We kiki with the producer and director of The Icelandic Drag Competition
Since 1997, The Icelandic Drag Competition (Draggkeppni Íslands) has grown from a small low-frills, nightclub function into a full, fabulous production, fit for Eldborg, Harpa’s main stage. This year’s competition on August 6 will pit four pretenders to each of Iceland’s drag crowns against each other (queens against queens, kings against kings) in a battle of parody and flamboyance. And who said Iceland never had a monarch? I spoke with Georg Erlingsson Merritt (drag name, Keiko), the competition’s producer and director to learn more about this gay game of thrones.
You were a drag queen, right? When was that?
I competed in 1998. I won that year, and after that I was asked to take over the competition and I’ve been doing that ever since. So I haven’t been able to compete because I don’t think it’s fair, even though I’d like to. I’ve often performed on the show. I’ve hosted occasionally. At least I always go in drag for the show.
So, what’s your role in the competition?
I produce it and I also direct. I don’t take over the direction for the competitors; I just try to get the best out of them. In most cases these aren’t professional actors, so you have to help them along the creative process. I talk to them as a judge would, even though I don’t judge the competition. But I try to get them as far as they can.
THE REST IS DRAG
Who participates? Who competes?
Everyone is allowed to participate. I have no qualms about whether a person is gay, straight, bi, transgender or anything. Mainly of course it is gay people who are participating, but everyone is welcome to do what they want to do.
What are the performances?
Everyone makes their own character—the character has to be very believable. Somebody might come up on stage and just talk, or to dance, or sing on their own. We’ve had all sorts of acts in previous shows: circus acts, acrobats, tap dancing, anything goes. I’m just waiting for someone to take a toilet with them on stage and sit on it. But no one has done that yet.
What’s the drag scene outside of the competition? Is there a regular scene?
There used to be a better one. Places are always changing, always opening and closing. We used to have a gay theatre called Vanity. One summer we had a cabaret there, every Saturday, with new material each time. So there was a big drag scene that summer. Sometimes there’s a lot going on, sometimes there’s not. I don’t go out that much anymore. There may be three or four people going out in drag regularly, but there aren’t that many performances at the moment which is sad.
Why do you think that is?
The way things are moving politically in the gay community here—I get the feeling that they’re trying to take away our inheritance, like they’re trying to make our history disappear. I’m all for getting my rights and I’ve been a strong supporter of Pride, but when you get the rights, you start to focus outwards, which is also good, but they’re sweeping under the carpet the things we used to do. We’re all getting so neutral; we’re all getting really straight-looking. We don’t want to be recognised as gay people. That’s the reason I continue with this competition. I don’t want our history to disappear. Don’t forget, drag was one of the most powerful weapons used in the first battles for our rights. This is just too valuable to dismiss.
FIT FOR A KING
The competition features drag queens and drag kings. Are those different sorts of acts?
Yes, it’s two titles. They are different. Drag king is a much younger concept, so I guess women haven’t delved into too many stereotypes like the men have throughout the years. But the typical stereotypes that are showing up are these really flamboyant, romantic guys in suits, the big bum on the street and the rocker type. The rocker type really seems to be hot at the moment and the girls pull it off really well. In the dressing room on the day of the show, I sometimes walk past the drag kings because I don’t realise it’s them. They can really do a good number.
Are there the same number of men and women competing?
We try to keep it equal every year. This year it is.
As you say, drag kings are a new thing. I sometimes wonder whether male drag might border on misogynistic in its parody of femaleness. Thoughts?
I think a drag queen can say whatever she wants to say. She can be political, but she doesn’t have to be politically correct. You are supposed to be insulting people. You’re in drag. You’re 200% of what you are mimicking. It’s all done to push buttons. If people are getting shocked, good, then it’s working. If gay people are shocked, good, then it’s better. Somebody has to kick our butts sometimes.
Do you think increased awareness of trans issues has had an affect on the way drag is received or performed?
People have been asking me about this recently. I don’t think it has really affected it. Some people say, ‘If you’re going into drag, you’re making fun of transgender people.’ That is so not it; that has nothing to do with it. The two are not connected at all. One is an art form, the other is about feeling comfortable in a different body or gender presentation. A drag performer wants to go on stage, wants to be noticed. A transgendered person is not (necessarily) concerned with performance. I mean we’ve had transgender people in the competition and I love how open the discussion for transgender people is today. It’s about effing time.