From Iceland — Starr Power: Reykjavík's Drag Renaissance

Starr Power: Reykjavík’s Drag Renaissance

Published August 10, 2017

Starr Power: Reykjavík’s Drag Renaissance
Photo by
Hörður Sveinsson & Kaspars Bekeris

Gógó Starr emerges from behind the red velvet curtain with a glowing smile, wearing an exaggeratedly glamorous sequined black dress that sparkles under the stage lights. She steps out in front of us and strikes a pose, throwing her blonde curls from left to right, basking in the audience’s attention. She flashes another charming smile to the front row, flirting exaggeratedly as she wiggles to the music, whilst lip-syncing along with the song. Each and every person in the audience beams back at her, profoundly won over. GóGó’s pin-up-girl style of “boylesque” drag is challenging, entertaining and beautiful, in equal measure.

The event in question is Drag-Súgur, a lively and flourishing monthly drag show and variety night held at downtown bar Gaukurinn. It has become one of the city’s fastest-rising live entertainment events, with recent shows performed in front of a packed house. GóGó is one of Drag-Súgur’s two founders. Out of drag, GóGó is Sigurður Heimir Guðjónsson, a charming fresh-faced 23 year old, who kickstarted the show the night after moving to Reykjavík from Akureyri.

The resurrected scene

“Me and Ragna Rök came together and formed Drag-Súgur in 2015, and it grew from there,” says Sigurður. “Since the ‘90s there hadn’t really been a drag ‘scene’ in Iceland. A lot of other things were happening in the world then—like the queer rights movements and the club kids scene. There existed a small drag pop-culture scene in Iceland, but it dwindled down in the ‘00s. It was just barely kept alive by a yearly drag competition during Pride—it became just a Pride thing. But then we started Drag-Súgur, and it became a scene again.”

The motivation to give birth to the Drag-Súgur concept came when GóGó won the annual Icelandic drag contest in Reykjavík—one of the few drag events happening in the city at that time.

“When I was crowned and won the drag competition, I wanted to do something with that title.”

“When I was crowned and won the drag competition, I wanted to do something with that title,” says Sigurður, “and create a space that other people could use to express drag or just queer variety in general. That’s why we created Drag Súgur. We’ve been doing a monthly show ever since, and it’s been going great. This is all I do now—I’m an entertainer, a producer and a performer. Others are coming along as well. We’re getting booked for more than just our shows—we’re getting booked at Loft, or in the cabaret, and even for private events like stag parties.”

The queerness

It took a while for Drag-Súgur to connect with the local queer community, which for a long while had been suffering from a lack of communal venues and safe spaces. Sigurður relates how the Drag-Súgur audience was, at first, mostly borne from the wild success of the US reality TV show ‘Rupaul’s Drag Race,’ in which a variety of drag queens compete in categories that include catwalk shows, lip sync battles, stand up comedy and roasts, musical performances, and more.

“We want to be inclusive to all people who really want to entertain and express their art on stage, no matter their gender or sexuality or whatever.”

“The initial audience was definitely very into ‘Drag Race’,” says Sigurður. “They weren’t queer people—although we really tried to market it towards that community. But this year we’re seeing more interest from the queer community, they finally seem to want to get bigger and better and louder. It’s wonderful, it’s more than I could have hoped for when we started it.”

The influence and interest generated by ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ has had a big effect, nonetheless. “‘Drag Race’ has completely warped everything concerning drag,” continues Sigurður. “A lot of older performers don’t take it well—they think it’s ruined drag. For me it’s changed it, for sure. Drag is getting closer to the mainstream—but that’s causing it to become more edgy, and I really enjoy seeing so many different people in drag. Everyone who can afford a pair of lashes thinks they can become a drag queen now. And sure, why not, they can!”

The royalties

This spirit of inclusivity and positivity permeates the Icelandic drag scene, and sparks the creative, accepting and lively atmosphere at Drag-Súgur. Whilst GóGó’s aesthetic is an act of creating a glittering female illusion, other Reykjavík drag performers take things in impressive creative directions—be it dark, gothic, clownish, or wildly individualistic. Nobody judges each other’s choices. In fact, the Drag-Súgur kings, queens and in-betweens decided to band together to collectively be known as “drag royalties,” to make it clear that the scene is even and supportive.

