Cassandra, the worship of a drag diva in London

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credits: Lukas Viar
Cassandra is the new drag phenomenon of London. Stephen Eyre, the performance artist behind the Cassandra persona is a multi-media artist working in performance, installation and film. Cassandra has made a big name for herself on East London’s drag scene serving illusions, inspiration, creativity and phenomenal energy.

As a young child Cassandra had been fascinated with glamorous or dangerous women, often praying to God asking that she would transform to a princess or a sexy femme fatale. This innate fascination manifested itself in constant drawings and doodles (and dressing up as) the female archetypes she was enamoured by in books, cartoons, fairy stories, and popular culture. Her love of Lara Croft (femme fatale), Rapunzel (princess) The Little Mermaid (mermaid) amongst others, were the original muses and catalysts for her desire to create. She began to dream of being a great artist.

As she hid away my dressing up upon entering school, my paintings developed into depictions of wild, bold, sexually emancipated goddesses and nudes, some amused friends interpreting them as teenage boy fantasies, believing that she fancied the naked women she depicted (rather, she wanted to be the naked woman). She received harsh criticism of my subject matter as sexist, objectifying, and not edgy by her foundation teachers. Feeling misunderstood about something she felt passion and intensity for, she turned from painting to using her own self in her work in an effort to boldly articulate my personal stance and unrecognised visual language. Posturing her body and using costume in photographs and performances, she attempted to make the distinction between what they saw as sexual objectification, and what she saw as idolisation and identification; an alternate and queer relationship with the female icon that was little explored, a worship of the diva, and a nuanced appreciation for and aestheticisation of character flaw, ageing, humour, camp and female sexuality in art as a symbol of rebellion, viewed in a gaze refracted rather than direct. Additionally, to at that time distinguish my work from being interpreted as the creations of a traditional, heterosexual male gaze.

Facing resistance and the treatment of decadence, beauty, glamour, sexy women, emotion, intuition and passion in art as frivolous, naive and unfashionable, and looked upon with suspicion by modernism, has helped her configure my position with both further confidence, self-questioning, and interrogation of theory. Simultaneously rebelling and expressing her personal position via the aesthetic and context, has brought me a new understanding and appreciation of my work by contemporary audiences.

The desire and intention of her work is usually to create the sublime or an aspiration to the sublime- a feeling of unexplainable magic or inspiration that is felt- to recreate the feeling she feels for the things that have inspired her and the muse that has touched her: the power of the look, beauty, aesthetics and affect, which she has intended to revitalise. And this is how Cassandra was born.

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credits: Lukas Viar

Tell me a bit about yourself and your background. How old are you, where you come from and what brought you to London?

I am 24 years old and born in Essex. I came to London as I was accepted to study fine art at Chelsea College of Art, but really that was just my excuse and my ticket out of (what I considered at the time to be) humdrum Essex: I write and create songs on my computer, and wanted to get them out there and perform them in the big city! I read about musicians like Pete Townsend and Brian Eno having been musicians that went to art school, so I wanted to follow that mythology. I was also an avid painter and drawer when I was younger, and I only had one E grade A-level from college, and I knew you just needed one A-level and a great portfolio, so I thought my best bet was to go to art school. Otherwise, I would have possibly studied music. I used the student loan I received from university to support myself so I could be creative in London, and also to satisfy my parents so that they thought I was doing something worthwhile and would not question me too much. I’m not sure they would have understood if I told them I am simply moving to London, with no job or not studying, to be an artist and musician, my mother especially is very strict, and I was the oldest of all my brothers and sisters, so doing an art degree was perfect for me, as the course allows a lot of free time to experiment which I wouldn’t have had just working, and the studying was also very developmental for me artistically and benefited my path. And aside from that, I wanted to live a crazy and creative life, which I didn’t at first find when I was studying, but soon after I certainly found it in the queer East London scene which I am a part of now!

When was Cassandra born?

She was born with me when I was a child! (or emerged during that era). I was always putting on wigs and I was fascinated by female personas in movies and music and books, and I always used to do drawings of women’s faces. I used to close my eyes and pray that I could be a girl or a woman, and longed for it intensely until the age of about 13. I also used to tuck myself between my legs and pretend I was a mermaid in the bath. But ‘Cassandra’ developed into more of a definite thing studying at art school. My tutors were very critical of my paintings of women, and didn’t really understand them: they felt they were old fashioned, traditional, sexist, objectifying, and from a heterosexual male perspective, because they were sexy women. They were very out of place compared to the popular modernist style everyone else I knew was into.

When one of my tutors, Sarah Dobai, mentioned in my tutorial “I see these paintings as kind of self-portraits” it shocked me and kind of reiterated to me a notion that I’d entertained only briefly — that these were a kind of transgender gesture of myself in some way.

