It says something about her iconic status among followers of Brooklyn queer nightlife that drag performer and punk rock transgender warrior Charlene Incarnate is better known simply as “Charlene.” Challenging audiences with explicitly raw stage feats that push the envelope farther out of the mail slot than just about anyone else on the scene today, Charlene makes sure her message is loud and clear. And with Bushwig and other gigs coming up, we’d best be prepared to take it all in!
Thotyssey: Charlene, hello! Let’s get right into it: what were your thoughts on Drag Con Weekend?
Charlene: I didn’t go to Drag Con. I understand that it was an opportunity for my friends to make money or expose themselves to a larger network, but I have never been in the game for either of those things. I believe that drag belongs in explicitly queer spaces, not convention centers. With Drag Con, our beautiful, ancestral art form is plated for consumption by straight people – which is tantamount to high treason, in my book.
I’m generally very uncomfortable with the way that drag has welcomed infiltration of the mall-going masses as long as it means more Instagram followers, and Drag Con seems to concentrate those consumers in a way that makes me want to steer clear entirely.
Also, that horrible overhead lighting!
You’ve had a relatively long and important career as a performing artist in queer Brooklyn. You’ve obviously changed a great deal as a person during that time, but do you find that the way you perform – or maybe the purpose of your performance – has also changed a lot?
First of all, I’m in my late twenties now – not my early twenties like when I started – and my body ain’t what it used to be! This has been a very humbling lesson for me, as my final death-drop in May broke a pivotal bone in my wrist and incapacitated me for most of the summer.
Aside from that, my artistic credo has shifted alongside my body and my expression. When I first began performing, my artistic statement was that I was incarnating on stage, learning to live in my body and contorting it to fit my identity before an audience. That storyline has more or less completed, and the journey through it has found me amidst practitioners of gay magic who’ve reframed my thoughts of exactly what it is I’m doing when I perform. I see myself as a protector of sacred sexuality, a priestess of the divine feminine, and my performances are rituals intended to incite strength, fearlessness, and unity.
Do you feel that your Alabama roots still play a part in your current identity at all? You have mentioned being estranged from your family there – like so many queer people who move to big cities, sadly.
I no longer have any ties to Alabama. I guess I consider myself old-school in that way. I’m very fortunate, however, that I am connected to the woods of the southeast where I grew up. The nature of Appalachia is still very important to me.
When did you arrive to New York, and how did you make your performing debut?
I’ve been in New York for 10 years now, but those 10 are split into “Straight New York” (4 years) and “Gay New York” (6 years). I came out at 21 after I’d been here for college, and was heavily involved with the Evangelical Christian church.
I started wearing high heels before I came out, so while its hard to pinpoint a single performance as my root, I like to think of my coming out as synonymous with starting drag. Early shows that come to mind are “Out Tonight” from RENT at Easternbloc (on a Tuesday, I believe, as a guest of Scarlet Envy) and some third-set numbers at Merrie Cherry parties at Metropolitan.
Some people are observing that drag is currently having another Renaissance in Brooklyn, which might simply be stemming from Sasha Velour’s Drag Race win. What are your observations about “the current state of Brooklyn drag?”
First of all, Sasha did the damn thing! I still get goosebumps thinking about ”So Emotional.” I’m so proud to know her.
However, her win is not really a metric for the state of Brooklyn drag to me. It has certainly put Brooklyn more in the spotlight, but doesn’t indicate a Renaissance of any sort to me – perhaps the opposite. The girls we’ve had on Drag Race (Thorgy, Aja, and Sasha) have effectively moved on to their careers as Ru-girls.
When I began in Brooklyn, none of us thought that Drag Race would ever pay attention to us because our operation was grassroots, and we all looked cheap. We were doing drag for each other, and because we loved it. I think that our exposure on Drag Race has turned us to the exterior, and in our friends’ success we see the possibility of our own. And the quality of the shows have suffered because of that, and a lot of the kids look and act like Everyqueen.
