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Inside Rome’s Rising Drag Queen Scene

La Karl Du Pignè & Other Stories

Home to the Vatican City, to stereotypically beautiful men screaming ‘ciao bella’ from a Vespa and to the most famous Catholic traditions, Rome might not be the first place that comes to your mind when you think of a ever growing and thriving drag scene.

But it is in the shadow of the Colosseum, that men of all ages and sizes regularly slip into sheer dresses, high heels and unforgettably colourful wigs, instantly becoming extravagant and fabulous figures, to deliver some of the most innovative shows in the Italian capital.

The History

Andrea Berardicurti, long a member of this elite crew, smiles when he thinks about how it all started – in a former red-light cinema a few steps away from the Pope’s residency, St. Peter’s Basilica.

“Can you imagine when the Vatican forced the red light cinema to close and we started doing a drag night there once a week! From bad to worse”, he says bursting out laughing.

Berardicurti is the brains behind one of the most celebrated and oldest drag queens in Rome, La Karl Du Pignè.  You get the feeling that this towering man – over six foot tall – who looks nothing like a drag queen at first sight, remembers the old times with a sort of gleeful delight.

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When his memories snap back to the 1980s, little did he know that he would play such a significant role in being a part of, and creating a new, now unstoppable movement.

In a time in the Catholic Church was still dominating society, and the LGBTQ community was barely contemplated, a strong artistic and intellectual fervency and the hunger for diversity allowed a group of people to come together and initiate what today is the drag scene in the Italian capital.

It all began when the Mario Mieli Circle for Homosexual Culture, Rome’s very own association for LGBT rights, started to organise a weekly night to support its costs and bills.

Inspired by the performing arts and its worldwide ancient cross-dressing traditions and driven by the desire to entertain and establish a connection with the public, the party that still goes by the name of Muccassassina, rapidly kicked off and obtained great success, but not without its difficulties.

Cross-dressing, known as the act of wearing clothes associated to the opposite sex, has been central in different cultures throughout history for the affirmation of self determination. Although the term has always been mistakenly correlated with behaviours of transgender nature, in reality it isn’t used to and doesn’t denote one’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

Putting worries about how they looked to one side, the Muccassasina’s cast initially focused solely on entertaining the public and building up the niche, but still strong, audience they have today.

“It was such a small niche back then, that it was so difficult to find fake lashes or shoes,” recalls Berardicurti. “I bought my first pair of heels in LA in 1986. I couldn’t find them in Italy. Same thing for clothes – unless you knew how to sew or you knew someone that did.”

Holding its first nights at Castello Cinema, an ex pornographic cinema a few steps away from the Vatican, there wasn’t a night that went by when police or security wouldn’t come by to maintain public order and manage the over 3000 people in the queue waiting to get in.

He goes on: “It was so experimental that the artistic direction and the resident cast I was in would meet once a month and didn’t even know what show were going to do next. We would organise different nights every month – and in Rome there was nothing else of this kind – that’s why it attracted such a big crowd.”

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Mario Mieli Circle representatives at Rome's 2016 Gay Pride. Ⓒ Wikimedia Commons

The misconceptions about drag queens were by no means a secret. Often mistaken as transgenders, or sexual workers, there wasn’t a day that went by that the newborn community had to endure prejudices or silly questions.

“Even within the gay community – they would ask me if I was undergoing surgery to become a woman anytime soon,” he recalls ruefully. “God knows what they thought we’d do – in reality we were all tired after every show and couldn’t wait to go home after 10 hours on heels.”

The nights stepped up a gear after Vladimir Luxuria, a transgender Italian politician, actress and writer, took over the artistic direction of Muccassassina. It moved to bigger and bigger venues and inspired the ideas for similar nights, such as Giam and Gloss in nearby neighbourhoods.

Berardicurti recalls: “It’s when we got the support of Vladimir Luxuria , who’s always been close to the circle, that we started to be ‘liberalised’ and freed from the prejudices. Even one of the most famous TV presenters in Italy, Maurizio Costanzo, invited us on his show, and luckily destroyed almost every misconception there was about us.”

