My first interaction with Judy Virago was more of a drive-by, a mistral blowing past at Goth Drag, a monthly dance party at The Beaver. It wasn't until years later that we bumped into each other as she was arriving to a party and I was departing. It was enough of a flirtation, a spark of recognition, to know that we shared a similar love of messing with people's expectations and, of course, being the centre of attention. I attended a few of her explosive performances (including a dynamite Bjork lipsynch in a really cute cropped leather jacket), and the next thing you know I'm in her kitchen, talking about gender fucking, unconventional performances, and finding one's place in a world of possibilities, all the while trying to keep track of her ghostly pet rat, Chicken, scuffling around in the shadows.
JUDY VIRAGO: My place is so tidy today. I used to follow the Quentin Crisp school of cleaning, that after four years the dirt doesn't get any worse. So I would let my bedroom grow into a wonderful garden. But now i'm really getting into being tidy.
HENRI FABERGÉ: Is he a kindred spirit?
JV: Someone I find interesting. He was one of the first loud proud homosexuals in the UK. The fact that he outed himself like that makes him a hero of mine.
HF: He represents the idea of a performative lifestyle.
JV: He was wearing makeup in public to say to everyone: I'm really gay, and I'm amongst you, and you need to deal with that.
HF: And that became a character that he embodied as a performer.
JV: Yeah, like a personae that he took on stage and toured, and he was really old when he started doing that.
HF: And that was in New York, correct? I guess it was less accepted in England?
JV: Well there's a different history of homosexuals in theatre there.
HF: More drag.
JV: Pre-World War II drag wasn't necessarily linked with being queer. There was lots of straight drag in pubs, that sort of thing.
HF: Even in Shakespeare, they had men playing female characters.
JV: Until King Charles II. The stage was strictly for men only, until the Restoration.
HF: But with Quentin, it wasn't drag. It was overtly homosexual. It had nothing to do with a character he was putting on, he was openly characterizing himself.
JV: For sure. He was high camp. People could get that. But once you bring sex into it...
HF: Then it's dangerous. Did you face any resistance when you start performing back in New Zealand? What kind of community did you grow up in?
JV: I grew up in a Catholic community. A suburb of the largest city in New Zealand, Auckland. It was like a little border town, at the edge of where the suburban space becomes rural space. So I went to school with farmers' children. Everyone knew everyone, knew everyone's business, and my family was heavily involved in the church. That was just my childhood. I started doing drag in my third year of university. Well, I dabbled in it in first year. We had a special dinner, and the invitation said "gentleman, please wear a tie." I was like, mmm no I'm going to wear a dress. So I went to the dinner in drag, and everyone was like "who's that new girl? Oh my god it's him!" I just liked fucking with people.
HF: Were you taking offense to the term gentleman?
JV: I was taking offense to the fact that they were enforcing dress codes by gender.
HF: That's a Catholic school trope too, did you go to a school with kilts?
JV: I went to a Catholic primary school and a Catholic high school for one year. I was kind of a goth then. I was fifteen, being the only goth at the Catholic school was kind of good. People left me alone. They assumed that I was putting spells on them and rumours spread. They just thought I was kind of a freak. And then they realized I was a lovely person.
HF: So you found some of your own kindred spirits.
JV: Yeah. A bunch of other queer goths basically. But I wasn't too queer in high school. Then I went back to public school, where I was the only gay at school and got involved in theatre, everyone knew me as the theatre gay.
HF: What do you mean by not being that queer in high school?
JV: I mean I wasn't out. And I was dating girls. But then I was completely out, and was dressing very bizarrely, kind of gender fucking in the way that I dressed at the public school. People didn't get it. I'm wearing pigtails to show you that anyone can!
HF: So you were drawn to theatre, was that a safe space for exploration?
JV: Yeah, and it gives you the opportunity to try out being different people. And when you're a teenager and you don't exactly know who you are or where you fit, and you have all these questions, pretending to be other people can be a lot of fun.
HF: Did you get into acting?
