furter
I never considered myself a drag queen until I moved to Berlin; I’m mostly a burlesque performer. But when I arrived here I moved very quickly into the drag scene. Mainstream drag – the kind we see from RuPaul – I don’t identify with at all. Berlin opened my eyes about that; there’s a different drag scene here, with different representations of what drag can be. I like the gender-bending aspect – I couldn’t normally play with gender as much in burlesque.
As Martini, it’s more about the story. Most of the time I’m talking about a personal story and using her to put it on stage. And being myself means presenting as a Caribbean black queer person, which is something rare on a European stage. My goal is to express what I am and not be stereotyped, to not be an ‘exotic persona’ who can be caricatured.
Being on stage feels like home. When I’m performing I have the space to express myself and have the sensation of really being heard. Freedom is what attracted me, and still attracts me, to Berlin. When I arrived here I discovered true acceptance, both in society and within the queer community. It’s so enjoyable to have the possibility of going in the metro without being looked at as a strange animal. I’ve learned humanity here – for myself and with my relationship with people – and that feeling is priceless.
Photography: Vitali Gelwich
Makeup: Sarah Hartgens