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Vladimir Luxuria (left) at Rome's 2012 Gay Pride. Ⓒ Wikimedia Commons

As years went by, it became one of the most known LGBTQI parties in Italy, and the drag scene shifted more towards club nights, sometimes losing its original content of entertainment and performance.

Now it’s quite difficult to find a true entire drag show in a club, if not impossible. The drag scene and LGBTQI nights have been very much commercialised, and they now see their audience going to clubs for the parties themselves, not so much for the show anymore, that often only last an average of about 15 minutes.

For Berardicurti, this is a shame. “It looks like a lot of young drags today forget where we come from,” he says sadly… “Sometimes they don’t know about the feminist movement or LGBT community. And think respect and pride for drag queens has always been here – I regret to say that we had to earn it, but If we didn’t we wouldn’t be as strong and opinionated as we are.”

The Masters

In response to the ever-growing gap between drags and the audience, Berardicurti founded Dragqueenmania with fellow entertainers a few years back.

The cultural association was born with the idea to become a point and centre of interest not only for drag queens but for all the people that somehow wanted to get closer to this world and not only see it through the lens of clubs.

Dragqueenmania often alternates traditional drag shows with book presentations, rather than workshops or theatre plays. From the eight-year-old child’s birthday party entertainment to a stag do or civil union, this group of 12 people aims to involve everyone. And they can really say everyone, as they’ve been recently booked for a few christenings too.

“We work non-stop all year round. It’s the word of mouth that works the most. A lot of people we’ve done shows for have actually seen us somewhere else first.

“Our nights are really not strictly related to a certain niche. We worked for years with some organisations that had nothing to do with the lgbt community, but were people that would organise dinners and shows to enjoy each other’s company. And their nights would be always packed. They’d only want to have fun with an atypical show.”

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But the members of Dragqueenmania never lost a chance to speak up and talk against homophobia or in support of civil unions.

“It’s because of my job at the Circle that I was involved with Muccassassina. It got to a point in which there were so many people called Andrea at the Circle, that I just used to sign as La Karl,” he laughs.

If you were wondering how the name came about, La Karl Du Pignè was created by Berardicurti in the 90s in Rome’s neighbourhood of Pigneto.

“The first time I went out of the house dressed as a woman, not in drag, just as a woman, I was scared I would meet someone I knew. A car stopped by and asked me ‘hey beautiful what’s your name’ and I really didn’t know what to say.  Before this car passed another one had come by and I thought I’d seen a friend of mine called Carla – so that’s the first name that came to my head. Then with time I started using the French version.

“You see that painting there?”, he says pointing at a frame above his bed. “That look is nowhere similar to me in my drag version. But when I saw the painting for first time I said ‘this is me’.

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“I’m very atypical as a drag because I’ve always kept a bit of my manly part in my character – and I never gave that up. I say that whoever likes La Karl Du Pignè likes her because there’s me in there too, and vice versa – that’s why I have no shame if people see me with make up dressed as a man.

“We both have big personalities but I like to think that we fit in my spacious body. I got used to her – I have two wardrobes, and funnily enough I have more drag clothing than my own.”

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La Karl’s wardrobe, which takes up a whole room, looks like a dolls house. A huge side of the wall is dedicated to make up, while all sorts of dresses, of all colours, are hanged on the other side of the room, alongside an uncountable quantity of pairs of heels.

Old pictures hanging on the wall serve as a reminder that all these wigs meticulously laid above the wardrobe in plain sight have come a long way.

“If I had to write down my CV, I would have more experience as La Karl rather than as Andrea,” he says.

As a matter of fact, La Karl appeared in several movies and Berardicurti worked his character through collaborations with some of Italy’s notable actors and directors.

Since he brought his alter ego abroad and visited the USA, the UK and many European countries including Germany and Austria, he didn’t fail to notice that the drag queen scene is much more widely spread elsewhere.

