[From Iliya's photo archive] Femme Fatale taking a selfie with the blood of men smeared across her cheeks. "I look really hot … This is really the persona of the femme fatale", said Iliya.
How do drag queens negotiate their gender, within and without drag? That was our initial guiding question when our group approached Iliya Izzudin, the individual behind the Drag Wars Season 2 champion, Femme Fatale. Iliya describes Femme Fatale as a strong, independent woman who "hates men" and "would kill all of them if she could", inspired by his own experiences with dating men. Misandry is central to Femme Fatale and characterises her.
But while this men-hating branding made Femme Fatale outstanding and appealing to fans, it was ultimately creatively restricting for Iliya. Iliya explained to us that he has recently left Femme Fatale behind in favour of his new drag identity, Femme Fartale, someone truer to him — and this blogpost will seek to explore the process of Iliya finding and forging this new identity. Our research thesis is that drag is an avenue where one can shape (and reshape) their identity; Iliya exercises his agency in forging his own path while negotiating external socio-economic forces and pressures.
The Research Process
The process of finding an interlocutor was challenging, likely due to a recent controversy which may have made drag queens apprehensive about student researchers (Kwa 2021). However, we were able to access Iliya because of fortuitous circumstances: one of us is groupmates with him for another NUS module. As a fellow student, Iliya was understanding and empathetic when we reached out. With the consent of his photographer friend, Andrew Ong (@drewnomatics on Instagram), we were able to observe Iliya at a photoshoot that he was doing for Andrew's school project.
Iliya at a photoshoot for a student project. At the top, we can be seen observing the shoot as Iliya stares directly at us. On the bottom, Kenji is helping to produce wind effects for the shoot using cardboard.
In the above images, our presence in Iliya's space is undeniable. Because researchers can never be mere 'flies on the wall', we embraced our involvement and actively sought a research-interlocutor collaboration. We accompanied Iliya for half a day, unobstructedly speaking with him (and Andrew) between shots and assisting wherever we could for the photoshoot (retrieving items, cleaning up, etcetera). The final eight photos in this blogpost have been chosen with input and elicitation from Iliya, whose comments post-photoshoot provided invaluable insight into what he finds important and meaningful. Iliya was articulate, expressive, and candid with us. He answered our plethora of questions patiently, giving us a frank view into his drag journey and the internal politics of Singapore's drag scene. Consequently, our initial research focus on drag and gender performance morphed into one about identity negotiation — despite the external forces that pressure him. Reflexively, it must be acknowledged that one of our researchers is also queer. This was not only paramount in Iliya agreeing to our research, it also nurtured an immediate sense of solidarity and researcher-interlocutor rapport.
Our queer researcher had a direct frame of reference into many of Iliya's queer-centred recounts, enriching our understanding of Iliya in nuanced ways. Still, we recognise the uniqueness of Iliya’s queer experiences and our own unfamiliarity with drag. Thus, we adopted an open mind when learning from him.
Show Business & Branding
Iliya explains that, because drag is also "showbiz" (show business), performing drag necessarily comes with economic and social pressures. Economic capital is required for costly drag makeup and costumes. Thus, acquiring show bookings is important — and having an established audience base is paramount to this. To build this fanbase, drag queens curate a brand for themselves through social media (particularly Instagram).
Identity and branding is not static to Iliya, but a process of "finding yourself". When starting out, he felt forced to have a social media presence so that he could build an audience base (@femme_farts on Instagram). However, a remark from his friend stood out to him when he was in the process of (re)shaping his drag identity: "You don't make branding, branding comes to you. You are your branding." This encouraged Iliya's transition from Femme Fatale to Femme Fartale — a new identity that not only affords him greater creative freedom outside of someone who is "just about hating men", but is also truer to him because it resonates with his love for farts (play on 'fart' in Fartele) and candidness. Now, Iliya feels greater agency in what he chooses to post on social media, rejecting dominant pressures to curate his brand and "make it pretty". Iliya even feels empowered to embrace masculine (stubble and body hair) or androgynous features in drag — both of which are traditionally "frowned upon" in drag.
However, Iliya does recognise that he is awarded the ability to challenge these social pressures (of social media usage and curated branding) because of his economic privileges; he has the financial means to bear the losses of less-successful shows. Conversely, newer queens without financial backing would struggle in the drag scene because 'good' drag often requires high-quality costumes and makeup. Thus, Iliya's economic privilege does play an important role in allowing him to exercise agency in branding himself and creating his own identity in the drag scene. Because of the inherently capitalist nature of drag showbiz, this is the economic reality that drag queens must negotiate and contend with.
