Text JF. Pierets Photos Courtesy of Virgin Xtravaganzah
As an impersonator of the Virgin Mary, performance artist Virgin Xtravaganzah talks about how Mary actually loves the gay community and that people got it wrong in the books. That God doesn’t care whether you’re gay or straight; he just wants you to be a good person and get over these trivial limitations. A conversation about working from an outward place, the joy of performing and identification with an icon.
You’ve just returned from some gigs abroad. You’re quite busy these days.
It’s been quite a big year in terms of my development on the scene. Last year I won a drag competition and started to perform the Virgin Xtravanganzah persona on a regular basis. It seems like people very much respond to the character.
Why do you think that is?
I think because it’s intriguing. The story of the Virgin Mary, the legend, is very much built into our psyche, even if you are not a Christian. To see that kind of icon impersonated by a drag queen with a mustache, is quite attention grabbing.
How did you come up with the concept of impersonating the Virgin Mary?
I was, as I call it, casually raised Catholic. I was never baptized but I went to a Catholic school so as from a very young age, I got acquainted with the Bible. I’ve always been very drawn to dramatics and loved the over-the-top archetypes in fairytales. I had a similar feeling about the Virgin Mary. She was, and still is, a mysterious creature. Did you know that there are only 14 lines in the Bible about her? We don’t know anything about her and still, she’s everywhere: she’s on the altar and in paintings, as well as there are millions of statues to light a candle in front of. She has such a presence in the church yet she has no voice. So I thought; what would it be like if she was a modern day 14 year old girl? What would she sound like if she were growing up today? So I gave her this American valley girl accent and I started to create an identity.
Do you identify with your character?
I do, yes. I like to put myself into a 14-year old person’s mind frame, approached by the creator of the universe who said: “Would you like to have my son and be immortalized for the rest of all eternity?” Would you dare to say no if it were you? The point is that we will never know what went through Mary’s head, her internal monologue, when that happened. She definitely didn’t know what she was getting into. I think that’s something a lot of people can identify with. Everybody is young at one point and makes decisions that they look back on and question if that was actually what they wanted to do with their life. In my incarnation of Mary, she has become a drag queen and came back to earth to do all the things she didn’t really get to do as a religious icon.
You’re very thorough when it comes to your drag identity.
My drag is very different from a lot of other drag queens since many of them work from a different place than I do. They work from an inside-out kind of way; they take something from deep within themselves, put a magnifying glass on it, and that explosive image is what becomes their drag. Whereas for me, I’m not the Virgin Mary, obviously, so I took a character outside of myself and experimented with what happens if I internalized and regurgitated that. This became my drag character. It came from an outward kind of place instead of something coming from the inside out.
You are a trained actor. How did you become a performance artist?
I’m originally from Oregon, USA and I came to the UK to study drama. I’ve always been an attention seeker and I’ve always liked being watched doing silly things in a very broad context. I really thought acting was the thing I wanted to do but over the years I got a bit bored. I felt it was something else that I wanted to offer, something that didn’t come from somebody’s script or from a casting director. As an actor you’re always at the whim of somebody else’s idea. I can play Hamlet, but I did not create Hamlet. I didn’t create the Virgin Mary, but I did create Virgin Xtravaganzah and she’s an original concept. Through her I can be more authentic as an artist then I can be as an actor.
Can you put all your creativity into one character?
I can. I love the performative art form and I’m just as much a writer as I am a drag queen. I write all my own material, I sing live instead of lip-syncing and I take pop songs and rewrite them to tell the story of the Virgin Mary in a comic sort of way. Basically I’m the Weird All Yankovic of Catholicism.
Is the art of performance limitless?
In it’s potential, it is, but there must be limits in the way you approach it. If you set out to just explode your soul all over an audience, there’s not going to be any structure and people might not understand what they are seeing. I find there is a limit and structure to performance art and I don’t believe you can just do whatever you want; there has to be some kind of boundary to be set for yourself. However, once those boundaries are in place, you can completely lose control. If you only set out to lose control, it’s actually more limiting. You have to make choices in order to be professional and in order to tell the exact story you aim for. Not just give birth to a vision but to give that vision a language, so that people can understand. Art that doesn’t do that becomes vague.
‘Joy is really powerful. If you enjoy doing what you are doing, people respond to it, always. It’s like magic.’
Is it important for you that people understand the context of the performance, because of its religious theme?
To be honest, I’m surprised that I haven’t had more backlash. We’re talking very few comments on social media. Maybe it’s because I try to base as much of my work as possible on my intelligence. I do not make fun of the Virgin Mary and I don’t set out to be blasphemous. Because by the end of the day, the things that I stand for and the things that I talk about in my songs are about how she actually loves the gay community and that people got it wrong in the books; that God doesn’t care whether you’re gay or straight. He just wants you to be a good person and get over these trivial limitations. If you set out not to have prejudice, it wouldn’t matter whether you’re a Catholic, a Muslim or a Buddhist, and we should actually all get along. So if people are really listening to what I’m actually saying, and hopefully most people do, they’ll notice that I’m far from offensive. Yes, I have foul language sometimes, but that’s also part of the character; not wanting to be the good girl all the time but to be human.
You’re living in the UK, could you do this kind of show in the USA, where you come from?
I have no idea to how receptive America would be to what I do. I don’t know because I never tried and it’s one of my goals to go to New York next year and actually see how people feel about my work. The Brits are very open to – I’m not going to say intelligent art, because that may say I’m intelligent – but intellectualized art. They’re very receptive to wit and to humor in particular, they don’t take things very seriously. Now America, with it’s very fundamental religious foundation, is different, and in many ways I think Virgin Xtravaganzah would be more controversial in a place like America then it would be in Europe. I also feel that the London attitude towards drag is much more free than in America, where it’s considered female impersonation. I like it more to be androgynous; to use my mustache and my skinny frame instead of being a copy of the Ru Paul’s Drag Race contestants where everybody has the boobs, the hips and the wig.
Are you inspired enough to give the character a long lasting life?
I am! I was actually just talking to my husband today that I could actually see Virgin Xtravaganzah as an old woman. There are some drag queens – and I’m looking amongst others to Dame Edna – who are older. They are artists who managed to keep the art of drag alive, far past what many drag queens have been able to do. When I get older I think it would be really interesting to see the Virgin less as a teenager but more as an older and wiser woman.
It sounds like you very much enjoy what you are doing.
I do love it, it was an original idea that hadn’t been done before and it makes me very happy. Joy is really powerful, even if everybody talks about how good art always comes from depression. If you enjoy doing what you are doing, people respond to it, always. It’s like magic.
What would you say to a 14-year old person, living in the middle of nowhere, who’s very inspired by your work?
I grew up in a very small town so I know exactly what you are talking about. If you’re living in the middle of nowhere and really want to be an artist, it would be very easy for me to say that you should move to the big city and become a great artist. It would be easy to say, “follow your dreams, do what you want to do”. No doubt that’s an important part, but you also have to understand that life is working within the confines and the limits that you have. There’s always specificity and there’s always complexity, and the more specific you can be with your dreams and aspirations, the better. I came to the UK to go to drama school and I spent years out of work as an actor. I was working in a call center and I was very depressed; I knew I wanted to be a performer but I was constantly looking for somebody else to give me the opportunity. Whether it was my agent or a director, I was constantly looking outside of myself for someone to figure out who I am. It was only when I hit rock bottom that I realized I wanted to do something because it was fun. And that’s when things started happening. So, before anything, find the idea. Whatever that idea is. Find that vision, find that fantasy, whether it’s performance art, writing or painting. Find it first, and then go for it.
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