So I actually started dressing up again as a reference to the women in my paintings: to articulate and describe a queer perspective to my tutors — that there are alternative ways of looking at sexy women aside from the popular art theory that is the “male gaze” (that men present women as sexual objects and sexy women are the product of men, and women see their own selves through this male gaze refracted). There is the way women look at women, the way gay men look at women, the way transgender women look at women, which spun off into investigating the phenomena of gay icons, usually women who are adored by gay men, and the psychology behind it, and I started looking into things like Carl Jung, psychoanalysis, female consumption of fashion magazines and female images, and the autoeroticism and power of Madonna.

So Cassandra was born out of my artistic journey, and I’m not sure I consider her a completely fabricated persona as much as my own transgender expression. Perhaps the dream I had when I was a child of who I could be if I were a woman.

What does drag mean for you?

For me personally it is a fascinating thing. I do believe it is heavily embedded in the gay man’s psychic relationship to women. But also now many women themselves are doing drag — because the drag persona isn’t synonymous with how a woman actually is in everyday life as such — it’s like the superwoman you create.

Drag means something different for everyone but for me it means a divine female essence, created with imagination, craftsmanship, art, and an aspiration towards the sublime. There’s also the famous argument that everything is drag really, whenever you put on any item of clothing, it moulds you into that character for the particular day: a business suit, a nun’s outfit, etc. Drag as a medium is perhaps a truth-telling: a reminder of the nature of artifice in our world, and that everything is artifice. Not to say it is superficial however, I think of artifice and the masks we wear as symbolic and as a secret code or language.

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credits: Lukas Viar

What are your drag influences?

All the fabulous women and female icons I have seen in my life. Lara Croft, Madonna, Pamela Anderson as Barb Wire, Kate Bush, Brigitte Bardot, the Bond women in the opening credits. Grace Jones. Candy Darling, the transsexual Warhol superstar was hugely influential to me in terms of my actual drag.

And also my mother, who was very beautiful and glamorous (and still is). She was very into fashion and always had pictures of women around and female nude paintings by Gustav Klimt. But when I was a child I also saw her as powerful. She was very outspoken and would not to be afraid to complain, or even go into my school and tell the teachers whom I feared off! I think that is the biggest influence on me — that from my mother I associated glamorous women with power, rather than “objectified”.

Which other drag queens do you admire and look up to?

I love Lady Bunny, she is so hilarious and cheeky and tells the truth! Divine is so cool. I don’t actually watch RuPaul’s Drag Race that much, but I love the archive footage of RuPaul himself in New York on YouTube, that’s fascinating to see, I love how raw but sexy she looks and the simplicity and that whole creative era in the clubs. There’s an innocence and mystery about it. She’s in some great outfits too and it’s cool to see her at that time hustling and striving to make it big.

How do you identify yourself and how would you describe your drag style?

In my daily life I identify myself as a he, and in drag it’s nice to be called she, or even HE-SHE, as it has the sound of an alien creature…. I’d describe my drag style as glamorous. Whether other people agree is a different story! I can also be very messy! But also surreal and about imagination.

How was working with Jonny Woo and A Man to Pet?

I have worked with Jonny Woo only briefly but it was a pleasure, and I see him around every now and then. I admire him greatly as a performer and someone who has been around for a long, long time in the scene, and done a variety of creative works! The creation of The Glory has been great and I think it’s one of the greatest places in London to go. He also took me for Tonkotsu Noodles down the road from The Glory to talk about doing his “Big Gay Songbook” night on the piano, and I was actually kind of nervous! I was dropping noodles all out of my mouth and he handled his noodles so well. I haven’t had a second date with him though? I last saw him in Alexis Greogry’s fantastic Sex Crime play and he was genuinely excellent playing the role of a tortured sadomasochist.

I loved to work with A Man To Pet! He is one of my favourite drag queens. I find him not only comedic but psychedelic and surreal like a dream or movie. He cast me as “Cassandra as Simon”, the disciple, in his play about The Last Supper which was a combination of music, madness and performance. He was a very good director of lots of people, and I also played the piano for him. It was so fun! We were also both performers at Deep Trash: Greek Trash, which is where I first met him in person. I love his Run Baby Run cover on YouTube and his performances at Tony Hornecker’s Pale Blue Door.

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credits: Lukas Viar

Are you a queer feminist?

