This article originally appeared in VICE Canada
I was serving beer at Displace Hashery in Vancouver when I first saw Amy Grindhouse and Dust Cwaine take the stage as co-hosts of The Sleepy Girls Show. Like the queens I'd seen on RuPaul's Drag Race, they were colourful, loud, and fiercely contoured.
They were also super hairy, which is not something you see on the Drag Race runway. Concealing masculine traits—or shaving them off—is usually paramount if you want your power ballad to "wow" the judges.
But relying on Drag Race to set the standards of queendom is like using Top Model as road map to womanhood. It just doesn't work. As it turns out, not every queen wants to look like a hairless glamazon.
I initially assumed Dust and Amy's beards were a political choice. But this snap-judgement was pretty narrow-minded—it excluded the possibility that their facial hair might be there for aesthetic reasons, that a beard could be valid without political motivation.
To find out what's really behind the beards, I chatted with three hairy queens about their facial hair preferences, whether or not they're making statements, and what those statements really mean.
David Thomson aka "Amy Grindhouse"
VICE: You perform as Amy Grindhouse. Has Amy always had a beard?
Amy Grindhouse: No. When I first started drag, I shaved because I wanted to look more like a passing woman. But one day I stopped shaving and posted a picture on Facebook. I was in Squamish at the time and the reaction was huge—locally I mean. Some people loved it but others were like, "Oh, you looked so pretty when you shaved. Why are you keeping the beard?" My beard was something foreign and they didn't understand it. But I knew I'd tapped into something really interesting, and so I had to keep the beard. I needed to explore it for myself, and one of the things that gave me the confidence to pursue bearded drag were three Vancouver queens—Beardonce, Alma Bitches, and Katy Harry—who were bearded and working consistently. That was huge for me, because they'd sort of broken the bearded glass ceiling.
I've also never felt more feminine than with my beard. It's one of the strangest things! But keeping my beard and the hair on my body is something that is very much myself—because I'm naturally quite a hairy person. In keeping the beard, I feel more in touch with my feminine side because it feels more like me. Having the beard really gave me complete permission to just leave everything else behind—all those preconceived rules—and by embracing it I really got to the core of my own definition of femininity.
Your initial "bearded Amy" post was pretty polarizing in your online community. How have those opposing reactions carried over into present day?
When I moved to Vancouver and started doing competitions, one thing that kept popping up was "Oh, you should try shaving your beard." Or "oh, you look gorgeous but you'd look even better if you shaved your beard."
And who was making these comments?
A lot of the judges in competitions. I've definitely got it from fellow queens as well, like in the back room before we go on. And definitely from the audience members. Like a lot of people would come up to me before I'd perform and they'd say, "Oh I really loved what you did, you're so funny, but why the beard?" People just fixated on it. And I'd just say "Well I shaved it this morning and it grew back already." I just treat those questions in comedy, but if someone gets persistent I tell them the beard is a huge part of me and what I do. If I got rid of it, I don't think Amy would be the same.
When people think drag, they think RuPaul first. How have you found the show's portrayal of bearded queens?
When you look at RuPaul's Drag Race, having a beard is a joke. It's like, "Oh, you didn't shave right." There was even a challenge on season 7 where they had to turn bearded looks, and that was mind-blowing seeing all these performers with beards. It was shocking because some of the performers couldn't handle a beard. I was like, "Just do your regular drag and add a beard, it's not that hard!" But bearded queens is definitely something I'd like to see more of. I think there are over five performers in Vancouver now and it's become more accepted, at least locally. Like this Pride I got to work with Beardonce and it was the biggest geek-out star moment ever. Grace Towers was also there, and both of them proved that you can still really embody sexiness and beauty, and command the stage while showcasing your body as it is. I mean, they're both hairy head to toe, but your brain isn't distracted by that when they perform. That's what I think more people need to see.
Do you have an overall ideology when it comes to drag?
One of the best things that ever happened in Vancouver is a show called Man-up, which has a saying that goes "drag is for everybody." I really believe in that. There was a lot of controversy too over the past few years with more of a spotlight being put on hyper-drag and bioqueens—so cis women who are taking back the night and taking drag for themselves. And I was surprised that there was anger towards it, because with drag, a lot of us are female-presenting in drag, and the fact that we don't want to share that with other women was upsetting to me. It's so powerful to play with those parts of yourself and to not let any women into that is really upsetting and it makes me angry. There's so much to explore about yourself through drag in terms of what femininity means to you and how you can reject the toxic labels and things that are put on you. I just think there's something really powerful in it.
David Cutting aka "Dust Cwaine"
VICE: How long have you been performing?
Dust Cwaine: I started drag last June, in 2016. I shaved my face and let other people paint me—I was very baby-faced. I did the full "woman illusion thing" and it was OK, I liked it, but I really missed my beard. I've had a beard in one form or another for a good 10 years. Then at Pride last year I said to my drag mom, "I don't know if I want to do this anymore. I'm done with drag." And she was like, "That's OK, you don't have to." But then I had an accident shortly after Pride. I hit my head and I thought about things a lot, and during this time my friend Aaron offered to come over to my house while I was recovering and teach me make-up. From then on I was able to paint myself and it was a whole different story.