JV: I got into a lot of acting at school and outside of school. My Grandparents, who I lived with in high school, wanted me to go to drama school. My Dad wanted me to go to business school, and my Mum wanted me to do whatever I wanted. So I went to university to do commerce and English literature. Then I switched to psychology and linguistics, and did theatre on the side. And I started doing drag then. I played a bunch of female roles in summer Shakespeare, and then I started entering club competitions and that sort of thing.
HF: What kind of competitions?
JV: Like drag competitions, at night clubs.
HF: There was a scene for that?
JV: Yeah, there's a fairly okay drag scene in Auckland. So I'd go out to clubs, and I won my first competition. There were other good performers, and they looked pretty, but they were doing boring stuff like Britney. And I was doing Andrews Sisters, really fun retro stuff. That was newer for the audience than doing pop stuff. So that set me apart.
HF: Who did you perform as, back then?
JV: My name back then was Judy Chicago. I got that name from a feminist artist who I became familiar with in high school, in art history we did a block on feminist art from the 70s. I was drawn to her work, and I liked the sound of her name, the intonation of it. In high school I thought, if I ever become a woman my name's going to be Judy Chicago.
HF: I thought you also drew inspiration from Judy Garland.
JV: Totally. I stuck with the name because it had multiple layers, I like the musical Chicago, and just having Chicago in there made it seem like, bright lights big city. And there's Judy Garland, and New Zealand's premiere newscaster Judy Bailey, she was known as Mother of the Nation. So it worked on a bunch of different levels.
HF: What is it about Judy Garland that interests you?
JV: I love how she shot like a tragic star right into the core of the earth and just disintegrated. (laughs) She was a weird fucked up abused child, and then she became this frail prematurely old woman with a string of ex-husbands and crazy children. And then she died horribly.
HF: So the red slippers didn't do much for her.
JV: I connect with her, not that my life is that tragic. But I find tragedy interesting. It's deeper than glamour.
HF: Well, glamour is often a facade for tragedy. Or sadness, disappointment.
JV: Exactly. I like masks.
HF: And what drew you to the artist Judy Chicago?
JV: She's probably most known for an installation piece called The Dinner Party, which only recently found a permanent home (at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in the Brooklyn Museum) after being in existence for nearly forty years. It was a giant triangle with dinner seatings for strong, significant, forgotten and ignored women from history and legend. There were vulvic designed dishes at each place mat, with a name. She's done a lot of stuff where she takes women's art, craft and sewing and needlework, and places them as high art. She did something called The Birth Project, giant tapestries showing symbols of birth. Documentation of birth, gross baby heads popping out.
HF: So, you're in Auckland performing as Judy Chicago. That's where you cut your teeth as a performer?
JV: Became Miss Drag Auckland 2000 and something. I was still a student then, and I kept changing majors. Eventually I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts double major in psychology and linguistics. Then I started my Honours in lingustics, then quit and moved to Wellington, the capital, because I decided I wanted to go and work for the government. I got a job that was totally up my alley, with the Ministry of Justice for a 2-year contract with the Task Force for Action on Sexual Violence. It was a cross-departmental task force to look at ways to improve the criminal justice system and health services, social services, for survivors of sexual violence. Looking at prevention as well. The Ministry of Education was involved, Ministry of Health, Department of Corrections, New Zealand police. I was part of the coordinating secretariat that tied it all together. So I got to work with all these amazing women who had devoted their lives to survivors of sexual violence, as well as learning how bureaucracy works, how to put bills through Parliament. It was very interesting. And I was still doing drag, just occasionally in Wellington. But there wasn't much of a scene there. Me and a few friends would put on big productions every few months.
HF: What were those shows like? What did the shows entail?
JV: We would do themed shows, we did a Dreamgirls night, Hairspray...then we'd sell those as packages to corporations for Christmas parties, that sort of thing. It would be me and three other drag queens, we'd host the evening and mix around with people, and then do lipsynch shows with choreography to different numbers from the movies.
