Violet Chachki on the Art of Drag
The drag superstar talks about queerness, families, and her tribute to the transgressive artist Pierre Molinier.
Jun 16, 2021
A still from Violet Chachki’s “Whatever Violet Wants” video
Isabel Custodio: Take me through the genesis of this project. How did you choose “Whatever Violet Wants”?
Violet Chachki: I’ve always loved the Sarah Vaughan cover of “Whatever Lola Wants.” I think I first heard it in the movie Kinky Boots, which is about a drag queen who opens a shoe factory in the UK. It’s a very drag, sort of fetishy song about getting what you want and being confident. My drag character is very dominant and domineering, and that’s a quality that I am inspired by. When I see strong, confident women who really know what they want and get what they want, that’s the kind of woman that inspires my drag, so putting a new spin on “Whatever Lola Wants” and doing “Whatever Violet Wants” felt very appropriate.
You’ve said that this video is a celebration of the artist Pierre Molinier’s ideas. How do you see the themes of his work in relation to your drag?
I’ve always been into subcultures. In the ’50s and ’60s, what Pierre Molinier was doing was super subculture—he was taking self-portraits, it was very private, very intimate. I think that’s actually how I started my drag—in my bedroom, taking MacBook self-portraits. There’s something really intimate about getting in drag in your bedroom in the safety of your own home. Especially for me, as a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old taking self-portraiture. That’s one of the ways that I see me and Molinier’s work overlap.
I also identify with his surreal aspects. I think his work has a real escapism to it, which is another thing that I love about drag. You literally get to escape and become someone else and go into a different world. The surreal aspect that Molinier brings into his pieces transports you. The fact that he was doing them before Photoshop—cutting up negatives and creating these surreal images by hand—is just so cool to me. I discovered him right around the time that I was getting into drag and getting into celebrating my feminine side and getting into escapism as a form of therapy.
I see myself in him a lot. I think there’s something really exciting about fetish gear and high heels. He would use a lot of props and fetish imagery—there’s something counterculture and taboo about it. I always have been excited by taboo things, especially growing up, going to Catholic school. And I think that was something that he thought was exciting as well, being a bit naughty, I guess. You’re not supposed to do these things, so you do them in private.
You were able to use some of Molinier’s actual props in the video. How did that opportunity come about? Were you working with his estate?
There was actually an auction a few years ago of his estate, and there were so many props, and shoes, and masks, and everything. I was devastated because I wasn’t in Paris to go to the auction and buy something, because that would be my dream, to own one of the props. Everyone in Paris was going crazy for it at the time, and I think the props just got bought out by everybody and dispersed around Paris. I know Christian Louboutin bought some stuff.
I don’t know exactly who we bought the props from, but it was one of the video’s director’s friends who was at the auction and bought a bunch of the props. We were so, so lucky to have some of the actual pieces. It was so cool to be able to wear them. And, of course, we handled them with great care and respect. But I’m hoping one day I’ll be able to purchase a prop of his myself.
“Whatever Violet Wants”
Throughout the video, you go back and forth between being in and out of drag. It almost gives you another character: a desirer and a desired. Can you walk me through the decision to portray yourself that way?
I think it’s nice to showcase yourself as you are. Drag queens are celebrated so much on stage and when we’re presenting as our most creative selves. But it is jarring being onstage in front of 5,000 people, and then—it’s really cliché—but you go back to your hotel and you’re all alone. It’s difficult to be celebrated in drag and then be way less celebrated out of drag. I think I’m also making a conscious decision as I get older to take time for myself and to celebrate myself without makeup—to showcase my natural beauty, I guess, even for my own enjoyment, and to document myself outside of drag and where I’m at in my boy self. Even just posting a boy selfie on Instagram, I lose, usually, thousands of followers. So it is an interesting conversation to think about.
I can just hear the video’s director, Ali Mahdavi, in his thick French accent: “You are such a beautiful boy as well.” [In the video] he made the decision to start off out of drag, and then get a little distorted in the middle, and then toward the end in more full high drag. I think that adds a surreal element that’s in touch with Molinier’s. There’s even one part where there are two of me out of drag, licking myself in drag.
Unlike your video for “A Lot More Me,” where these intricate, colorful sets play such an important role, your video for “Whatever Violet Wants,” like a lot of Molinier’s work, really came together in post-production. Can you talk about that process and how you wanted the video to visually echo Molinier’s work?
