Georgiana Vrăjitoru

Performing in Drag // A conversation with Vergine Santa Frida and Zarug

READ TIME / 20 min

Spooky season is here and as we are sifting through our films and wardrobes for camp inspiration, we wanted to chat with the queens at The Private sHIT Show and ask them to share some of their tips and tricks for killing it with style, both on and offstage. To get the festival in full swing, Vergine Santa Frida and Zarug agreed to give us a glimpse into their creative process and influences, taking us on a ride from humble and not-so-humble beginnings to summoning feisty Golden-Age-of-Hollywood divas.

Whether more or less consciously rooting their work in the theoretical rigors of drag and camp, both performers come from a background in fashion design, which has helped inform the shape and content of their artistic expression in more ways than one – either as a desire to shift from an established routine or a state of mind, as a progression of their sartorial interests up to that point or both. So how did it all start and what was the scene like in the beginning?

For Zarug, queer performance began as more of a getaway (in their own words, a cathartic act) from a potentially restrictive position: “I started exhibiting my talents publicly around two years ago in an effort to open the cage I had previously put myself in as a designer and, quite frankly, to test my limits only to find out I still have a lot to go to meet them and I love every step of the journey. I didn’t care what the scene was then and I am not concerned with it now, I can perform for 1 just as well as I can perform for 1000 or more.” Even though they started publicly doing this more recently, Zarug traces their interest in this type of artistic performance as early as their childhood: “It must have been ‘86, I was 5-ish and was dressed in a dress I don’t remember how I had gotten; I would perform Corina Chiriac (a well-known Romanian pop singer, Ed.) for the stay-at-home moms in my neighbourhood. The scene was după blocuri (behind the Communist blocks of flats, Ed.) then, it’s mainly on the theatre stage and on video now.”

Photos: Codruț Sebastian Neguț
Skirt: Murmur
Styling & Accessories: Vergine Santa Frida
Make-up: Mardale
Beauty Assistent: Ander Bishh

For Vergine Santa Frida (‘The Virgin Saint of Frida’), a genderfluid drag queen whose name is an eccentrically constructed reference to Frida Kahlo bordering on self-parodying solemnity, it was in 2017 around this time of the year, when costume parties are at their peak, that they attempted dressing up and creating an entity that would split from their day-to-day self: That point in my life was not the best mentally and I decided to create a persona besides my ‘non-drag identity’ (…) who could possibly help me get through my insecurities and problems way easier than I could do ‘on my own’. (…) I wanted to start on Halloween (…), as a lot of Drag Queens and Kings start, but everything happened earlier, on a Queer Night. Me and two friends never missed any of their parties and this one wasn’t going to be any different, so I decided to put myself in drag for the first time, helped, of course, by a girlfriend of mine who brought the make-up and an amazing stoned (as in full of stones) corset. (…) I didn’t know about a real drag scene then, at least in Bucharest, except a few queer people (Roby the Princess and Paula Dunker) whom I didn’t necessarily associate with drag. The international scene was already influenced by RuPaul’s Drag Race – as was I –, whose popularity was growing by the minute. Following an overwhelmingly positive feedback at a time when Vergine didn’t even have an outright name or social media presence, the performer felt encouraged to continue and expand upon their complementary, self-assured alter ego: (…) I become a totally different person when I get in drag and that’s one of the best parts about this whole thing. I get really comfortable with myself and with my image, I love to be photographed, admired, desired, touched, I love to see people who cannot take their eyes off me, I love being surrounded by people – things that I’m not comfortable with when I’m not in drag (…). We are two completely different entities, people laugh when I talk about Vergine with ‘she/they’, but this is the way I refer to myself because this is what I wanted from Vergine, I wanted an escape from my ‘normal’ life and I received more than that.

