Miss Gay USofA Missouri 2020, Charmed and Dangerous, Holly Haliwell lives in Herrin IL, where she still finds ways to perform across Southern Illinois. She doesn’t like to place her drag in one specific box and instead combines different styles.
Transcription of above micro-podcast:
Carson Brimm: On March 30, 2021 I had the pleasure of interviewing Holly Haliwell, a drag queen currently living in Herrin IL. She began performing in drag when she was 21 years old. I asked Holly about what drag means to her and really enjoyed speaking with her about her experiences.
Holly Haliwell: It wasn’t me like wanting to transition or anything to gender dysphoria or any type of big extreme it was just my it was a version of performance for me and so its me its for me anyways drag is me putting on a character and stepping into that character for an evening or a show or a period of time and I put on that persona and at the end of the night it all comes off and that’s not the case for everybody some people use it as a way to uh cope and and uh get to understand more of their gender identity and whatnot and its kind of like a stepping stone that’s fine and that’s great but that’s not what it is for me but
Interview with Holly Haliwell
To cite this particular interview, please use the following:
Brimm, Carson, 2021. Interview with Holly Haliwell. The Art of Drag, SIUE, March 30, 2021. Available URL (https://ezratemko.com/drag/holly-haliwell).
Holly: I’m Holly Haliwell. I guess you wanna go with the drag name?
Holly: I’m Holly Haliwell, drag performer, drag queen. I don’t know what else you want me to say introductory wise.
Carson: I think that’s good. Anything else you want to talk about we can talk about in the questions.
Holly: That works.
Carson: Okay. When did you first hear about drag and what was your initial reaction to it?
Holly: Um I guess my first exposure to drag was when I first went out to, started going to the bars um in Carbondale you can get into certain clubs at 19 so um I had recently moved down to southern Illinois area didn’t know many people so but I had heard of one local gay bar quote unquote gay bar in carbondale so I- I went uh shy little 19 year old to that bar and saw my first drag show there um with some of the local legends and uh fell in love. It was not a hard jump for me because i grew up in the theatre world in the performing world and for a while I had been on the production side of things and so I saw this new form of performance and thought it would be a great way for me to kind of dive back in to the onstage stuff versus the offstage side that I had been kind of accustomed to previously.
Carson: How did your friends, family, or loved ones react to you being a drag artist?
Holly: Um I guess friend wise I stayed kind of within my circle and so I had bar friend and—and, and that kind of community that I had developed and grown through a few years because I didn’t I started going out and being in the drag area and world kind of at 19 and slowly didn’t start performing until I was 21 so I befriended people and watched and and listened and and was a spectator for a while to kind of soak it all in and learn. And so when I finally said, “Okay, I want to try and do this” some of the queens were like, “Girl you don’t know what you’re in for. You don’t want to do this trust–trust me, you don’t want to do this.” Like okay I want to try though, still want to try.
Carson: Was one of them Blanche?
Holly: And [laughs] yes. they were they were supportive though and they helped get me into it. And family wise, I didn’t tell my family for a long time, um, and then when I finally uh I finally told my mom and she was kind of confused and wasn’t really sure like what all went into it or anything but after I showed her some pictures and and we kind of eased into it a little bit and kind of explained that it wasn’t–it wasn’t me like wanting to transition or anything to gender dysphoria or any type of big extreme it was just my, it was a version of performance for me and so its me its for me anyways drag is me putting on a character and stepping into that character for an evening or a show or a period of time and I put on that persona and at the end of the night it all comes off and that’s not the case for everybody some people use it as a way to uh cope and and uh get to understand more of their gender identity and whatnot and its kind of like a stepping stone. That’s fine, and that’s great for some people, but that’s not what it is for me.
Carson: Where does your drag name come from?
Holly: Um I am actually [laughs] a TV nerd and so the TV show charmed I grew up with and was kind of a big nerd when it came to that show. And so my favorite character of that TV show is uh, her name is Piper, Piper Haliwell. The show is about the sisters named the Haliwell sisters and the actress’s first name is Holly, Holly Marie Combs, and so I took Holly and Haliwell and put them together, and it fit for me because I really do love that show and it’s also about Paganism and witchcraft. Which I am a practicing Pagan, and so I took elements of that in my own personal life and try and incorporate in my drag persona.
Carson: So I know that there are a lot of like terms and types and styles of drag. Are there any particular labels you would use to characterize your drag?