HF: What were some of the other drag queens like?
JV: In Wellington it was cute, because it was a less bitchy scene than in Auckland. I was still kind of a weirdo in Auckland. Even though I'd been around for a while, and had friends in the scene, I didn't have good friends. In Wellington it was more of a sisterhood, we got along really well.
HF: An interesting dynamic in Ru Paul's Drag Race this season, although it's the only season I've checked out, was the rift between Roxxxy and Jinkx. Roxxxy seemed of the opinion that there was this established tradition of what drag was...
JV: And Jinkx was deconstructing that.
HF: Did you feel out of place in Auckland in that way? Or was it more of a personality clash?
JV: I was more of a Jinkx. For them it was about being pretty, serving body and serving face, and for me it was about tragedy and comedy and musical theatre. They had come to drag from hair and makeup school, and I had come to it from musical theatre. I didn't know anything about hair and makeup. And I had to learn really fast. (laughs) Because when you look busted, ain't nobody gonna book you for a show, hunty.
HF: Did you teach yourself? Or did you scoop up a mentor?
JV: My drag mother was Ester C., a friend of one of my best girlfriends. She was a fashion designer and had just started her own company. She did my face, and took me out in drag for the first time. I thought it was amazing, I looked like a movie star. When you're in drag, people let you get away with so much more. The fact that you've presented yourself in a way that people don't expect you to, it seems like it automatically opens doors. You've already broken down something.
HF: It almost instills a strength in that person, that they're taking a risk and wearing that defiance openly.
JV: Yeah, like Quentin Crisp wearing makeup.
HF: So the government job was fulfilling enough for you that it dominated your life for a while.
JV: And then it didn't. It became depressing. The task force finished, it was amazing, we delivered our report to the government, and the Ministry was paying for me to continue my studies at another university, doing social policy. I started doing a lot of gender studies, I was more interested in studying than working. When my position with the task force was over, I was sucked back into a pool of business advisers. My job was suddenly all this weird accounting and reporting data. A new government had just been elected, so a big part of my job was helping to review costs in the department, looking at everyone's wages.
HF: Not what you signed up for.
JV: Not at all. I was like, thanks but I'm gonna go now.
HF: Just quietly back away and out the door.
JV: I went back to university full time, and then started working for an animal advocacy organization part time. Then I interned with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, which was awesome. I got to learn a lot about how the government worked with NGOs from the other side. Then I packed up for the bright lights of Honest Ed's, Toronto.
HF: Explain that move. That's a weird one.
JV: My boyfriend at the time...we'd been together about four years, we met at a queer students conference. I was living in Auckland at the time, and he was in Dunedin which was at the other end of the country. He ended up moving to Auckland for me, and then he moved to Christchurch to go study. Then I moved to Wellington, and he moved to Wellington for me. And then he got a scholarship to York in Toronto, and he was like, I've moved for you twice, now it's your turn. He moved in July, and I was going to finish my semester. He didn't believe that I was going to come. It was like I had to prove to him that I loved him by moving. We agreed that we'd have an open relationship while he was over here, so we both had surrogate boyfriends in our respective cities. But then I decided that I was definitely going to move. Most New Zealanders leave in their early twenties, and I was no longer in my early twenties. It was almost like I was piggybacking on him. I wrapped up my life, didn't finish my diploma, just took off anyway.
HF: That was your final semester of your final year of your diploma?
JV: I was done with it, I wasn't interested anymore. I didn't want to do social policy anymore. I got apathetic, I was stuck in a rut in Wellington. But when I got to Toronto, he was like, "I didn't think you'd actually come. You probably shouldn't have." (laughs) I'm like, fuck you, I just moved around to the other side of the world. I tried to find a job, but because I was only on a temporary working visa it was really hard to find anything with the government, no NGOs were hiring. But I had been doing drag, and I could do makeup, so I just entered competitions in Toronto and tried to establish myself in the scene here. Eventually it worked, people noticed what I was doing and liked my style I guess. I turned up looking like a total mess to this pageant that these other girls took so seriously, I wore Dollarama hair pieces and Barbie dolls stitched to my head, I used sequins instead of makeup. They were like, I don't even know what it is you're trying to do, but we don't understand it here on Church Street.