Does having a beard as a drag queen feel political to you at all?
One hundred percent. You get chosen less for things. You get looked at less seriously. It's interesting to be rejected, simply for being who you are, within a setting that claims to have no rules. But the rejection has also helped me create my brand—Dust Cwaine as this unapologetic bitch. Drag is supposed to be an open forum for gender performance, I feel, but what I came up against initially was a barrage of rules: wear heels, cinch your waist, and I was like, OK, well if you don't want to book me because of what I am, then that is both narrow-minded and fine with me. I'll create my own opportunities, and they'll be better than the ones you have for me.
Has that mindset ever led to any drama within your community? Like in competitions or at shows?
So the last competition I did was Mr/Ms Cobalt 2017. The judge was Isolde Barron and during the third round she said she wanted to see me do my make-up differently, and to see me without a beard. I just felt really attacked. I had spent a long time learning my make-up and creating a face that was very uniquely mine. So during the finale, we were tasked with paying tribute to a local queen, and I chose a performance artist named Oliv. I did this beautiful number where I didn't lip sync one word of the song, but instead shaved my beard off on stage, while making eye contact with Isolde.
And what was your goal with this performance? What were you telling Isolde?
Well, it was to show that I don't need the beard to be who I am, but also the act of shaving your face in public is incredibly vulnerable. And this is where it gets crazy. For the second half of the performance, my friend Amy came out and cut all the clothing and accessories off my body. She then proceeded to shave my body and my pubic hair. Then I threw it into the audience. It was a play on, "Am I disgusting? You told me to shave my face, so is this OK too? Is there more that you want me to change about myself? Is there more that you want from me? Here—have all of me." The reaction was INSANE. I've never heard screams like that before. And the judge just basically looked at me and was like "that was perfect art, thank you."
That seems like the perfect example of you embodying your brand, which isn't always clean cut.
Right, so I like to behave in a way that is relatable to all people. Women en masse don't wear high heels. Women en masse don't flip their hair and act sassy all the time. So where some queens exaggerate the smaller qualities of women, I exaggerate the...let's just call them the "boring" qualities of women. Like women can be lazy, sloppily-dressed, and weird-smelling. Women touch themselves and fart, and these are the things I like to highlight.
Yeah, I recall seeing a performance where you threw pickles into the crowd…
Yes the pickles were pulled out of my crotch. I was singing "I Kissed A Girl" and thought it'd be funny to have an irrelevant prop, plus I really love crotch humor and the reaction it gets. When you do something like that it wakes the crowd up and makes them more attentive. I like the shock value. I like how punk rock it is and how it doesn't fit. It's like, "Why the fuck are there pickles being thrown at me from that weird drag queen's crotch?"
Andrew Power aka "Hellvetika"
VICE: Your drag persona is Hellvetika, and she's bearded. Why is facial hair an important part of her character?
Hellvetika: I was never super interested in the idea of straight-up, normal drag and trying to appear as a woman. There's something about it to me that just didn't feel cool, you know? And I also didn't really have the features for it. I was never going to pass as a "pretty" drag queen, but when I saw what Klitorika Browne was doing—mixing up gender expectations and doing whatever she wanted—I realized that drag was a lot more broad than I thought it could be. And I won't lie—the main reason I keep my beard it is because I like the way it looks day to day. It's irritating to constantly shave it off and grow it back. I really feel that my drag looks better with it, like I'm not a huge fan of my jaw line, and I like the extra pop of colour I get from the beard. It actually makes my wig look more like real hair, because I can match the two.
Moving from Baltimore to Brooklyn also changed the way I think about drag. Brooklyn is so progressive, the people want to be progressive, and so I wouldn't even consider having a beard subversive there. It's almost like "that's all you're doing?" The Brooklyn scene wants you to be weirder.
VICE: Your photos definitely have an 80s vibe, and you've mentioned being influenced by heavy metal music. Can you talk a bit about that?
Yeah! I love metal music. It just feels like the perfect style of music for drag because it's so dramatic. Even before I did drag I would look at drag shows and be like, "wow, it would be so amazing if they would do one of the metal songs I like." For the look, a lot of the 80s glam rock was very androgynous, like gender-fuck, guys in make-up with teased hair, but then a masculine body, leather, leopard print. It was such a weird gender mix that almost felt like drag in itself. It's strange though because there were almost no beards in 80s metal. Yet you see beards in a lot of today's metal.
Does having a beard as a drag queen feel political to you?
For me, it never started as a political thing. It was always just based on what I thought looked good. It's like picking and choosing my favourite aspects of each gender. Like I love big hair, and so I incorporate that. But I also like a curvier silhouette, and so I pad. But as I get responses from people I realize the beard has become political, whether I like it or not. The beard says "fuck you" to gender in general.
You're showing people that you can break the rules.
Exactly. Actually, I remember a specific comment from a woman who had hirsutism—which is a condition that makes you super hairy. So she was just a very hairy cis woman, and she said, "Queens like Hellvetika make me feel like I can be beautiful." I was like, wow. I'd never considered that I could help cis women who had natural facial hair, but of course they exist! And the only reason that stuff is not acceptable is because of stupid societal norms. We want everyone to look a certain way and we view beauty as this narrow thing.
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