Kenneth Llambelis is a well-known FX makeup artist in NYC currently affiliated with the Alcone Company, but he’s been creating armies of beautiful monsters for years. Meanwhile, his drag alter ego Apocalypta has been haunting nightlife stages for ages as well, flaunting her creator’s brilliantly horrifying cosmetic visions and leaving her ghoulish mark everywhere she manifests. Social anxiety and perfectionism have drastically limited her appearances over the years… but be warned! This weekend heralds Apocalypta’s highly anticipated–and dreaded–return!
Thotyssey: Thanks for chatting with us, Apocalypta! So let’s get right into it! As a go-to expert in costume makeup… I was wondering if you had an opinion on whether or not Suicide Squad deserved that Oscar for Best Makeup, from what you’ve seen.
Apocalypta: Great question! This is something I’ve been thinking about since that meme was posted with Harley Quinn next to this epic alien piece from the last Star Trek movie. Over all, did Suicide Squad have a “better” makeup design and application than the other nominees? No. But at that same time, I don’t think it didn’t deserve to win. Clearly Star Trek had the cooler, and truly inspired, epic makeup and creature design. It’s Star Trek! Movies like this and Star Wars, people almost flock to expecting to see new and creative character and alien makeup.
However, Suicide Squad did actually have amazing makeup as well! I think it’s unfair to use Harley Quinn as the main example of makeup from that movie, when the makeup done on Killer Kroc (who from trailers I thought was 100% CGI because the makeup was so good) and Enchantress really were the makeup stars of the show.
Star Trek had the freedom to create new alien designs from scratch, while I think Suicide Squad had the harder challenge of re-inventing classic and highly adored comic book characters that comic nerds have very strong opinions on how these characters should look.
That’s a really good point! As a makeup artist yourself, is it “easier” to create a character design completely out of your imagination, or to try and mirror or pay homage to something that’s already out there?
I mean, it’s super easy to copy or mirror something directly, but to re-imagine something like a pre-existing character–where they are recognizable as that character, but uniquely your own–is quite difficult… but also a lot fun! It’s one of my favorite things to do, actually. I have done this a lot on myself with Disney villains, which are like one of my biggest makeup inspirations.
I do, however, love to create my own original characters as well. There is a beautiful freedom to it, but definitely less challenging.
We’re gonna get to some of those amazing looks in a bit, but first we need to get to the beginning. Where’s your hometown?
NYC Native here. Bronx boy raised in the projects, and a very humble upbringing.
What love came to you first, makeup or performing?
Oh my god, makeup 100%! I don’t know if performing has even come to me yet [laughs]. I always wanted to be a performer, but I get crippling stage fright that still actually plagues me today.
We’ll also talk more about that in a bit. What were some of the movies or other influences that originally got you thinking “I wanna try that?”
There are a few, actually. I have always been a horror movie buff since, like, the age of four… so naturally they are all horror movie influences. I would say Bram Stoker’s Dracula got me into FX and theatrical make up. I was, and still am, so blown away by the creature design from that movie.
The Cell (which is maybe my all-time favorite movie) probably inspires my drag style and editorial aesthetic more so than anything. Tarsem Singh, the director of that movie, is a visual mastermind, and his costume designs are always so brilliant.
Lastly, the dance scene from the movie From Dusk Till Dawn with Salma Hayek is who I base my drag character off of. Fun fact: I saw that movie in theaters when it came out in 1996…I was 7!
As far as the FX go, were you always your own model in the beginning?
I was always my own model. I went to LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, and I remember getting into makeup from our school’s yearly Halloween Costume contest (three years in a row winner of scariest costume). And when I got into photography my senior year, I started off very much inspired by Cindy Sherman, where I would dress up and take self-portraits.
Were you going out in looks, pre-drag, in any sort of capacity–like for conventions?
Not at all, really. In high school, I remember frantically removing my makeup before getting on a train home so my parents wouldn’t see, and especially so the guys in my neighborhood wouldn’t see, since my neighborhood was pretty rough.
And than I started working at a Halloween store, so I was able to get dressed up at work and truly show off what I was capable of during Halloween. And as the store grew in popularity and drew giant crowds during Halloween, it felt almost like a convention As the years went on, I had customers who would literally just come in on Halloween to see my costumes! That really boosted my confidence, and made me feel more comfortable showing off what i could do in public.
So when RuPaul’s Drag Race came out and drag became more commercial, I was like, “hmm… this is interesting.” And then the season Sharon Needles won, I realized maybe drag would be a great way to get more visibility for my art.
