London drag legend Holestar is a living, breathing, latex-clad trailblazer. Women doing drag is still a contentious issue for some (hi RuPaul). But it’s not a totally alien concept. Back when Holestar started out, it was unheard of.
But not one to give in, she (sometimes literally) PUSHED her way into the scene until she was heard, seen and respected. DJing, dominating, decanting and dazzling everywhere from Austria to Acton, she paved the way for many fabulous ladies doing their thing on the queer scene today.
In her first ever solo QX cover shoot, we chatted to Holestar about her past life in the army, the misogyny she’s experienced on the scene and what it’s like being a woman who does drag or, as she puts it, “a tit in a wig”.
Hiya Holestar! So you’re currently working as a drag queen. But you were once in the army right? How did that come about?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a performer. But I rebelled and did sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll quite young. So I fucked up my school. Haven’t got any GCSEs. When you’ve got no education and you’re working class, you’re like “who will take me? I need a job.”
So when did you decide on the army?
I was on a speed comedown – I know, speed, this was the 90s, dear – and I just thought, “I need a job, I need direction, I need SOMETHING.” The next thing I know, I’m in the army.
What was it like?
It was hell. They break everyone down to think as one. But because I’m stubborn, my individuality stayed with me. At the back of my mind I was always thinking “this is not who you are. You are not part of the machine. You’re an individual, gobby bitch.” I used to go round wearing feather boas being camp and stupid and they were like “what are you doing?!” I did training for Bosnia, and I was up for going. My whole unit left and I had to stay behind, and then they discharged me for medical reasons. So then I was like “shit, what am I gonna do when I leave?” But in hindsight, it was the best thing. I realized I wasn’t stupid – I’d got my education on my own terms.
So what came next?
I discovered art and my head exploded. I did a degree in photography, then a masters in Fine Art at St Martins. Lived in Vienna for a bit as an artist. Then I started thinking about gender, and about drag queens retaining the fabulous side of camp. Women were very androgynous at that time, and feminism did great things, but it killed glamour. It killed camp. You still had Dolly Parton and Shirley Bassey and the big dames of entertainment doing camp things, but women in general weren’t very camp. But drag queens, who were in a roundabout way emulating the female presence…a lot of them were very misogynistic. Some of them still are. In that time, you’d walk into a room as a women and they’d be like “Ooh there’s a lesbian in the room. Oooh there’s fish in the room.” I was like…hang on. You’re putting on a frock on to entertain people. Cool, I have no problem with that. But why are you being so down on women? You came from a fucking woman. We all came from women.
So is that what made you want to try drag as a woman?
I thought I’d do it as a one-off. As a kid, I used to religiously watch Victor/Victoria, the Julie Andrews film, where she’s a woman as a man as a woman. It stuck with me. And eventually I was like “I’m gonna do that.” And people were like “you can’t.” Why not?
How long ago was that?
Sixteen years ago – there wasn’t internet like there is now. There were no YouTube tutorials, no social media. I had no drag mother, no-one to teach me. It was trial and error. I met this DJ at the Life Ball in Vienna and he asked me to MC for him. So I thought “Ok, camp. I’ve got an audience, let’s try the drag thing.” People found it interesting. Even though Vienna and Austrians are quite conservative, they really went for it.
Then you moved to London…what was that like?
No-one knew me so I had to start again. I had to jump through so many hoops and faced so much shit. So many doors closed in my face – people saying “you’re a woman, what do you know about drag?”
But drag is BASED ON women so surely a woman would know her stuff?
Exactly. Why can’t a woman do it? But at the same time, I think you do have to BE a drag queen. There are a lot of girls doing it now, which is wonderful. The more girls that are doing it, the better. But I always think their reference points are off. Drag is a very unique beast. It comes from downtimes when queers were stuck in gay bars. It was drag queens who were doing charity gigs and getting people together and galvanizing communities. You need to be aware of that, and where the humour comes from. There are women doing drag now who don’t quite understand that. You can see it in their performance.