HF: So you didn't win that competition. I thought it was going to be a success story.
JV: Not at all. I didn't win hearts or minds either. I won some hearts, some people were like, I really like what you're doing, but you should be doing it at these places. So I eventually got involved with Sodom, which is a weird alternative costume party for people who still want to listen to Top 40. From there I got involved in events at the Beaver and the Henhouse. After a couple of years things just started working for me.
HF: The Beaver and Henhouse, that seems like an emerging scene as an alternative to Church Street.
JV: It's Queer West. That scene has been around for a while, it's been fun getting involved. What we're doing now, me and Igby with the Bad Tuck parties, we've cultivated a little scene for all these new drag queens who don't feel like they fit in. All these new queens have styles that are like Sharon Needles and Jinkx Monsoon from Drag Race, where they think, okay I can do alternative drag, but where can I do it? At Bad Tuck and Hot Nuts, parties like that.
HF: What are the defining characteristics of that style of drag, is there more of a mainstream drag scene in Toronto counter to that?
JV: Drag on Church Street is definitely more mainstream. There's more money there too, sort of. I guess the defining characteristic would be that there are less rules about the kind of thing that you can do with your appearance in the Queer West scene.
HF: What was your impression of the scene in Toronto overall when you arrived?
JV: I was at first a little let down. All I saw was Cruise and Tango and I was hoping for something weirder and wilder, and I found it eventually. In Toronto there's a big North American pageant influence, a big focus on passing and realness. These were specific historical contexts that I hadn't really had much experience with in New Zealand, where there is more of a high camp and English tradition mixed with Polynesian performance styles and third gender concepts.
HF: Did you ever go and check out Chicago, the "big city" of your namesake?
HF: And was it the move to Toronto that instigated your name change? What made you decide to lose the 'Chicago?'
JV: Yeah for sure. I felt that 'Chicago' in Toronto didn't quite carry the same symbolic, referential weight that it did in New Zealand. It would be like me taking the name of an Australian city as a last name in New Zealand. And by then I had been doing drag for long enough to have my own name. I was sick of the 'real' Judy Chicago showing up on self-Google searches.
HF: What does the name Virago mean to you?
JV: I toyed around with a lot of different names and sounds, but the original sing-song sound of Judy Chicago was really important to me, so when I looked at my bookshelf and saw Virago Press printed on the side of a book I was excited. It rhymes with Chicago so I'm still referencing my earlier days. It means strong woman, and the word itself has changed in meaning over time. Originally it was an honour, a woman worthy of being a male equal was a virago. Then as gender concepts changed, being a virago meant you were bossy and annoying, a nag. Then in the twentieth century it was more of a sexualized term, kind of like a vamp, a woman in command of her sexuality. There's even a motorcycle called Virago.
HF: So it perfectly encapsulates a lot of aspects of...you? or your character? how have you come to distinguish between Judy the woman and Virago the character?
JV: Both. Judy the woman is more conservative, and even that is performative. I enjoy the pretence of conservativism. But it also makes it easier to just pass through the streets without drawing too much attention. I do want to pass as female in public, but that wasn't something I was ever interested in as Judy the stage performer. Virago is a trashy mess, she delights in cheap, vulgar, self deprecating humour.
HF: The parties that you throw seem more like Halloween, it's less about passing as a woman, people are just dressed as women who are dressed like something else.
JV: It's more subversive. It's definitely more of a deconstruction than a reconstruction.
HF: Do you think that you deconstruct drag?
JV: Totally. I present as female and I identify as a trans woman now, but when I do drag I'm not trying to pass at all.
