BERLIN — Fellas, I wanna know if I could talk to ya for just a minute. … Is it okay?
The sultry voice cut through the din of hundreds of people. Chandelier Divine Brown’s lip-synch performance of the 1990s a cappella “Work This Pussy,” by American transgender vocalist Sweet Pussy Pauline, sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Girls, I put one leg on the night stand, and the other one just across the dresser.
The audience erupted into an ecstasy of screams as Chandelier wracked the stage with furious stamps of her high-heeled feet, her enormous mouth opened wide and pointed up toward the burning purple-pink spotlights of the smoke-filled club. She is a magnetic stage presence, over six feet tall and gorgeous.
After Chandelier, another performer took the stage, offering a counterpoint to the camp humor with raw emotion. He sang Rihanna’s “Stay” uninflected, wearing a floral head wrap, pastel skirt, sequined sweater, and full beard. (This was pre–Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision victory.) He stood motionless, strumming out the few simple chords of the 2012 hit on his electric guitar. The chorus, an aching “I want you to stay,” made my hair stand on end. It was haunting and tragic and agonizing and hilarious all at once. This was Sholem Krishtalka, performing under the moniker SHOLO (like Kesha’s YOLO). Turns out he wasn’t a drag queen; he just dressed up for the party.
* * *
I met with Pansy, an American drag queen based in Berlin, also known as Parker Tilghman, at a leafy outdoor café in Kreuzberg to discuss his new career. “Her name is just Pansy, like, just Cher,” he said. He never thought Pansy would get this big, he admitted. But now “she’s paying the bills.”
Tilghman has created a dizzying lineup of events in Berlin, all titled Pansy Presents. They draw as many expats as they do locals, with crowds over 300, and the guests are often as straight as they are queer. Inconceivably, the parties feature music other than house, to which everyone gyrates histrionically.
The music selected is often throwback: overplayed pop hits from the ’90s bring that back a flood of memories, Mariah Carey drawing out impromptu sing-along and much-loved American songs blasted with just enough irony. Another Pansy event, a dance party called Sissy, features only hip-hop and R&B by female artists. In the US, this music might draw eye rolls (not quite ironic enough), but here in Berlin, it’s not even a dirty pleasure — it’s a relief.
“The clubs,” Tilghman told me — Berlin’s network of world-famous venues and indoor-outdoor spaces that defy easy definition — “are important for the city’s cultural fabric, but I want options.” The context for the Pansy events is chosen with care. “I’m doing [the events] in very specific places, not mainstream clubs. My work is always very underground, DIY.”
Tilghman calls it “guerrilla drag.” Pair that with a perfect image of him as Pansy walking down the street in full drag in Neukölln. Of the underground, he explained, “It’s always where I’ve felt most comfortable.”
Starting in April, I went weekly to Südblock, a combination beer garden, Mexican restaurant, and club, for a procession of unique drag performances by ten (or more) queens — choreographed dance routines, multiple costume changes, the whole deal. I was invited by a stranger on Scruff, a gay dating app, who insisted I would be welcome, and that I’d have fun. He was right.
It all started with a RuPaul’s Drag Race screening. Two years ago, Tilghman ended up working behind a bar, as is apt to happen when one first moves to Berlin; he did a screening and showed up “in face.” The event was immediately popular, and the following year, he got his own branded night.
At that time, the Berlin drag scene, and the queer community in general, were “segregated based on neighborhood and style,” Tilghman said. He sought to create a space where everyone — from professionals to first-timers — was welcome. If you want to perform, to get “up in the drags,” you just let Pansy know.
That is, until the events disintegrate into dance parties. People make friends at those parties. Pansy has become a marker for the English-speaking queer community in Berlin.
* * *
Pansy clearly enjoys the immediacy of improvisational performance. In classic drag style, her work is never scripted. She confronts audience members for interrupting and takes them through little narratives.
“Is it hot in here?” she once asked, fingering the collar of her plush bathrobe under her curlers.