“We want to be inclusive to all people who really want to entertain and express their art on stage, no matter their gender or sexuality or whatever. I think there’s so much more creativity, fabulousness and fun that way. I don’t see why you’d limit yourself to one thing just because it sparkles. Although I do love them sparkles!”

All hail the king

Turner Strait is a drag king who’s a regular on the Drag-Súgur scene, and particularly enjoys the diversity of styles and aesthetics. “One of the new queens, Deff Starr, is defining herself as a clown queen right now,” says Turner. “It’s a family. It’s like, if you wanna be a pageant queen, be one; and if you wanna be trashy, be trashy! Just as long as your act is good.”

Turner claims that the exposure to other ideas of what drag is, and can be, is one of the best things about the scene, with people pushing each others’ boundaries through exhibition. “It might be the environment, or being challenged by the show runner, or a self-imposed challenge,” says Turner. “Maybe I want to try stand-up, or maybe I’ve never sung on stage before, so I want to sing live. It goes in all directions, I think. Hosting a show was a challenge for me, I’d never done that before. And getting up on that stage is a challenge in itself.”

Over the edge

Jenny Purr, aka Kristrún Hrafns, is a bio-queen, or a biologically female performer whose colourful, hyper-glamorous drag persona is also female. “What I love about Drag-Súgur is that we’re a variety show,” says Jenny. “In other cities they’re usually drag queen shows, with not so many kings, or genderfuck, or people that blur the lines. We try to be as inclusive as possible—not only for the audience to see the variety, but for the performers too. We’re a tiny drag family—when we talk about ourselves as ‘royalties,’ it’s because we have people who don’t fit into any box.”

Starina—a veteran queen who won the Icelandic Drag Contest in 2003, also known as Ólafur Helgi Móberg—agrees, and has embraced the arrival of Drag-Súgur on the scene. “What RuPaul is doing has helped Drag-Súgur a lot,” says Starina. “But really, it stands on its own two feet. I think Drag-Súgur is a much more liberal style of drag—they do more genderfuck, and have kings and bio-queens. And who’s to tell us what’s drag and what isn’t? It’s like saying one painting is a painting, and another isn’t. It’s the same thing. I would never consider Drag-Súgur mainstream. They’re over the edge, and trying to make people think. It’s not so much about what you wear or gender illusion; it’s about performance.”

Everyone do drag

Something that all of the royalties have in common is the opinion that doing drag is a personally enriching experience, whether it’s the confidence boost of the stage, or the exploration of different aspects of gender.

“I’ve learned so much from being GóGó and I’ve brought that to my boy-self. I recommend drag. Everyone do drag!”

“What I found interesting when I tried drag for the first time,” says Ragna Rök, also known as Hafsteinn Himinljómi Regínuson, “was how freeing it was, realising that it’s not a big deal to put on a dress. People do it every single day of their lives and just because you’re brought up male doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. But with that allowance, you start letting your femininity come out more. My humour is found in what I consider to be my feminine side. For me, drag is like having a new page, thinking: ‘This night, while I’m dressed like this, nobody knows me.’ I could say things I always wanted to say, because the character is a temporary character and a figment of my imagination. Then the next day I can say, ‘I was just in drag. It wasn’t me, it was Ragna.’ She gives me a lot of confidence in my real life. Especially to put up against toxic, aggro male culture. I have become better at dealing with that than before.”

For Ólafur Helgi, the dynamics of entering the drag persona are different, with Starina acting more like an alter ego. “As Starina I do stuff I wouldn’t normally do,” says Óli. “Starina is Óli but in a very accentuated way. The main thing she has taught me is to stand on my own two feet, to be strong, to be who I want to be. Starina has helped me so much.”

Extroverted and fabulous

GóGó Starr loves seeing the performers’ different experiences of drag. “I really enjoy it when someone’s an introvert before they step into character, then become super extroverted and fabulous,” says GóGó. “When I began, Sigurður and GóGó were pretty far apart, but now they’re fairly close. GóGó was an extra-super-peppy-weird creation. I’ve learned so much from being GóGó and I’ve brought that to my boy-self. Becoming a super extreme version of myself onstage is really liberating. I recommend drag. Everyone do drag!”

