“My autobiography would be called... 'Hijabs to Hollywood',” says Amrou, sitting on a faded avocado green sofa in his living room. Amrou’s in full drag, wearing a pink wig, silver stilettos and fishnet tights. “And then the sequel would be 'From Burkas To Bikinis’,” he adds. Technically Amrou’s speaking to me as his alter ego: Glamrou La Denim, a character he came up with when he first started doing drag at university. For Amrou, coming out as gay, denouncing the Muslim faith, and becoming a drag queen were symbiotic acts, but ones that have estranged him from his parents.
The inspiration for Glamrou’s drag look comes, in part, he tells me, from his mother’s brand of Iraqi femininity. Raised between Baghdad — where his parents are both from — and Britain, with stints in Jordan, Bahrain and Dubai, Amrou was encouraged from a young age to behave as a Muslim boy is expected to be: masculine, straight, and observant of Islam.
Amrou would watch his mother at parties, transfixed by her glamour, poise, and humor. “She’d wear so much makeup and hair extensions,” he remembers, “But then at home, she would take it all off, and her two personas were so dissonant. I was in awe of her. I think Glamrou, in a way, is me trying to be that — it’s an enjoyment of her theatricality.” When Amrou came out to his parents as gay — or, rather, when they found gay pornography in his bedroom at 18 — they asked him to step back into the closet. “This is a phase,” they told him, “You have to get over it.” Then, when he was 21, they spotted a G-A-Y club stamp on his wrist, realized he hadn’t quite got over the phase, and reacted by throwing away all of his colorful clothes.
Since then, with his parents living in the Middle East and Amrou based in the UK, the two camps just “agree to disagree.” There’s just a whole terrain of conversation that they don’t cover – and when Amrou saw his mom recently, she urged him to marry a girl. Needless to say, Amrou’s parents don’t know about his life as a drag queen. Part of a successful drag troupe called Denim, Amrou is a professional; he does live shows, has starred in music videos and has even performed for Kate Moss at Mario Testino’s birthday party. Surely his mom would only have to Google him to find out what he does? “She definitely doesn’t know I’m a professional drag queen,” he says, looking horrified at the thought. "But when we’ve had really big blowouts she does bring up that I wear makeup. The way she thinks is binary: You are either a man or a woman. My brother came to a show and he found it uplifting, but my mother would say: “Why even put on a heel to begin with? Why are you rejecting your masculinity?”
If there was ever a time when drag meant ‘being a female impersonator,’ it has — in London at least — moved on from that. Like Amrou, many of London's young drag queens don’t set out to seem like women, but to challenge the set of principles that make up what a woman “is.”
“'Drag’ implies a feminine illusion,” says Finn Love, 21, who has been doing drag since 2014. “Drag implies that I’m transgressing from one gender to another, but it’s not really about gender – it’s just about expressing myself. It doesn’t need to read as male, or female, or drag queen or club kid, it’s just about being me.”
Finn’s drag look is a unique one: he plays with porcelain makeup, coiffed hair and corsets, and “things that aren’t necessarily gendered, like kilts, berets or a ruff.” Unlike Amrou, Finn is able to talk to his mom, Jennifer, about his love of drag. She doesn’t see it as Finn “dressing up as a woman, per se, more as a work of art.” Jennifer says Finn has always been extreme, always questioning, but at the same time unquestionably the same person: “One who always challenges me and makes me consider my own perspective,” she smiles. And does he take any cues from her? “I think we share some traits,” laughs Jennifer. “A love of dramatic hair maybe, and I am an aficionado of all things cosmetic! But really, I think Finn is entirely his own creation, as are his two brothers and sister, and I just love that about all of them.”
For anyone across the world who is LGBT, gender non-conformative, or even just has an unconventional hobby, the struggle to reconcile your differences with your parents’ hopes for you is a familiar one. Even when they are accepting, there’s still a degree of explaining to do. When Jacob Mallinson Bird’s mom Sarah first saw pictures of him in drag, she didn’t really have a reference point for it. “If I thought of drag I’d have thought of the actor Divine and then I’d think of people like Paul O’Grady and Julian Clary. I’d never been anywhere or seen things like that.” It wasn’t until Jacob did a Ted Talk on gender in his full look as drag queen Dinah Lux that Sarah saw him do drag in the flesh. Jacob’s talk was also an opportunity to explain to his family that, for him, drag has been a way to understand his own gender, which doesn’t feel either male or female, but a bit of both. The talk fell, coincidentally, on Mother’s Day in the UK last year, and Jacob’s whole family went out for a meal afterwards, with Jacob sitting at the table in full drag makeup, heels, and wig.