Holly: Um I don’t like to say I fit any one specific box. I mean you have your pageant queens and your glamour queens and your camp queens and your comedy queens and all that and I think I take a little bit from each thing. Um, I’ve done pageants– I still do pageants—um, but I also, and so I have that glamour side and, but I also have more of the, like the Broadway stage theatre side when it comes to like acts, and so I can bring a little bit of comedy into my act as well. so I don’t think– great to have a niche, and I do– broadway and theatre will always be my go to. But I don’t try to limit myself to one specific box.
Carson: Who or what has influenced your drag? Besides Charmed of course [laughs].
Holly: [laughs] Right. Um I say theatre and, I mean theatre and just the Broadway world influenced my drag a lot. Um, one of the big aspects or–or attributes that I’m personally known for is my celebrity impersonation of Liza Minelli. Um, when I started drag people were like, “Oh you should try and do her.” And I’ll be honest, I didn’t know a lot about Liza. I was a bad theatre kid– bad young 19 year old theatre kid. But as I started researching more, um, I fell in love with her and I’ve embraced my celebrity doppelganger and have really dove into her style of theatre and her style of performance. And so even when I’m not doing Liza, I’ll find myself doing a gesture or a stylistic move that maybe she would do. So, I would say–and she’s helped actually–just being able to do that type of character has helped get me bookings and has helped progress and–and uh, push my drag career forward some. So I—I do my—I owe a lot of my skills to her, but I also want to like give credit where credit’s due and acknowledge the local entertainers that I drew from and helped me out as I got started. But just the local legends that I never really had—tangent, sorry–I never really had a specific like drag mother or a person that one specific person that took me under their wing.I had–I was lucky enough to have two or three, um, and that I took little bits and pieces from that helped inspire me to uh grow and um become the entertainer that I am today.
Carson: Do you consider your drag political or like drag in general?
Holly: Um, maybe not mine specifically, but I think drag as a whole inherently is is has a touch of politics to it. Um, some of the greatest um, historical moments, um, were pushed forward by drag queens. You look at things like Stonewall and gay rights movement and a lot of those fights for equality and um progress in the LGBT community were spearheaded by drag performers and drag artists specifically black trans drag people personas. And yes there is always going to be a note of politics to it, but it shouldn’t be what everybody totally focuses on because at the end of the day we’re also here to have fun. So its good to push boundaries here and remember what we’re fighting for. And we’ve made so much headway so far and then always continue but at the same time too its still good to be able to laugh and still be lighthearted.
Carson: Can you talk about like what your life is like as a drag artist like how often and where you perform, and what goes into getting ready for a performance?
Holly: Yeah um I obviously through the pandemic, we–performance has been limited but even before that, we–well personally, I wasn’t able to perform as much as I probably would have liked to. And that just has to do with the area that we’re in currently, um, with the one establishment that local establishment that we had [inaudible] closed down, and so we were kind of nomadic and jumping around from establishment to establishment, wherever we could find a place that would host a show here and there. So we didn’t really have a home per se, but we have been lucky enough over the past couple years to find a few, um, local kind of dive bar hole in the wall places that you wouldn’t even really expect to see a drag show. Like what would be considered super straight, kind of country bars, that actually have been very welcoming. There’s one in Hurst Illinois that we’ve done, and uh had many shows at, and they have become really welcoming. And it’s great to see some of these just odd towns, small towns, their, you know, side bars that have actually welcomed us in and wanted to see it and explore and just, again, want to come out and have fun. And that’s what, it’s all about at the end of the day. It was just coming out and having a good night. And then just outside of southern Illinois I’ve been fortunate to be able to do a little bit of traveling to other towns and around Cape Girardeau, Evansville, Indiana, um couple places in Tennessee and Kentucky, few other places in Missouri, so.
Carson: What are the biggest challenges to doing drag and being a drag artist?
Holly: Um honestly, it’s-it’s probably the preparation. Like I’ll be ready, I’ll get booked for a show and I’ll be like oh yeah I’m so excited for this show, and then the day comes—the day of comes and I’ll be like oh no I’m tired, I don’t want to do all this sh- at the end of the day, it is– its Holly and it’s a two plus hour process for me. And I know some people who can put on a 30 minute face and look gorgeous and whatever and that’s not me. I–I do like to take my time and uh I-it does involve some preparation, just physically and mentally, uh picking your numbers that you want to do, uh rehearsing those in your head and and and like trying words and all that. And then just physically sitting down and basically reshaping your whole entire face and physique to uh come and perform the illusion of a female impersonator, so.
Carson: How do you identify in terms of your sex?
