When hearing artist Charity Kase discuss her philosophy behind drag as an art form, her otherworldly, over-the-top, alternative style begins to make perfect sense. Focusing predominantly on non-human forms, Charity’s drag exists in a realm of the surreal, sometimes inspired by pop culture and media figures, but more often of her own twisted creation. Charity is also a constant creative force, exploring more permanent art by painting, and designing fashionable one-of-a-kind pieces for her online collection, bycharitykase.
At 17 years old, Charity began going out on the scene in London, where drag proved to be a natural fit, and after a hugely successful “200 Days of Drag” challenge on Instagram, she secured a spot in the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s third season, turning drag into a fully viable career for her. Though before drag, she has always been passionate about fashion design and visual art, designing and selling custom pieces on her website, charitykase.com.
Read the full Charity Kase interview from “The REBEL Issue” below.
Let’s start right at the beginning. What is the origin of Charity Kase?
I always really enjoyed expressing myself through fashion and makeup and art; I’ve always been creative in that sense. And when I turned 17 and was in university, I started going out in London with some friends that I knew from online. I used to go to Facebook meetups and stuff like that – it was that era, embarrassingly [laughs]. So I kind of met my queer family and community through coming down to London and partying because where I came from, it was very much a “the only gay in the village” situation. I felt really alone, and I didn’t really have anybody who I related to where I was from.
After I started coming down to London, I met a man down here. He asked me to move in with him. So I did, and I moved down to London and that was kind of how I discovered more of the gay community and more of the queer lifestyle of going out and partying in the gay clubs. As a young teenager, it was a really expressive and amazing time for me.
I was working in clubs hosting, not really performing, and it wasn’t really in drag. It was more club kid-esque looks. When things started going a little bit wrong for me mentally and emotionally – when I got HIV when I was 18 years old – it really shook me up. It was something that I didn’t really know about and I wasn’t really educated on. I kind of went off of the stigmas that I’ve been taught for my whole lifetime, which led me to feel really low about myself and led me to a dark place, mentally. And then I decided to use drag as a form of escape from that.
I mean, it wasn’t planned out like that. It was more that I wasn’t really doing anything with my life because I was depressed, and I was really jealous of everybody on Instagram having really good makeup skills. I decided that I would start doing makeup every day because I thought it would be a way of improving my skills. At this point I’d been doing drag a little bit here and there since just before the diagnosis. It was more at festivals or specific events, or it was more just for fun. It wasn’t really a job. Every now and then maybe I’d get paid a penny for it, but it wasn’t making me any good money. But then after starting this “100 Days of Drag Challenge” and posting daily on Instagram, it started to gain quite a lot of traction.
By the end of the hundred days, I was at like 50,000 followers or something. It felt like a positive influx, and it made me feel fulfilled in a sense that this outlet was in some way helping to alleviate my trauma and that I was making a success of myself in some way. I love art and creating, so to be seen as an artist and be respected as an artist in some way or form, it just felt fulfilling. That’s why after a hundred days I said, “I’m going do 365 instead,” and I did. And it kind of just built a career for me. By the end of the year, people were offering me gigs and shows and I started taking them up. And here we are – a few years later, it was Drag Race that called.
It’s no surprise you gained so much traction quickly because really I can’t compare you to anyone else. You have a one-of-a-kind style, particularly with your makeup and your prosthesis. You came up in a scene with a lot of club kids, but I’m sure you were also exposed to a lot of traditional glamor drag too. What attracted you to the world of alternative drag? Do you see it as more masculine, feminine, or devoid of gender entirely?
If I’m going to be completely honest, we live in a day and age where misogyny is not welcome. I think that a lot of “female presenting” drag is upholding certain stereotypes that have been oppressing women for generations. I don’t think that I, certainly as a cis, white, gay man, have the right or the want to do that. That’s why I do what I do with my drag. That’s why I don’t shave my legs or tuck or try to fit into that box, which certain elements of society have held on women and left them feeling not good enough since before we can remember.