Although the drag phenomenon exploded quite late in Italy, La Karl is the living proof that Rome is now home to a wide variety of drags teams, associations, a continuously growing audience and almost more contests than actual drags.

The Contest

One of the most lively shows around is unarguably the Drag Factor.

Born from an idea by Simone Polena and Simone Farag, the annual contest is inspired by the TV programme X Factor, and it first came about as a regional contest. It enjoyed rapid success shortly after its launch and the duo extended the competition to the whole country.

From then on, also thanks to Gay Village’s fundamental support, it became the big phenomenon it is today.

The rules are simple: over 130 competing drag queens have to perform on stage and are eventually chosen by a team of tutors that will coach them throughout the show.

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The tutors. From the left, KarmaB duo, Polena De Kastor, Tiffany Romano, Danielle Deco'.

Polena De Kastor – not hard to work out which of the two founders this is – explains: “The Drag Factor deliberately chooses entertainment. Although it is a contest for people that need schooling or just a first push, contestants have to be creative and actually deliver a show, with or without the help of the tutors here. The world is full of drags that only think about the look – especially in the American scene. The Italian drag queen school distinguishes itself because it was born not from the beauty ideals, but from knowing how to entertain. The beauty is a plus.”

He’s been following the drag scene since he was really young, and his drag queen image has turned from a hobby into a job pretty rapidly. Polena De Kastor quickly gained national success and toured for months around Europe.

Yet from the height of his career and experience, Polena still sees drag as a remedy for the soul.

“Being a drag queen is possibly the most therapeutic form of entertainment, especially if you have a multi faceted personality. I’m a Libra, ascendant Gemini, I always say there are four of us in me. If you know how to be versatile, you’re interested in make up, dance, you understand music, you can maybe handle being on a stage and sewing clothes, I think it’s the most satisfactory thing. And most of all, it often happens that while you’re embodying another person, this person becomes your own best friend, and it is often the person that helps you solve all the problems you have in life.

Let me give you an example: I spent two years having panic attacks.. and coincidentally my alter ego never had one.

“It’s feels like I’m creating a shield in front of me if I need it, although if I introduce myself to someone while I’m working, I would always go for Simone, never for my drag name. Basically I free my brain 3-4 hours a week.”

After being part of the resident cast of different Rome’s LGBTQI and drag nights since 2004, less than 10 years later the chance came about for Polena to organise his own show.

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As his family was not aware of his profession, Polena would initially lie to them saying he was working as a costume designer, to justify the fact he had a sewing machine and all sorts of fabrics in his house. It was after his alter ego started to take away more of his time that he decided to tell them in a very unusual way, announcing it through TV.

Polena joined a TV show called Big Spender, in which the organisers would give 10.000 euros to the candidate that offered the best and most striking reason to receive the price. The candidates had to enter a dark room and explain  the reasons why they should win.

“I got in the room and I said ‘I am a drag queen and my family doesn’t know – if you give me 10.000 euros I will organise a show with the biggest names in the industry and announce to my family, live, that I am a drag queen’. After saying that I heard the producers pausing the show, saw them all coming out from behind the scenes and proclaiming me the winner. They gave me 10.000 euros and I organised this.”

That sensational turn of events allowed Polena and his work partner Farag to give over 100 drag queens a spirit of competition and fun times to look forward to at the beginning of every year.

Having now reached its fifth incarnation, no one knows what surprises the duo have in store for this year’s contest.

Casa Madre

The much awaited first episode of the Drag Factor, ‘Casamadre’, has come.

Animatedly twisting round the pole, Alberto Riccobono pushes himself up and down in his blue latex two-piece ensemble with combined monumental head piece and his size 10 feet clad in towering 5-inches black leather heels.

He then spins again and gracefully lands on the stage, supported by his contemporary back up dancer to the sound of a modern house rhythm.

The crowd, packed into a big theatre hall, that is surprising full, goes wild.