Their reference points are burlesque. Which is fine! I have no issue with that at all. But it can be very burlesque, rather than bawdy, camp, ridiculous, self-deprecating humour. If you’re gonna do drag, you need to be able to laugh at yourself. And there are people taking it too seriously. Babe, you’re a dickhead in a wig. That’s your first point of reference and you need to laugh at that. Otherwise you’re just a doll. And anyone can dress up as a doll and look pretty.
Back to YOU doing drag…a lot of people see the London scene as liberal – why do you think people gave you a hard time here?
Because London drag has such a rich history. It’s been around for so long. When I started out, London drag was one thing – a bloke in a sequin gown, with a very hard-looking wig. And promoters and bookers were very much like “well this is tradition and we’re gonna stick to it.” I love traditional drag – when it’s funny and camp. When it’s being bitchy for no reason, I can’t deal with it. I expected London to be welcoming but it wasn’t – it was very cold. It wasn’t until I discovered all the queens in East London that that changed.
You said something interesting earlier about feminism…do you get shamed or judged by other women for doing drag?
There are a lot of TERFs and angry vaginas around who think you’re ridiculing women by doing drag. But actually, it’s a celebration. I get TERFs saying I’m betraying my own gender. They seem to correlate glamour and looking pretty with pandering to the male gaze. I understand that – I understand where they’re coming from. But actually, when you’re putting it upon yourself and having fun with it and reclaiming it and doing it for a purpose…it doesn’t matter. They’re stuck in their dungarees, god bless them. Just being angry. It’s interesting that a lot of them come from privilege. They have the money to waste their time on the internet being angry. The rest us don’t have that. We have to go out and work.
You were saying you got doors shut in your face…tell me when and why that stopped happening and people started to give you the time of day.
Pure stubbornness. Once I discovered drag and how much I loved it, and how much I love making people question it…there was no stopping me. That’s what made me stick with drag. It was the first time we went to Glastonbury – me, Jonny Woo, Sizzle, Ma Butcher, Gateau. All the OGs. The first year we did NYC Downlow at Glastonbury. We were the first gay tent at any British festival…which is crazy.
Let’s talk RuPaul.
Ugh, you had to say the name. RUPAUL. Ok, so. It is what it is. It’s a lovely television show. The British version was gorgeous. They cast it really well. But at the same time I think…you’ve got ten queens – brilliant. They’re all different types of drag – brilliant. But then you’ve got someone called Scaredy Kat, who’s never performed before. Because they’ve got a penis, they can go on. But I can’t, because I have a vajayjay. I’ve been doing this for sixteen years. I don’t know if I even WANT to be on it. But it’s the principle.
Why do you think Ru refuses to put women on?
He’s stuck in a box. He didn’t come from the ballroom scene. The ballroom scene in New York was very mixed. There were women, there were trans, there were people on the piers.
That’s interesting – I think a lot of people assume he was associated with the ballroom scene.
No, he came from the club scene. Michelle was on the ballroom scene – she probably knows more about it than he does. He was on the club kid, and from what I’ve heard, he was very focused. He always wanted to be a star. Credit to him, fine. But he never performs anymore. He rarely gets involved in anything to do with Pride or anything LGBT related. He’s the biggest drag star in the world, but does he even care about his own community? He’s very blinkered, he’s very stuck in his 90s idea of what a drag queen is. Your gender doesn’t fucking matter. What matters about drag, is what you put on the stage.
How do you think the scene regards women who do drag now…as opposed to when you first started?
It hasn’t really changed. I’m finally getting more things here and there, but a lot of promoters are of a certain age and they think drag is a certain thing – so they’ll refuse to book someone with a vagina. You get women popping up on revue shows. So there might be a revue of five or six acts, and there’ll be a token woman in there. It’s like…let’s judge them on their talent, not what’s in their pants.
So what would you say to any women out there who fancy trying drag?
Drag queens…we are clowns. We’re twats in tights, tits in wigs. Regardless of your gender, that’s what we are. As long you as you can entertain the people, that’s what’s important. Put a wig on it and have some fun.