I tend not to think about my identity in that regard so much, though in many ways I think I am certainly “queer” as in growing up different to the norm and it being tied to my sexuality in a mysterious way. If I meet chauvinist men I feel impassioned to reiterate the ideas of feminism, and feel feminist, and become angry with their attitudes: but equally, within some feminist circles, I feel there’s a big amount of dogma and it swings so far the other way it condemns all men unfairly when there are lots of good men, and sometimes even condemns other *women* in a way that doesn’t seem at all supportive of women, like certain feminists criticising porn actresses, or sexually exhibitionist women, or calling women bimbos, which makes me shun the label of feminism, though third wave feminism seems to have incorporated autonomous sexual women into its lexicon, so it depends on the context. Maybe I’m just contrarian. I feel I have to go against whatever is popular or is the prevailing mood because when things become popular like that people’s minds become automatic almost like robots: like with a checklist, simply listing off points on their manifesto in a debate, mechanically without thinking. Like bias.

I also sometimes wonder, what actually is feminism? You can have two feminists who’s feminist politics couldn’t be more different, and you wonder what the common thread is, other than a vague engagement with women’s issues, or the ontology of woman.

But maybe that’s like any IST OR ISM OR IAN. You can have two Christians who’s attitudes are polar opposite but both in the name of God. But I’m a person who doesn’t identify with groups so much. I have always been a more on my own kind of person, or outside the group. Even on a social level I find it hard to integrate sometimes, though most people would describe me as gregarious!

But anyway, I think I am probably a “feminist” in the grand historical scheme of things: I love strong and defiant women, and all of my heroes are women, and I believe all career possibilities should be available to women of course. I support women, whether or not you call it feminism, and there’s many complicated issues there like the intersectionality aspect for example: that women are not one homogeneous group and what some high flying careerist feminists priorities and fight for will be the least of the worries of a working class woman for example.

My favourite feminist is Camille Paglia, whom I’d always been aware of peripherally because of Madonna, but it was only about two years ago that I properly investigated her. Her ideas when I read them I couldn’t believe how much I identified with, it’s like she articulated many things I *felt* instinctively since I was young. She defends the sexy woman and is very pro-art, pro-sex, pro-emotion, pro-freedom of expression, and delves into ancient history to explain our current phenomenas like popular culture as an eruption of paganism. She’s definitely helped me to verbally defend myself where once some of my artistic contemporaries were extremely critical and looked down on my art.

Have you experiences any homophobia or bullying in your life?

I guess so but I’m lucky it’s not something that has affected me too much I don’t think. I am very lucky to have found like-minded people, and that there has been so much social progression in my lifetime. When it has happened though it makes me angry in the moment, that the person could know so little about the world to have those attitudes, and I want to get a whip or stun gun and teach them a lesson! But philosophically outside of my emotions I look in broader terms: it’s a wider issue, like lack of education about ART and REAL history, and anthropology and human sexuality and how moral codes are subjective and vary across different cultures and how some are almost universal, learning about all those things expand your mind and I think would make people realise the frivolousness of their stigmas. All those topics you never cover in school. And I feel many people won’t endeavour to learn about those things unless you’re forced on a path of investigation because you’re “queer” or not even queer but different in some way, or have a curious or open mind.

I have experienced and seen bullying in institutions like school or work which isn’t nice as you’re trapped in that environment with them. I think you have to assert yourself with those people when you can though, and hopefully there are people around you that will back you up. I was still working as a waiter at the beginning of the year, and there was a constantly goading and tyrannical head chef who no one dared answer to, he kept shouting at me and talking to me like an idiot. Anyway I totally flipped out at him and shocked him, and he never talked down to me again afterwards! He was a nice person in real life, but being a chef seems to bring out the egomaniac side of people! Maybe he felt he had to act that way to maintain control of possible chaos in the kitchen.

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credits: Lukas Viar

What are the similarities that you have with your drag persona?

I’d say I’m actually similar in terms of personality, maybe with more of a DRAWL when I’m speaking and I become very seductive with men! I’m very adventurous and love to have fun.

How different do you feel when you are on drag?

It does feel very different having long hair or big mounds of hair on your head. I feel like I have extra essence, and there’s more to work with a swing about. It’s a more flamboyant experience. And I feel different maybe because I know people are perceiving me different. And I mean I feel like a glamorous SUPERWOMAN and more obviously colourful than when I’m a boy, though I love to be a boy as well. I think it’s more easy for me to cover my emotions or vulnerability when I’m in drag.

Tell me more about Cassandra’s Palace event. What is it and how did you manage to make everyone talk about you?

Are they? If they were then probably by being an insane nutcase bitch! Probably because everyone was surprised and excited I had my own night, and that the things in it like the alien sex room sounded very intriguing to people! I was asked to do it after Dyllan Zain and Henry Bennett were DJing at Vogue Fabrics for DRAG SYNDROME and they saw me performing my own electronic song “I Met A Libertine, Out In Italy”. They said they vibed with my new wave style and found it a very different and progressive form of drag.