Iliya's array of costumes and makeup. “When I was in NS, I used to spend half my salary on drag,” he said. "Makeup is expensive — I don't want to waste it.”
Political Activism and Artistic Expression
Both historically (Hillman, 2011) and contemporarily (Walsh, 2016; Middlemost, 2020), drag has been a conduit for political activism. As someone who is politically aware and active, Iliya does recognise the political and gendered tensions in drag. He shared that gender performance is a "constant"; because drag is "just an outlet for expression", everyone is always "doing gender". In some way, “everyone is always in drag”. Furthermore, Iliya occasionally "fem[s] it up" (outside of drag) — by intentionally appearing more traditionally feminine, Iliya purposely "make[s] cishets uncomfortable". This becomes a socio-political move that challenges cisheteronormative presentations of gender. Additionally, Iliya sees being “out and open” resistance in itself; to be "loud and proud" is about his queerness as an act of political to "show them that we exist.
One of Iliya's favourites from the photos we took— him putting on eyelashes. “This is the moment I feel like a whole new different person. I feel more confident, sexier, and ready to face the audience when I’m in drag."
Surprisingly, however, Iliya personally views his drag itself as apolitical. This directly undercuts the conventional understanding of drag as a political medium for resistance. While drag is indeed a "bold, entertaining portrayal of some gender expression" to Iliya, he does not find it necessary for his drag to subvert gender performance (which drag traditionally does); Iliya “[doesn’t] really care for gender” — sometimes he just “want[s] to look pretty”. While many use drag as a site for political resistance, Iliya simply enjoys it for its capacity for theatrical and artistic expression, in which he can tell a story and play a character. Even though he recognises drag's socio-political significance, Iliya's side-lining of its political aspect demonstrates his agency in negotiating what drag means to him.
Femme Fartale struggling to wear her plastic-bag dress. "Drag may be beautiful — but behind the scenes, there's actually a lot of discomfort, hard work, sweat, sometimes even blood."
Still, Iliya does not entirely remove his drag from its political potency. The photoshoot that we observed (which is a collaboration between Iliya and Andrew) is an homage to environmentalist drag queen Pattie Gonia (Kennedy, 2021). Here, the photoshoot referrentially advocates for environmentalism and queerness, resulting in this particular instance of Iliya’s drag performance aligning with his activist goals and values. While Iliya says that he is mostly "just helping out" Andrew, he shared that project resonates with his political beliefs about sustainability. Thus, even though Iliya's drag is generally detached from politics, he remains agentic in using drag for political causes he wants to advocate for.
Finding Femme Fartale
Femme Fartale dancing while waiting for her photographer to set up. “I feel free. Just to be in character, makeup, and costume — that is so liberating for me. It’s my escapism.”
Through his drag, Iliya has challenged conventional pressures in showbiz, engaged in oppositional gender presentations, and voiced his political views — all while performing for his own unique artistic expression and passion. Thus, drag performance is an avenue in which Iliya exercises personal agency, creating an identity that negotiates (and resists) external forces and pressures. Our research has complicated traditional understandings of drag as a monolithic avenue of political resistance. Drag queens not only contend with a multitude of external norms and expectations, but they also retain an agentic capacity to resist these pressures and construct their own identity.
Hillman, B.L. (2011). “The most profoundly revolutionary act a homosexual can engage in”: Drag and the Politics of Gender Presentation in the San Francisco Gay Liberation Movement, 1964–1972. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 20(1), 153-181. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/407209.
Kennedy, S. (2021). A conversation with environmentalist drag queen Pattie Gonia. Yale Climate Connections. Retrieved from https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/07/a-conversation-with-environmentalist-drag-queen-pattie-gonia/
Kwa, A. (2021). "NTU student accused of trespassing says she had 'explicit consent' to take photos of performer at drag show". Mothership. Retrieved from https://mothership.sg/2021/11/ntu-student-crash-drag-show/
Middlemost, R. (2020). Rewriting ‘herstory’: Sasha Velour’s drag as art and activism. Celebrity Studies, 11(4), 431-446.
Walsh, F. (2016). Activism, Drag and Solo Performance. In Queer Performance and Contemporary Ireland (pp. 21-45). Palgrave Macmillan, London.