(Maxxx Pleasure shot by David Lawrence Byrd )
Interview and article by Shayna Maci Warner
The first time I saw Brooklyn-based drag king Maxxx Pleasure, I was overwhelmed by a whirlwind of red satin, hyper-expressivity, and a shimmering nude illusion that just about upended my idea of how the melodrama of Duran Duran could perfectly mesh with gender fuckery. Maxxx has that effect on people. Since his first exploration of drag in college, he’s been pushing at boundaries of play, gender expression, and expectation in the far-undervalued world of drag kingdom, as well as pushing himself to be purposeful, intentional, and excited in the pursuit of his ever-evolving art.
In addition to being the 2018 winner of Brooklyn Nightlife Award for Drag King of the year, he is the real-life star of Maxxx, a charming and honest short documentary about coming into his own in Brooklyn drag, and a nightlife producer whose latest Drag King revue, “Men Are Trash,” (co-produced with Brooklyn trio The Nobodies) will be at Gold Sounds on November 30th. You can keep up with his latest shows by following him on Instagram or Twitter.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with the certified Bicon in order to talk about how his own conceptions of expression and sexuality affect his art, and that turned into a genuinely thought-provoking meditation on self-care, the importance of fun and play in adulthood, and, of course, problematic fave allegiance to Kristen Stewart.
(Interview is edited from transcript)
S: In your own words, if someone was not at all familiar with you, what are you about?
M: I’m a drag king. That’s my big passion — as you know, that’s how we met — that’s pretty much what my life is about as a whole. However, my life has started a new chapter which i’m very much about: self-care, in both the comfortable and uncomfortable sense. I’m also about exploring my queerness further — that’s what I’m about!
S: I’d love to hear more about the self-care aspect.
M: Yeah! I’ve just moved to New York City formally, and up until I started doing drag in Brooklyn regularly, I really look at myself in the sense of my drag career as a child — someone who was not self-aware in the sense of care for myself. Like really sitting and thinking, in terms of my gender expression, what makes me happy? In terms of sexuality? I’m a lot more introspective about my own needs, wants, and comforts in a way that I wasn’t previously. I’m really proud of myself about that, and excited about doing more of that self-work.
S: That sounds really difficult, but rewarding. I can see why you would say, “in the uncomfortable ways,” too.
M: Yeah. Because I feel like “self-care” has been re-defined by the general public to mean taking a bath with a bath bomb, which can be so amazing — I took a bath the other day in my new bathtub, which was great! But it’s also hard! I’ll be completely sober for a year once it hits January, and I also quit smoking a year ago. That was self-care in the most important way that I needed it, but it wasn’t a nice bath with a bath bomb. It wasn’t a nice, relaxing thing, but I’m so grateful for that, and everything that’s happened since then.
S: Can’t really purchase sobriety for $3.99, unfortunately.
M: I wish! That would have been so easy.
S: I can see what you mean about not considering self-care early on.
M: Yeah! Especially in the drag scene, and the way that I was doing it; the circles I was running in, there was an emphasis on quantity rather than quality. I wasn’t even driving into the city at that time — I would take the bus into Brooklyn from Rockland County, NY, which is too long of a trip. I’d have to take off work the next day because I wouldn’t be able to get a bus back to get to work in Jersey on time.
I used to say yes to every gig that I was asked to do, and I used to do shows with people who made me feel uncomfortable when I would have been better off not being around them. It was more of an emphasis on just going, going, going and doing, doing, doing. And maybe if I hadn’t done things that way when I first started, I wouldn’t feel the way that I do now. It’s easy for me now to say, “I can say no to gigs, I don’t have to do that,” when [drag and burlesque collective] Switch n’ Play books me often, and I have Drag King of the Year, and a documentary. Of course it may be easier for me than for other people to be like, “I’m not going to do any gig that makes me uncomfortable.”
This is something that a lot of people who I know now also feel: if you’re doing drag, and it’s not fun, then why are you doing it? I used to say that to myself before, but now I really understand what that means.
S: What flipped that switch?
M: There were a lot of really good things, but there were also some very bad things that flipped the switch. It got to the point where I finally allowed myself to take a step back, and in that time of reflection, of reconnecting with friends who aren’t also drag performers and stuff like that, it allowed me to reflect from afar, which is what I needed. Also, quitting smoking and going sober and all that — I don’t know if I’m going to be sober forever, but doing that for as long as I have really has put me so much more in touch with myself. It opens up even more room to be in tune with your emotions, and self-aware in a way. All of those things combined allowed me to reevaluate how I wanted to do drag, and also in that sense fall in love with it again.
