By Jason Kron, June 2020 Issue.
Centuries from now, when schoolchildren are learning about the weird period of isolation in which we live and the art that came out of this time, they will learn about heroic drag performers who worked their butts off to keep us in decent spirits.
While we’re all still dealing with the initial shock of having to stay indoors for god knows how long because life has turned into The Stand, entertainers are amongst those who’ve had to deal with the additional stress of figuring out how to make a living. As Peaches Christ (aka Joshua Grannell) points out in this interview, drag performers were one of the first groups to zero in on streaming productions. RuPaul’s annual DragCon was online this year and drag performers across the world have collaborated on recurring shows, each individual performing from their own homes and providing us with irreverent joy when we need it most.
One of the shining achievements of this wave of creations is WQUR: Queer Quarantine Radio, a podcast that’s narrated by musician/writer/performer Major Scales, and stars Peaches Christ, Jinkx Monsoon (who won season five of RuPaul’s Drag Race) and BenDeLaCreme (who should’ve won season 3 of Drag Race All Stars but left midway through the season because she felt she had accomplished all that she needed to?! What?!?!). Collaborating from four different cities, they’ve concocted a brilliant throwback to the style of 1940s radio, from voice inflection to wacky sound effects. Subject matter gravitates from detective noir to old-timey sitcom to murder mystery, with fake commercials throughout that are only slightly weirder than real commercials from that time. Naturally, everything is seasoned with delightful crassness that would make your grandparents go on a tirade about Godlessness in our world, which is always a sign of quality art.
Residing in San Francisco, Peaches has spent decades directing campy horror movies, creating drag-centered stage show remakes of the best films of yesteryear (Sister Act, Hocus Pocus, and Grey Gardens being amongst them), hosting film nights that honor the best of trash cinema, creating immersive theater projects, and a plethora of other projects that are out the window for the time being. But like other drag performers, it didn’t take long for her to utilize the potential of our current technology to keep making her work available.
Being obsessed with both horror and drag, I hold Peaches Christ in the highest possible regard and was pleasantly nervous to interview her face-to-face via Zoom. As a nerd myself, it was refreshing to have a conversation with someone who’s such an enthusiastic nerd about what she loves, and someone who can eloquently explain how those things have saved her life and can save others as well.
Echo: What initially got you into drag?
Peaches Christ: I’ve always been a flamboyant kid, and I got into drag after already expressing an obsession with horror and with anything unusual. I grew up loving Elvira, which I look back on and say, “Oh, that was drag!” But it wasn’t until going to junior high in Maryland that I discovered the movie Hairspray. It was so mind-blowing that this group of people was making movies in the town that I grew up in. Hollywood seemed a million miles away, and meanwhile here was this larger-than-life character called Divine who everyone was celebrating. It was something for Maryland to be proud of. Then I discovered The Rocky Horror Picture Show. So for me, Divine and Frank N. Furter were my gateway into the world of drag and defined what it was. When I started doing drag in college, it was completely inspired by cult movies.
What was the creative process for the Queer Quarantine project like?
Jinkx, Ben, and I were rehearsing for a stage show called Drag Becomes Her at The Castro Theatre. On March 12we found out that we weren’t going to have our show on March 14, since they were shutting everything down. The three of us were talking in our text thread about being in this weird state of not knowing what to do, and our friend Major Scales is the one who had the idea to do an old-timey radio show that we can record in our individual spots. We each took a stab at writing a different script, then we’d rewrite each other’s work, so we each had a hand in every show.
Who were your influences for this project? Did you have any influences from that particular era of old-timey radio?
I’m not as familiar with the actual radio shows from the era, but I am obsessed with movies, and am familiar with movies like Radio Days, so I have a romantic idea of what it would be like to create those kinds of shows. Film noir also plays a part, and the next episode goes in a much spookier direction, inspired by ‘40s horror.
How can horror help with coping with the current state of the world?
