Behind the Scenes With Berlin's Drag Queens
Photographer, Andrea Lavezzaro gives us a sneak peek at her series documenting drag queens and trans artists in Berlin. She is joined by one of the subjects of her project, Berlin-based drag king/queen, Caine Panik, to give us an insight into the world of drag from both behind and in front of the camera.
Andrea, tell us a little bit about the project you've been working on
AL: It started out like most of my projects - as a personal question that I felt I had to get closer to and explore on my own instead of getting the information from the media or through others. It was supposed to be done within a month but the people I met and the connections I made were so amazing, it’s now a long term ongoing project that’s a bit bigger than first thought… but where is it going is still a secret!
CP: I first heard about the project through Caddy Domplex who was kind enough to connect me with Andrea.
How did you come up with the idea?
AL: I grew up going to LGBT+ clubs in Sao Paulo, and I had friends doing drag during my teenage years. I think it’s a pretty much “normal” environment for those going to indie clubs because of certain type of music, style or a more alternative subculture we go after. After living in Berlin for so many years, I haven’t frequented parties as much - because I’m old or because I’ve done too much in the past - but at a diner party in February I heard about a reality TV show where drag queens compete against each other - people were really obsessed with it so I decided to have a look. Each series was pretty much a repetition and there were so many rules of what a drag queen should and shouldn’t be and I don’t remember being so constrained years ago… So I decided to take a deeper look myself and I was happily surprise with what I’ve seen in Berlin...
CP: I’m not really one for ‘rules’ and like to mix up my looks - it’s all about experimenting! I also need to have different looks based on whether I perform solo or with my drag king troupe. But my style mostly tends towards the somewhat goth, with lots of black and gold and a slightly Victorian touch, often using recycled and crafty materials. I've described myself as "post-apocalyptic Victorian gentlepunk", and that's what I try to keep in mind when coming up with new looks. If anything people would probably recognise me for my headpieces and paper wigs and as a king for my curly moustache.
How long does it take you to get ready?
CP: I usually plan with around 2 hours for the average look, though I can get ready in as little as 20 minutes if necessary, or take several hours if I have time and feel like it.
How did you first discover drag and what does it mean to you?
CP: I think I've been vaguely aware of the existence of drag queens since occasionally seeing them appear in talk shows or movies as a kid, and then of course I saw them at queer bars and at Pride once I moved to Berlin. But I only really started getting into drag as an art form and a community when some people from the youth organisation I volunteered with at the time started a drag troupe that included queens, kings, and more fluid and genderfucking drag.
AL: I’ve never tried drag myself as I feel more comfortable being part of the audience or behind the camera rather than in the spotlight. But what really spoke to me about the Berlin drag scene is that the queens and kings are years ahead in terms of acceptance, attitude and individual freedom. It can be truly empowering (even for non drags) and free of pre-determined labels of what drags should be.
CP: It's a chance to express and experiment with gender and gender norms in a playful, creative way outside of the restraints of daily life, which is important for me as a trans person and particularly as a femme trans guy. I also feel like it often goes beyond just playing with gender these days and has become a catch-all term for various kinds of queer performance, and having this - an art form that's explicitly and almost exclusively queer - has a lot of radical potential.
Caine, can you describe your show in 5 words or less?
CP: Messy, creative, kinky, spontaneous.
What's the message you want people to take away?
CP: I'm not sure if there's necessarily one specific message - but I want people to feel empowered in their queerness, even and especially if they don't fit the normatively attractive cis gay male stereotypes.
How was it being backstage, Andrea?
AL: I’m a very quiet person, so I’m mostly just photographing and trying to not be in the way as I respect how much effort the artists put into creating their looks. There were different situations depending who I was photographing, most of the time I felt super good, one time I felt a bit tense as there were problems backstage, but I am always a spectator, no matter the mood I like to be there with a camera.
Did you meet any inspirational queens?
AL: Many! That’s what attracted me to the shows most, meeting all of these characters full of energy, power, political statements that are not only embracing themselves but also sharing the light with others. Each of them have their own story and a different reason to be admired and celebrated.
Caine, what has been your proudest moment in your career so far?
CP: I have a hard time being proud of myself, because I'm a perfectionist with massive anxiety, but objectively I guess that would be the first time I was asked to perform somewhere solo, because that felt like people were starting to be aware of me and interested in booking me on my own merits, not just as part of a troupe. (Not that I'm not proud of my troupe and the cool things we've done! But that always feels just a little less like a personal success.)
For the project, did you know which queens you wanted to photograph, Andrea?
AL: I went to the shows and got in contact with the ones who I felt connected to, or intimate with - the ones I’d like to get closer to. Or the ones who threw a croissant at me, like Topaz - it was part of her performance to throw a croissant away, but it went straight onto my shoulder. She did not mean to hit me, but it was a good conversation starter! I brought her croissants when we next met for her photo session, which was the first one in the series.
Did you opt for a particular style?
AL: Yes, making a few conscious choices before starting a project is fundamental (to me, at least). I didn’t want to use flash as in some of my other projects, and I wanted the images to be as un-staged as possible, which is very difficult when photographing performing artists. Most of the images were made with a Nikon D850; the days I photographed Gieza, Katana and Caine I had other equipment as there were unforeseen issues this last month but I won’t let the problems stop my work, I’ll keep shooting even if I have to change equipment or shoot last minute with my mobile.
CP: The final photos turned out great! Especially given the unfortunate circumstances of taking them, I'm so happy with how they turned out - the colours in particular are amazing - so dramatic!
What message do you want these photos to convey?
AL: That there is much more, not only to drag but to every topic that is now being discussed, than what mainstream media shows.
Caine, what advice would you give to kings/queens just starting out?
CP: Don't let anyone tell you what you can or can't do in terms of looks or performance (unless it's for a good reason and not just "because that's what I think drag should be"). Experiment, be creative, look for inspiration outside of the obvious, find your own thing, and maybe most importantly, step our of your comfort zone. Also, be kind, be professional, and check your biases and privileges, because being a diva is no excuse for being an asshole.