Holly: I have some really big bushy eyebrows, too, so they take–they’re a good 15 to 20 minute process of making these disappear [laughs].
Carson: [laughs] sounds like so much fun.
Carson: How do you identify in terms of your sex, gender identity, or gender expression out of drag?
Holly: I identify as a male, cisgender male, um and I–people have, um, as time’s have gone on, people have reassessed the term of drag queen versus drag artist versus performer and all that. And I grew up kind of old school, and so I will always be queen. I don’t put labels, I mean I don’t find it necessary to be neutral when it comes to identity and things like that, um, at the end of the day I am a queen and I will be a queen. If you want to be an artist, that’s kind of–that’s fine. You can go be your artist, be your whatever but I’m royalty; I’ll be a queen [laughs]. Um but yeah out of drag I live my life as a cisgender male–gay male.
Carson: Like it’s weird because I know you but I still need to ask these [laughs].
Holly: Well yeah, I understand.
Carson: How has drag impacted your confidence as a person when you are out of drag?
Holly: I would say to an extent, I mean there’s—it, there’s the–a sense of um, once you get all in it there is a sense of kind of like I know a lot of people have used this term before but it’s almost a sense of armor. And you have this kind of protective forcefield on you, and so it is empowering to an extent, and it does help kind of bring out a new side of you that maybe you wouldn’t normally, in your everyday life, present. And so there’s this certain level of confidence, and and armor, that you put on, I guess when Holly comes out. And I can see that every now and then if like you’re in more of a hostile situation or you– you’re kind of in a confrontational situation in your everyday life, there’s times where you can kind of tap into that. Um, so to relate to and uh live your life but at the same time I, daily, normally, I–I’m an overall kind of quiet person. I like to classify myself as an extroverted introvert. I can be social and out there when I need to be, and when I have to be around people to be for work or for whatever and at the end of the day, I would rather like– I get peopled out and I need to be home, and be the introvert that I secretly am. And so Holly does bring out the more extroverted side of me and helps–and helps fuels that side.
Carson: All right here’s the Drag Race style question.
Holly: [laughs] Of course.
Carson: If you could go back in time as Holly, what advice would Holly give to your younger self?
Holly: Um, advice I’d give to my younger self. I would say just listen, listen. I see so many younger queens starting out too that, I guess you could talk about drag race for a second, that that’s the only type of drag they’ve ever seen. That’s the only drag they’ve ever been exposed to, and so they think that by watching that television show that they know—they know how it works and they know the ropes and everything. And drag race has– has helped bring drag into more of a mainstream territory and has in a sense exposed more people to drag, but what you see on that show isn’t necessarily–isn’t how it works in the day-to-day world. In the uh everyday drag performing world, that’s a lot more grandiose perspective and a more over the top–not everyone is spending thousands of dollars on outfits and and has a full stage and, you know, has hundreds of thousands of dollars in production and lighting and all that stuff, and a whole team to put their stuff together. So when you’re getting started, stay humble, and I would tell my younger self to stay humble and to listen to your mentors and to the people that are the seasoned queens that have done this and been around and—‘cause they know what they’re talking about and they’re going to help you. If you uh are receptive to it, if you are receptive to constructive criticism that you’re given.
Carson: How do you feel about drag race?
Holly: Um I mean I touched on that for a second but I can go into it a little bit more. Drag Race–I started drag, Drag Race had already premiered, I think they were in, I don’t know what they were in, but I was 21, so it was uh it was 2011 I think and season 1 of drag race was 2009 so they were in their third season or something. But it was still early on enough in the show’s run that it hadn’t kinda taken off, and so I started I thought—I think classify at the end of the old school age of drag where it was still a really much of a bar life type scene, a bar scene and a club scene. And I think that was a great time for me to start because I I I feel I benefited from not getting caught up in the whole Drag Race phenomenon. And Drag Race has been great again when it comes to bringing the style of drag and, and, how do I want to say this? It’s been great in bringing– teaching the world and teaching more mainstream audiences about what drag is. It’s been great for that, for that kind of exposure it’s been great. But at the same time it also has hindered wh–what people’s perceptions of drag can be, and now a lot of, you know, a lot of kids think oh I’ve seen it on drag race how hard can it be? I can go and in and you have your what I call Instagram drag performers that have never stepped foot on a stage in their lives but they have watched half a dozen YouTube makeup tutorials and can put on a clean and fun filter on Instagram and think, “Oooh [imitates taking a selfie] I’m amazing. I’m the shit. I’m a legend.” I feel like sometimes the word legend gets thrown around way too easily. I feel like it takes a little bit more to become a legend uh and a star and all that so it’s a double edged sword. I say Drag Race is a double edged sword. It has a lot of positivity on bringing the art form into the forefront of mainstream but it does have its disadvantages.
