LGBTQIA+ History Month Highlight: Q&A with Sofoklis Vlachou on Being a Drag Performer in Greece
I met Sofoklis for the first time when I went to see one of his shows—actually, I met Marianah that day. Marianah is Sofoklis’s drag alter ego and she is stunning! I got really interested in drag culture after watching the show and realized the drag scene is not popularized enough here in Greece. That’s how I decided to talk with Sofoklis to learn more about the culture and life of a drag artist who lives and works here.
Getting to know drag
Q. How would you describe drag shows to someone who has no idea what this is about?
A. Well... what is drag? I believe that drag has changed its definition many times during the last 10 years. I consider it to be the most changing form of art. Its core—which I believe is not going to change—is this playing around with gender. It’s probably the only form of art of which one of the issues it undertakes is gender; its representation; its deconstruction. This is also why it [drag] keeps changing definitions throughout the years.
The way we perceive gender changes a lot though the years, especially in the last decades there are more discussions around gender and the separation of it for example, such as the biological sex and the social gender. Together, with all these changes, drag is also being modified along with gender. Besides all that, it [drag] can also be considered as a... blender, which includes all of the rest art forms. You can do everything with drag. There is music in this, there is fashion, makeup, theatre, visual art, videos. You can use any other form of art to enrich your drag and convey whatever message you want through this. This is what makes drag so special among other arts; this play with gender. It’s a performative art, commenting on gender: what it is, how it is presented, what it means, how it affects society.
Q. I read that besides the term ‘drag queen’ there is also the ‘drag king.’ I assume this is the opposite?
A. There are so many different terms. It’s what I am telling you about the perception of gender that we have. Drag queen is the most basic term that I guess even someone who has never seen a drag show has an idea of what this is. Drag queens according to the definition are people who are men and their drag is a female figure. This goes many years back and I guess this is why it is the most common term. It goes back to the times when drag was simple imitation. Many people say that the first drag queens were people playing in Shakespeare’s plays that both male and female roles were played by men. There are also theories that ‘drag’ was first seen in Shakespeare’s books where he wanted to describe exactly that and used it as a footnote explaining that it means “d.r.a.g : dressed as a girl.”
This is a popular theory, but it’s not confirmed that it really comes from there. But even this term for drag right now is considered a bit “old.” Right now, there are even women doing drag. Women that are doing drag and their final form is male, are considered as kings. There are also women that their drag is female, just in a different way. There are men who do drag and the figure they present is also male. There are people who do drag which is genderless. They present figures which exceed the limits of what we have in our minds as a perception of gender. There are people who present a female figure one day and a male figure on the other. All this started more intensively in the last years, with all the discussion around what gender is. There is this nice commentary that even gender is performative. For me, the most inclusive term that I like to use is ‘drag performers.’ Drag is our art, we are all performers and what we perform is open, ever changing, and has to do with that each one of us wants to present.
How it all began
Q. When did you start performing?
A. Three, almost four, years ago. I started two years ago doing drag on a regular basis. During my time in Patra I did around two to three shows per year. The most important part of drag for me is performance. For other people a very essential part is the one of makeup and playing around with their appearance. For me personally, the progress came when I came to Athens and started doing it more regularly. And the progress came in all parts. My appearance also evolved, even though it was not the part that concerned me the most. My skills got much better due to my frequent engagement and experience in drag.
Q. Besides Athens, have you been to another Greek city for a show?
A. I started in Patra. I was a student there, coming from Cyprus. I was going to be the first drag queen in Patra. It started as a part of several events, such as Pride and a self-managed LGBTQIA+ team from Patra. As a result, I did my first shows there in some parties we organized for financial support of the team. I believe the only show that I did in Patra where I also got some money for, was that one time they had asked me to do a show for a girl’s bachelor party. Just that time! My experiences in Patra have been completely different than the ones in Athens. The audience and the reasons the shows were done are different. The vibe as well. As for other cities, I haven’t done a show in another city but I know the other one that has an audience is Thessaloniki. In Crete also some stuff is happening but Athens and Thessaloniki are more active.