S: You mentioned something else that has happened in terms of self-care was being excited about and exploring your orientation and gender identity — could you talk about that?
M: Sure! When I was growing up, and before I started doing drag in Brooklyn, and I was in college, I felt like I didn’t have a choice in performing femininity. I was also carrying around a lot of internalized biphobia in a lot of ways. For a long time, I felt like I had to carry around my resume — you know? I’ve been on so many dates with other women who felt like they had to bring up another [female] ex. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but this instinct to prove, “no, I actually am queer.” Which is such a weird thing, because I wouldn’t go on a date with a dude, for example, and say “let me talk about my other man ex to prove to you that I’ve done this before.” But I kind of felt that way, and that’s actually why I got into drag in the first place: to connect with the queer community at my college.
Because I’ve been in this community, with so many queers who are polyamorous, or genderqueer, or non-binary, or pansexual, or bisexual — being surrounded by the kind of queerness that is in Brooklyn, with all these people that I know now, has encouraged me to feel more comfortable in exploring my own gender and my own orientation. I realized that my own gender, and performance, can be something that’s customizable.
When I was younger, I thought that femininity was this specific thing, and this is how you do it, and this is how you have to do it. But then realizing that I can pick and choose some things, and having friends who inspire me in that way, and being with my partner, who doesn’t put me in a box because we’re both queer people, has been really freeing. That’s allowed for so much.
S: Was there a lightbulb moment in any of that college or Brooklyn experience that you can identify, in which you discovered that you were excited about gender identity or performance in a way that you hadn’t been before?
M: Now I’m mostly surrounded by other drag people, who only know me as Maxxx, and will only call me he/him, and when that was rare, I used to get a ping of excitement. But now it’s rare that people call me by my given name. It’s moments like that when I think I’m on the right track.
The other day, I was thinking about the documentary that you saw. Something that I didn’t expect was the strangers, and people that I knew when I was younger, found it inspiring. The fact that my drag journey and my gender journey, which I offhandedly refer to as wishy-washy even though I identify as non-binary — the fact that my wishy-washy gender identity, which is something very flux and can be fluid, is inspiring to cis people and queer people, is a very cool thing. It’s still something that I’m reconciling with, because there are so many other people that you can look up to in this way, and I’m very fortunate to know them.
S: Maybe in the Brooklyn scene, but not necessarily outside of that.
M: That’s true! The Brooklyn scene is like, “you are who you are.” You can be a drag king and not bind, and like, this is my partner who is AMAB, but we’re still queer. I guess that isn’t common, but when I crash-landed in the Brooklyn scene, everyone said that I could be like that.
S: I love that it has become your normal! That’s a wonderful thing to hear.
M: It is wonderful. Trying not to take things for granted.
S: Personally, I think it’s a wonderful thing when queer people can take for granted that they are surrounded by other queer people who will accept them, and not only accept, but encourage! That you don’t have to think twice about it.
M: Yeah. Also that they celebrate it. That’s what I think is really special about it.
S: I would love to have you elaborate more on what place your own queerness has in your art, and in drag itself.
M: When I first started drag, I was using it as a vehicle to express my sexuality, and in hindsight that was actually a really slippery slope. I didn’t have any understanding of what it means to question masculinity, and I didn’t understand how someone like me could further ideas of toxic masculinity in drag. I didn’t understand that it was something I was capable of.
I’m thinking of my first performance in particular, which was really bad, and even in the first few performances following that. Because I wanted to use drag as a way to present myself as queer, that meant I always was doing a duet with a femme-presenting person. But why does a drag king doing that, and the insinuation that you’re fucking this beautiful woman, make your masculinity? That shouldn’t be what it’s about.
Since then, I’ve kind of been more at home with my sexuality. Over the years, maybe I haven’t felt the need to prove it to people — maybe that’s why I got my head out of my ass where that’s concerned. Also, having an understanding now that using women as props is really shitty. I don’t want to do that — and why did I think I had to do that?
I’ve said before that drag used to be like putting on a character, and now it’s about pulling out personal things and making art out of them.
S: Do you have any newer acts that have signified that kind of a change for you?
M: Well, “Save a Prayer” by Duran Duran was based on a really personal experience, and I’m really proud of the way I told that. It’s about phone sex, but I’m not jerking off on stage, you know? I found a way to tell that story in a way that even if people didn’t understand what it was, they could connect with it.