Photos: Codruț Sebastian Neguț, Skirt: Murmur, Styling & Accessories: Vergine Santa Frida, Make-up: Mardale, Beauty Assistent: Ander Bishh

That is not also the case with Zarug though, whose offstage identity is not divided from their role onstage, calling to mind something that Susan Sontag once referred to – in her seminal 1964 Notes on Camp essay – as theatricalization of experience, as being-as-playing-a-role and vice versa. Commenting on a possible split between the two facets of their personality on display, the performer – who does not exactly adhere to the notion of a drag queen either – concludes: They’re absolutely the batshit crazy unfiltered honest same. In true camp fashion, they fully embody the theatre metaphor with regard to clothing as a means of expression outside of character as well by adding: My life is a stage, I don’t actually dress a lot different on stage than I do in real life. (…) Have you seen me?! Simultaneously rejecting labels and playfully alluding to historical, rhetorical and theoretical affiliations, Zarug confesses that “Inspiration comes from everywhere; whether it’s fashion or any artistic endeavour, I love getting carried away by a feeling of openness and see where it takes me” and they admit “(…) that I am very much influenced by old cinema and, of course, by the ruling image and talent of Bette Davis, or stage icons like Elaine Stritch” and “by legends like Leigh Bowery, Divine, Marylin Monroe, Joan Crawford, and so many more.” Yesteryear Broadway and Hollywood muses or anti-muses figure prominently in the sensibilities and imagery Zarug wants to convey and this is yet another aspect that places – willingly or unwillingly – their artistic expression in the camp tradition, which relies to a certain degree on a nostalgic bent, an appropriation of the banalities and fantasies of the past and a penchant for parody. When asked to choose a personality that they would subvert in their future performances, Zarug’s commitment to parodying oneself to the chagrin of other stars or personalities also proves tellingly hand in hand with campy modes of exaggeration.*

However, identifying and celebrating influences is not meant to contain their performance within strict boundaries, as its contours are ever shifting, open to the eclectic and democratic pull of new attitudes and forms of expression and easily jump started by a few elements whose association might seem arbitrary at first glance, as Vergine attests: “My characters are a gathering of elements and ideas grouped into a concept that sometimes strikes my mind and never leaves. I’m always coming up with ideas – I’m usually sketching the ‘brilliant’ ideas on a paper for security, but I never forget a look or a concept if I totally believe in it – and I’m always searching for inspiration wherever I can. I can start from a movie, I can start from an iconic look, I can start from a fashion show, my inspiration can come literally from anything, but I’m always filtering the information and I’m always putting my own vision over everything I’m doing.” This is one point that both Vergine and Zarug agree on, as their modes of character construction are still evolving and they naturally welcome a multilateral approach. Even though many of their shows were inspired by Madonna, Vergine’s style changes from a performance to another specifically “because I’m always looking for the best version of myself and that’s the organic evolution I want for my character. From Victorian-inspired looks to punk, I want to get through every single style of make-up/clothes/vibe. Versatility is the best word to describe my aesthetics. I adore Dita Von Teese and I want to make a burlesque number inspired by her so badly (…). I love Eartha Kitt, Frida Kahlo – the pain and emotion in her paintings –, Studio 54, Club Kids, Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler and many, many others (…). With all the references I’m gathering in my mind, fashion was, is and will always be the number one priority for me and the number one inspiration source.”

To Zarug, this elasticity manifests itself as an impulse to go beyond the tools of fashion that they already master and their former identity as a fashion designer to embrace “dance, choreography, movement. I know it may sound strange that I don’t stress fashion, but I started exploring this facet of my personality precisely to escape the fashion cliché and it kind of is the last thing on my mind when performing. Especially ‘cause it’s so damn easy for me.” Taking cues from drag performance but not strictly gravitating around it as “I have next to zero experience with make-up”, Zarug’s performances and characters showcase either “(…) ‘asexual dolls’ parodies of iconic personalities, like Marylin Monroe, whom I very much admire, or the Lentzifer character (the performer’s own creation, Ed.), who’s a caricature of the modern day still transiting Romanian sophistication” or an inseparable stylistic blend of “elements from each of the people and characters I’ve seen throughout my life. (…) It’s impossible for me now to say what comes from whom, I’ve become them, I summon them muses and they usually respond: Bitch, I’m busy, call back later!”

