“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth,” reflected Oscar Wilde in his essay, The Critic as Artist. Similarly, David Bowie, in a 1996 interview with The Daily Telegraph, noted: “All through my youth, I would use bravado and device – costume and flamboyant behaviour…That device allows you, in an exaggerated form, to display who you are."
Wilde and Bowie hit upon a truth in these statements - that the creation of a persona can be an extraordinary vehicle for a person to reveal a whole other side of himself, the truth of who he is, or at least a major aspect of himself, that might otherwise remain hidden.
It’s something Galway drag queen Kiki St Clair, or rather Simon, the man behind the woman, appreciates. “I’m quite reserved and a little bit shy,” he tells me as we sit for the interview on Tuesday afternoon. “People are surprised by that as they only ever know Kiki. I think drag gives me freedom I wouldn’t have as myself.”
Simon is originally from Offaly and has been living in Galway for more than a decade. Today he is established as Kiki St Clair, the city’s leading drag queen and spectacular hostess of Club GASS, the monthly LGBT+ clubnight in the Róisín Dubh - a major part of which is the drag show featuring Kiki and a host of other queens. So how did it all begin?
“I’m often asked this question, and I’d always say, ‘I was just a kid who wanted to perform’,” says Simon, “but looking back now, I put it down to repression. I was in primary school and I remember the priest used to come around. At Holloween he’d ask what we were dressing up as, and I told him, ‘I’m going to be a witch’, and he’d say, ‘No, no, a wizard. Boys can’t be witches’. That always stuck with me. I’d always repressed my sexuality and all the gayness - I didn’t come out ’till I was nearly 20, so when I did come out I came all out, and started doing drag less than a year later. So, yes, it was a case of all this repression and then it just exploded.”
Moving to Galway was key to the emergence of Kiki. “I had just come out and started going to the gay club in Galway, which at the time was Dignity on Shop Street,” Simon says. “I used to get the bus to Galway going to college on a Sunday night, and we’d go into Dignity that night to see the drag show with Dusty Flaps and Jane Eyre Square, and I thought, ‘This looks like so much fun. Why don’t I do it?’ I spoke to them and they encouraged me.”
However this was well before RuPaul’s Drag Race, and drag was seen as, at best, an eccentric pursuit. “Back then, nobody wanted to do drag,” says Simon. “It was not cool. You were a bit of an outcast. People did not get it, even in the gay scene, but I though drag looked really, really, cool, and I went there week after week. Then they had a talent competition. I ended up winning that, and thought, ‘I’m kinda good at this’, and it went from there. Come next February, I’ll be nine years doing drag, but I’m still learning. It’s still evolving."
An exciting, vibrant, and talented drag scene has developed in Galway in recent years, with Kiki as its central figure, and also featuring the struttingly elegant Donatella, the spectacular Poppy La Bouche, and the Kim Kardashian rivalling Vianna, among others.
“It’s kinda strange,” Simon says. “I’ve only held that for the past two or three years, because for a long time it was just myself. Then a lot of the others came along, so I had to step my game up, and also, this weird material aspect kicked in, I do get very defensive of them and protective of the others, as they work hard. I’d kind of consider them my children, in a weird way! I’ve other queens with me now, which I never had before, and that’s good.”
Kiki and the other queens can be seen each month performing at Club GASS. “I have to say we are super lucky,” says Simon. “We definitely have one of the best audiences in Ireland. The buzz they give us, you won’t find anywhere else, and anyone who comes Club GASS to perform, from Dublin or Cork, they’ll tell you as well that there is such a good atmosphere. We have to remember not to sit on our laurels either, we have to continue to work hard.”
'I would love to bring a Ru Paul girl to Galway. That’s on my bucket list, I’m going to make it happen one way or another'
Drag has never been as popular as it is now, and Simon attributes the popularity and acceptance to RuPaul’s Drag Race. “You can’t credit RuPaul enough,” says Simon. “RuPaul’s Drag Race totally mainstreamed drag, even past the LGBT+ culture. Straight people love it as well. So I do credit it to RuPaul. A lot of queens would be ‘Oh I don’t get Ru Paul’, but I reply, ‘No, that’s why your show is full tonight. Ru Paul has made drag cool and popular.’”
However, Ireland has a drag tradition, going back to Corkonian Danny La Rue and Englishman Alan Amsby, who has enjoyed a long career in Ireland as Mr Pussy. “There is that tradition definitely,” says Simon, “but I feel it was more an underground scene. Danny La Rue and Pussy’s drag was more tongue-in-cheek, and they didn’t associate LGBT+ with it, they were a man in a dress, they didn’t take their sexuality into consideration, and Pussy wouldn’t have spoken about her sexuality, that wasn’t a thing, it was separated. Nowadays it’s all into one, and everyone accepts it, but of course, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and we would never be able to do what we are doing today without the likes of Danny Le Rue, Mr Pussy, and Panti Bliss.”
'I think drag is a big amalgamation and celebration of gender diversity'
Today, a major aspect of drag is to question what is considered as ’standard’ in terms of gender, and to challenge the ideas that gender as a reality in nature, by instead showing it is a social construct - the product of social attitudes, and not something inherent in, or determined by, our physical makeup.
“I think drag, for me, is a gender bending thing,” says Simon. “For me it’s a way of expressing my gender even more. I wouldn’t identify as gender queer - maybe I am, I haven’t sat down to think about it - but drag is definitely a form of gender expression, and there are different aspects to that too."
"Some queens want to present as a woman, they want you to see a woman when you look at them," Simon continues. "Other queens are very artistic and will not look like a woman whatsoever, so it’s expressing gender, but discombobulated gender in a sense, and we have drag kings as well, and trans performers, so I think it’s a big amalgamation and celebration of gender diversity.”
Alongside Club GASS, there is also Kiki’s DJ night, Let’s Have a Kiki, in the Róisín Dubh every Wednesday. “I was nervous about it at the start, it being Wednesday night, it could be tough to get a crowd, but people are coming and they seem to be enjoying it," says Simon. "It’s all a bit of fun. You can hear the most random tunes from Brittany Spears to who knows what! People do enjoy it. It’s not about LGBT+, there is a lot of LGBT+ there, but it’s all about fun every Wednesday from 11 o’clock.”
Looking ahead towards the end of the summer, Galway Pride runs from Monday August 12 to Sunday 18, and Kiki and the girls have something in store for us. “Club GASS will be on the Saturday of Pride, August 17 from 9pm,” says Simon. “So far I have all the Galway girls on board. We will be in full swing for rehearsals soon so we can give Galway a great show.”
Beyond that Simon’s longer term ambition is to expand the drag scene in Galway. “I would love to bring a Ru Paul girl to Galway,” he declares. “That’s on my bucket list, I’m going to make it happen one way or another; and build up drag more in Galway and have more opportunities for the baby queens. I’d love a little extra something here and there for the performers.”