Under the respective monikers Pam Pengco, Kimberly Kiss, Marcella Rockefeller, and Laila Licious, Olli, Kim, Marcel, and David have been performing as the group “Real Queens” in Cologne since 2016.
COMPANION: You advertise your shows as a “mix of party and performance — but with a clear message.” What is the message you want to get across?
Marcel: At our events we want to celebrate diversity. Everyone should be able to be themselves exactly as they are, without fear.
David: We simply can’t understand why anyone would be against us living our lives as we wish. It’s still an issue!
Do your concerns extend beyond the queer scene? At the moment there are lots of issues you could campaign about.
Marcel: Of course this message is transferable to other areas of life. The issue of acceptance is very topical at the moment, particularly in the face of the refugee situation.
David: At the end of the day, the questions we devote ourselves to are not only connected with the queer scene. They deal with racism, body shaming, and the marginalization of older people in public life. By welcoming absolutely everyone to our shows and parties we are setting an example that goes way beyond the scene, and it is widely understood in this light.
Olli: For example, last year we produced a video based on the maxim “Human Rights First.” It was a clear quotation from a point of tension that had developed at the time in the USA. We played on Donald Trump’s “America First” election slogan. The video went viral and was also shared in America. It would be hard to believe that only the LGBTIQ+ scene saw it. This remains our primary target group, but we are always seeking to broaden ourselves thematically.
What role can your art play in a polarized society like the one we’re experiencing at the moment?
Marcel: First, we can bring joy to many people. It is precisely in dark times like at the moment where good humor and colorful personalities are needed. We constantly find that our fans — for whom things aren’t going so well — contact us on Facebook. These are people to whom we give courage and a reason to laugh.
David: The mood in America is shifting, as it is in Europe. Right-wing movements are gaining traction everywhere. We want to oppose them, so that’s what we’re doing.
Does this very mood not make it hard for you to be in sufficiently good humor yourselves for your shows?
David: It’s what drives us. Of course we’re sometimes afraid or worried when we see the growth of the Right, which is in complete contrast to our goals. But that’s precisely what reminds us that we need to continue. It’s important to us to demonstrate that we, too, are still part of this world. That there’s still a fun, colorful part. And that togetherness is so much more important than getting worked up about the fact that a couple more refugees have arrived in Cologne.
Marcel: Both things can be easily combined. A friend of ours goes out and about as an impersonator of performance artist Conchita Wurst, collecting donations for refugee accommodation. He brings food, blankets, and clothing into homes dressed in his drag queen outfit. The people there are so grateful and our friend has hardly experienced any resistance. And that shouldn’t be taken for granted, considering that the majority of Syrians have hardly had any contact with our art form before. Bringing joy and promoting tolerance — if politics can’t manage it, then it’s our job.
So is it also about transferring the values of the queer scene, such as tolerance and exuberance, to other levels of community? Setting an example through the LGBTIQ+ scene?
Marcel: It can at least be one good example. But we certainly don’t want to hide the fact that it is this very scene that often lacks tolerance. You only have to click through gay dating profiles to see how many boys say they don’t want to meet Asian or black people.
David: There’s often a misunderstanding that as a gay stronghold, things in Cologne are easy and without conflict. But I still wouldn’t dare to travel two stops on the underground alone whilst dressed in drag. Of course, it’s fine most of the time. But the risk of getting angry responses is always there. That’s something I’m afraid of, unlikely as it is. But that’s one of our jobs: not everyone has to find what we do great, wonderful, and exciting. But everyone has to accept it. I just want to be able to travel to work in my own clothes.
Marcel: At the end of the day, someone who goes to work in a suit wears just as much of a costume as we do, if he normally hangs out at home in his vest with his tattooed arms on display. A suit is also a costume, an impersonation — no different to us.
How important is the city of Cologne for your program?
Olli: Cologne is my home, even though I don’t come from here. I’d like to link this sense of home with my art. All four of us integrate the Cologne mentality into our appearances. Here you can happily ask anyone for directions and you’ll get an answer straight away. You might not end up where you wanted to go, but at least you’ll have had a friendly conversation.
David: Cologne is publicly perceived as a tolerant place to live, which is why our show fits in well here. That’s also because Cologne has long been known as a fun Carnival city. It would certainly be harder to get our message across in a village with only a thousand inhabitants.
Through the Cologne Carnival and its accompanying speeches, the city also has a very old tradition of combining fun with political awareness.
David: For me, Carnival was the deciding factor in starting to engage in this art form. The first time all four of us went out dressed in drag for Carnival we realized how much fun it was. At some point we realized we could earn money from it, and over time we added the idea of using it as a way of political campaigning.
But you can play a part in politics without a costume. Political cabaret, for example, does not only involve cross-dressing.
Marcel: For me, my stage persona is the appropriate mouthpiece. I believe I am heard better in this way. After all, calling for more acceptance and tolerance whilst wearing such a costume is very authentic.
Kim: You can also detach yourself more easily when in costume. If you make a stupid comment dressed in drag, people celebrate it. It makes it easier to get your concerns across concisely and with vigour.
David: For some people, a costume also serves as protection. Many drag queens are shy as men but very eccentric in costume. Nobody comes to our shows to recite the Lord’s Prayer with us. They know that at drag shows we get to the point, and that sometimes we can be ironic and cynical. We don’t stop for anyone, no minority is spared, everyone can be a target. And that’s exactly what people expect from our characters.
How did these characters develop?
David: I discovered the type of drag queen who makes everything seem bigger and more extreme than a normal woman. You grow into it, and the character grows with you. We’d rather never have to see photos from the times when we indiscriminately dressed up as women for Carnival again.
Kim: I’d say that we have since grown into a saying from the film “To Wong Foo”: “We have way too much fashion sense for just one gender.” The film clarifies the key question of the difference between a man in women’s clothes and a drag queen. How would you explain it?
Marcel: Drag is an art form that develops quite differently in each individual and can become independent. To me Marcella is not a real person — I can easily separate her from my real life. But there are many cross-dressing artists who lose themselves in these characters. When we first started doing this at Carnival, we could never have imagined professionalizing it to the extent we do now. After all, we were dressing up as Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga — it didn’t have anything to do with our own characters at that point.
Yet everything began with Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga. Is the inspiration for a character always a female role model, or can a drag character be created in and of itself?
Olli: Great divas like Beyoncé, Cher, or Lady Gaga, whose music we also use, are certainly an inspiration for every drag, especially as far as the look is concerned. It’s just that it’s presumably a bit easier for Beyoncé, Cher, and Lady Gaga, with their budgets and stylists, than for us with our sequins and glue guns.
That sounds quite time consuming and expensive.
David: Shoes in our sizes are bloody expensive! We get through an incredible number of tights. We need underwear, artificial breasts, outfits, makeup, wigs. You have to bear in mind that nothing about our characters, from head to toe, is real. Many people who want to book us for appearances and pay us in sparkling wine and guest lists don’t seem to realize this. That won’t pay my bills and living expenses.
Couldn’t you get by with fewer outfits?
David: No, it’s precisely the perfect illusion that fascinates people so much. Drag is about more than simply squeezing yourself into a pig costume for Carnival. A huge amount of work and effort goes into it, which most people can’t even begin to imagine.