HF: You are a woman performing as a drag queen. I'm sure there's a long tradition of that also. Like (mutual friend) Miss Margot, when I first saw her perform, she had such a wonderful way of expressing the idea of a drag queen even though she is a woman. But sometimes she takes it to a level where you're forced to question whether it's a woman dressing like a man dressing as a woman, or if it's even more layers than that to the point where you can't really tell, and it doesn't really matter. I feel like you do that sometimes too.
JV: Just to make people think. I used to dress my girlfriends in New Zealand up like drag queens, bind their tits down and then put fake ones over top. The only way to pass as a drag queen is if we hid their tits. And they loved pretending, and they'd get really vulgar, tell guys that they wanted to fuck them in the ass. To them, dressing up like drag queens was them dressing up as guys.
HF: It seems that you are a woman by self identifying as one, but are forced to "pass" or "present" merely in reaction to an outside perspective.
JV: Yeah, for sure. I'm reading TRANS(per)FORMING by Nina Arsenault at the moment and there's a lot of talk in there about embracing these western ideals of feminine beauty as problematic, they're restrictive and patriachal but because these are the images we're absorbing as children, they're also kind of an emancipation when we can achieve them. I kind of resent that I have to put any effort at all into passing, but then, so many genetic women feel the same pressure to do just as much preparation as i do to pass as women too. By that I mean wearing makeup, padded bras, hair extensions.
HF: So what's the future for Judy Virago?
JV: Well, I've recently joined a band called Love Shot. That's one of my favourite projects at the moment.
HF: And that's decidedly not drag.
JV: That is totally drag.
HF: Is it? Or is it your first artistic project as Judy, a woman performing in a band?
JV: Basically the way I differentiate it, is that if I'm blocking out my eyebrows and putting on wigs and costumes, it's drag. I'm taking a couple weeks off from hosting. I give a lot of myself when I'm performing, and it can be kind of expensive too if you're not getting paid well. I need to take some time to deal with the hormonal storm inside my body. In June my drag sister Igby Lizzard and I are starting up a night called Sinema, and do a queer film night each week at the Henhouse. And we'll continue our monthly party Bad Tuck, which is the second Saturday of the month at The Beaver. Then we're doing Trash Cabaret at Buddies, as a teaser to a performance on the Pride Alternaqueer stage. We've also been doing lots of music videos. We were just in one for Times Neu Roman, they wanted to do a day in the life of Judy and Igby.
HF: Something has been on my mind for some time, and as a woman maybe you could give me another perspective on this, but sometimes drag seems a misogynistic representation of women. Obviously it depends on the person, and the way they're doing it.
JV: And the context.
HF: Sure, but there is a lot of "bitch" and "cunt" in the vernacular, and sometimes queens present themselves as someone who is playing a character, affecting a dumb woman vibe for laughs. But maybe that's just a part of the character, and it's irrelevant whether it's a woman.
JV: It can be. I think there's just generalized misogyny though, it's not necessarily unique or characteristic of drag. And totally, some drag queens are awfully misogynistic. In some contexts of drag, it is a parody of femininity, and in others it's an homage.
HF: That's a good way to differentiate. Did your ideas of dressing like a woman change as you started to identify as a woman?
JV: Totally. Even before I started doing drag, I was always questioning gender, questioning my own gender, questioning how people viewed me and my sexuality. I always felt like a girl as a kid, all my friends were girls, I would pretend to be a girl. Then when I started doing drag, I was like, oh this is like Dumbo's magic feather. This is how I'm going to sort out all those gender issues. I don't need to grow wings to fly, I can just have this feather and dress up sometimes, and do shows, and kill two birds with one stone. I can be on stage and be performing, and I can be doing it as a girl. It was okay for a while, I really liked it. Then I got a long term boyfriend, and he was never particularly comfortable with it. I still considered myself gender queer, because this character was a huge part of who I was. And over time the character and my own personality became less differentiated. When I was with him, I would always make jokes about transitioning, when I'm an old woman and you're an old man, or whatever. And he was like, if you ever transition, we could be good friends. But I couldn't be your lover. Well okay, you'll die first anyway and then I'll be an old woman. (laughs) When we broke up, I said okay, I'm in transition now. He was the only thing holding me back. And then I had to learn how to dress like a girl during the day instead of just in a costume. I had been hanging out with a few different trans women, who I knew from the party scene, they became my aunties. My friend Tiana taught me how to wear less makeup. Every time we would go out, she would say, you know you could just not put that part of your face on? You don't need lip liner, you don't need fake lashes either. Over a few months, I started to realize I didn't actually have to paint a face on. I just had to touch it up a little bit. Another friend was providing me with hormones, because I was uncomfortable about going through a doctor. She gave me a bunch of clothes, and we'd go shopping, she'd say, this is really cute, not everything has to be covered in sequins. (laughs) What? You mean I don't have to wear sequins or blood? Because I was a gory drag queen a lot of the time. I went through different phases. Neon, gore, sequins...
