Melisa Meseguer is a 31-year-old nurse and actress, with long hair and a resounding laugh. But she is also a young man with a sly look and a flirt with chest hair. Melisa is a drag king and the creator of Marcus Massalami, the character she embodies when she goes on stage. Marcus was born three years ago and, with him, Melisa’s life has taken a turn. Together they have acted as tightrope walkers along the rope of the genre and, under the banner of humour, they make an acid criticism of toxic masculinity. Melisa is one of the pioneers of this art in Spain and has become one of the most recognized, which is why she was one of the drag queens who advised the company Parking Shakespeare in his adaptation of the play ‘Twelfth Night’. Actors, actresses and drag queens have turned the English classic into a queer ode in which the genre is like a glitter-brilli wig: removable.
The new normal drag
Am I going to do the interview with Melisa or is Marcus also going to appear there?
With me, I think. The same appears at some point, but I like to speak from myself, because what I will explain is what I claim with the drag king and Marcus has nothing to do with that.
Are they very different people?
When creating Marcus, I tried to make him as different from me as possible. I think he becomes a more powerful tool if he leaves me freedom and space to put all the criticism and do very heavy things under his name. Now, aesthetically, things change. Marcus looks very different from me, but as the show goes on, I transform him. I deconstruct it. His image and his masculine voice soften to the ambiguity of a character without a wig, with my long hair and my breasts. And I end up doing the performance from me.
It is an illusionist tool: I am the same person, capable of expressing myself very femininely and very masculine in a very short space-time. Because both things are part of me. Drag is art, but it’s also politics and I use it to do whatever comes out of my nose, to break down boxes and express myself freely.
Masculinity is highly punished in women: I started noticing social punishment at the age of six and, from then on, I buried that part of me.
Does the passion for transvestism come from not being able to express yourself freely?
I’ve been a transvestite since I was born. As a child she had a character named Francisco, who did shows for the family at Christmas. And he took advantage of every carnival to cross-dress me. But it is something that I was covering up as I grew up, because masculinity is highly censored in women. I started noticing social punishment at the age of six, and from then on, I buried that part of me. It wasn’t until I started studying drama that I reconnected with that, because I was much more attracted to male characters. And she didn’t understand why she couldn’t play them just because she was a woman.
I started obsessing over gender expression and at first I thought I needed to feminize myself in order to work, because I didn’t fit in with the male or female characters. But I had some fantastic teachers who encouraged me to keep my masculine energy and gave me a character of a man. I was between panic and euphoria, because it was opening the door to a part of me that I had pushed away.
How did it go?
Well, I played a main character in Valle Inclán’s ‘Divinaspalabras’. Specifically, the bad guy, rapist and murderer. That was hypermasculinity! But then my teachers gave me a hyper-feminine character, and for the first time, I felt comfortable with my femininity. By unlocking the masculine, I took enormous pressure off myself and my body and brain understood that everything was performable and that these two facets together are what define who I am.
It starts with the drag king when it is a very unknown discipline. What was it like creating Marcus without references?
The first performance was in a Chueca contest. Head to the lions! I was criticized a lot because I didn’t have a defined character, but I think that helped me. At first it was based on fiction and had a werewolf or a Jesus Christ, figures that already have a collective imagination. I was testing and in the end Marcus has ended up being a brother-in-law. A false ally. The one who says he is him, but no. That he says something, but no. Confused.
It is true that I had no artistic references, but all the inspiration I needed and still need is found on the street. I am a transvestite, but everyone performs the genre in their day to day. When I started in drag, I began to investigate how the genre had been constructed and, once you begin to unravel that question, you detect a lot of very curious codes and details.
Greetings. Already there is a difference based on gender bias. I like to confuse people I just met and greet one with two kisses and the other with pats on the back. The reactions are brutal: it is as if he had broken the system. I usually reproduce masculine codes that everyone knows and, even if I don’t change my image, many children speak to me in masculine. It’s brutal how embedded we have them in the subconscious and I think that being able to play with those codes is a brutal weapon.
Do you use that weapon only on stage or also in your daily life?
In my work as a nurse, which is a very feminine profession, I use those codes to curb misogyny and manage certain men. I often lower my tone of voice and change my body posture to mark my limits and gain respect that they would not show to someone who behaves femininely. Once, a man with his Vox bracelet told me that Spain needed many more people like me. And I thought: “Transvestite lesbians? I don’t think that’s what you mean, honey.”