“It’s hot in here!” she declared, before dropping the robe and revealing a full-length bodysuit digitally printed with the nude figure of a woman.
This wasn’t just nightlife entertainment; it was a kind of art practice. It was too self-aware, clearly a send-up. The distinct Americanness of Pansy’s drag comes from its use of camp. “Drag is provincial,” Tilghman said. He explained that camp in drag is particular to New York and San Francisco, and not as prevalent in Berlin.
For Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” (1985), Pansy runs a marathon, receiving cups of water from the audience, theatrically pouring them over her head, and finally, running through a finish line and collapsing. Kate Bush was always a little camp, but playing her today, in drag, is — I don’t know, can there be multiple levels of camp?
Of course, it also makes a specific political statement to do an American-style drag show in English in Berlin. When I asked about the language choice, he told me, “It’s hard enough to be funny on the spot in English. I’m not very funny in German.”
For Tilghman, it’s important to bring both German and expat audiences. “I came to immerse myself in the culture, so I speak German every day, but I’m not going to do my show in German. It would change it too much,” he said. English serves as a language bridge between tourists, expats, immigrants, and Germans. “Even if I was fluent, if the option was available to do it in German, I would still do it in English.”
But then there comes the question: why Berlin?
Tilghman did not move to Berlin to perform in drag. He came, like so many, as an aspiring young artist. He received his BFA from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. He got day jobs at commercial galleries; he went to openings; he spent a lot of time in the studio. But at a certain point, he wanted more than the ultra-serious contemporary art scene that Berlin had to offer. He turned to comedy, to the androgynous drag role of Pansy, an inherently camp move. Here’s Susan Sontag, in her famous essay “Notes on ‘Camp'”:
41. The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious.” One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.
Pansy always has some chest hair hanging out; she doesn’t shave under her arms and she doesn’t don a fake, more effeminate voice. On this decision to emphasize his overtly male physical characteristics while in drag, Tilghman said, “That’s my signature. Every queen has to have a signature.”
In the queer community, these decisions are often controversial. But Tilghman stands by his. “I won’t sacrifice male life for my drag life. I’m not interested in ‘passing’ [as a woman],” he told me.
“She’s not a woman; she’s a clown.”
* * *
Tilghman creates all of the images that promote his shows. He wants it to be recognizable across posters, cards, stickers, and Facebook invites. That imagery, however, has been polarizing. One poster depicts Tilghman in full face as Pansy but with his own naked male body, as he reclines on another male figure. “[Drag] is supposed to be provocative,” he said of the image. “It’s the opposite of PC. It’s brash, vulgar. You’re outlandishly dressed up as someone you’re not.” He said that he was intentionally “fucking with gender.”
“The worst thing that has happened to the gay community is the ‘masculine’ movement,” he continued. “To be gender fluid is the best way to be. ‘Fem’-shaming, ‘masc’-parading, ‘straight-acting.’ It shouldn’t matter anymore.”
Tilghman’s is an intellectual drag, full of references to contemporary culture, queer theory, and the form’s own history. Berlin has also been a center of queer culture since the 1920s, and I asked Tilghman if that has an impact on his work. “I have an Isherwood-era obsession,” he replied. “The brief explosion of liberation in Schöneberg in the ’30s, that’s so inspiring. Cabaret, this type of performance and theater really thrived in Berlin. It doesn’t exist in that form anymore. I want to use my drag shows in a classic cabaret format.”
The Pansy shows are set up as pure enjoyment — not the least self-conscious about being cool, or beautiful, or popular, or famous, or anything. Just there, doing that, in that moment. There’s so little documentation of the events, it feels weird, almost against the spirit, the here-and-nowness of it, to whip out your phone and record something.
“It’s always for fun,” Tilghman told me. “Drag is fun. If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.”
Pansy has several upcoming events in Berlin, including Sissy, a drag-inflected dance party, at Loftus Hall (Maybachufer 48) on September 19 and Pansy Presents at Südblock (Admiralstraße 1-2) on September 26.