On Photographing Drag Queens in Their Wonderland

Jiggly Caliente Brookes
Magnus Hastings, “Jiggly Caliente Brookes” (2016) (all images from ‘Why Drag?’, courtesy Chronicle Books)

Growing up in London, photographer Magnus Hastings was an “all-singing, all-dancing child,” as he puts it, who loved to wear his sister’s clothes. But he didn’t fully embrace his passion for drag until 2003, when he visited Sydney’s Arq nightclub and witnessed drag queen Vanity Faire, in a gingham Dorothy dress, lip-syncing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Ever since, Hastings has been photographing drag queens around the world, among them, Jiggly Caliente Brookes, sitting in lotus position in gold body paint and leopard-printed spike heels; Paige Turner, a Southern belle in tulle, turning the pages of Valley of the Dolls; and Thorgy Thor, from the current season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, who pairs a Jewish prayer shawl and hair in payot (side curls) with exaggerated lipliner and false eyelashes. Hasting asks each queen he photographs the same question: Why do you dress in drag?

Hastings’s photographs and his subjects’ thoughts on drag are compiled in a new book, Why Drag?, published by Chronicle Books, with an introduction by Boy George. The images mash up the camp of a John Waters and Divine collaboration with the theatricality and supersaturated color of David LaChapelle’s fashion photographs. We talked to Hastings about drag as an art form, the myth of the “sad drag queen,” and his desire to “take you by the hand into Wonderland.”

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Thorgy Thor
Magnus Hastings, “Thorgy Thor” (2016)

Carey Dunne: How would you answer the question posed in your book’s title? Why do you photograph drag queens?

Magnus Hastings: Drag is a world where I belong. It’s my family and my home. I always say I’m a participant, not an observer, showing people the world through my eyes. I was an all-singing, all-dancing child, but I “grew out of it,” for want of a better expression. But when I got to Sydney in 2005, it was like the mothership calling me home. My thing became documenting it, showing the world how diverse and fantastic and brave it is. I shoot queens because it excites me. I can be at my most jaded and exhausted and then we start shooting and I go into my zone. I just click away like a crazy person. Drag queens are fearless and understand the idea of just giving it a go without questioning it. With celebrity stuff, it’s much more structured, and you have people on your shoulder shutting down anything they can’t visualize, which is annoying if someone totally non-creative stops something because they don’t understand your vision.

Paige Turner
Magnus Hastings, “Paige Turner” (2016)

CD: What are some stereotypes about drag and drag queens that you wish would go away? 

MH: I thought we had gotten past this one, but someone recently said to me, “Of course, there is such sadness with drag queens.” Well, in my experience, there is no more sadness. I see so much laughter and humor — and, of course, sadness too, but no more than in any other person. My aim is to take you by the hand into Wonderland, into a world you really want to go to — because it’s where all the cool kids are, where the fun and laughter is.

There’s still a great deal of confusion about the differences between drag, trans- and transvestism. I hope my book is understood simply as a drag book. I made a conscious decision not to include trans drag or faux drag, though I totally appreciate both forms of drag and have photographed both. I wanted to keep this series simple — and will explore the other forms in my next book.

LilMiss Hot Mess new face
Magnus Hastings, “LilMiss Hot Mess” (2016)

CD: How can photography like this contribute to the destigmatizing of drag in a heteronormative culture? 

MH: I’m hoping to showcase drag as an art form. Someone recently looked through my book and suddenly stopped and said, “Of course! It’s art.” The queens I feature range from more “polished” mainstream queens to edgier artists and borderline club kids. Some totally play with gender and blur the lines of what drag is. [My images are meant to portray] the genre not as just men in dresses, but rather as exotic creatures, none of whom take themselves too seriously. It’s meant to be fun. Every day is Halloween!

Kizha Carr copy
Magnus Hastings, “Kizha Carr” (2016)
Lady Bunny
Magnus Hastings, “Lady Bunny” (2016)
Maddelynn Hatter
Magnus Hastings, “Maddelynn Hatter” (2016)
Asian Queens NYC
Magnus Hastings, “Asian Queens NYC” (Asia Persuasia, Lea Politan, Kara Sucia, Digna Shei, Kimchichi Shamulan Carr, Jiggly Caliente Brooks, Yuhua Hamasaki, Ms. Cheng, Tara Miso Rice.) (2016)

Magnus Hastings’s Why Drag?, published by Chronicle Books, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. 

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