East London drag star Barbs has many strings to her thong. She can play multiple instruments, she can play songs on loop at DJ sets and she can play Halo. She’s one of the most hectic and multi-faceted queens on the scene.
She and her drag sister Bimini were once dubbed “the princesses of Green Lanes” by a Turkish restaurant manager. Who needs the Miss Sink The Pink crown when you’ve got THAT as an accolade (well, actually, Bimini already has the STP crown but that’s another cover story for another time).
Barbs’ most distinctive quality though, is her warmth and heart. It’s why we chose her for our Valentine’s Special this year. That and the fact that she’s got loads of bridal wear, for some reason.
She personifies the fun, frantic, joyfully messy side of drag that makes the UK scene so unique. She’s impervious to what the general public, drag traditionalists or Uber drivers think and by her own admission, “just likes slagging around”. Same tbh.
In between running down alleys barefoot and speeding around North London locations in photographer Corinne’s car, Dylan B Jones chatted to Barbs about how the world sees non-binary people and what life’s like right now for drag performers on the streets of London.
SO question one – how did the legend, the concept, of Barbs come about?!
Oh god when was it…like three years ago? I was wearing a dress doing bar work and one of the queens didn’t turn up to gogo dance so I did it. I earned more money doing that than I did behind the bar! I was like “what have i been doing all this time?” I was also at music college, which was super conservative and really strict. So drag was a way of me being able to improvise and take the piss. I love taking the piss. So it just became my relief.
Relief! So it’s a relief when you’re in drag?
Yeah! Before i moved to London, I was in a relationship with a girl and she wouldn’t let me wear the colour cream because she was worried it made me look gay. She was so scared of me becoming gay and she was trying to prevent it, but it just made me even more gay.
So that backfired.
Yeah. But I’ve been dressing up as a girl all my life. Any time my mum had people over I’d be coming down the stairs in drag.
How do you think people see drag now? Has it changed since you started out?
Well, it’s my full time job now, so that shows how in demand it is. In that sense, I’m grateful. The commercial side is a shame too though, but that happens every time something goes mainstream. It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily gonna lose the underground side of it, or the punk-ness of it. We’ll always have that, no matter how public it is. At first I was against Drag Race, but now I think…if there’s an opportunity to be at the top of your game, then you might as well go for it. For ages, I felt guilty about doing drag because I didn’t see it as a job. But now it’s become a career, and it’s amazing because I have complete creative freedom. I’m my own boss and I can do what I want. But I’ve had to work for that. A lot of people think drag is just putting a pair of heels on, but it’s not. It’s so much more than that.
I bet people make assumptions about you because Barbs’ whole vibe is very thrown together. Like, that’s deliberately your shtick.
Well, especially when I started that was my thing – I wanted to look like a man in a dress. But now I see myself as non-binary anyway…and now I want to look nice. I want to look glamorous and gorgeous but also have that really raw, messy edge. So people see this woman running down the road who’s gorgeous but she’s also not scared of fucking deepthroating someone. But that’s the great thing about drag – you can do what you want with it.
It’s great that more and more people are coming out as non-binary. How’s your experience been?
Oh, I’ve always been non-binary – it’s just that now there’s a word for it. What I don’t like is there’s been so much propaganda against it – people being uptight about pronouns, all that stuff. I’ve never had a situation where someone’s been upset at me for using the wrong pronouns, or when I’ve been upset at someone.
Well it’s been caught up with all that “woke snowflake” nonsense.
Yeah exactly. There are so many connotations with it now because it’s become so politicised. But I’m just me, no matter what I call myself – cumpig, nonbinary, whatever. I’m just doing me. I don’t give a fuck if someone likes it or not and I also don’t give a fuck if they bother learning my pronouns or not. Because even if I force them to use my pronoun and they still don’t like me, then what fucking difference does it make?! I just want people to call me what I’m presenting at the time. If I’m dressed as a woman then call me she, because that’s what I’m doing. I also don’t want to be like “oh, I’m non-binary and THAT’S what I am” – the whole point of being non-binary is NOT being like that. What matters more is what I’m not. It’s more about me not being subscribed to gender roles that have been forced on me. It’s a rejection of “the norm” which has made me unhappy. Things I’ve had to do all my life. Now that I’ve eradicated those things, I can just be me.
I don’t actually give it that much thought actually. I just feel less like a man because I spend half the week dressed like a woman!
There’ve been a couple of awful instances lately of attacks on queer people in London – just recently [drag performer] Camile was attacked in Haggerston. Do you feel safe right now?
I don’t feel safe. But that’s what makes me want to be queerer. If ever someone has a problem with you, it’s really a problem with themselves that they’re projecting on you. Anytime I feel scared or intimidated, I stick my chest out and put my head up and act even more confident. If anything, I’m probably more intimidating to them than they are to me. I’ve had a few bad experiences, but nothing I haven’t been able to handle. Obviously you have to have your wits about you. I don’t drink as much as I used to. I don’t get the bus home when I’m pissed. You have to understand that there are people out there who want to hurt you. You have to be ready for that. It’s amazing what a wig and a pair of heels does to a straight man.
So what are Barbs’s future plans?
Well, now I want to start exploring with looks. I learned how to sew, I’ve learned to make the most of it. Last year I was like “this is just my hobby, I’m gonna make a career out of music!” I was very naive about how the world works. Now I realise I’m not from a rich family, I don’t know lots of people working in the music industry. So now i’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time, because I’m not conflicted between the thing I loved doing and the thing I felt like I should be doing.
Follow Barbs on Instagram at @barbs.co.uk