From an ideological standpoint, whether Vergine and Zarug’s ethos is intrinsically tied to the means of fashion or trying to overcome them, they see their choice of expression as a more subversive statement than categories would allow. To Vergine, “The simple fact that I’m a guy who wears make-up and feminine clothes is a political stance from my perspective, because it means bending unwritten ‘rules’ that society has and that’s the change I’m striving for, the vanishing of those destructive ‘rules’.” In Zarug’s opinion, “The political aspect of it is inherent. I don’t even like to think about it, I’d hate to be put in a small box marked ‘queer’, that’s always the risk with artistic expressions that challenge society’s idea of what is the norm and my challenge is to always be outside it and say: Fuck your norms! I do me, you keep up!To stress on the depth of meaning her performances carry, Vergine likes to extrapolate by quoting RuPaul and addressing the constructed, synthetic nature of our self-image, be it private or public: “ ‘We are all born naked and the rest is drag!’ (…) We are all putting on our drag persona every single day, we are all playing a character, built from scratch by ourselves, ‘inspired’ by our parents, grandparents, society, school, our perception about life, we are using gestures that we’ve probably seen in some movies, we are dressing up according to our personality or maybe inspired by what we’ve seen on some influencer’s Instagram.” With artifice at their core, the confrontational nature of their performances is somewhat masked by glamour and extravagance and that may be particularly what makes them so effectively disruptive.

Providing inspiration and motivation for others to try on different looks, concepts and performances and express themselves as freely as they feel takes on another dimension when faced with the myriad ways society condemns bodies for not conforming to its restrictive standards. Highly political in their performances – though not immediately apparent – is teaching others how to see their bodies as being gifted and beautiful and this shows in their work either by perfecting a type of look – in Zarug’s case – composed of “an oversize shirt, black fine stockings and a jazz heel – the essential Broadway look” or by emphasizing certain bodily traits that the performer – Vergine – had previously struggled with: “I love to show my waist! I’m really proud of how small I can get it to be (…) and why not show it to the public, right?! On the other hand, my whole body is an asset for my character, I’ve always been bullied for being too skinny and now I have the opportunity to use this ‘disadvantage’ in my favour.” Learning to see and employ one’s body as a resource, and a politically charged one at that, is what led Vergine to set the bar even higher: “One of my favourite statement outfits is when I participated as a contestant at the first ball and I wore a costume inspired by Marie Antoinette – we all know that they had those really deep décolletagess and their breasts were pushed up to the sky (…), but I obviously couldn’t do this because I’m flatter than the Earth in Ancient Greece (…), so I decided to go below my chest to showcase that cut and the idea of a huge décolletage, but I covered my nipples, because I didn’t want it to take a sexy note. Another example would be my Mistress Vergine look from GAYloween 2019, where I got inspired by a picture of Madonna from the Sex book, where she was wearing a bra with a cut on the nipples area and that idea of covering the part that is considered ‘decent’ and letting show only the ‘indecent’ part was a revelation for me and I couldn’t get over it without wearing it myself.”

As we are having this conversation ripe with strategies of subversion, the effects of the pandemic loom large though and we cannot ignore the ways in which the times have put a damper on everything arts-related and not only. Even though Vergine had quite a productive time at the beginning of the lockdown, delved into cinematic discoveries and managed to enrich her future repertoire with the character of Dorothy Vallens (played by Isabella Rossellini) from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the strain of not physically interacting with the public anymore is being felt more and more. From an economic perspective, it is threatening the fragile self-sustainability their performance had acquired, where every gain was reinvested back: “It is really expensive to do drag. From make-up to clothes, everything is an investment; I have the privilege to be able to create my own clothes from nothing. It’s really hard (…) and I’m always pressuring myself to do better and this means that I’m always investing more and more in my drag. I’m relying on what social media will bring for me in the future and I’m trying to find a job that can allow me to evolve even more and not worry about the finances, because this limits me a lot right now.” Whatever changes our ways of partaking in artistic endeavors may suffer, certain elements that are paramount in getting one’s message across will remain as elusive and as hard to imitate as before. To quote Zarug, “(…) attitude and talent are central to anything stage-related – more than rags.” After an attempt to analyze and break their acts into (vestimentary) pieces, such a statement only serves to amplify our curiosity and eagerness to witness Vergine’s and Zarug’s tricks for ourselves as soon as physical distance no longer separates us.

*Note: The parallels and associations with camp aesthetics in this article are based on the editor’s own assumptions and evaluations.