I never thought of taking one of Molinier’s images and making it move. And that was Ali’s idea, to take his work and make it even more interesting as a video, because we’ve only seen his work as a still before. So, it was definitely a struggle, and it took a very, very long time, and lots of convincing and throwing money at it. It was definitely difficult to get the post-production correct. Like I said, it’s not the most CGI-gorgeous stuff either, but again, I think that lends itself to Molinier’s work. Even just all the green screen work and getting my lips to be separated and then getting me to kiss myself, it is a lot of finessing. I mean, I’m not Beyoncé. I don’t have, like, endless amounts of post-production money either. But it’s nice because Molinier’s work is a little DIY and a little cut-and-paste. In his work you can really see the scissor snips and all those things. I like that the video echoes that.
From left: “Whatever Violet Wants”; Pierre Molinier. Le Double. 1966
You’ve said that drag is all about taking references from pop culture and flipping them on their heads. You’ve specifically cited Erté, Tom of Finland, Busby Berkeley, John Willie, and Dita Von Teese as inspirations. These aren’t pop culture figures that you’re going to find in a lot of mainstream discussions. I’m curious where you first encountered these figures and where you continue to find inspiration for your work.
I am a child of the Internet. Tumblr is really what changed the game for me. I got exposed to things in print as well. I remember seeing Heatherette in my friend’s Teen Vogue, and little things like that. But what took it off for me was the Internet. I would see something on Tumblr that I liked, and it would have a little caption. Then I would Google the caption, and then I would find more stuff. And it just kept building and building.
And then even with Tumblr, you can like something. So you have an archive of all these things that you’ve discovered. I still, to this day, will go back to my old Tumblr, even though there’s lots of vintage porn that has been removed, and the smutty stuff I liked—John Willie or Tom of Finland—is no longer allowed on Tumblr.
And I hate that I’m saying “the Internet,” because I’m really old school. And I do not relate to the youth of today, as far as TikTok and what today’s version of Tumblr, Instagram, or MySpace would be. I was at the right place at the right time as far as the Internet is concerned.
Drag is something that I do to escape, to relieve, to celebrate.
From left: “Whatever Violet Wants”; Pierre Molinier. Etoile des Six. 1965
Drag feels like the most personal and all-consuming art form. You’re responsible for the complete invention and presentation of a persona. I’m wondering if this makes evolution harder as an artist. Does it ever feel like it’s difficult to experiment because there’s an expectation of who Violet Chachki is, and what a Violet Chachki show might look like?
I don’t like to experiment too much, for a couple of reasons. One is that there are just so many drag queens. And there are a lot of drag queens who I don’t think would’ve doing drag even five or six years ago. The acceptance level and the work in the industry has come so far in such a short amount of time that it has become completely oversaturated. So you really have to pick something and stick with it, because you’re bound to get mistaken for someone else. That’s the worst feeling—it has happened to me so many times, where I’m out at an event and I get mistaken for another drag queen.
So you have to have a style and stick with it, and be the best at it. That’s what I try to do: know who I am, and deliver at all times. At the end of the day, show business is a business, and it costs. Drag is really expensive, and you have to stand out if you want to get work and be the best in whatever style you’re doing. Drag, for me, is not a forever thing. Glamour and escapism are the principles that I will always be in search of, whether it’s drag or a different sort of creative outlet. I’m trying to get all of the things I want to do done while I still have interest in the art form.
You have said that your Digital Follies show, for example, is allowing you to document a very specific point in your career. I’m wondering how this relates to your use of references and your sources of inspiration, because so many of them come from an era when documentation, at least relative to now, was scarce. Are you thinking about the documentation you’ve missed from these sources or what you’re leaving for the future?
Yeah. I think that I also like to come back to things and do them better. For example, I did an Erté number in 2012, but it was horrible because I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t have the experience of drag to execute the vision. And so I constantly revisit ideas and try to do them better.
For me, documentation is super important. I am planning on doing a book at some point. I also want to have a lot of footage, so we’re constantly taking behind-the-scenes videos. Of course, there’s also the wardrobe. I feel like I’m running a small museum with these clothes—keeping track and taking care of everything is such a chore, and making sure all of that stuff is preserved and documented. It is important to me to archive everything and to sort of check all the boxes of the things that I want to do and document them properly. One day, maybe there’ll be a retrospective. I have no idea.
Violet Chachki’s “Whatever Violet Wants” music video. 2021. Directed by Ali Mahdavi
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