A costuming genius, TikTok star, Lucky Chengs drag favorite and multimedia artist extraordinaire who’s become a New Yorker after a terrifying ordeal in her home country, Russian born Gioconda (that’s another name for the Mona Lisa, the world’s most famous painting) is now obtaining a larger and well-deserved cult of admirers every day.
Thotyssey: Hello Gioconda! We’re squarely in the spooky season, and you are known for your very extravagant and occasionally creepy costumes. Is this like your Christmas?
Gioconda: Christmas is Christmas, Halloween is Halloween–and I love it! Back home, when it was Halloween I used to take a backseat and enjoy other people’s looks, instead of serving mine. Often on this day, I did not work and would [act] as a spectator.
Is Halloween observed in your native Russia in a way that’s similar to the U.S.?
Since the 90s after the Soviet Union collapsed, we got a lot of American holidays that are widely celebrated–especially in the club scene. Trick-or-treating is not common, houses don’t get decorated… but the nightlife scene definitely gets affected by Halloween.
If you will, tell us a bit about what your life in Russia was like as a queer, creative kid.
My teen years happened during the 90s; that’s when I developed as an individual. Growing up not in Moscow, but in Siberia (Ulan-Ude, republic of Buryatia), by the Baikal Lake. For a very long time I didn’t even recognize my queer nature, so it was a time of confusion for me. But I certainly tried to discover many sides of my creativity by participating in theatre activities, painting and crafting, which you can see in my drag today.
How did you begin as a costume maker, and where do you get your inspiration from?
In my childhood I was making dresses for my girlfriends’ Barbies, by hand. Later on when I moved to Moscow and didn’t have extra money for extravagant outfits, I [had to] learn how to make things myself.
You recorded and made a video for a song several years ago that was quite popular in your home country.
“Istok lubvi” is my original song; you can hear my vocals in it. The title translates as “the source of love.” People fell in love with this Russian folk image, and the song went beyond the aisles of the gay community. On this wave of success, I recorded several of my songs and shot music videos on them. In the future, I plan to continue performing my own songs, but in English.
What brought you here to New York, and to drag?
I started doing drag when I moved to Moscow–15 years before I moved here–so I didn’t feel like changing something that already worked for me. [Also,] I felt like what I do on stage is universally understood.
I moved here in 2015, leaving my country behind after I saw how homophobic it became. The new (at that time) legislation mixed pedophilia and homosexuality in one; it was unbearable. I don’t want to scare you–in fact, Moscow is a very safe city–but if you are drag queen, you better wash off your makeup so as not to run into a homophobic reaction, and look like an ordinary guy.
My music video came out in 2011 on YouTube and became very popular, so my face was familiar to many people. One time leaving the club, I was approached by a car. Two strangers were inside–they said they recognized me, and they were harassing me with questions. I was trying to get away from them, and then the driver said he didn’t like people like me, so he pulled a gun on me and shot on me several times. Thank God it was a BB gun, and I wasn’t killed. It gave me a strong understanding that it’s not safe to live in Moscow anymore. The energy of New York is very similar to Moscow, so I felt that this similarity will help me to feel like I’m home.
Over the years, I’ve seen you sport costumes that lit up, and that featured all sorts of reveals. I remember one time at Boots & Saddle, I even saw you wear an elaborate look that housed a tank full of live fish! What’s been your favorite costume that you’ve made?
My favorite one is the one that looks like a dress made out of light bulbs; it’s one of my earliest creations that brought me success back home. That outfit symbolizes many ideas that I have.
Did you always have an understanding of lighting and electronics, as far as your costumes were concerned?
Not really. I don’t have a technical education; I’m not an electrician. But I love to experiment, so that led me where I am today. Growing up in a household full of women without a father figure, I had to do many “man things” and learn through life. Sometimes I am surprised at myself; it is as if in a past life I had a great experience, and in this life it is applied through the subconscious.
You also made memorable pieces for Miz Cracker’s Drag Race costumes, including that gold skull figurehead and that menorah headpiece! Do you often design for other performers?
Not really. I don’t have enough time for it, with all the things I currently do, like being at Lucky Cheng’s every weekend or creating elaborate content for TikTok. Whatever time I have left is extremely valuable. Meaning: if any performer is ready to spend big money, I can look twice at my schedule! *wink, wink*
Is a language barrier a difficult obstacle to overcome in this business?
In business, not really… but in regular life, sometimes I feel that I’m lacking in the communication department. For example, backstage at Lucky Cheng’s, the girls are always having a good time–many laughs and jokes after the show, and they are so much like family to me that sometimes I forget, and start speaking Russian with them. But onstage, poor knowledge of the language does not bother me at all, since my content is international and understandable to all people inhabiting New York.
Lucky Cheng’s showrunner Svetlana Stoli is your fellow Russian Doll! Did you two know each other before New York?
I didn’t know her, but she knew me… let’s leave it at that, lol! She even confessed to me that once in her youth, she loved my song. And now we work on the same stage; life is incredible.
The Cheng’s brunch and dinner shows are super popular. How do you like being on that stage for those crowds?
In Russia, I had a large studio in which I created my ideas. I had cameras, light, sound, editing equipment… this was my foundation. In America, I started a new life from scratch. I had to go through this period to restore the foundation that I lost when I moved to another country. For this, I took a break of four years. I used my experience to create costumes for Russian restaurants in Brighton Beach. After four years not performing, being focused on making a living by making decorations and costumes for Russian restaurants, it feels great to be performing onstage.
So it’s been five years since I got back to performing (not counting lockdown times). I feel appreciation from the people who comes to our shows, and I feel grateful to have an opportunity to do my art on stage in the heart of Manhattan.
You’ve created a video for the song “WITS” by the musical outfit Ghostely, and it is fantastic! Odd, creative, cosmic, poignant, smart… tell us all about how this video came about, and what inspired the concept.
“Ghostely” is a music project by an international team. They found me through TikTok– while in lockdown, I discovered TikTok that kept my creativity going. After seeing one of my videos, they reached out to me to make them a video. I offered them to build on top of what they already liked, and that’s how it all started. This is a great team; moreover, I really liked the song. And it was interesting to make a great video that would tell more than a minute per TikTok. I urge everyone to support them on YouTube.
It’s an amazing video! And I can’t wait to see you perform at Cheng’s again! So finally, and randomly: what comic book character has the best costume ever?
Penguin from Batman hands down! Danny DeVito’s version. Tim Burton has created an incredible film that I never get tired of revisiting.
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Gioconda’s upcoming appearances, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.