Q. When Did Marianah begin? Did she begin in Athens or before your arrival here?
A. She started in Patra. Although performances were very few, she had always been there!
Q. How did you get the idea of getting starting in this?
A. I used to watch the reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race”—as many of us did—and I had never seen a live drag show. The first one I saw was at the 1st Patra’s Pride where drag queens had come from Athens. That was when I said “Nice, I will do that.” Because I saw that this exists in Greece, maybe not in Patra, but that’s okay I would start it!
Actually, I used to have these delusion sometimes when it comes to taking decisions. I’m like “Sure, okay. YOLO.” And I started with my first show when I was in Blender, the activist team in Patra, and we decided to hold a party for financial support. We made this decision on a Sunday and the party was about to happen on Friday. Then, one person from the team asked me “Don’t you want to do a show? Because you were saying that you would like to do one.”
I thought that I could do drag in five days with no idea of how this works... and I did it! There are pictures on my Instagram account showing how terrifying and tragic my appearance was. They should not have let me go looking that way. Someone, a friend of mine, should have told me “where do you think you’re going looking like this?”
Q. I'm sure it was not that bad...
A. No, no. I will send pictures to you. It was! There is no exaggeration saying that. The performance was very good though. That’s why I am saying I mostly care about the performance. Even though I looked that way, since the performance was good I didn’t care. But it was... terrifying!
Q. What did you do before getting into drag?
A. I studied Biology in Patra. Performative arts were always in my life. I don’t remember myself doing something not related to this. I went to my first song contest when I was four years old. I always used to sing and do my own shows at home. I was talking about this with a friend of mine who is also a drag queen and we both realized that it's like, we were always drag queens without knowing what this is. We were two little children who every time they were listening to music imagined what their stage and music video would be like. I used to wear my mother’s clothes all the time, I just didn’t know exactly what this was.
Q. It just didn’t have a name for you yet?
A. It didn’t have a name. I didn’t know it’s a form of art and that there are people doing it and getting paid as well. I just had this need to express myself through performance. I think it’s the only way that I know how to express my feelings. Since the day I remember myself I was walking around with a purple jacket with shoulder pads [laughs]. It was my mum’s and it was my favorite. I would like to accuse her in public for donating it and not having it anymore.
Q. Did you have a favorite singer back then?
A. When I started listening to foreign music, Lady Gaga was my favorite and still is. She has been an enormous influence to me in general. She owns this theatrical style and it’s all a big show every time, she will not just go and sing a song. Which is also what I would like to do at some point when I have the money to do so. In general, I listen to many different genres of music. I grew up at a house where several kinds of music were being played. Foreign, Greek, folk, disco. I have been influenced by many different kinds! I used to have an obsession with musicals, and still do due to their theatricality and the fact that music plays its big part one more time. Yes, I’d say I have been influenced by everything!
Q. Whose artist’s songs do you use the most?
A. I use Lady Gaga very often. She has been a great influence to me. Some of her songs are so theatrical and extravagant that they are like they have been created for drag shows! I have also performed spoken word, musicals, more rock stuff or greek stuff. It usually comes from what I listen to during that period of time, what I listen to which just clicks. If there is something specific that I would like to express, I find a song that fits in order to get it out of my system.
Q. Does your family have to do with the arts?
A. No! We can’t even find a great grandfather who had to do with the arts. Thank god I look like my parents otherwise I would believe I am adopted. There are two little cousins of mine that I see have a tendency to this so I have started training them a bit. I think the older one is in the first grade of primary school.
Q. How long does it take you to get ready and what is that process like?
A. Actually I am able to do it much faster by now but I am a person who doesn’t like to rush. It’s a very important part of the procedure for me. It’s not only my appearance that changes at that moment but also my whole being. I believe that this is something that every person who does drag would tell you. It doesn’t happen with an artificial way like being actors or actresses and getting into the role and playing. It’s happening through our bodies in a more spontaneous way. I like to describe it as other parts of my character take the first and main place. My confidence is completely different in and out of drag. This all happens slowly as I start getting ready. Then I finish the procedure and I have become a whole other person and not only on how I look. This is why I don’t like rushing it and I prefer taking my time. I need at least two to two and a half hours.
