By Jim Gladstone
“When I was a child, I was the gayest little boy in the world,” recalled the London-bred, LA-based photographer Magnus Hastings in a recent phone interview. “I liked to dress as a girl, but as I got older I got shamed out of it by my parents. Which is ironic, because my parents are quite liberal.”
But Hastings’ fascination with boys in frocks proved unrelenting.
Now 42, the self-trained photographer has—after frustrating experiences in shooting for advertising agencies and fashion companies—a blossoming career as the world’s foremost drag portraitist.
“I’ve become an observer instead of a participant,” Hastings says. But he feels so intimately simpatico with the queens he shoots that such a division seems overstated.
With the vibrancy of David LaChappelle’s work, but none of its jaundiced cynicism, Hastings’ best images feel like true collaborations with his subjects, drenched in mutual affection.
So expect a cheeky, freaky lovefest at the launch parties for of Hastings’ first book—Why Drag? (from local publisher Chronicle Books)—on May 20 at The Stud in San Francisco and June 5 at Industry in New York. Along with the photographer, a significant sampling of the 135 queens featured in his stunningly produced coffee table volume will be on hand with performances guaranteed to put some zoom in your lens.
While RuPaul’s Drag Race may lately be making drag look like a steppingstone to fame and fortune, Hastings emphasizes that “Many of these guys are just dedicated to the pure artistry of drag. They don’t make much money at their jobs, but they’ll work all week and spend a lot of what they make to put together an outfit for a single performance.”
In exchange for appearing in the book, Hastings—who has had his own periods of financial struggle amidst the superficial glamour of his work—gave each queen a selection of images to use in their own publicity. He has more formal business relationships with a few performers, including break out RuPaul’s Drag Race star Courtney Act, with whom he creates images for licensed products (There must be someone on your gift list who needs a Courtney Act shower curtain, no?).
Accompanying the portraits in Why Drag? are the subjects’ brief answers to the book’s titular—pun intended—question.
“Because it pays the bills. Hah!” says goth-beauty Abominatrix. “I use drag as an outlet for my creativity and as a way to express myself as a walking installation. Not everyone appreciates it…but it’s the one thing I’ve found in my life that continues to keep me happy.”
“Creating chaos for a better tomorrow,” answers Porcelain from San Francisco, “Warping the mind of reality and pissing on sadness. Being a kaleidoscope of unusual attraction. Questioning my existence in a world full of monkeys.”
Perusing the book thoroughly, readers will take note of how much more the participants speak in terms of art, creativity, and happiness than about gender.
“I love the new generation of drag queen,” says Hastings, “where each performance can be totally different. There’s not necessarily the need for a queen to even stick to a single specific persona. I love queens like Grace Towers, who can wear a beautiful dress and heels with a full beard and hairy legs. It’s not about making anyone think you’re a biological woman.”
It’s also, Hastings, emphasizes, not about thinking of yourself as a biological woman.
“I feel like straight people are getting confused between transgender people and drag queens. I’ve had people ask me if Caitlin is in my book. Of course she isn’t.
Keep reading after the jump…
I don’t want to confuse the issues. This is a different ball game.”
In his introduction, Hastings writes, “a drag queen is generally a gay man who happily lives as a man but has an alter-ego, much like a superhero.”
As to his personal preferences in drag performance, Hastings says he’s ready to leave as soon as he sees an electric fan placed on the stage and hears the first few beats of a Beyonce song.
He also has a strong preference for lip-syncing over live singing: “When I see a drag queen, I want to hear a woman’s voice. And men don’t have women’s voices. It breaks the illusion for me. It’s like going to a wedding and they have a live band playing cover versions of hit songs. It doesn’t matter how good the band is — why don’t you just have a DJ play the original recording?”
“When its done well, lip sync is the most phenomenally funny thing. You can be in a potato sack if your lip sync’s right. The trick is to get the breathing right. You have to match the singer’s breathing as well as her lips. If you can do that, it’s complete magic.”