I think it’s really important – as a man – to challenge the stereotypes and the constructs of what it means to be a man. I think it’s important that I do that for women as well, instead of reiterating the same narrative. If you look at the audience base that watches drag shows and comes to drag shows, a lot of it is young girls. I just think it’s important that we highlight and represent other types of femininity than one singular thing. These young girls follow drag because they aspire to be that woman that we can turn into in an hour in front of the mirror – me in an hour, everyone else in two or three [laughs]. That’s why they watch our shows, that’s why they are intrigued. I think it’s important that we have multiple inspirations for them, and that they see that you can be respected as beautiful and effeminate without fitting into that one box that we put women in – emotional and over-sexualized.
These two things, if every performance you’re doing is representing an over-sexualized woman, or is a caricature of a sex doll, or is a “crazed” woman, or a woman having a breakdown, then I’m sorry, but you’re falling into those stereotypes. We need to be bigger and better than that. We stand in a day and age where we as gay men – the majority – are behind the trans community and fighting for gender equality, yet we uphold these standards and we say, “You aren’t the best woman unless you look like this.” I don’t think that’s right, and that is why I do what I do. I’m sorry to get political.
This is the “REBEL Issue.” Get as political as you want!
That’s how I feel. I’m surrounded by beautiful women and I’ve been brought up by wonderful women. I have three sisters and a wonderful mother, and I’m not saying I don’t have a wonderful dad. He is wonderful as well, but there’s still a massive gender pay gap and misogyny is still a massive issue. And a lot of gay men, when you walk in a room, go ew at the word “vagina,” and I think that has to be brought up within our community.
It’s interesting because a lot of people, especially younger fans of drag and Drag Race, forget that half of drag fans – or more – are women.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that drag queens are misogynistic. That is not what I’m saying. I don’t want to make myself an enemy of my community; that is not my goal here. All I’m saying is that we aren’t aware and we aren’t thinking, and it’s just us having a bit of fun and being fabulous and effeminate, but we do have to think about the meaning that those words have.
With those ideals in mind, what is the process of designing a Charity Kase look?
I tend to lean towards traditionally non-human forms and characters, unless I don’t have much time because it’s much easier not to [laughs]. I like people to be wowed and intrigued by what they see. I like people to question their intrigue. I think it’s important that, if people look at me and think, “Does that have a penis?” they then think, “Wait, why am I thinking that? It’s a monster, it’s a person dressed as a character.”
There’s also an element of not judging a book by its cover with my work, with the characters that I create and the performances that I tend to do. It’s kind of an unexpected vulnerability or relatability that that character has that you wouldn’t have assumed they have from first looking at them. It’s breaking that boundary of, “We’re all monsters, really.” And the sooner we accept that and the sooner we stop judging others for their things that we don’t experience ourselves, the sooner we can be all equal.
You are also working on your clothing collection, bycharitykase. Can you tell us about that?
I’ve had a clothing company since before I even did drag. I’ve always hand painted on clothing, and it’s something I also feel passionate about because I think that the fast fashion industry is so toxic to the world that it’s really important that we use the clothes we have rather than just throwing them in a landfill. I go around and shop for vintage pieces that I think are really cool or that I think are re-workable, and I change them up. I change the fit and I hand paint them into something new. It’s all one-of-a-kind pieces. I’ve been doing that since I was 17 or 18, so it’s been an ongoing passion project.
And it’s kind of taken a backseat to drag for a while, but I don’t really want to be doing drag in five/ten years’ time anymore. I’ve been doing it for seven years now, and it started as an escape route from a traumatic and dark place that I was in. I’m not in that dark, traumatic place anymore, and I don’t really need Charity Kase in my life anymore. I’m not killing her immediately, I’m still going to be taking the gigs because drag pays my bills now, and I’m very happy to say that.
But I have other goals that I want to achieve in my life. I never saw myself becoming a drag queen, and that was never what I thought – it kind of just happened. And because it was successful, I followed it up and I stuck with it. In 10 years’ time, I want to be doing creative direction for the Tim Burton Company or have my own company. I think that I’m limiting myself right now to the one character that is Charity Kase. I kind of want to create worlds that these characters live in and branch out and kind of be a name in the credits, rather than the face on the screen. I’m starting a degree in September.
Yes, I heard about that! What will you be studying?