You’re known from doing some completely original (and some might say outrageous) activities onstage, like performing naked and injecting hormones. How do you generally want the audience to respond to a performance of yours? Do you want them to be shocked, or do you want to expose them to things in a way of normalizing them?
My experience is that there is nothing really on earth more taboo than the trans body, even to gay people. In my performances I’m trying to say that we exist, we are not ashamed, and you have to deal with us.
Being naked onstage in front of a crowd is an experience most people only have in their nightmares, also. That’s another thing I’m getting at, exposing the duality of the nightmare and the sheer joy of expression of self that is the trans experience (i.e. it might be a nightmare, but I’m living a dream) .
In a similar vein, the injection series was meant to exhibit the dangerous nature of the trans experience. It’s not of any sort of medical integrity to shoot up onstage, but its not safe or medically sound to do hormones offstage, either. If there’s something I want the audience to take from my performances, it’s that trans women are marginally braver and more hardcore than all other people.
You’ve defined yourself as a “trans showgirl” during your transition process. Have you distanced yourself from the label of “drag queen?”
I think it was Candis Cayne who coined trans showgirl, and I adopted it at a time when people were expecting me to identify myself outside of “drag queen.” Nowadays, It actually hurts my feelings when people suggest that I’m not a drag queen, because giving shows is still my primary artistic output.
I believe that drag is inherently transfeminine by nature of a man purposefully transforming themselves into a woman, however ostentatious of a look it may be. I still think that “drag queen” and “trans showgirl” are interchangeable, and that #boyday is a fucking carry.
Newsflash: we have a terrible President who has proven himself to be no friend of the trans community. Have you observed that peoples’ treatment and acceptance of trans people have changed since the election?
45’s attitude toward trans people seems right on par with the way we are treated by nearly everyone we come across, and any one of us who leaves the house will tell you that. I see late night TV and other leftist outlets lump his transgressions against trannies with his other atrocities, but I really think the ease with which he casts us to the side is a reflection of most of the country, unfortunately.
I read an interview with you from a few years ago where you basically said that people who rigorously insist that they should not be put in a “gender box” have sort of created a new box for themselves. Have we maybe become too obsessed with gender identity or gender politics?
I think what I was getting at was that rejecting the gender binary is actually an affirmative acknowledgement of the gender binary, and that everyone’s identity is relative to other people. I’m nostalgic for a time when there were fewer distinctions – and the word ’tranny’ was one of endearment – but I don’t think there’s an overexposure issue concerning gender. As the world’s greatest religion, it’s the duty of queer people to tear down the walls of that cathedral at every opportunity.
The Brooklyn scene is known for its inclusion and fluidity, but it seems that even there, white cis guys still dominate the scene. That must feel pretty isolating, if you observe that to be true.
White cis guys dominate everything on earth, and the Brooklyn nightlife scene is no exception. Life in a transgender or otherwise queer (disabled, racial minority, etc.) body is inherently isolating at times, but I do not take the community for granted. Like you said, we have a lot of girls who had to leave their families and found themselves in New York, so we really are there for each other in ways that are probably rare for cis or hetero people to find.
Okay, onto a somewhat lighter topic (maybe): what’s your favorite number to perform these days?
This summer, my favorite performance was “Just like Jesse James” by Cher in the woods of Tennessee – which was the show that took my scaphoid bone as tribute. I did the same number with the broken wrist weeks later at Bushwig South in New Orleans, before I saw a doctor. My best shows make me feel like a preacher, and the audience a rowdy congregation. And these two in particular felt insane on a level that I had only ever seen in the most hardcore Christian circles I visited in my youth. I missed that feeling.
Metropolitan Bar in Brooklyn has long been a hub for drag and queer performances, and now with all these Drag Race queens and other big names turning shows there, it’s bigger than ever! You have a monthly show there, “Jizz” on third Fridays with DJs Dicap and Sparber, that’s gonna have its fifth anniversary this week. How has this show evolved over time?