Q. What is it like to get ready with other performers?
A. That’s my favorite. Personally, my favorite thing is to share my dressing room with more people and get ready together. There are people who don’t like it or people who don’t get along well so they don’t want to be in the same room but personally I have been lucky enough to have good relationships with other people that I work with and this is why I really like it.
Drag and activism
Q. Do you feel like performing your shows is a form of activism? That you are fighting for something to be more heard and known to the world, even more acceptable.
A. I don’t believe that drag from its own is considered as activism. It is a political comment, it does have political substance. Even if you are the most apolitical human being with no awareness of what is really going on, when you do drag you make a political comment whether you want it or not. Actually having no political background and doing drag can be dangerous because it is like having to do with a power that you cannot really understand. But I wouldn’t say this is activism. Activism includes the word ‘active’.
If you don’t decide to do something actively with full awareness of what you do, I can’t consider this as activism. I am a bit strict with these issues because I will not ever justify someone who doesn’t do activism and says that they do just because they do drag. Activism has to do with actions. Drag can be activist and could be a huge strength to the activist world. I have seen that sometimes when I say the same things to someone while I am out of drag and in drag I get much more attention while being in drag, like my words count more. I can’t understand why, but it happens. Therefore, drag can be a very powerful tool but it’s not activism by its own.
Q. Would you mind telling us about the song you performed in honor of the people who were murdered here in Athens, Greece?
A. There are some shows that I sing. I did a partnership with Spyros Grammenos last year at Stavros tou Notou venue. And there is also a video for ‘’Ολ@ τ@ Πρώτ@’ [All the firsts]. It is a song included in the "in the album of JazzMatazz 3 "Arketa Kala Tragoudia" [meaning "several good songs" or "pretty good songs"]. The girl from the band is actually my current vocal teacher.
The band wrote ‘’Ολ@ τ@ Πρώτ@’ after Zak Kostopoulos's murder. It is a song dedicated to all the first people who were involved in such serious incidents and were the reason to start discussions and acts around several issues. People like Fyssas, Grigoropoulos, Zak. This is also why they approached me. The girl had seen me at Stavros tou Notou at a concert with Spyros and they thought that it would be really strong to include a drag queen in the music video due to the reasons this song was written. We recorded the song and shoot the video last year and uploaded it now that the date is close to Zak’s murder and the date of the murderer's upcoming trial.
Q. How has your performing changed due to the global pandemic?
A. There are shows at some bars. But they now open from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m.? That’s nothing. To us, COVID-19 did something good. During lockdown we started something that turned to be the first drag collective and its name is Drag Sabbat. Me and other performers gathered in order to discuss how we are doing during this time that we cannot do performances. We noticed we had many common issues and it was very nice to get together and not be alone in this. We are now several performers and we do weekly meetings, we organize our actions, we do online shows and it has been very good. They could follow Drag Sabbat on Facebook and Instagram. There are three shows on the platform where people could buy a ticket and watch. There are also some things on Youtube which are for free. We upload stuff pretty often. During lockdown I made some projects and uploaded them on my Instagram account. Many things have gone online now.
Personally, I have gained skills that I didn’t have before. For example, I have learned how to edit my videos and I keep getting better on this. I have also learned how to set my videos, the lighting, and more skills that I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t turned to the internet. Furthermore you can make things that you wouldn’t be able to do on a stage. I uploaded a video on Instagram with a project I had done during lockdown where everything is filmed outside at a beach in Ikaria (Greek island). I was on the rocks next to the sea, something that can only be on a video and you can’t do on a stage. This is very important to us. But personally I miss the energy and interaction you get from the people. [Watch the full re:Birth video here].
Q. What else do you like doing besides drag?
A. Besides that, I also used to do vocal lessons and I have started again now. Singing interests me a lot and you don’t find it in drag that much. Ideally, I would like to sing at some point.
Q. Anything else that you would like to add?
A. Yes, you could write how pretty and talented I am.
Follow Marianah Grindr on Instagram.