Were you playing with gender in your looks before committing to drag?
Actually, you know… I have never really seen myself as playing with gender. Ironically even with drag, the idea of gender swapping is so low on my concerns of what I wish my art to achieve. I am kind of obsessed with overall androgyny, and I remember when I first started wearing makeup or started my obsession with beauty, I wanted to become some form of hybrid of David Bowie in the 80s with a Lord of the Rings Elf. Male, but undeniably beautiful.
For me I don’t look at masculine and feminine defying gender, but more as various artistic elements of beauty and expression…if that makes any sense. With my drag art, it is less “have I mastered female illusion?” and more “how can I create a look, character, creature, whatever that challenges people in their concept of beauty?”
Is “conventionally pretty” part of your skill set at all, as a makeup artist?
I started makeup ass backwards [laughs]. Conventional beauty has been so hard to master for me, since I don’t find beauty to be conventional. I mastered prosthetics, effects and character makeup. It took a lot of training to be able to edit myself and use a softer hand to create more natural, traditional beauty effects. Honestly, if I didn’t work in cosmetic retail and as a freelance artist, I am not sure if I would have bothered with “beauty” makeup at all.
Apocalypta is less about performing and gender, and more about showcasing these fascinating looks you’ve created.
Pretty much. I do like performing, but I am still building that aspect of the character, which is why I don’t do it much. I see it less as acting, singing, dancing, and more experimental performance art. I am not sure if you remember when Tilda Swinton had that exhibit at MoMA, where she would randomly come in and take a nap on display? That’s the kind of performance art I would love to achieve.
I like the weird, thought-provoking, obscure references, and a kind of storytelling which doesn’t always bode well with audiences expecting a typical drag show. So, I am still finding where I fit in, and what direction I want to take this aspect of my art in.
Okay, let’s shill for Alcone for a bit, where you work as general manager, after a long stint at Abracadabra NYC. Alcone is a very dynamic FX makeup company that keeps us both pretty and pretty horrifying. How long have you been working there, and what makes the brand great in your opinion?
I have been here a year and two months so far. It’s one of those companies I literally pinch myself constantly [to remind myself] that I work for. To be part of a company so involved within the backbone of the makeup, film, television and theater industry is amazing, and awe-inspiring, to start with. But to than have the owners also be super-supportive of the freelance careers of each artist that works for them, and truly nourish their growth, makes it unreal.
Also, from a consumer standpoint, you have the best selection of all the top makeup products curated by makeup artists and industry professionals, at the lowest prices. And they have fun events that give back to the community and educational workshops. We had a queer burlesque event at Stonewall last year, where all the proceeds went to the Leslie Loehman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. It was amazing! I mean, there is a reason Alcone is frequented by all the Who’s Who of artists and performers.
When was the debut of Apocalypta, exactly?
Official debut was July 2013, for Our Lady of Saliva at the Ritz with Thorgy Thor and Azraea. I had met Azraea a week before, after being introduced to her by Terra Hyman (Terra Grenade at the time), and I showed her some of my looks and she was like “hey, you’re doing our competition next week.” And than a demon was born!
Was it weird for you doing a number that night, when you never really performed before?
Absolutely horrifying, but kind of exhilarating. For my first night out, I was received really nicely and made friends with so many nightlife legends overnight. Also, I placed second runner up out of six, and my track cut off like 45 seconds into my number and never fixed itself. So, considering I barely performed and still took third, I took that as a victory [laughs].
You performed kinda sporadically between then and now. Was it stage fright that kept you from exploring Apocalypta more frequently, or being too busy, or lack of interest, or something else?
It’s a giant combination of all that and more. Stage fright and severe social anxiety do play a major roll, but I am also a perfectionist. I don’t want to throw on a look I’ve done already and slap together a mix overnight. For me, each look is a process, and each story I want to tell takes time to flesh out. And more importantly, it takes money, which I don’t always have. If something isn’t 100% my vision, I don’t like to half-ass it.
Also, drag for me isn’t my main focus of interest or income. My career comes first, and then my fine art pursuits, and than drag… which I have added to the latter.
May I say that as far as your stage fright goes, from when I’ve seen you perform you never come off as particularly nervous or unsure of yourself. Do you think you just hide it well, or is everything you do just so well-rehearsed?
Well-rehearsed, no…overly self critical…maybe? [laughs] I will rehearse lip syncs, but I don’t do choreo. And visually, I have such a strong Idea of what I want to invoke that I normally just go for it in the moment.
