Colin Self Is the Embodiment of Queer Theory

On the afternoon I met Colin Self, he didn’t feel like wearing lipstick. He put it on and then wiped it off, staining his rosebud mouth. Wigs didn’t suit his mood either. He dressed, instead, in plain muslin overalls for the house tour and a Thierry...

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Mar 21 2014, 11:00am

I first got to know Colin Self in the dark of a West Village club—then by the light of my laptop. Self is a nightlife impresario. A vision in plum lipstick, the Laura Dern look-alike is perhaps best known as member of the New York-based drag supergroup Chez Deep. Beyond the drag stage, Colin is also a musician, party host, and DJ (at Eckhaus Latta’s défilé this New York Fashion Week, he sensuously spun self-help recordings into Orbital and Prince), as well as a video artist, community organizer, and social activist. Like a proper digital native (b. 1987), Colin anchors all this online—his Twitter is divine.

Colin is a modern-day role model. An embodiment of queer theory, Colin, in everything he does (whether that’s fundraising for his Radical Diva Grant or wailing in micromesh at the club), is a testament to the individual’s potential to be himself, herself, or themselves. While Colin takes sex-positive pleasure in his “ultimately male body,” he also identifies with all genders: “man, woman, whatever—I’m also an alien and a witch and a celestial spirit.” His interest is in the trying-on of new modes of being.

Through all of his manifold practices, Colin seeks to foster open-mindedness in the individual while “creating spaces for individuals to engage in open dialogue.” His goal with projects like his annual Next Time Symposium, a multi-day salon on drag arts, performance, and politics, is to show that, just as femininity can be put on and taken off with a touch of lipstick, so too can ideas.

On the afternoon I met Colin Self, at his three-floor shared space in deep Bushwick, he didn’t feel like wearing lipstick. He put it on and then wiped it off, staining his rosebud mouth. Wigs didn’t suit his mood either. He dressed, instead, in plain muslin overalls for the house tour and a Thierry Mugler blazer—which he described as “officious"—for the interview. Beneath a monster Jon Rafman on the wall and a stick-bug tree house, we talked about performance, queer pop culture, and how Colin came to be himself.

VICE: Is Colin Self your real name?
Colin Self: It is! And I’m so grateful for it. I’m always thinking, like, thank you, Dad! It works on so many levels: selfies, self-care, self-actualization...

They call that an aptronym—when someone’s name is apt for them. Where are you from?
I grew up in Aloha, Oregon, which is on the edge of the suburbs in the forest between Portland and the Oregon Coast. My dad is a composer and an engineer, and my mom started a music school when I was really young. I have three sisters—two older, one younger—who are all really crazy. I grew up in a house very dominated by the women and their energy.

How did you end up in New York doing performance?
I remember going to this Sleater-Kinney concert when I was 14 and seeing these girls wail on their guitars and thrash about, and I said to my friend, “This is what I'm going to do with my life.” I was also really inspired by Riot grrl—that’s how I ended up going to college in Olympia. There, I met all these amazing female performers who were using performance to enact ideas of affect and mysticism to transform spaces and people. They became my mentors. Eventually, I moved to Chicago to finish school, and after school, I moved to New York. That was in 2010.

When did you start performing with Chez Deep?
Chez Deep started in 2012. We—Sam Banks, Hari Nef, Alexis Penney, Bailey Stiles, and myself—started as a “drag supergroup,” but we've transformed into something else. We're more like an art collective than a performance troupe now. We came together as a group of futuristic androgynous performers who had fragmented participation in gender variation. We’re all cyborgs, aliens, witches, transmutants, and hybrid creatures, all working towards demonstrations of self-care and care for others through several mediums: drag, but also monologues, dance, singing, writing, curating. For the next year, we’re mostly going to be working on videos together.

Where did the name come from?
It actually comes from a misinterpretation of my friend Jamie’s Twitter handle, @twobitchesdeep. One of the members of my group initially misread it as two-bit chez deep. He thought “chez deep” was a really cute name, and we ended up choosing it because that’s actually what we are—deep house, a place of depth, of internal/eternal expansive consciousness, of goddess worship, all that stuff.

It was your Twitter presence that convinced me I had to interview you. You’re such an anomaly on my feed, which is full of feminist call-outs, miscellaneous self-promotion, and cultural commentary. Among all that chaos, you’ll pop up, saying something mindful and serene—you’re like the eye of the storm.
Twitter feeds are dangerous. You have to be careful what you read. I just try to post ideas that are helping me understand myself and how to operate in the world. Mantras, prayers, affirmations—there’s a need for those to counteract all the chaos and hysteria and complaining. We are in a dark place with this kind of social commentary—it’s almost like a black magic. Language is the most ancient form of magic, and so many of us have forgotten that we are creating things with our language. Right now, we’re experiencing a global hypnosis that I call “Kardashianism.”

What’s that?
Kardashianism refers to the worshiping of and desire for blind wealth and beauty. The Kardashians are a group of beautiful, wealthy women who, other than promote their wealth and beauty, don’t do anything, and yet it seems like everyone I know is praising the them as demigods. Don’t get me wrong: Kim Kardashian is beautiful. Her body is flawless. But our obsession with US Weekly, Perez Hilton, and the like detracts from focusing on ourselves and our community. It's escapism, and it’s infectious.

One of my favorite all-time tweets of yours was, “If you’re not queer, you’re not paying attention.” Queerness is trending right now. Mykki Blanco is a new idol. Rupaul’s Drag Race is in its sixth season. Last year, we were introduced to Chelsea Manning and Laverne Cox. There’s even a petition to get Carmen Carrera to be the next Victoria’s Secret Angel. Even Miley Cyrus is styled so gay. What do you think about this new queer mainstream?
It's so crazy! I mean, gay, drag, and trans histories have varied stories and positions. With trans, for instance, the world is becoming a little more trans-aware, but the trans scale is so wide, and what the media is getting is only this tiny part of it, which is better than nothing at all, but the fraction shouldn’t be mistaken for the whole. And Rupaul’s Drag Race is fun, but why does the title of "America’s Next Drag Superstar" mean that you go on a world tour promoting vodka, get $100,000 cash, and then you don’t do shit? That says nothing about our world or the trans world around me. It was really frustrating to see drag become so aestheticized and fetishized, but without the struggle or community aspect, without the knowledge of how much homophobic and transphobic violence there still is in the world, even in New York City. There are so many people in America who watch Rupaul's Drag Race but who could never sit down and talk to a queer or trans person about firsthand experience.

What do you think about so-called homonormativity and the pursuit of a more traditional or domestic gay life through institutions like marriage?
I think it’s wonderful. Personally, gay marriage is not a priority, but I definitely believe anyone should be able to love and marry who or whatever they want. Or not. Variety is good. Any queer person who’s fighting for all queer people to be the same is working against themselves.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Laverne Cox and, has since, been updated to reflect the proper spelling.

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