This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity
Robin Gow: It’s so nice to get to chat with you! I’m really grateful for this opportunity to delve into your work. I guess I want to start by asking where your drag name “Maxi Glamour” came from?
Maxi Glamour: I created it when I was like fourteen. I was really inspired by the scene movement and punk rock and club kids. There, at that intersection, I just created this identity that would transcend my old one. Be more rambunctious. Be more queer. I was like, “I’m going to be Maxi Glamour,” and it just kind of fit.
RG: I love that! So, you said you were fourteen, that seems pretty young beginning to form your identity. Has the meaning of your name evolved as you’ve gotten older?
MG: You know, when you name yourself, there’s this thing where it can like summon disgust, because it indicates parts of your identity you don’t like? As I’ve gotten older, I kind of regret that my name is “Maxi Glamour,” ‘cause I’m like what the fuck—that’s my name! It’s not just like my drag name—it’s like the name my mail comes in. I always wish I did something a bit less like kitschy, but it really helped provide like a solid foundation for exploring my gender identity and my queerness. From the beginning I was like, “I don’t really want to be a girl but I don’t want to be a boy,” and really my name like evokes both of that.
RG: I relate to that. Like when you choose your own name there’s like so many options.
MG: So many options!
RG: This conversation brings up something else I wanted to ask you about. I’ve seen you Tweet about using your pronouns “they/them” in drag and out of drag. Could you speak a little bit to the decision to keep that consistent? Do other drag performers honor that? I know, at least from what I’ve seen a lot of times, no matter what, people often refer to drag performers as “she” in drag no matter what.
MG: Yeah, you know, they don’t respect it. I think that the fact that gender is so nuanced transcends most people’s like frame of reference for what gender really is. It’s a shame that within the drag community that that is perpetuated.
Personally, I used “Maxi Glamour” as like an identity for myself before I did drag because I was just like this MySpace kid so that is like me. I think that there really isn’t a distinction between the two—I mean I look blue in drag—I think that’s the difference. But that is also like an extension of my identity. I go out in drag and sometimes just dressing very feminine because [I’m a very genderfluid person]. They call me Maxi Glamour at work, and I’m going back to school too, and I’m fighting for them to call me Maxi Glamour there too, and so I just think that I kind of don’t like the “transformation” thing in drag, because it makes people think that like I’m a boy when I take it off.
I’ve been really really thinking about this too, because like I am a sex worker. I’ve been thinking about how I’m capitalizing on the biological features of my body and how at times that’s limiting for the psychological aspects of my body. But within drag I think it’s just they’re just not hip yet.
RG: Hopefully they’ll catch on soon and embrace performers who don’t envision their drag with a strict binary division. So, you brought up painting yourself blue and that was something I wanted to ask about too. I’m curious how that style started and developed?
MG: The blue comes from a lot. A huge part of it—I know this is kind of weird—I grew up in the church, and I was physically abused by the church, but I was still like this adamant Christian, and I was like “Jesus is the way!” Then, when I was sixteen, I was like, you know, I’m Jewish as well, so I’m going to explore Judaism. I went to this really conservative Temple and that was just like maybe this isn’t the route for me. From all that, I decided I wanted to be Hare Krishna for a while. I just loved his blueness, like he was so black he was blue. I loved the beautiful energy associated with that. I got really into philosophy and metaphysics.
And then, as I got into drag, I sometimes had dysphoria. I wasn’t like passing as much as I wanted. I was focusing a lot on my jaw, and if I painted myself blue, I could deviate from that. I didn’t have to worry about looking femme enough because it was like—it’s not like people are questioning “are you a man or a woman?” but “are you even human?” I really liked that.
Lastly, if you look at like Black characters in comic books or cartoons they’re missing—they’re not even there and they’re always like blue or green or some weird color.
There’s a lot that comes with it. I put a lot of thought into it.
RG: Yeah definitely. That’s so awesome there’s so many layers of meaning to your blue makeup practice.
I’ve also seen you do all different kinds of art. Music and visual art—I guess I’m curious how they all work together and interlock. You mentioned your divisions between yourself and your drag isn’t a rigid divide, so I’m wondering if you feel like that with other art forms and from all these other art forms how did you come to pursue drag?
MG: When I was a kid I was in like gifted classes. I was really hyper-active. My teachers were like, “this child is a lot.” They tried to suspend me for mooning the class. That was when I was like five. Then they were like “oh maybe we should give him like an IQ test.” And, so, they gave me one, and then I went to gifted schools from like first grade until seventh grade. By second grade I was studying Opera and the stock exchange and like every art media there was. I learned about these people called “Renaissance Men,” and I just really wanted to be that. I was like “that’s what I want to be!” I wanted to be well-versed in academics and art and music and really look at all that. You know—like a character in Mario Kart with all those skills bars.