One of my favorite looks of yours that I’ve seen photos of is this creepy triptych face lady… I think it was from a Look Queen? That struck a cord with a lot of people.
But yeah, I had some makeup malfunctions on that prosthetic, but loved it and knew I wanted to recreate it better at some point. So I brought it back for the finale of the Miss Abracadabra Pageant I had put together two years ago, and so much happier with how it turned out!
It ended up getting photographed and shared on social media by Jodie Harsh, and it was the first time I got awesome social media attention on a look I’ve done.
I saw you sport a light-up dress once… how hands on are you with these costumes? Do you design/construct them?
The light-up dress was for last year’s Look Queen finale. I do all of the designs for the looks, but all my costume credit goes to my amazingly talented bestie and roommate Jen Hebner. Living with someone with a Masters in costume construction, who’s worked on Broadway shows, has its benefits! Her skill level and creativity really are out of this world, and put Apocalypta into another level of polish. She’s also at every one of my shows, and usually my dresser backstage. I really am lucky to have her in my life. You can see some of her work on other NY queens, like Monet X Change and Lolita Golightly.
You were a chosen contestant in this past season’s So You Think You Can Drag at New World Stages, which is a pretty impressive feat itself! But were you very disappointed when the judges eliminated you after the first round of cuts?
I am really grateful for my experience on that show, and the amazing lineup of queens I got to make friends with! However, it was all terrible timing for me. I had spent all my money on my looks for the Look Queen finale, so by the time SYTYCD started up I could barely afford new costumes, let alone wigs! And it was my first October / Halloween as manager at Alcone, and my free time was super limited.
So between lack of money and being pulled away from my new job, I really couldn’t afford to put a lot into it, and I realized I was half-assing everything, and it threw my social anxiety into a tailspin. I made a conscious decision to back out and divert my full attention to my day job, where it belonged. I felt like I was wasting the time of the people who cast me, and taking advantage of the girls who really wanted to win. So even if I wasn’t voted off, I was planning on exiting that night anyway.
Personally, I don’t see how anyone can balance work and life with these pageants… they’re so time-consuming and expensive!
I know, right!? I have such respect for pageant queens and working queens who keep it fresh and exciting, and can still afford life!
It’s been about five months since SYTYCD, and you haven’t performed as Apocalypta since.
Yeah. I dont want to use the word “retired,” because: 1) you would have to actually have been a working drag queen, which I am not, and 2) I don’t want to limit myself creatively to say I dont want to do something ever again. But I really had to sit down and figure out what I want from the character, who I am still inspired to create for. So, she is in a reinventing process.
I know clubs and bars aren’t the direction I want to go in. Competitions in the future…maybe?! But what I am currently really inspired by is creating more of an artistic approach with the character, and focusing more on conceptual photoshoots similar to how queens like Kim Chi and Max started…and maybe even video work in the future?
Oh, that would be amazing! In the meantime, you’ll be dusting her off for
I got to know FiFi through spending time with her working at Abracadabra, and she is literally one of my all-time favorite people, so her asking me to join her for Invasion was an easy yes.
Actually, fun fact: I first met her competing at the Our Lady of Saliva “Susan Lucci Pageant,” where all the years’ runner ups competed, and I won! A fun fact I enjoy teasing her about, since it’s kind of ridiculous that my monster self defeated this pageant veteran!
Do you have any plans for what you’ll be bringing that night?
Apocalesha (nicknamed by Adriana Trenta) will be a bit more colorful than people are currently used to seeing her. Also, lights may be playing a bit of a role in it as well.
What else is up with you?
I have gotten back into photography, and working on building a new portfolio of images to shop around for a gallery show. Also, at Alcone we are currently organizing a makeup sale around the launch of Drag Race this season, and we are hoping to have some of the Season 9 queens here for a meet-and-greet session.
Any early favorites to win this season?
I have know Idea! I still need to familiarize myself with some of the non-NYC queens. But knowing Aja, I expect her to make for excellent television. She’s hilarious!
Totally! And I think you’d like Sasha Velour too when you see her. Her aesthetic is in the same family as yours, and she also takes a performance art approach to drag.
I am totally a fan of what I’ve seen from Ms. Velour!
Okay, last question: Who would be your dream character, from a film or a show or a book or otherwise, to recreate that you haven’t already?
Ooooh, that is such a hard question! There are sooo many! If I had to say the first one that comes to mind, I would love to do a drag version of Tim Curry’s demon from Legend.
Get on with your demonic self! Thank you, Apocalypta!