Music by VICE

Berlin’s Most Famous Drag Queen DJ Gloria Viagra Lets Down Her Hair

The mustachioed performer opens up about her upbringing, DJing at an iconic sex club, and the Berlin scene that shaped her.

by Barbara Woolsey
Oct 3 2016, 7:46pm

Photo by Peter Dobias, courtesy of the artist.

If you've spent enough time partying in Berlin, chances are you've seen Gloria Viagra. If you have, you'd know. The city's most famous drag queen is a 6'5" blonde bombshell—over seven feet in stilettos—with big hair that's either slicked-down or a giant mess of curls, and a trademark mustache that's equally well-groomed. She's instantly recognizable; some people even call her the "Empire State Building of drag."

Gloria breezes through VIP lines at clubs, hangs out with punk icon Nina Hagen, and has celebrated past birthdays with the famed New York drag queen Sherry Vine and electropop musician Peaches. She's also a political and human rights activist, and the lead singer of a queer rock band called Squeezebox. But you're most likely to see the illustrious Ms. Viagra towering over a DJ booth, at one of the many places where she plays out, including ragtag party house Wilde Renate, the gay club SchwuZ, at at Klub International and the GMF Sunday gay parties at Weekend, where she has residencies.

When we meet up for coffee, Gloria is scarcely recognizable from the imposing figure she cuts in the club. The person standing before me is a tall man wearing a newsboy cap and slim jeans, with stacks of shiny of silver rings on his fingers. Though he requested that we not use his full name for this story, Berlin's biggest drag queen identifies as a man named Michel in his everyday life. He's got piercing blue eyes, a pair of the best damn eyebrows you've ever seen, and that full-bodied mustache, of course.

His dog, Jamal, lays out obediently under the table as he explains that he's just come back from a tuxedo fitting for his upcoming wedding to his long-term partner. He excitedly shows me the red velvet number on his mobile.

In person, Viagra has a talent for putting others at ease—somehow being larger than life without being a diva. After we order espresso, he gets to explaining how it all started.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

In 1972, the five-year-old Michel and his mother moved from Bernkastel-Kues—a quaint wine region famous for medieval churches and beautiful vineyards—to Berlin. For a child who grew up in the countryside, West Berlin—with its psychedelic rock concerts and political unrest—was a revelation.

"We were running away from my father," he says, later admitting that his dad was physically abusive toward him and his mother. "My aunt lived [in Berlin]," he says. "She was very political. Even as small kids, we were going to demonstrations against the Vietnam War. But that was just Berlin—always very political."

Viagra lived with his mother in what Germans call a "WG," or a living community where apartments are shared between several roommates. He credits his mother for encouraging him to let his freak flag fly.

"My mom was a big Romy Haag fan," he says, grinning at the mention of another Berlin icon, the flamboyant transgender performer who dated David Bowie back in the 70s. "She liked going to Romy's club, as the guys there were all gay and didn't hit on her. She always liked the glitter, clothing, shows and everything."

Music was omnipresent in the young man's life, with the radio always playing in the apartment. "I think my first record [that I bought] was something from Baccarat, some disco thing. It might've even been 'Sorry I'm a Lady.'"

This passion for music eventually led him to dancing ballet and dreaming about a career in opera. But after he tore his meniscus, all hope of becoming a dancer died. Instead, Michel learned tailoring and landed a gig at the Deutsche Oper, or German Opera. He kissed his first boy at the start of the 90s, and spent the decade climbing through backyards to techno raves and coming up with wild, new ideas for parties at the counter cultural hub of Kreuzberg.

In 1999, Gloria was born. In the beginning, Viagra started performing one-woman shows under the name Gloria von Tuten und Blasen; in English, that means "not the faintest idea," but is also a loose play on the German word for "blowjob." But she didn't actually adopt the name Gloria Viagra until a stint in Ibiza shortly after breaking into the scene. "The Spaniards just couldn't say [her original drag name]," he says, so it was changed in honor of the little blue pill that was newly on the market.