You don’t have to be drag to have experienced it. You just need to be a woman and you know, for example, the weight of something as silly as hair. If we women shaved our heads, it would be a great revolution. I go to work on a motorcycle, a big one (something that is hypersexualized) and the only thing you can see is my hair. Every day they whistled at me, they overtook me, they said things to me… Until I put my hair inside my jacket. To which men stopped thinking that I was a woman, stopped believing that they could do and tell me whatever they wanted.
Being able to go through the genre, what does it mean to you as a woman? Does it make you feel freer or more vulnerable?
I think it just makes me angry. And, be careful, as a drag it also happens to me. Many colleagues from the gay scene ignore me when I go without riding [sin travestir]. When I am Melissa, they ignore me, but when they know that I am also Marcus, everything changes. Women are aware of our oppressions, but it makes you very angry to realize that they are everywhere. Femininity is tremendously punished, violated and undervalued, whether it comes from a woman or a man. But it is that, in addition, I am punished for not entering the norm.
I wear my masculinity with a lot of pride, but at the same time I am very feminine and I am not the typical bun construct. And from that aesthetic dissidence violence is born. One of the good things about drag king is that it shows that masculinity does not belong to anyone and that all people are valid, however they express themselves. Drag exaggerates the genre and devirtualizes it. That pink is for girls is something someone invented one day, just like gendering smells, professions, tastes or sports. That we can not take what we want is horrible.
You mold and play with masculinity. What objective does it pursue?
Stop focusing on women. Look at the pricks: they tell us to take care of ourselves, but they don’t tell the men not to prick. Drag is a way to put the focus elsewhere; is a very powerful feminist political practice and activist. Bringing those attitudes up on stage, you see that they are the cause of the problem.
Perpetuating toxic masculinities has more to do with masculinity mismanagement than drag king
Could it not be interpreted that, by putting these practices on stage, they are legitimizing themselves?
At first it was something that scared me, but it’s impossible. If this was done by a cis-hetero-basic man, it would be different. Look at fictional characters like Torrente or Amador Ribas, from ‘La que se avecina’: they could perfectly be drag kings. Amador is doing very badly in life and the message is that these attitudes are not right, but the teenagers adore him and follow him. The intention is not clear, because the one who interprets it is a man. It is true that there are men who also do drag king, but labeling themselves as drag already has a political tint. Everything you do as a drag is inverted.
It is true that the risk to pass you is always there. For this reason, my character is very flexible and I allow myself to momentarily step out of Marcus’s skin to be able to say things like “I’m getting sick of myself”. Perpetuating toxic masculinities has more to do with mismanagement of masculinity itself than drag king. We are all misogynists, because we have been socialized that way, and if you do not consciously deconstruct yourself before exploring your masculinity, it is like starting the house from the roof.
Marcus is a very flirtatious character. Why does he decide to emphasize that facet?
I draw a lot from desire, because sexuality and the codes of attraction are basic to understanding the construction of gender. I have straight friends with a lot of tomboy feathers who don’t fit into the desire system and have to perform their femininity in a very forceful way. Marcus is a flirt and that’s what he bases his way of interacting with. He has a not at all hegemonic aesthetic of masculinity and, like other drags, they only paint a mustache, he wears a lot of makeup. With that, he devirtualizes masculinity, mixing the masculine and the feminine to confuse the viewer and produce desire in any orientation and gender identity.
The drag queen is a well-known and normalized practice for years. But the drag king has been very invisible. Is it because of the criticism of masculinity, because a woman does it, or because of both?
A bit of everything: total misogyny. When I started in Chueca I took a lot of hosts, many came to me to ask me why I was there if I was a girl. And look, again the misogyny showing up, even in the LGBT community. And this becomes much harder if on top of that, as is my case, you are a lesbian. There is a very strong patriarchal discrimination to which capitalism is added, which believes that women are not a valid market niche and we are not good at doing our job. We have to prove everything many more times than men, who enjoy a permissiveness that allows them to be mediocre. They don’t let us be amateurs, because we don’t have a safety net, and that greatly affected drag king visibility.
I guess the fact that masculinity is made fun of doesn’t help either.
Attacking masculinity is hitting where it hurts the most. Of course we are invisible, friend, because we make a frontal attack. And it’s so much fun! Especially when you see gentlemen in the front row, very uncomfortable. My technique is to introduce them into the show, so as not to let them exercise the role of power. Because when someone looks at you badly, you tend to deflate, especially when you’ve had a very feminine upbringing, focused on fear and being complacent. That’s why whenever I see someone uncomfortable, I dedicate my show to them. And it works, because even if they don’t want to, many end up questioning their masculinity. Most of my friends, when they make toxic boasts, they stop and say, “shit, I’m already doing drag king.” Well yes, that is.