The first cisgender woman to win a major drag (queen) pageant, Fauxnique is a queen among queens. In The F Word, playing at OBERON on May 17, she explores contemporary feminism through fashion, lip sync, song, and storytelling. Here, Fauxnique speaks about the co-evolution of her drag performance and feminist practice.
Your award-winning drag performance has taken you all over the world—from San Francisco to Stonewall, and from Provincetown through Europe. What originally brought you to drag?
I’m a classically trained dancer, so I come to drag from dance. I started as a ballerina, and I loved a drag aesthetic before I knew it was a drag aesthetic. I remember putting on fake eyelashes for the first time to do The Nutcracker and feeling like, “Oh, this is what my face is supposed to look like.”
I went into contemporary dance next, and I trained at Bennington College. Then I was immersed in the dance world of San Francisco. At that point the work very much followed a stripped-down, postmodern aesthetic inspired by Judson Church and Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto.” That was very necessary, but then there was a moment where I thought, “God, I miss glitter and sequins. I miss spectacle.”
So I started performing at this club in San Francisco called Trannyshack. That’s a controversial word now, but it was a word that belonged to the community and was a term of endearment. The club was a big umbrella under which many different kinds of people came together. That was a formative place for me. I fell in love with all the queens, and I saw Ana Matronic there, and I thought, “Oh my God, they’ll let a cis woman come and perform.” No sooner did I start going there, then I started performing—at the same time that I was making dance work.
How did those different forms cross-pollinate?
Performing in this drag mode was really inspiring: it provided weekly practice in a kind of permissiveness that the dance world didn’t really have. I started to combine the two, and I ended up winning the Miss Trannyshack Pageant. That was ostensibly controversial, because I was the first cisgender woman to win a drag queen pageant. Within the community, it wasn’t actually that controversial, but it was kind of surprising.
Some people might have only encountered drag as cisgender men performing as women. What wider definition of drag would you offer?
Drag is a performance practice that plays with gender. The richness is in the artifice, and in the permission to put on and play with being different kinds of women, different kinds of characters and creatures. To me, a drag queen is not a man presenting as a woman. For a while, people would say, “Oh, Fauxnique is a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman,” and I would reply, “No, I’m not, actually. I’m a drag queen.”
People love to try and figure out the category that I’m in. I don’t like the word “bio-queen.” I think it’s silly. I’ve heard the word “FAB-queen,” which is an acronym for “female assigned at birth,” and I think that’s cute. I embrace “faux queen.” Many people bristle at that term, because it implies that you’re false. But I kind of love it: it’s French, it’s fancy, and also, it’s a reminder to me that all drag is faux drag. I think understanding the performativity of gender, in the sense of the philosopher Judith Butler’s work, is also extremely important.
Right now there’s all this controversy around RuPaul—his comments about women and trans women, and their right to be on “Drag Race.” A lot of people interpret those comments to mean that RuPaul is saying only one kind of woman can do drag. And actually what he’s saying is only who can be on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Are those two things more often conflated than they should be?
Yes. Most of the world sees “Drag Race” as the end-all, be-all. And many people argue that if you’re going to make any kind of living as a drag queen, you have to be involved in the RuPaul machine in some way—and that is holding economic privilege for men, as per usual. I can sit with that, for sure. But I also really believe in the idea of making your own thing.
RuPaul is the establishment now—he’s part of a huge machine. The decision-making process around who gets to be on “Drag Race” is driven by what America will understand. The fact that America is embracing drag is actually kind of a miracle, so I think it’s a little misguided to think that we could sell any story more complicated than “it’s a man pretending to be a woman.” I might be cynical, but it’s not surprising to me in the least that “Drag Race” is resistant to more complicated stories.
So as a cisgender woman performing in—and winning—pageants, would you say that you have been part of a more nuanced story?
In promotional language, it’s always more fun to claim that something was controversial. In reality, the complicated story is more subtle. It wasn’t like I stormed the gates of the meany-pants drag club that didn’t want me and convinced them that girls can do it, too. They knew girls could do it, too. The more complicated story is, “This is a place we came together in difference.”
Speaking of the conversation between drag performance and ideas of gender performativity, you recently performed an embodied conversation with Judith Butler in San Francisco. What was that like?
It was fabulous! We wanted to see, as a choreographer and as a philosopher, what happens to conversation and to thinking when you’re in a different bodily mode than the standard format of sitting behind a table with plastic water bottles.
So we danced. We had headset mics, and we talked about our different subjects within different choreographic spaces. We danced to disco music and talked about how we each discovered drag—and how drag had inspired both of our work. Her book Gender Trouble really began in drag clubs. We also took moments of stillness and silence; we held each other’s heads and talked about vulnerability and the rights of different types of bodies to appear in public protest.
It was a rich experience: those ways of being in our bodies materially affected the discourse. And it was interesting to dislodge the usual mode of discussion—I couldn’t ever be on equal footing discursively with Judith Butler, but we were really able to have a conversation. And I held Judith Butler’s head in my hands, which means I can die happy.
How does your current show, The F Word, join these conversations about gender and performance?
I have always identified as a feminist who makes art, but not necessarily as someone who makes feminist art. But around 2015, I started thinking about “the f-word,” and it felt necessary. People are talking about the word “feminism” now; people are no longer afraid. And all through 2016 and since then, the show has felt really important.
What can audiences expect to experience in the show?
In this show, I sing and I dance; I tell stories and I lip sync. My first cabaret show was a collection of short, sharp numbers called Faux Real. And I started writing monologues as a way to give myself time to change costumes onstage, but then I realized, “Oh, these stories and monologues are a really fun part of the show.” So I started developing that element more.
As a classic drag practice, how is lip sync in conversation with the feminist themes at the center of this piece?
To me as a dancer, a lip sync is an intricate dance of the face. You’re choreographing breath: you’re trying to make someone else’s breath sound like it’s coming out of your body, and that’s a rigorous choreographic practice.
I don’t want to give away too much of the show, but at one point, I lip sync to a cliché-level drag number, but I’m commenting on it. The song itself is problematic, and I use the show to deal with that. In another piece, I use lip sync to highlight a kind of absence: I embody and emphasize a woman whose labor might go unnoticed. Those are two points where I’m thinking about lip sync as a feminist practice. And then there’s also the fact that I lip sync to male voices. At once point I perform to a really heavy, almost metal song—I’m lip syncing to embody a voice that’s not mine, or a voice that’s very far from mine.
I also keep those ideas in mind when I choose what to sing: I sing at a few points in the show that are vulnerable moments, and for me, an important way to articulate feminism is to elevate and embrace vulnerability. The masculinist patriarchy devalues vulnerability and simultaneously calls on women and femme people to be vulnerable. But I feel that vulnerability can be powerful: I maintain that in the performance of femininity, the willing performance of vulnerability is a subversive act.
In promotional materials for The F Word, you’ve talked about breaking the glass ceiling within drag. Where, in your experience, is that ceiling maintained?
It’s the world. It is a sexist and misogynistic world, and we have a lot of work to do. I don’t think there’s one glass ceiling that gets broken, then everybody gets to fly through. But since I won Miss Trannyshack, I hope that I have paved the way for cisgender women to feel more welcome to do drag, or to feel like their unique voice is welcome. So I hope that I’ve been able to help some other people through. Within the world of drag, of course I’ve experienced misogyny occasionally. But mostly, my experience as a drag queen has been a wonderful combination of irreverence and rigor, celebration and thought that has fortified my feminist practice.
Interview by Robert Duffley, A.R.T. Editor & Assistant Dramaturg.