Michel says the project was born out of a love of being on stage, but also as a means of political activism. "Drag [in the 90s] in Berlin was very queer, political, and there was an irony to it," he explains. "This classic stuff with sequins and feathers was never ours. Classic transvestitism was somehow even taboo. That's changed a lot now, and looking at other styles while traveling I tried to find my own way. My roots in Berlin are still queer and political, but I've made it my own." Over the years, Gloria's stayed true to those roots, DJing an event against racism at Berghain and demonstrating for victims of the financial crisis and AIDS.

But back in 2000, when Michel became one of Berlin's first DJs to perform in drag, he was surprised by how challenging bringing the intertwined worlds of drag and DJing together actually was.

"A drag DJ's got to look good," he says with a laugh. "But for a DJ in general, before even technique, mixing and everything, you have to be able to feel the room and challenge people. There has to always be a flow. Drag DJs sometimes, of course, really overplay the whole thing, trying to entertain, blah-blah-ing on the microphone. I'm not getting on the microphone at all anymore. I hate that. For me it's like being at the village disco."

Indeed, being a drag DJ indeed poses its own unique obstacles, from crouching over the decks in pumps to putting on headphones without any embarrassing wig malfunctions.

"Gloria keeps [her hair] short and sexy," Michel confesses. "It has to be practical. For DJing, long hair is simply shit; it's going to hang in your makeup or your beard. But it doesn't matter anyway; I actually find perfectionism horrible."

Gloria's trademark mustache—big, naturally brown, and full-bodied—emblematizes the DJ's unconventional approach to drag. Still, he says that the mustache got a lot of backlash at first, not just in nightlife but also the queer scene.

"The reaction was really horrible at the time—comments like, 'Oh did you forget to shave or what?'" he remembers. "People eventually grew used it. Now, it's accepted. Sometimes I shave it off, but now [that] doesn't feel right."

Photo courtesy of the artist.

These days, Viagra is usually only booked to DJ in drag. "I must say it feels very strange to do it without [being in drag]," he says. "I did it three or four times and felt totally naked, unprotected. In drag, I feel more secure."

Viagra tailors her selections to the party at hand. At Berlin's renowned sex club KitKat, for example, old hits and R&B work best. Other queer parties demand an über-German sound: think folk music, oom-pah-pah, and very bad pop. But Viagra's signature sound is soft electro—"not like boom boom boom," Michel says, "but more like old classics from the Berghain garden, a little soul. Garden electro."

Having just turned 50, Michel says he sees Gloria's position on Berlin's nightlife circuit shifting.

"As a drag queen, I can imagine myself going on stage at 70—but as a DJ, I don't know," Michel explains. "DJing is so much about the audience, who get farther away from you the older you grow. I don't play Justin Bieber, but then I played it at some point and the whole dancefloor was happy. As you get older, you just can't do everything anymore, party animal or not."

Michel also thinks the drag scene has changed over time. "Drag's not as political not anymore, which has advantages and disadvantages," he says. "It's also not as conscious of solidarity, or grateful for those who led the way. [There's] unfortunately a trend towards being more superficial. There is still a movement trying to get that [political] consciousness back, but I do miss that a bit."

A few days after we meet, Michel throws a weeklong celebration for his wedding; in typical Gloria fashion, the festivities include a private party for friends, cocktails at Panorama Bar (where Michel and his husband first met seven years ago), and a big wedding bash at SchwuZ, with DJs spinning electro, pop and Middle-Eastern beats. Some of the proceeds for the party will go towards refugee kids arriving in Izmir, Turkey. For now though, he disappears back into Mitte, onward into the bustling streets of the city that shaped him.

"I've always said that one day we'd have to pay the price for the hype around Berlin," Michel says. "But even after traveling the world, there's no other place I've seen that's quite like it."

Barbara Woolsey is a Berlin-based writer, and you can find her on Twitter.