There’s also an act I just did for Bushwig, which is the new thing that I’m excited about. That was to “Smoke and Mirrors” by Gotye, and it was a story about narcissistic abuse, and the concept of mirroring, and I told it through a masquerade mask with broken mirror pieces on it. Just the fact that it was about something so serious, and not feel-good, and it very much was about expressing myself. It wasn’t about sex appeal, or funny, and it wasn’t even the kind of lip-synch I usually do. I applied myself in a way that was more about the work being put in. Of course I want to make it a good act, but it was a lot more of a personal experience than the other ones have been. That wasn’t my focus back in 2014, 2015, 2016, or even 2017.
Maxxx at Bushwig, shot by AJ Jordan
Bushwig was so much non-stop, but it was so cool. I know a lot of people who didn’t get accepted to Bushwig, and I didn’t understand that it was a really cool opportunity when I started going 3 years ago. Adult Maxxx was aware of that, and applied himself in a way that maybe Baby Maxxx didn’t know that he needed to. I think that the way my relationship with drag has changed has really allowed me to appreciate it so much more, realize the gift that it is, and good queer friends aren’t people that I take for granted anymore.
S: Switching gears, I would love to talk about how your orientation and identity influences your art. Is “bisexual” the main word you use to describe your own orientation?
M: Yeah! I had never heard the word pansexual before, and it was back in 2010 when I first thought like, oh, I’m bisexual. It was in one of the Batman comics or cartoons where Harley Quinn has a relationship with Poison Ivy, and everyone was like “Oh my god, Harley Quinn’s bisexual now,” and I thought, oh, that’s the word for me and I know it. And I remember writing in my journal about that; writing, “me and my sister were talking about it, and I pretended not to be interested because I don’t want her to know that I am interested in the concept of bisexuality.” I wrote that in my journal.
So that is the word. I remember hearing criticisms about it, but I don’t like the word pansexual for myself. I don’t identify with it the same way that I do bisexuality, especially in coming to understand that bisexuality means [attraction to] two or more genders, or genders like yours and others, and having an understanding of my own gender identity.
When I was younger and identifying as bi, I didn’t have an understanding of people moving beyond the gender binary. I didn’t know any trans people for years after I came out, so the understanding of genderqueerness wasn’t something that I had. Now understanding this updated definition of bisexuality, I’m like — OK, word, perfect. This word is still mine, and I still like it.
I actually wanted to ask you about this — going with the definition of “two or more genders,” I feel like people always act that that attraction includes cis men and cis women, but it doesn’t necessarily? It could be two other genders. I was just thinking about it, and I was like, “I have to bring this up to Shayna,” because it was an epiphany two or three weeks ago.
S: So glad you brought that up!
M: Yeah! There are so many times in my life when I’ve thought “do I suffer from compulsory heterosexuality? Am I really attracted to men?” Of course this is in my introspective period of “do I actually like this?” Compulsory heterosexuality is something I’ve always stressed about, but also, the way that I worry about it could be coming from internalized biphobia!
S: I had this conversation literally two days ago. There’s no reliance or mandate that bisexuality means equal attraction across genders.
M: Yeah, like what’s the criteria here? There’s not a scoreboard. Some of the qualities that I really dislike in cis men are qualities that I really like in other types of people. It’s a lot to think about.
S: I think it’s a wonderful thing that after you come out, there’s still so much more to learn about yourself. I think that’s an idea more people would benefit from, and not feel like they’re locked into a certain definition or preference. As you get more information about the world and about yourself, you’re allowed to change.
M: Yeah. And I think that’s something that wasn’t clear, and is changing a lot with the times. I know that when I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I didn’t think that it was something I could change or think twice about. Same with my gender as well!
I know other queer people who have echoed this same idea: once you allow yourself to start playing with the way you present your gender, sometimes the things you found really stifling before can be fun. Like wearing makeup, and wearing dresses. In the past year, I’ve worn a dress for the day and felt my femme fantasy! That’s not something that I would have done a few years ago.
But I think giving myself space to grow and surrounding myself with people who aren’t going to make snide comments at me for being playful…we aren’t encouraged to be playful. I feel like people are encouraged to be serious and set in their presentation with their ideas and goals. The idea of playing and exploration is something that’s so important.
Me and my siblings, when were younger, we would do this thing after watching Cinderella where we’d be feeling our princess fantasy. Back when we were six or seven, we would call that flying. Like, “oh, you’re flying right now. You’re pretending you’re Cinderella and I can tell. It’s so silly that you’re doing that.”
S: That’s so cute!
M: Yeah, but it was weird because we were discouraging each other. I think it’s because my mom is incredibly critical, though. I think we got it from her. And now, watching me and my siblings — we’re 26 now — say yeah, I went to see Wonder Woman, and now I’m running on the treadmill. Or after the latest Star Wars came out, my sister would wear Rey buns, and we’d be like, yes!