I was drawn to horror as a kid who was bullied, and at least for me, horror served as a safe place to exorcise fear and anxiety. Some people think that obsession with horror is unhealthy, and I would say that it’s actually the opposite. The genre really helped me fantasize safely about dealing with bullies and monsters, and also romanticized the power of the female lead scream queen. As an effeminate kid, I really identified with the girls in horror movies, the strength of a girl like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. I think those movies do wonders for kids like myself. It’s when you don’t have those outlets that things become a little more problematic.
Same question but related to drag. How can the aesthetic and philosophy of drag help people deal with what’s going on?
Both horror and drag both offer escape and fantasy, and a revisionist idea of what the world can be like. A lot of the great drag numbers I’ve seen lately deal with the quarantine and the anxiety of what we’re dealing with but using comedy to wink at the audience and say, “Hey, we’re all in this together.” There’s this joy that drag can bring to an ugly situation.
I’ve been around long enough to remember that even when people were dying of HIV in the ‘80s, there was a way that drag brought comedy to the situation. I remember having straight friends once be mortified by this queen Timmy Spence who went on this rant about AIDS, but this was a person who had been in the hospital three times on her deathbed and survived, and then she would do a character called Dina Aids. For that audience of gay men who were struggling, that kind of laughter and cathartic release was really healthy and special. I think drag really allows for that.
With these digital drag shows, I feel like drag performers were the first people to say, “Oh we’re stuck in quarantine? Okay, well we’re going to have a fucking show online.” They figured out a way around it immediately.
Can you explain the importance of trash?
In the pop culture lexicon of films and music, I think “trash” movies are often misunderstood, and I think those films and books and music are the things that speak to us weirdos. People hated Showgirls when it came out, but then there was this other group of us who thought it was amazing. So in that way, I feel like trash offers an inside joke and a community to people who don’t see things through a mainstream lens.
Keeping in mind that it’s difficult to plan anything right now, what are your future artistic plans?
As far as stuff that’s going on while all of this is happening, now that everything’s gone online, my friend Vinsantos and I are going to launch a new film festival called Dead Carpet, and it’s us wanting filmmakers to make movies now, alone, in quarantine. We hope to put a submission call out soon, and then host a film festival of work made while we’re all stuck at home. I don’t think live events are going to be back to normal for a long time, which is how I make a living. I’ve been writing two different movie scripts and one TV show, and that’s the best I can do right now.
What should we do to fight for what’s right?
I am so disillusioned by the Democratic Party right now. I’m definitely a believer that anything is better than Trump, but in this rock-bottom moment that the whole world is in together, my hope is that there’s some sort of revolution, because the American Status Quo is not working, Republican or Democratic. There are 75 billionaires in San Francisco, and none of them have done anything for COVID relief, even though this city is being destroyed. I don’t know how a revolution will take place, but it will take more than just ousting Trump. We’ve got to fucking destroy everything and start over. We can’t go back to normal.
I’m not saying we should go out and start Civil War, but my hope is that there’s a groundswell of intelligent rallying around dismantling the system we have. There are some decent politicians and there are decent groups like The Justice Democrats who vet these politicians, so we can elect people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We can align ourselves with politicians who actually are working in the people’s best interest, and one way to do that is to follow the money and realize that corporations are the problem.
People aren’t able to apply critical thinking to their situation. We’ve raised generations on shitty television, so people believed that a reality TV star had real brains or power, but really all he did was fire people. We’ve short-changed people by underfunding education and by not valuing critical thinking.
Look at the queer movement of the ‘80s, when people were dying of AIDS, and how much thought and organization and dialogue there was around anything an ACT UP meeting did. We don’t have that now, people freak out on the internet and twenty-four hours later they’re onto the next thing. We need to sit and organize and be thoughtful about it.
Finally, do you have any life advice?
I have too many friends who let go of what their interests were in exchange for some sort of job security, and now we’re in a pandemic. One thing I’m grateful for is that I’ve never pursued the plan that other people thought I should. I’ve always just gone with my heart and have no regrets there. I never set out to have a career, I just did what I wanted to do, whether it was performing or making movies or putting on a stage show with friends. Follow what you love, and if you’re passionate and excited about it, things will work out. Life is short, so do what you want. Fuck this idea of needing to worry about the status quo. It’s very irresponsible advice!