I’m doing it in fine art. The future that I want to go into is so varied. I’m not quite sure where I will fit into those roles. One thing I know for sure that runs through them is design and artwork. That’s the one thing that I love the most and that I want to be doing all day every day, so it felt like the right choice to get a degree in that area, and I would like to think I’m on the right path for these sorts of things, anyway. With the contacts and stuff that I have, I feel an education experience in this area and more of an education in things like art history and color theory and composition theory – which are things that I’ve never learned, all of my skill is very much raw – I think I would benefit from being educated by somebody that knows more scientifically and more accurately than I do.
That’s so interesting because, when you see virtually anyone on Drag Race, how it’s presented to us is, “You’re a drag queen, that’s your career. It’s what you are and always want to be.” But it’s so interesting to see that it’s really a very small part of you, almost just a stepping stone in your career. So the clothing collection’s not really on the forefront right now?
In recent months it has been more on the forefront because I have taken a little bit of a step away from drag. I’m not doing every gig that I get offered because I’m trying to put more time into practicing traditional artwork. That is time-consuming, and it is draining of my creativity and my energy. Putting on corsets and heels is very time-consuming and very draining of my energy, however much I enjoy doing it. And while I enjoy being in drag and on stage and performing, there’s also those few hours before and after getting into the makeup, and there’s hours of designing the looks and hours of making costumes. I’ve been doing it for seven years, that’s quite a long time to be doing all of this and going out and getting drunk at the clubs. I just feel like I’m 25 now, and I enjoy painting and I like creating physical art that lasts and not something that will be washed off in a few hours.
So I’ve been focusing more on my shop recently and selling more pieces, because it’s what I enjoy doing. And it feels like good practice for my degree. You can always find new pieces on there. Usually at least once a week I upload a few new pieces on my website, charitykase.com, and at some point in the future, I would love to release a more high fashion catwalk collection of pieces, but I’m limited to what my hands can paint right now in preparation for my degree. As I said, there’s a lot going on, and it’s kind of about trying to figure out how my schedule is going to work and how my life is going to be balanced in the future with my degree.
One benefit of the experiences that I’ve had and the success that I’m able to be grateful for in my career is that I don’t have to worry about doing a student loan, which is something that always put me off getting a degree. That’s something that I never thought I would be able to say. Never. It’s about trying to balance all of that in my future right now, which I think is doable, and I feel capable. It’s just going be a complete change of pace for me; one that I’m looking forward to.
As you should be.
I’m able to go to this really adorable art school, which just seems so perfect to me – it’s for more mature students, mainly. It’s really practical and I’m just really excited to get started with it.
You said that drag was almost a respite for you, an escape from a dark time in your life, much of which was brought on by your HIV-positive diagnosis. When you were on Drag Race, you were very candid about that. What was the response to that segment, and what have you been doing to help the community?
Since being on Drag Race, the response has been really amazing. I haven’t really had much negativity whatsoever, which I kind of found surprising in a good way, obviously. I was very open with my status before Drag Race. It’s not like it was a big reveal to my family or my friends or even the community in London. I think I’d been very open about it and attended every event and march, or anything that I could with my platform. Drag Race just felt like another opportunity to do that, but on a wider scale to a larger variety of audience members who are from places where they don’t get educated about this.
It felt like an opportunity that I just had to take. I wasn’t quite sure how explicit I was going to be about my whole experience on the show, but there came a point in filming where it just felt like I had no control over anything that was happening. And that’s obvious – I’m going on a show to be judged, but I’ve never experienced that before like that. It felt like the only bit of control that I had left was to tell my story as I could, so that’s why I did it.
It felt almost like a form of therapy. I was in there talking for quite a long time about it. I was worrying and waiting for it to come out, but I also trusted the producers who were working on my story because I’d been very explicit with them about how I wanted it to be told. They were respectful of that. I think giving it a good five-minute segment of the episode was a showing of respect. I for one have seen very few, if any, educational segments around HIV on mainstream BBC or mainstream media on TV in the UK. One other example I can think of is Gareth Thomas. It felt big for me, and I was really proud when it came out.
Was it a weight lifted off your shoulders, or not so much because you were already open about it?