HF: Neon gore is a good combo.
JV: Then my idea of what I wanted to do as a performer changed as well, I started doing more performance art pieces rather than traditional drag shows. I've always tried to convey some sort of message in my shows, and most of it was to do with self discovery, a way for me to express different parts of myself. I stopped lip synching and decided to perform something and I don't need to do that. For me that was huge, one of the main tropes of drag is lip synching. I would inject hormones on stage. It became more of a platform for performance, rather than being a drag queen. Now I've been more of a full time girl for 8 months, and I've been on hormones for 5.
HF: I don't really know much about hormone therapy.
JV: Basically it stops you from producing testosterone, and helps you produce estrogen. With estrogen, your skin gets softer. With testosterone blockers, you stop growing so much body hair. Your fat deposits start to change. Guys tend to carry a lot of their weight in their bellies, whereas women carry it in their hips and butt. My butt's getting bigger, my hips are getting softer. I used to be pretty stringy, and I'm still skinny, but I've lost a lot of muscle tone, it's just getting softer everywhere. My nipples are growing at an exponential rate. Basically my chest is like a 12-year old girl's. So I'm going through a second puberty. Which is kind of scary. But it's exciting.
HF: So it's a positive experience.
JV: Definitely positive, the downside is that I'm full of estrogen, so I'm a squishy sack of tears now. I'll have eight thousand moods in a day, and wake up crying, and then be the happiest girl in the world. So that's kind of difficult. I've had issues with mental illness in the past, but not for years. I've been unmedicated and totally okay for a while. And now, I'm taking medicine that makes me crazy. (laughs) But it's not a pathological thing, and it's not anything that's making me dark. I just have a lot of emotions.
HF: But you're aware of what you're going through.
JV: Yeah, but I can blame my emotions on this hormonal cycle that I'm going through. I was talking to my Mum and I was saying "Mum, my chest hurts, I eat all the time, and I can't stop crying." She said, "welcome to womanhood." It's also changed my personality. Before I was just happy to be Professor Drag, now I have less patience. I've also been dating people of broader sexualities, I've been dating pansexuals, straight people, and trans guys. Straight guys are full of questions, and I'm like, I don't care about your questions.
HF: What are some common questions?
JV: "Do you have a dick?" It's like a fetish, and I don't want to be considered a fetishized object. So it makes things a little bit difficult.
HF: How do you differentiate between being desired and being fetishized?
JV: It's hard. Basically, if you can get to know me as a person and want to have sex with me anyway, then that's fine. But if you just want to sleep with me because I have a penis... We call them tranny chasers. There's a difference between someone who's oriented towards trans women, and some guys who will date straight women only, and then fuck t-girls on the side. Another question is "have you got the full surgery?" It's like, well what's the full surgery? Have I had my entire face reconstructed? Have I had breast implants? Or are you talking about bottom surgery, because in that case, why is that the entirety? I don't define anyone by their genitals. I know too many trans people who either completely pass on the street, or don't, to judge someone's genitals on their face.
HF: What? Oh, judge their genitals by their face. Not judge whether they want to put their genitals on your face.
JV: I assume everyone wants to put their genitals on my face.