“I’ve seen people try drag for the first time and have their confidence soar,” continues Ragna. “For example, Wonda Starr turned up and slayed the show, then started doing comedy and lip-syncing, then started hosting, got a job writing articles, then a job writing articles as Wonda Starr, which wrapped it all up.”

Drag family values

This sense of mutual encouragement and drag family values is ever present at Drag-Súgur, where the performers mingle in the crowd when not onstage, always making themselves available to lend a helping hand to their fellow queens should anything go wrong. At the Drag Lab—an experimental “drag open mic” scenario, also held at Gaukurinn, where people can show up, feel safe, and try drag for the first time—Wonda Starr was often seen putting out miniature fires. When a mic didn’t go on, she was running to the soundbooth, and when one debut performer’s show ended with him blinded by massage oil and glitter, she ran onstage to wipe off his face.

“I have three drag kids… but I’m a horrible mother. It’s a running joke that I gave them my name and threw them in the gutter. But they seem to be doing fine—it must be the good genes.”

Wonda is one of GóGó’s drag children. “I have three kids,” smiles Sigurður. “The term ‘drag mom’ is used for someone helping a performer to either get started, or to get better because you see potential in them, or because they’ve reached out to you. You end up having this nice family connection. My first daughter is Wonda Starr, then there’s my son Yannuss Starr, and also Deff Star. I love how they’re all vastly different from me and really doing their own thing—because I don’t help them one bit. I’m a horrible mother. And that’s really a running joke—that I gave them my name and dropped them in the gutter. But they seem to doing fine. It must be the good genes.”

Turner feels that cooperation is an essential part of Drag-Súgur. “You never really know what’s gonna happen,” says Turner, “and if something does happen, it’s good to have someone around who’s relatively used to the stage and able to handle the situation. We try to help each other. During the last Drag Súgur, Deff Star got dish soap over her face and hand soap in her mouth, and our stagehand was working the door—so we had someone running to the bathroom for tissues while Deff was backstage covered in soap. It was a mess! But we try to keep each other safe, whether it’s from stress or whatever else.”

Safe space

This safe environment that drag requires—for performers and audience alike—has been provided by Gaukurinn, a classic downtown bar and venue that has been reinvented as a home for Reykjavík’s subcultures, including drag. For the venue, becoming the home of Reykjavík’s drag scene was intentional, and has proven educational.

“Drag Súgur has had a big impact on this place,” says Sólveig Johnsen, co-owner and coordinator of Gaukurinn’s drag shows. “The performers have become regulars, and have formed this great crowd. We have placed more emphasis on equality, and safety for everybody’s philosophy, because since Drag Súgur came here we think more about it. There are benefits all around, like the idea of have gender-neutral bathrooms, which we do now. It made us ask, ‘which bathroom are the drag performers supposed to use?’”

“Gaukurinn is a fringe bar in so many ways,” continues Starri Hauksson, the bar’s other owner. “You find a lot of different groups here, and the bar’s policy stresses mutual tolerance, so drag was a welcome addition. All our regulars show up for Drag-Súgur.”

Beautiful art by broken people

For Turner Strait, Gaukurinn’s efforts are essential to the drag community. “Gaukurinn is an underground scene,” says Turner. “You see nerds, metalheads, and queer people as well. There’s been a shift. My circle doesn’t really wanna go to Kiki; we go to Gaukurinn instead. We feel more included there, and it’s more accepting.”

“I must say, nobody does drag because they’ve had a perfect life,” finishes GóGó. “I think it’s just such an expression on the stage, with everyone bringing different things to the table. That’s how you learn so much from the drag character you create:it’s an extreme character that has traits you’re lacking, or wish you had—but, really, you do have them, because you’re showing them in that other way. It’s beautiful art made by broken people.”

See the Reykjavík Pride Drag-Súgur spectacular at Iðnó on August 11th, and the drag float at the Reykjavík Pride Parade on August 12th.

Follow Drag-Súgur on Facebook.

Read more about the F*CK GENDER exhibition by Kaspars Bekeris here.

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