This is like my therapy session now. I remember we would go to Disneyworld and I would almost feel this sense of shame, because I was getting swept up in the magic, but I felt like that was embarrassing. That’s why I didn’t allow myself to like Mamma Mia when I first saw it, but now I fucking love it. It’s so good, but because it’s so feel-good, I wanted to be brooding about it. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to like it, but now, in adulthood, I allow myself to be excited and touched and moved by things. That’s really what drag is! It’s feeling your fantasy, which straight people might think is ridiculous, but it’s not!
S: I feel like they’re trying to when they go to a club. There’s some sort of connection there, but knowing that you have to be able to play — that knowledge is not really there. I would say that about cis-sexism in general; just not knowing that you can and should be able to play outside the structures of a binary.
On a lighter note, I would love to ask if there are any people, which we very fondly refer to as Bicons, whom you’d like to shout out or talk about — either within the Brooklyn drag scene or out and about in the world who you see connecting with bisexuality in a way that you admire?
M: I have my big and my local answer [local in reference to gender expression, not sexual orientation]. My local genderqueer inspo is Theydy Bedbug. I haven’t known them for that long, and I’ve heard that their drag has really undergone a long evolution, but I love the way that their performance is exactly how they want to do it, and that’s it. They don’t care about filling the box of drag king or drag queen — they just do what they do, and they’re great at it. I’m really inspired that they don’t give a fuck about being legible.
My all-time Bicon is Kristen Stewart, even though I know she’s such a player. I’ve followed all her relationships, and they’ve gotta be messy. When she was dating Stella Maxwell the first time, she was papped getting gas in this specific outfit, then early the next day was papped leaving her ex-girlfriend’s house in the same clothes, obviously tearful. What are you doing at your ex-girlfriend’s house overnight?
All of those assumed fuck-ups included, she’s always been someone who I identified with. I was obsessed with Twilight, and then through that became obsessed with her, and I always felt this sense of camaraderie with her. I couldn’t put my finger on it for the longest time. My gaydar was going off, and then she got papped on the beach, kissing her girlfriend, to which the whole Tumblr community was saying “that’s her girlfriend.”
When these photos came out, I remember feeling as though something had been taken away from me, in a way. Just because I felt it was our little secret — this connection that I had with her that I could tell because I was also queer, like her. That’s such a weird feeling of ownership, but I remember feeling exposed. It was something that was now open to the world. Especially the way that she had been so private about her relationship with Rob [Pattinson].
I’m all about celebrity theories. People would say her and Rob were fake, but I say they were real. They were real and she was bi! She’s never [explicitly lablled herself as] bisexual, but she has used that in reference to her attraction, defined her sexuality as being attracted to all kinds of people, and said that she’s loved all the people she’s been with, Rob included. I get so peeved when people say Kristen Stewart is a lesbian — she’s not. She’s said so, explicitly.
I’ve looked up to her. I don’t like that she did the Woody Allen movie and said some questionable things, and even then I was like, “Kristen, you would say that.” Maybe let’s not work with predators, but she is someone whom I’ve felt a life-long connection to, and whose career I’m going to follow probably for the rest of my life, no matter what. At this point, we’ve already been through so much.
S: Is there anything that you find yourself doing in order to combat the biphobia and bi-erasure that you see, like with the Kristen Stewart example? Or is it not that present, because you’re in the company of wonderful people?
M: I feel like it hasn’t been something that I’ve run into a lot. I’ve usually run into plain old misogyny. But my partner, who’s AMAB [assigned male at birth], and I run into people thinking we’re straight. And realizing that made me feel self-conscious. But then I thought, wait a minute, what kind of queer am I if I’m going to walk down the street and be afraid of what people think of me and my partner? If I let that affect the way that I behave, that’s the exact opposite of what I want to be about. I felt angry at myself, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that your sexuality isn’t exclusively defined by another person. That was so freeing for me. You’re bisexual no matter who you’re with.
It was like 2012 when Anna Paquin said in an interview with Larry King that she’s still bi even though she’s married, and I was like oh, word! She is! That was the first time that idea clicked with me.
S: Very often it takes another queer person speaking about something like that for you to realize!
M: Often we grapple with ideas, and know how we feel about it but can’t find the right words, and then another queer person states it in the most clear and concise manner and you’re like, thank you for that. I needed to hear that. Thank you, community.
Shayna Maci Warner is a GLAAD Rising Star and former EIC of OutWrite Newsmagazine. She is currently working on her Master’s in Cinema Studies at NYU, where she is pursuing the production, preservation, and programming of queer film and television. You can find her writing at GLAAD, Autostraddle, and Bi Women’s Quarterly.