I was very open about it, but I guess I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was for the wider community of HIV-positive people. For me, it was just telling the story that I’ve told a hundred times to people at meetings, or to people over Instagram, or to people asking for advice, or to interviews in magazines. It wasn’t a story that was new; it was a story that I’ve gone through many a time since being open with my HIV status and coming out about it in a magazine years ago. It was kind of shocking to me to go from a small-time advocate to being a big fish in a small pond of HIV-positive people who have been in the mainstream media. It has become a massive part of my life and a massive part of my career as well.
I’ve been doing work with the THT [Terrence Higgins Trust] and National AIDS Trust and even ViiV Healthcare, all these companies that are doing amazing things for our community. I’m now invited to their summer party with 50 of the most important people in this industry and in this community. I just said to the CEO at one of these events, “I just feel so privileged and special to be here in this room surrounded by all of these amazing people who have done so much for this cause.” It is really humbling.
Whether it was your intention or not, you really have become a sort of beacon and role model for that community, especially with how open you’ve been about everything. This is our “REBEL Issue”, do you see your drag and artwork as inherently rebellious?
I think entirely rebellious. I think art is political and you can choose how to present it in that way, but every piece of artwork that you create or put forward presents a different explanation to every person’s head. It’s important, the tools that you use and the way that you express yourself, for the message that you want to convey. And my message has always been “fuck the system.”
Short, sweet, and to the point.
[laughs] Look at my clothing brand for example. If you look at the pieces that are on there, a lot of them say stuff like, “What are you fucking looking at?” and, “Go the fuck away,” and, “No means no.” It’s almost self-deprecating and antagonistic clothing meant to shake up the system. I think it’s important as a queer person in a straight world to voice that.
I couldn’t agree more. Who are some of your rebel contemporaries, or even historical rebels that you look up to?
Divine, John Waters, Ryan Murphy, [Guillermo] del Toro, Tim Burton – all overall massive inspirations to me. Their artwork is something that sticks with me and has inspired me for my whole life. Even people like Jacqueline Wilson, she’s a really famous author over here – her books, I had a massive collection of as a child. They’re all about the struggles of a young person growing up. They really inspired me and shaped the way that I create now.
And from history, I’m not sure if she was a rebel, but I think she’s worth mentioning: I think it’s something that people should think about in relation to my conversation on feminism earlier, that is Marie Antoinette, who was always referenced as an airhead of sorts. She’s quoted as saying something that she never actually said. The portrayal of her since her death, when her death was quite horrific and cruel, has been one of, in my opinion, misogyny. And I think that she is somebody that I see as a rebel in itself. She was seen as such an airhead. “Oh, they haven’t got access to bread, so they can have cake. Of course they can.” She’s a woman done wrong by society. Hundreds and hundreds of years later, we still use her as an example or as a joke. I think that that’s kind of wrong.
What is the future of Charity Kase? You said you don’t see yourself doing drag five/10 years down the line, but do you think there’ll always be a little bit of an element of the Charity Kase character?
I think in reality, drag has become a place for me to express myself as freely as I feel possible, as free as I feel able to with no restrictions. And now, I kind of do that already, so I don’t see why I have to put on a character to be Charity Kase when I created that character as a part of me originally. And it was the best part of me. It was the happy part of me without any of the poison that had seeped in from my mental health. Now that that poison has gone, Charity Kase is just me. It’s just who I am, and it’s always been a part of me, and it always will be a part of me.
I think Charity Kase will come through in my future art, and I think my message will come through in my future art, and I hope that I find the perfect medium to convey my message in a more effective and meaningful way than a one-night look that is thrown in the bin in a pile of wet wipes.
It sounds like you’re down that path already.
Well, no. I’m going in that direction, but I wouldn’t say I’m quitting drag because it pays my bills, and I do enjoy it. I’ve got a whole [Drag Race UK] season three tour coming up. I’m still going to be doing these gigs. It’s just about balancing my diary over the next four years whilst I do my degree. And then from there on, that is when I will be considering my future.
Interview by Jason Daniel Levy for The Untitled Magazine
Photography by Janai Trejo
To read our print feature on Charity Kase, pick up your copy of “The REBEL Issue” here.