Carson: What are some other misconceptions you think people have about drag?
Holly: Um I’d say again, one of the most common that I encountered when I first started like I said before was um, “Oh you do drag. You wanna be a woman, right?” That’s just a common assumption. Oh, you dress up in a woman’s clothes. That means you want to be a woman right? And no, I had no– when I first started I had no interest in transitioning. I was very secure in my gender identity and sexuality and I was, uh, it was–I grew up in a theatre background, it was a character. And that’s what I saw it as. And uh another common misconception is that drag is and inherent, like, deviant and sexual thing. I’m sure there are some queens who do more risqué music, but that’s no different than turning on the radio and hearing Cardi B singing WAP or whatever. [both laugh] It’s—it’s really just what you make of it. There’s nothing inherently sexual about drag. It’s—it’s, what, performers performing. And plenty– I’ve done family friendly shows, I’ve performed for audiences that had toddlers in it and I’ve had little prince– little girls dressed as princesses come up to me and hand me a dollar and are just beaming. Beaming, glowing because at the end of the day, it is—it’s a character and a fun show and you can– it’s how you perceive it and there’s nothing inherent. But I’ve also performed in more R rated facilities before too, and, ‘cause again it’s a balance. But drag itself I don’t think should be ever seen as inherently like inappropriate or oh god they’re coming to convert you or to corrupt our children type thing. So, the notion of drag queen story hour that was kind of in the news and a couple different communities a while back about “so, we can’t expose our children to drag performers and drag queens because oh the thought of it” and it’s the same way—I feel– I look at it the same as teaching LGBTQ history in schools, like that was recently passed. Um, it’s an education–it should be approached from an educational standpoint and teaching our history and the community’s history is just as important as American history or African American history or anything else like that.
Carson: If you could change one thing about drag, the drag scene, or the drag community, what would it be and why?
Holly: Um I would part of me would say the drama but sometimes the drama is the most fun too so um [laughs]. But yeah but it is an inherent competitive nature, even if you’re not even competing in a pageant just in the community there’s always an inherent dramatic and competitive nature to it and so that can be stressful sometimes, but it’s again a double edged sword when there’s competitiveness. But there’s also family and camaraderie and there’s the idea of a chosen family and when you work with especially a smaller community that southern Illinois has when it comes to the drag world these performers you’re performing with on a semi-regular basis so you develop this bond with them and I think that’s really special versus some of the bigger cities, you look at Chicago, or St. Louis and you have a hundred plus different queens all vying for one or two spots a week at a couple different nightclubs and that competition can get intense and you can keep you on your heels sometimes and kind of scrape and scrounge for bookings and trying to get yourself known and out there and while there’s still some of that in our area I still think we’re lucky enough to have that nice knit community here. We’re small but mighty I’d say.
Carson: If you could choose one thing you want people to know about or learn about drag, what would it be?
Holly: Um that at the end of the day it’s a show, it’s a performance, it’s no one trying to push or do anything on you per se. It’s fun we’re here to entertain, it’s a form of entertainment and it shouldn’t be seen as anything more than that I don’t think. It’s an art form it’s an art form it’s a form of entertainment at the end of the day and if we can all come together and just enjoy a show the way you would a concert, or going to the movies, or a theatre production on Broadway or wherever it’s it’s we’re here for a few hours for a good time.
Carson: Is there anything else that you want to share about your experiences?
Holly: Um I guess I’ll go back I can talk again about how I got started and just would like to acknowledge the legends that I’ve been that have helped me out Blanche du Bois, Jodie Santana, Rochelle Delight, Aida Headley, Veronica J Bell, Kierra Bell. All of them, I mean again I didn’t have one specific drag mother or mentor, I had a slew of them and they all contributed to shaping me and my persona in some way or another and I think that so.
Carson: Where do you live now? I need to include that in my biography.
Holly: I currently in Harring, Illinois, so.
Carson: Alright, thank you for talking to me. I really did enjoy it.
Holly: Good. I hope I was of some help. Didn’t ramble on incoherently for too long.
Carson: No, it’s fine. But can you send me a couple pictures of you in drag that you like so I can add it as like—so I can add it to my project?
Holly: Yeah, of course. Yeah I’ll send you a couple.