I knew I was meant for the stage at a young age. But, you know, I think with drag and with all art forms comes this inauthenticity. As it becomes even more modified, it doesn’t seem like being authentic to yourself and your inspirations and your references. It becomes more like how can you capitalize off of it. I feel after being on TV—really being subjected to that and going city to city to city performing music that wasn’t mine—seeing stuff like literally the same performances in different cities. Like, literally I’ve seen that Ariana Grande performance how many times? And, so, I feel like I grasp onto my other forms of art to escape from that, ‘cause like drag can be very stagnant and self-replicating.
RG: Do you feel like that’s because of the like push to travel and get bookings?
MG: I think that drag itself is so self-replicating because of its popularity at the time. Currently we see like the same performances redone like over and over and over, and so people think that’s like what you have to do to be successful. From city to city—a lot of people want to be successful in the ways they’ve already seen as opposed to, like creating their own ways of being successful. I see people fall into the same trap of like—well maybe not a trap—but just like sacrificing authenticity for conformity. I think that’s in every artform.
RG: I totally hear what you’re saying. How did the experience of being on Dragula influence you as an artist you think? Then, also, how did you process TV opening up a lot of people judging you and maybe putting their standards onto you?
MG: Well, I wish there were Black trans nonbinary people judging me. But that didn’t happen.
I definitely felt complicit. I conformed to like putting on pads and boobs to like adhere to the beauty standards that the judges wanted and the other contestants wanted. That was like what they thought quantifies good drag. I feel like I was complicit in like perpetuating monolithic drag formulas to audience members. I was also complicit in the like huge wage gaps of drag performers. There were times I would go to perform in a city, and I would know that I’d get my pay rate, and some of those drag performers who lived in the city wouldn’t get paid at all, and it was like they just performed because it was like “exposure” to perform in a show with me—like that was payment enough. I was really seeing how being on TV is this like goal and how everyone like reshapes their like personality, their like interests and the way they do art, to do what they think is going to put them on TV. Me being complicit in that structure is something the show like really has shown me.
RG: It’s interesting you say you feel complicit because, from a viewer perspective, I saw you as someone on Dragula who spoke up about the issues you’re explaining now. Like one of my favorite looks you did was pretty heavily scrutinized by the judges but it was made from recycled material and cardboard, and I thought that was a really fresh and exciting perspective to approach drag from—of like finding things especially in a world where a lot of drag queens have their garments professionally designed. There seems to be a lot of waste there, and what you created made me consider how important materials are.
MG: I think when you think about avant-garde fashion and fashion in general it’s really this hyper disposable fast fashion that negates sustainability. All of my art is from recycled stuff. I make the majority of my art out of like cardboard, plastic bags, and bottles.
It really implicates my priorities in the world of like sustainability and like waste management. Outside of drag, I work with organizations on combating environmental racism in St. Louis—really looking at like policy change and systematic structures that really hold people apart and like how like we’re killing our earth, and I think drag should reflect that, and I think art should reflect our values—but not a lot of people have values so…
RG: I feel like that’s true in a lot of art forms. When did you begin to become involved in work against environmental racism?
MG: I work with a lot of different organizations on combating systemic racism and transphobia in the city and state (and country) but I mostly focus on city and state because that’s where you can actually have like more development. I have been very politically engaged since Occupy Wall Street—there was like Occupy St. Louis, and I was passively part of that. Being in St. Louis, you know, we have like where Black Lives Matter really started in Ferguson after Mike Brown was killed, and so there’s a strong presence of people in the movement.
When it comes to environmentalism, I’ve been a vegetarian since I was like eleven, and I’ve been vegan for five or six years. I don’t know, I just like care a lot about the earth.
The project specifically on environmental racism in St. Louis, I worked in a fellowship program on combating systemic racism from a Black feminist lens this summer. And we got to work with partner organizations, and I had to create programming and graphics and recommendations.
RG: That’s amazing. Would these organizations be accepting contributions? Where can people check them out?
MG: Yes, I think they’re accepting contributions. I worked with lots of organizations, so like the ones I’d recommend are Sierra Club, they do environmentalism all over the country, and the one locally that I worked with is Action St. Louis, and they are the ones who focus on Black feminist liberation.
RG: That’s awesome. I hope people check them out. It’s really exemplary that your art ties so deeply into all the other work you do.
MG: It’s like amoeba. It’s all connected.
RG: I’m actually a vegan too. Do you have any go-to vegan comfort foods?
MG: Okay, so I’m vegan, but I cheat on cookies, baklava, and dips, so I just want you to know.
RG: That’s okay, personally I feel like super strict and inflexible vegan guidelines are kind of…
MG: Ableist and white supremacist. Yeah, so I love making meat pies, and I like those Impossible Burgers too, but honestly someone needs to tell them to make smaller boxes, because there’s so much waste in their packaging, and it’s not sustainable, and some vegans care about the environment.
RG: Yeah, that’s kind of ironic it’s not.
MG: Yeah, I’m just like really?
RG: So, a little bit of a big question. How has the pandemic impacted you as an artist, especially having to shift so much online?
