“In today’s day and age, there’s so much scrutiny on drag queens. A lot of people feel the need to be experts, like, you wouldn’t tell Van Gogh what to do. So shut the fuck up. Please.” Meet superstar drag queen queen Aquaria, a relative newbie and already a seasoned professional on the drag circuit.
Known for her bawdy makeup and outrageous visuals, 21-year-old Aquaria has seen her star rise in recent years: She’s hosted parties at Art Basel; performed in nightclubs in New York City, London and Vienna; and perfected the art of replicating viral memes, including the confused math lady, Sophia the robot and, most recently, the Tide Pod.
That love of makeup and performing began at a young age, when Aquaria was growing up in Westchester, Pennsylvania, a two-hour drive from New York City. “When I was little I was always into, like, face painting and what not. Turn me into a tiger, turn me into, like, a Power Ranger, I didn’t care. I just wanted to be, like, beat by some Halloween craft store products,” Aquaria said in an interview with Mic.
With her parents’ support, Aquaria made it her mission, a mission quickly accomplished, to master makeup. “My parents are very open-minded and encouraging so they weren’t the type to smash my eyeshadow palette. … They weren’t evil like some people’s parents can be.”
Her love for a certain reality show also helped her to harness her skills. “I remember when I was in sixth or seventh grade, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, the first season, I don’t know how I came across it, but I just loved that all their looks had a purpose or something thought-out about it.”
By high school, she began making makeup tutorials in an era before they were a YouTube craze. “In high school I would post these little makeup looks that I would do with these Party City wigs turned backward, teased all out so it completely didn’t look like trash even though it was just a different version of trash.” Through trial and error, she learned to, in her words, better her face.
Drag Race remained a key inspiration in developing what would become her drag persona. “I would see the Drag Race girls and other queens on the internet and club kids,” she said. “There would always be some kind of concept to the look. So I just love always keeping to that idea of telling some sort of story with whatever I’m wearing.”
When she was 18 years old, she moved to New York City to pursue a career in fashion design, attending the Fashion Institute of Technology. But after two semesters, she decided to call it quits, realizing there was still time to get part of her deposit back if she acted fast. “I remember calling my mom, and I was just like, crying my ass off. And I just remember telling her, I was like, ‘I don’t think this is working for me.’ My only idea of a job was get serious and, like, pursue what I was already doing in drag.”
Her original entry into nightlife, at 19 years old, proved to be a challenge for the then-underage queen. “Meanwhile I was what, 19, 20. ... I wasn’t supposed to be working all these spaces. I would have these club promoters or these drag queens who had shows really stick out their neck for me. … A lot of the times I would be very nervous if I would actually be able to make it into my job that night.”
And while the gigs were plentiful, the task of building a career from job to job proved challenging — but not impossible. “When I first started I would be, you know, showing up to some other queen’s gig, you know, doing two or three numbers throughout their set, and I’d be paid 50, 75, 100 dollars or whatever. ... Drag queens, we’re just like you. We’re scrounging by just to make rent.” Her ideal gig: “Me doing my makeup, showing up somewhere, doing very little and getting paid very lot.”
Another challenge: vocal critics, especially with drag queens as public figures in an art form whose presence in mainstream culture grows bigger every day. Though the critiques can be helpful, a lot of it, according to Aquaria, “is very eye-rolly and very suffocating.”
But the criticism only proves the critics are watching, and watching from all parts of the world. “Back before social media and whatnot, if you were doing drag in NYC and you were fantastic and you were amazing, the only way that someone in São Paulo would know about you was if they came to NY and stumbled across you, or they had a friend of a friend of a friend who went to New York one time and told them about you. So now people in São Paulo can find out who Aquaria is all while staying in bed.”
That doesn’t mean fame is without cost. “From privacy to the freedoms you have as an artist — it all gets slightly compromised when more people are able to enjoy your art, but that just means you get to keep doing your art for longer, so it’s always a double-edged sword. You can never win.”
But for Aquaria, success doesn’t come from followers or fans, but rather from her own happiness. “Say it was like judgment day and I’m standing in front of my creator I don’t want to be like, ‘Yeah, I was sewing a lot,’ and he’ll be like, ‘Girl, why didn’t you go to the party and turn it?’”
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