This very modern twist on pole dancing comes courtesy of the Drag Factor, Rome’s very own X-Factor inspired contest that puts 13 contestants against each others, all competing to win.

Earlier a laid-back Riccobono – who goes by the name of Le Riche – puffing on a cigarette, talks about what brought him to the competition: “I was ‘scouted’ on social media and encouraged to join by the organisers. I have been always fascinated by the world of drag queens and have been following it for several years. I have been doing pole dancing for about a year, so I can’t say I’m new to the world of performers, but I have never done drag before.”

He does seem relaxed, and if he is suffering from nerves, they are only betrayed by how early he arrived. He got to the theatre hours before the show starts to get his make up done and rehearse his performance.

After moving out of his family home in Sicily, he started to work as a hairstylist and image consultant in the capital.

“My family doesn’t know yet. Only my sister, who I sent a picture to while trying on clothes. I don’t think they would have any problem with it – they’re really open from this point of view and far from me, as they live in Sicily.”

Riccobono really had to think a lot about the character in the making, being the Drag Factor the first time he publicly interprets his new persona.

“I decided to sort of keep a masculine appearance – I will add feminine components like heels, make up and the costume. I am working a lot on finding a character that could be my alter ego. I think what I’m creating is just a more feminine version of me, to start. I have to say we’re very similar – even the name I gave to the character is inspired by the beginning of my surname.”

“I think it’s important that I remind myself where I came from. I want my character to carry a story behind it.”

Le Riche will have to impress the judges and even more than the three teams of tutors that will eventually choose to take him under their wing throughout the contest and coach him for his next performances.

“I think it will be quite complex: as a drag, you have to put together both the theatrical and emotional part with what you look like. The most difficult thing is the ability to send your message to the public through the performance.”

Rehearsals done, he’s already onto the make-up session, which he hopes it’ll take him up to an hour and an half.

The changing and make-up rooms are busy and chaotic – a very diverse variety of men are focused on foundations, highlights, contours and eyes palettes. Someone has got a make-up artist to help, while someone else, like Alberto, who joined several make-up tutorials to be prepared, is doing his own.

He then proceeds to dress up for the presentation – he’ll wear a black see-through ensemble paired with heavy jewellery and a picturesque mask. For the actual performance, Alberto will opt for the blue latex two-piece garment with integrated head piece.

“I’m a bit anxious on how it’ll go. It’s something very new. I am confident though, and the fact that I don’t know the other contestants might help. I am sure they’re more prepared – because they have been doing it for longer than me. But I love competition, I find it fun, so we’ll see how it goes.”

The show starts, and the first six performers sing and dance anything from Beyoncé to Italian classics.

In a very little time, the theatre backstage turns into a bunch of colours. The group of fabulous and bubbly drag queens toast to what’s to come, to both competition and team spirit.

Back to the hall. To judge from the audience’s reaction, they’ve never seen a pole dancing show like this, bursting into a loud applause as soon as the show is over.

Two teams of tutors rush to get Le Riche on their team. The third one, Danielle Deco’, who instead remains seated, insists: “I really loved the performance, but I choose not to coach you simply because this isn’t my style and I wouldn’t know how to help you.”

For both Alberto and Le Riche, this is still a big success – and he chooses to be tutored by iconic drag queen duo KarmaB.

While the show continues and the next contestant is on stage, Alberto is back backstage. He has now finally time to relax and reflect on his achievement. He says he’s relieved, and ready for the next selection.

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As the sun goes down, Rome’s very own drag queens are ready for yet again another show. Alberto and Simone will participate to The Drag Factor’s next selection, while Andrea and his group prepare for their next shows and upcoming events.

The identity of this diverse and fun group of fabulous men goes hand in hand with its surroundings: their lives would have probably never crossed, if it wasn’t for a series of coincidences and surprises that this city never fails to reserve.

All rights reserved if not otherwise stated. For any enquiry please contact: eprad001@gold.ac.uk

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