I’m just really fucking lucky and thankful to be a Metro girl. I think that every month at Jizz, Metropolitan is Brooklyn’s clubhouse, point blank. Jizz is on a Friday night, and that crowd usually does not see me or any of us Brooklyn girls perform regularly (they come from Manhattan, have demanding jobs, etc.), and they’re often totally unprepared for the kind of shows that I do. It’s another way that I feel like I’m doing the Lord’s work, exposing a perhaps more normative gay crowd and their straight girlfriends to my dick and tits. To create contrast, I do what in drag is known as ‘straight’ numbers, meaning no frills or gimmicks, just hit “play” on the J-Lo song and bounce!
Be Cute boasts the best drag stage in Brooklyn, and the crowd is loyal and goes really hard… so again, I’m really thankful that I get to do that party every month. The party is very mixed in terms of gender expression, and everyone works up a sweat dancing and making out. It’s a remarkable sight that north Brooklyn girls don’t get to see often.
That brings us to Bushwig, September 23rd and 24th at the Knockdown Center! It seems like it’s gonna be bigger than ever this year, with many popular queens from Manhattan and out-of-town performers joining the Brooklyn stars. Is the growing scale of Horrorchata’s Bushwig a positive, or does the festival become less “pure” when it gets less Brooklyn?
Chata and Babes make sure that Bushwig is both eclectic and expansive, as both qualities make a good festival. As we grow, we are able to get fan favorite RuGirls and big names in drag who don’t visit Brooklyn often, which in turn draws a crowd who wouldn’t ordinarily run into us Brooklyn girls. It’s not an opportunity for Brooklyn girls to just jack each other off – that’s why Merrie invented the BNAS (although admittedly, we handle the mics throughout the weekend). Not only do we outsource our performers, but we have Bushwigs in other cities as well! Its a whole movement, honey! It’s everything Drag Con should be, and I’m proud to say that we have an entirely queer crowd wherever we go.
Your performances are always a highlight of the festival. What will you be doing this year?
If the years that go by are chapters of my life, Bushwig is their summaries, and my body is the ink. This past year was a lot of surgery and forceful physical change, so you can expect a number incubated in those themes.
Also, you regularly host events at the mysterious “Casa Diva,” aka your home. Your Carly Rae Jepsen theme parties there are always a hit, and you’ll be doing a Halloween party on October 27. I take it these are invite-only events?
Halloween will feature Zenobia and Untitled Queen as guests! We have to stay fully under the radar, because our crowds have become unmanageable in the last year. I guess word got out that we throw such bangers, and we’re faced with issues of capacity and steering clear of the police. That being said, it isn’t too hard to be in the loop if you follow [my roommate and fellow performer] Sam or me closely. Which is to say, it’s invite only, but everyone’s invited!
A totally random pop culture question: is there any chance that the Will & Grace revival will work?
Will & Grace was a formative experience for me as a lonely queer baby, but I don’t think it will translate to a present-day zeitgeist. I’m not even sure that the nostalgia factor will work in its favor. For instance, Karen Walker is supposedly ageless, but Megan Mullally is wearing every year since the show went off the air. The promos make me very uncomfortable. All four of their faces bear this macabre look of defeat, as though the long, arduous road of breaking free of their seminal characters ended with them reprising those characters. I believe that KoMut’s comedy will also seem hokey in 2017, and that their politics suck.
That being said, I’m definitely going to watch it.
Final question: Team Katy or Team Taylor?
Rat vs. Raccoon, both belong in the garbage.
Lol! Thanks, Charlene!
Charlene hosts “Jizz” third Fridays at Metropolitan Bar (10pm) and co-hosts “Be Cute” third Saturdays at Littlefield (10pm). Check here for all upcoming appearances, and follow Charlene on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.