this drag king is breaking gender stereotypes with her david bowie impersonations
“Doing drag gives me a chance to be more outrageous” -- says Nikki Boudreau.
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In the last few years there’s been a cultural shift: the unwashed masses have swapped their marmalade for avocados, everyone’s started investing in Blockchain and drag has gone mainstream. The latter is, of course, in no small part due to RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has just wrapped its 10th season. The effects of this show have been widespread, ranging from high school bros commenting ‘yas kween’ on their girlfriend’s Facebook posts to Sink the Pink tickets now costing a small fortune, not to mention esteemed Drag Race alumni Courtney Act winning Big Brother’s ‘Year of the Woman.’ However, when it comes to gender play, one stone has been left ungentrified, and that stone is drag kings. Indeed, unlike their male counterparts, the women of drag are still relatively underground. One performer fighting for the spotlight is Nikki Boudreau, otherwise known as Gene Jeanie whose David Bowie-inspired performances are breaking gender stereotypes as we know it.
“I sort of just fell into it,” Nikki tells i-D. “I met a group of local drag queens in Stockton and decided to dress up as Ziggy Stardust for their Halloween show. A few months later, David Bowie died and a friend suggested I do a tribute performance at her drag show, as I already had the outfit. Before that, it had never occurred to me that I could do drag or even wanted to.”
Before drag, life was a little less extraordinary for Nikki. Growing up in the East Bay area of San Francisco, Nikki had a regular childhood. She went to a local school where she studied art. Though she loved her subject, she always felt like there was something missing. “I wasn't doing anything performance related, I was just doing painting and printmaking and drawing. I ended up getting really frustrated with the programme I was in.”
Things got a little more interesting at college, when she did a minors in gender studies, which in turn led her onto an internship with Planned Parenthood. While her gender studies opened the door for rigorous contemplation of her own gender, it was meeting LGBTQ patients and volunteers through Planned Parenthood that got her thinking about her sexuality. “They were both very different ways of interacting with ideas of gender and sexuality,” she says. “It made me realise there were actually a lot of common threads throughout my life that have manifested themselves in different ways.” Around the same time she was also volunteering at a local Gay Pride event, where she was introduced to a group of drag queens, who would later invite her to their Halloween party. Although she couldn’t quite explain it then, there was something about these drag queens and their extended community that seemed to resonate. In the end, Nikki spent a good year attending shows and circling the scene, before daring to become a part of it herself. “When I first started doing drag I was a completely straight identified person,” she says. “It really wasn't until this last year that I really came to terms with the fact I was queer and finally started coming out.”
Being a woman in a man’s world can be hard enough. Being a woman performing as a man can be even harder. Indeed, all too often female drag performers are dismissed in favour of their male counterparts. Luckily, Nikki’s is a different narrative. “I've been really fortunate that I've never encountered anyone who’s told me what I can or can’t do or made me feel unwelcome,” says Nikki. “Anyone can do drag in San Francisco. Whether you’re a woman, trans or non-binary -- it’s not an exclusionary scene. There are lots of different types of drag that don't fit the category ‘drag king’ or ‘drag queen’ too, and some people are just experimenting.”
Beyond challenging gender stereotypes, Nikki’s drag also questions the line between drag and celebrity impersonation. “When you're impersonating someone else, rather than doing your own character there’s a lot more scrutiny,” she says. Case in point: the stigma aimed at top Britney impersonator, Derrick Barry from Drag Race season eight. While the show uses Snatch Game as a vehicle to educate its younger fans on a rich history of gay icons, impersonation is generally frowned upon as a lesser form of drag by those who take inspiration from their own imagination. “I've heard some other people have a much more difficult time with it, but I think Bowie just inspires so much love,” she confides. “As I’ve got more attention I’ve been really surprised because it's all been overwhelmingly positive. It's also a little nerve racking performing as Bowie because people definitely have their own image of who Bowie was in their heads, which can be difficult to live up to.”
So, what is it about Bowie that has inspired one woman to dedicate her adult life to performing as him? “Oh my gosh there is so much to say!” she beams. “It's so hard to sum it up, but for me he's the perfect subject for drag -- so much of his career was about putting on these different characters, particularly some quite feminine characters, so it's all these weird layers of him as a man doing drag, and me as a woman impersonating him in drag. Ultimately I think doing drag gives me a chance to be more outrageous and impulsive because I think I can be a little quiet in everyday life which I think Bowie was too, when he was not performing. I think it's just that opportunity to be more impulsive and be more dramatic.”
It’s been only a year since Nikki donned her first orange mullet wig and powder blue suit, and gave her first performance of Time, but already she’s built up a reputation as one of the most exciting drag talents around. In March she headlined with season three Drag Race winner Raja at the San Francisco Oasis, and even appeared in US Vogue. As if that were all, she’s currently working on creating a new art and music venue in downtown Modesto called The Shire Community Space. “I'd love to start an avant-garde drag show out there,” she says. “I want to create something where I live so instead of having to travel all over the place, I can establish a drag or performing arts type community out here.” While the future remains unknown for now, one thing's for certain, in finding drag, Nikki has found herself.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.