“My mother always shows me support,” says Jacob — or rather Dinah, after having descended the stairs in stilettos, fishnets, and a body harness to where I’m sitting with Sarah. “That said, she sometimes gets annoyed at me when we talk about gender because she thinks I complicate it, or maybe it’s that she’s worried she’ll offend me by not knowing the right terms to use, which might be my fault for being so militant.”
It’s been a process, he says, helping her to understand the more political side of his performance. “She’s very on it with gender now. We’ve been at parties where someone has called Caitlyn Jenner 'Bruce' and mum has stepped in. She’s good with it.” “I think it’s amazing,” smiles Sarah, wistfully. “Jacob’s never gone out and told us anything but I’m never surprised by him. I can honestly say there’s never been any issue with anything he does – it only adds to Jacob and the fact he’s different. I like the fact he looks good as a woman! I don’t know if it’s a strange thing to say but he does it so beautifully that I’m proud.”
Sarah admits there is one thing she’s still trying to understand: “It might be wrong to say, but if my daughters wore as little as Jacob, I don’t think I’d be so accepting.” Perhaps that’s a safety thing? I ask. “Absolutely. But things have happened to him that have been upsetting to me.” Still, she remains broad minded. “Although I might not come face to face with drag queens very often, my outlook in life would be accepting anything that’s not mean.”
23-year-old Chester Hayes’ mother is similarly accepting, but perhaps that’s because she, like him, sees drag as an extension of his career as a dancer. “I don't really have any significant stories of struggle or acceptance to share,” he laughs. “My ‘coming-out’ was nothing exciting! I’ve been performing since I was 11 and drag is something that has come as an extension of that over the last three years, since I left dance school. This is very much how my mum feels about me doing drag too.” Chester says this is why he doesn’t have a drag name: "Drag is very much a part of me, not an alter ego.” Sue, his mother, embraces Chester's decisions: “When I first saw Chester in drag I thought his makeup was very good and he manages to dance really well in heels,” she says, adorably understanding. “Doing drag, I imagine, is wrapped up in his sexuality but it gives him a chance to experiment with different gender looks and have fun.” Chester recalls the time Sue came to one of his live shows: “Last year my mum came to see me in drag in the flesh. She came with my sister and absolutely loved it. I think she was happy to finally meet some of the people she had seen in pictures and heard so much about.” And his Dad? “My dad is not particularly interested, but maybe one day!”
The thing that strikes me when I see Finn, Jacob, and Chester with their mums, is how overwhelmingly comfortable they seem together, even with the boys wearing garish makeup and showy outfits. Undoubtedly, there would have been a time in the past when the boys’ mothers would have found it more difficult to come to terms with their sons's choices either for personal reasons, or because they were worried that society would punish these men for breeching the boundaries of masculinity. Now, however, we live in the age of Ru Paul’s Drag Race and Conchita Wurst winning the Eurovision Song Contest. Things are different. “We’re living in a time when drag seems to be more popular than ever,” acknowledges Finn. “But just 'cause it feels like loads of people are doing it, that doesn’t devalue it. It’s still an important way for people to access parts of their life or their heritage or their future; dressing up like this helps people to understand their identities.” Finn says drag has given him the confidence to be who he is, “but that’s also built on the support my family has given me.” He thinks for a moment: “On the other hand, drag is a ‘fuck you’ to the institution, so if my family were one of those things that were restricting me, then maybe drag would be a rebellion against them too. You can do drag with the support of your family but if you didn’t have that, I could see how your need to do drag could become even more personal.”
This seems to be the case for Amrou, for whom drag has firmly been a way to explore his Arab identity as well as rebel against it. “Arab families are all about performativity, how you seem. My parents are very artificial in their behavior, which makes for a hilarious paradox: In not accepting me as gay, as a drag queen, as who I am, they’re attacking a person who's being himself.”
Drag has allowed Amrou to cultivate a sense of personal strength and ownership over his identity, though. "'When You’re Good to Mama’ was the first thing I ever sang at Denim. It was about denying or repressing the fact that I felt upset. Being the mother or provider let me mask how angsty I was about needing a relationship with my parents. It was empowering.” The good news is, Amrou is now on relatively happy terms with his parents and has found a surrogate family within Denim. “The idea of drag collectives is shown quite well in the documentary Paris Is Burning: Drag queens come together in groups for safety and those become replacement families. We’ve all been through something, we know each other really well. When I was sick in the hospital they were all there. I might be the drag mother in Denim, and I might get quite jealous when their parents come to shows, but the reality is that we all look after one another. I’d describe it as a family by choice.” @MillyAbraham