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Why Be a Tranny When You Can Be a Tranimal?

They look like the offspring of Josef Mengele, Pamela Rooke and Chernobyl.

by Jamie Clifton
26 June 2012, 8:00am

Dressing up as a woman to go out and party is NBD these days. All across the nation, guys like this are throwing on their flatmate's old Dorothy Perkins frocks and pairs of pound-shop angel wings to parade through town centres like marauding gangs of Wetherspoons Mercutios. I mean, it's kinda funny when Alan Carr does it, but there's nothing more hilarious than a massive rugby player in bad drag, am I right?

If you'd rather get a bit more artsy with your approach to cross-dressing, however (and I know you will, you bloody renegade), you could maybe consider the tranimal route. The tranimal look was spawned in late 1990s San Francisco by a group of club kids and drag queens who had grown tired of that played-out repertoire of comically big hair, boobs and heels, so decided to move in a different direction, essentially making themselves look like the offspring of Josef Mengele, Pamela Rooke and Chernobyl.

Performer and musician Jer Ber Jones is responsible for giving the tranimal movement its name, so I spoke to her about it.

VICE: Where did this whole tranimal scene come from?
Jer Ber Jones:
Well, a lot of the people dressing up in our San Francisco crowd were more interested in a theatrical type of drag. Definitely children of all the people cited so often today: John Waters, Leigh Bowery, Boy George, Cindy Sherman and Grace Jones, rather than drag queens who just wanted to look pretty or pass as a female. They were more interested in creating dynamic characters, instead of just dressing up like a lady for the night.

How were they more dynamic than usual?
They were always at "Ugly Night", these nights I used to throw annually – the usual hot mess of drunks, cokeheads and stoners, where the drag look was always amazing. There would be lots of ratty wigs, dripping liquids and scars and sores, but people would also dress up as "normal ugly", like Scary Spice or Oprah, or, like, Barbra Streisand with a missing arm. The people who came in "normal" drag were great, too. They'd come dressed as a fat soccer mom, or a pervy man in a cum-stained suit, or something. Or, people who were usually covered in tattoos and piercings would take all their piercings out, cover their tattoos with flesh-coloured makeup and try to pull off "normal" drag, which is a very tranimal thing to do.   

How is that a tranimal thing to do? Where's the distinction between normal trans and tranimal?
Well, since we've been doing tranimal workshops at various museums – like the UC Berkeley and The LA Hammer museums – a few classic tranimal looks developed, but there are so many things you can do to make your outfit more tranimalistic. The distinctive, classic tranimal photoshoot look came from me, Squeaky Blonde, Mathu Andersen and the photographer Austin Young.

Who brought what to the tranimal table?
My contribution has been the paper costumes and the stark, Technicolor Butoh-esque makeup. Squeaky added the faux-satanic, goth-damage, serial killer, drug-crazed club kid thing and Austin pulled us all together, put a logo on it, started documenting it and getting us gigs at museums.

And isn't Mathu one of the original New York club kids?
Yeah, him and his ex-boyfriend, Zaldy, were two of the main Limelight kids in the 1990s – they're basically New York club kid royalty. He's also responsible for RuPaul's original look, and still does her makeup to this day. But yeah, he's worked on a lot of our photoshoots, and he did the makeup for the workshop at The Hammer when we transformed about 100 museum attendees into full-blown tranimals.

Cool. Are the original club kids a big influence on the tranimal look? They're about the closest thing I can think of to what you're doing.
Oh yeah, we all completely worship Boy George and Leigh Bowery. You could say Leigh is the grandfather, or maybe grandmother, of tranimal, actually. I'm not sure if the performance artist Kembra Pfahler was a club kid – I think she was – but she completely summed-up our aesthetic with the term "availablism", which is basically minimal shopping and using whatever you have around you. In fact, I'd like to say now that I hate any kind of branding and trending or whatever. If I ever see tranimal makeup kits or backpacks I will vomit. And then sue for royalties.

Ha. So, is everything homemade? Or are there some labels that lend themselves well to the tranimal look?
The best stuff is always homemade, but it's not like there's a rule saying you're not allowed to only wear homemade stuff. It's kinda like furnishing your home – you wouldn't want everything to be from Ikea, that would be a nightmare. Of course, there are a couple of designers who stand above the rest and have been major inspiration, for sure. You know, the old regulars, like Viktor & Rolf, Vivienne Westwood, Pat Fields, Zaldy – people like that.

Oh, OK. I can't imagine many people turn up to tranimal parties looking particularly similar, but are there any key items that everyone wears?
Yeah, the stretched and torn pantyhose over the face is probably the key tranimal look. I never liked it, but considering a lot of us queens are actually pretty butch dudes, and we like our facial hair, it's a good way to cover that up without having to shave your face clean. They work particularly well for the guys who would otherwise be scrubbing 26 layers of paint and lipgloss off their faces to become a dude again so they can go out and turn tricks.

Are there not some tranimal fetishists out there, too?  
Well, not many tranimals have a problem getting laid, but I don't think you can really turn tricks as a tranimal. Mind you, this is a day and age where "Men for Trannies" craigslist hookups are very popular, so you never know.      

We can only dream. So, back to this look – clear something up for me; the intention isn't actually to look particularly animalistic, it's just to look insane?
Yeah, the animal part of the name is purely from seeing someone working one of those more theatrical looks, and thinking that they look like a wild animal amongst all the pedestrian trannies who just look like RuPaul's Drag Race contestants. I'm very into letting yourself become as ugly as fuck, and appreciating the ugliness of mainstream culture, like bigoted Christianity, Shrek, Ugg boots and the Martha Stewart lifestyle. All that is ugly and mundane, but also kind of beautiful and mesmerising.

So, what are you going to do next when the tranimal look becomes an ingrained, mundane part of society?
Haha, it's funny you say that, because I actually heard recently that the California Academy of Science – a huge, multi-million dollar museum, planetarium, aquarium in San Francisco – had a tranimal-themed night. They hired a bunch of tired drag queens who all showed up looking like the Flinstones, in cheetah and zebra print, with bones in their hair, glitter lips, pantyhose over their heads and club kid high heels. All I could do was laugh my ass off.

Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamie_clifton