After five years working primarily as their drag character Crayola the Queen, Gigi Zahir deepens their return to the theatre world as Cleopatra in Cinderella at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Having already played Trinculo in Tempest at The Pleasance earlier in the year, Zahir’s solo black comedy musical Fame Whore ran at The King’s Head in October, overlapping Cinderella rehearsals by a week. “I’m recovering,” they say from a room at Theatre Royal Stratford East, “paying off the interest, I’ve got whiplash, but it’s good.” They’re admiring of the fact the theatre has picked a drag queen for the dame role. “They asked me initially, ‘Boobs and padding – what are you comfortable with?’ They noticed that I like my drag to be a little more androgynous, gender-bendy. Now we’re not doing boobs, we’re not doing padding, so it’s embracing modern drag but also keeping one foot in dame territory.”

Here, they tell Sam Bennett more about the show, before having their say on Rachel Berry, the acting industry, and Drag Race – “the best/worst thing to ever happen to drag.”

 

So, you’ve gone straight from one show into rehearsals for another – are you being strict with yourself at the moment?

No drinking, basically. I might be able to on a Saturday night because we’ve got a day off on Sunday.

 

Are you strict with yourself anyway though?

For the most part. When I got started in drag, it was fun and games and definitely felt like a hobby. You weren’t paid sometimes so you’d get drink tickets – or if you were being paid, it was very low. My background is in theatre where I would be quite strict and look after my voice. With drag I got a bit more chaotic. Then as I started working more, that old energy and theatre training caught up. I thought, ‘This isn’t sustainable.’ I stopped drinking at my drag gigs. There’s a puritanical theatre kid in me, borderline Rachel Berry vibes sometimes, not the problematic part but the taking it seriously and wanting to do my best. It’s melded into my drag work.

 

Is Rachel Berry problematic?

A little bit. She’s a bit sociopathic at times, loses track of her ability to care about other people, ‘me first’ energy – I don’t relate to that. Doing my Fame Whore character, my mantra before each show was: ‘Rachel Berry does not apologise.’ To play that character, I had to almost channel that sociopathic element of Rachel Berry.

 

Cinderella is your first family-friendly panto – is it hard to keep your improv and adlibbing family-friendly?

That’s probably my favourite part. Everyone in the cast is all so different. I’m not necessarily the strongest dancer, but I know I’m good with the singing, the comedy, the adlibs; putting my little spin on things, even tweaking some lines. One of the lines is ‘pick my bogies, Amanza’ and I say ‘these bogies are not going to pick themselves, Amanza.’ I’ve got reins to make switches like that, where I think it’s making it funnier – or easier. There’s a moment where I have an Oscar speech, I’ve added in a Will Smith reference. The writer’s in the room so I feel bad sometimes, giving rewrites, but it’s encouraged – the director’s told me she’ll let me know when to stop!

 

This show is part of your return to acting, isn’t it?

Yes. I studied film and theatre at University of Reading, got into Stella Adler Studio in New York, studied Chekhov and Shakespeare. There have been problems. It was recommended I shorten my full name so it sounded super white, to help me get into more rooms, because if people knew my background was Muslim, I’d probably just end up playing a terrorist on TV – I was told this multiple times. There’s a borderline racist, Islamophobic vibe going on in my early experiences of the industry. And at drama school they were like, ‘We need to butch you up.’ I was so sipping the Kool-Aid that I was like, ‘Oh my god, thank you so much, yeah, I want to be as marketable as possible.’ After drama school I continued to get microaggressions and then in 2017 I hit a point; I was like: ‘You know what? No more.’ I stepped away from acting for a bit to focus on drag which I’d been playing around with. What I didn’t realise is that I’d be circling back into acting with my drag and queerness fully in tow.

You seem happy in the industry now. Is that because you’ve re-entered it via a different route or because it’s changed?

Both. When I did panto back in 2012, I was playing a Chinese person and the person playing my Chinese dad was white. That’s only ten years ago but you won’t really see that now. In a short space of time, I feel like a lot of progress has happened in terms of inclusiveness. In this show, there’s me (very queer, non-binary) and we’ve got Micah Holmes who’s also non-binary – and we’re very different versions of non-binary. So, the industry has changed. But I’ve also got this toolbox I didn’t have in 2017 – when I was this desperate little actor trying to get everything right and taking what I could get – the drag skills, the adlibbing, the improv, the singing, the parody songs, a USP I didn’t have before.

Which artists are you enjoying at the moment?

People who are doing solo work that is drag-inspired but you can’t pin it down as just drag. Le Gateau Chocolat, Glamrou, Reuben Kaye. Theatrical, cabaret, queer, drag juggernauts who are creating their own work and also getting booked to do things in other places. Le Gateau Chocolat doing Feste in Twelfth Night at the Globe – that’s the kind of vein I want to be working in. We’re living in the age of Drag Race, which is the best/worst thing to ever happen to drag. I don’t think I’d have a career if it wasn’t for it, I don’t think drag would be having the moment it’s having, but launching it into the mainstream has codified and standardised drag. The people I’ve mentioned are subverting it, being playful with it. This feels so shady… but you can tell when a drag queen’s super objective is to get on Drag Race, that’s why they’re doing drag. It’s about the death drops, twirling the hair – all the things they’ve seen work on the show, they’re trying to emulate. Then you can see who doesn’t care about that and is engaged with finding something more truthful.

Would you do Drag Race?

No, I don’t think I would. I think about it sometimes, but when I do it’s for all the wrong reasons, my rationale for doing it would purely be business. I can’t rule it out entirely because I am a businessperson. I’ve seen Cheddar Gorgeous and Danny Beard on the show, their artistry transcends Drag Race, and it’s introduced them to a wider audience which is good.

Why isn’t the drag king scene famous like the queen scene?

 We could do a dissertation on this. The biggest part of it is just lack of exposure and education, right? In order for people to know drag kings exist, they need to be exposed to them, and if the biggest platform teaching people about drag isn’t featuring that aspect of the community… I do diversity and inclusion workshops. I teach people about queer issues, talk to them about drag, and there are people who don’t even know drag kings exist – so why would they even think to book in for a drag king show? There’s a bunch of problems that need tackling, but good things are happening, Death Drop Back in the Habit has got LoUis CYfer playing the lead which is amazing –there are Ru girls in it but their face is right in centre. We need more of this, we don’t just need one drag king on the bill – even though that’s the case in Death Drop, but LoUis CYfer is in a main role. A lot of bookers will put one drag king in a show which is good but they’re just doing a box ticking exercise to keep the queers copacetic. We need more meaningful inclusion. When I do these workshops, I tell them, ‘Thank you so much for booking me, I’m so happy to be here, maybe next year book a drag king as well as or even instead of.’ There will be work for me as a drag queen, let’s get more kings into these spaces as well because they need their voices to be heard. The whole drag king scene is the way more exciting part of the industry and community these days. There’s no show for them to get on, so they’re not concerned about trying to meet anybody’s expectations. There’s a playfulness, subversiveness, transgressiveness, a pump, energy, a fun, a joy that can be missing in some drag queen performances where there are rules to play by.

What else is on your agenda?

I feel so lucky and so happy to be working in the way that I am but a little holiday would be great, some time with the family, to just be a person.

Cinderella will run from 19 November-7 January

https://www.stratfordeast.com/

Photography © The Other Richard

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