I envisaged the event as an homage to crazy nights like Studio 54 and Paradise Garage in New York which is my fantasy, where in the stories I’ve heard anything goes and there’s less rules and restrictions and it’s very on the edge. I wanted art performances too so people could lose themselves and inspire their imagination. I had Jonathan Graham who painted himself blue and was in chains roaming around reading his amazing poetry, my friend Ardita Demie as a geisha doing a performance symbolising ostracisation, and Stella Meltdown (my drag sis) throwing DAZ washing detergent everywhere to Madonna causing two people to leave.

The alien sex room I mentioned was also decorated with second hand dildos I took from my waitering friend who no longer wanted them!Also to fill the space I used vegetables like cucumbers, broccoli, and cauliflowers, to simulate the look of an alien terrain. I find there to be something alien about vegetables.

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credits: Lukas Viar

What is the source of this endless energy you have?

Ah!!!! I feel energetic when I am inspired, and there is inspiration everywhere! But I do get tired as well and make sure I can rest and get sleep. I do like to rest and laze around.

What has been the best and the worst reaction to the drag that Cassandra represents?

Best reaction is when people are inspired, or turned on, or just love it. “Worst reaction” maybe when people say it’s disgusting in the street but I don’t care as that’s on them and their demon and they’re really turned on probably, but the most interesting reaction was a few months ago a lady at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club for the Disco 54 night I was performing at, asking me “why the hell are you upholding the patriarchy by wearing those high heels and that make-up”, but ended up telling me after we’d had a lengthy debate that she’s extremely turned on by me in that moment and was so bummed out she knew I didn’t fancy her back because I’m into guys! I actually think that bit about the patriarchy was just a pick-up line she had.

Would you ever consider going to RuPaul’s Drag Race?

Possibly! I think a UK one would be very interesting, the American one is great with some great queens but I think a UK one would be extremely alternative, experimental and subversive, because of the vibrant array of queens here especially in East London doing all sorts of crazy stuff!

What is your opinion about Vanity Von Glow appearance in a far right propaganda rally?

It’s difficult. I’m in two minds. I think we should uphold and celebrate that we have freedom of speech in the UK, and the liberalism we enjoy is a part of this political characteristic. In a way Vanity is upholding the left-wing defence of free speech, and I know she is a Labour voter. But there’s also the argument that these far right figures are only campaigning for free speech as they’re pissed that they can’t say anything hateful they want without the consequence of people challenging them, because actually they DO already have free speech.

At the same time, it IS a problem in our community, or maybe society at large, that often when people have a different opinion, they’re ganged up on and torn to shreds on social media! And there’s worse things that can happen to you but let’s face it no one enjoys that, so people are too afraid to speak.

And that’s not good or healthy for the development of ideas, if people are too afraid to put forward controversial yet ingenious ideas in case they’re chastised or ostracised.

Germaine Greer for example, I disagree with a lot of the things she says, but I don’t agree either with her being no-platformed, because we need her ideas in the public sphere, so we can scrutinise them honestly and challenge them and challenge our own ideas too.

I feel like no-platforming people and making people too afraid to speak will just create an environment where people keep their mouth shut, and then when an opportunity like the alt-right occurs where there’s more allies, they’ll maybe be lured in and tempted and jump onto that side or something. People’s political persuasions can definitely sway, and they’re not fixed like some peoples’ allegiances.

I believe in freedom of speech, but as with any freedom there is risk: indoctrination or spread of pernicious ideas for example. So I think the best thing would be, rather than censorship, an improvement in our critical thinking skills, to discern between what is good free speech and what is bad or fallacious free speech. Most of us are prone to bias or religious thinking, and only want to listen to things we already agree with to some degree.

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credits: Lukas Viar

Is it difficult for a drag queen to be in a relationship?

I’m single right now but I don’t think so! I’ve chatted to guys and showed them my drag stuff: there was one guy who never spoke to me again after I showed him but others love it! Maybe two competitive drag queens in a relationship or something would be difficult. Also I tend to not hit it off with people who aren’t open minded or don’t have some kind of spirit about them in the first place. There are also a plethora of straight guys who are into drag queens or crossdressers — like big muscly guys — they are fascinated and turned on — I’ve met up with some — but I assume for them it’s just occasional fun, I can’t imagine having a relationship with one and being in my drag all the time? Unless they fell for me. We could have a special alternative kind of relationship where I’m like a magical girl who can only exist on certain days. Like Daryl Hannah in Splash where she’s a mermaid but the drag queen version. Or Cinderella and then I have to go and whip my wig off. Some guys I’ve met like it when I whip my wig off half way through actually though which is fascinating. I’d love to do a study on it, this phenomena, of t-girls and otherwise straight men.

What are your future plans?

Get my music out there to millions of people and be an electro drag queen singer and influence the world with my ideas!

Follow Cassandra here:

www.instagram.com/stephen_eyre_

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