MG: Oh boy. You know, I tell people art is my job and activism is my hobby, so I get to do my hobby by being paid well at my job, and I haven’t really been able to be paid at my job properly, so my ability to like be part of the community dwindles, and I regret that. I wish I could be more active right now. I mean I know I do a lot but I want to do more and be more effective.
I did get to do an event at the contemporary art museum, which was really really cool. I threw a protest that got international attention. We were trying to get the mayor (of St. Louis) out of office, because she’s horrible. She says things like, “If you stop giving money to the homeless, they’ll just go away.” It’s like no! And I also helped throw a protest with Corey Bush, and we eventually got the major to resign—well not resign, but not run again, which is still pretty cool.
I think that I’ve had to do a lot of introspection thinking about like who I am and what my goals are, what I want to accomplish in life and how I can make strategic plans to put those plans into action and see what steps I need to take beforehand.
I really looked hard at like drag and digital drag and like how many Gaga recreations I saw and how much I want to distance myself from these like patterns.
I decided to go back to school, and it really helped me like say, “wait a minute.” Like drag doesn’t give you health insurance or a 401K, and I don’t really have job security or stability, and I have to like constantly focus on being new and innovative to be relevant to get booked, and so like that constant struggle I’ve found to be like too tedious. So right now, I’ve been really taking time to look at my art and ask myself how I can distance myself and not have to recreate what someone else already created in order to be like relevant. And you know, I think recreating things is wonderful but constantly recreating things that are already being recreated in a contemporary time is different than like, “oh I really like this 1600s painting and I want to like recreate that.”
I think the pandemic really taught me to plan for the future and where my art stands and what art means to me. I really put a lot of work in my community, but I wish I could have done more.
RG: Those are a lot of really important and valuable reflections. You mentioned you’re going back to school—what kind of topics or fields are you interested in studying?
MG: I want to get a degree in cultural anthropology and also like look at studio art and sociology and use these to be a better artist and also like how my art reflect the times and reflect moments in history. I want to work with institutions to, one, empower queer and trans artists and, two, really know the knowledge, so I can speak on panels more and give speeches and presentations and really help future generations be less conformist, I guess.
RG: That’s so cool—congrats on that!
MG: I’m nervous haha.
RG: It’ll be exciting.
Are there any misconceptions you think people have about trans/nonbinary drag artists or drag performers?
MG: I think this idea is perpetuated by RuPaul’s Drag Race and you know even the Boulet Brothers and like all drag, that there’s this transformation between two distinct gender identities. Drag can replicate the binary structure of like human gender. I think that is just like so reductive that they don’t understand the potential of drag. I think really what it all comes down to is people reduce things to their point of reference, and if they don’t have any point of references, then that’s why they can’t think of like fourteen genders—they can only think about two. That’s where we’re at. People in general don’t understand gender and drag is gender on steroids.
RG: I feel like what you’re saying will blow a lot of people’s minds.
MG: I think what the hardest thing we’re going to have to do about all that is like international change, because when you look at it from that perspective languages adapt to like… you so we see this changing in like Spanish and Portuguese and all over to be nonbinary and have nonbinary pronouns and stuff. In a lot of languages even the language itself did not have that so we see them changing. I think since drag expands all over the world and so do its fans, we’re going to need to have people who speak every single language create language that reflects their identities. I think it’s going to take a lot.
RG: And I do think we see a lot of artists making way, so that is a positive thing. Are there any things you personally are looking forward to for yourself and your drag and in the new year in general?
MG: My album should be coming out! It’s cynical commentary about the world with like psychedelia so… that should be fun. I’m going back to school, and I’m going on a cruise in the Bahamas. Hopefully I’ll go to Europe in the summer.
Oh! And I’m working on this art installation called “The Trauma Hotel,” and it’s gonna be people going through like a haunted house focused on trauma, where we look at like how nature hurts us and how our obsession with Gods hurts us and totalitarianism and like sexual assault and like body dysmorphia. We’ve been working on that for the last seven months. so this year it should be finished and open to the public.
RG: That sounds really cool. Where did you say where it’s located?
MG: It’s in an old psych hospital here in St. Louis.
RG: That’s really powerful and complicated. Can’t wait to see more about it.
MG: We’re hoping to open it once like most people get the vaccine.
RG: Oh yeah, I keep forgetting there is an end—vaccine is coming!
MG: Yeah there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Thank you Miss Pfizer!
RG: Well, that’s just about all the questions I had. I just wanted to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me from MAYDAY and for the work you do.
MAXI GLAMOUR is a non-binary multidisciplinary artist and community organizer based out of St. Louis. Known as “The Demon Queen of Polka” and “Baklava,” they are notorious for painting themselves blue and using elements of fantasy and social theory in performance art. They have been a staple in the underground club scene since 2004.
ROBIN GOW is a trans poet and young adult author from rural Pennsylvania. They are the author of Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy (Tolsun Books 2020) and the chapbook Honeysuckle (Finishing Line Press 2019). Their first young adult novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions is forthcoming in 2022 with FSG Books for Young Readers. Gow’s poetry has recently been published in POETRY, New Delta Review, and Washington Square Review.