September 30th, 2009
Michael McParlane

veronica1John Musser, a.k.a. Veronica Bleaus, is a sassy, classy queen who you can find busting his sequined butt all over Pittsburgh. A native of Crafton, PA and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he volunteers for both the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force and the Gay & Lesbian Community Center, in addition to performing and hosting at various events and benefits across town, including a few for Open Thread. Recently, he’s been working with collaborator and previous featured artist, Dani Lamorte, on a mission to bring the wonders for drag to the streets in a series of Drive-by Drag performances. Check out their site frequently to find out where they will be performing next, as well as Veronica’s MySpace profile to see a bevy of photos from her previous escapades. I caught up with John/Veronica recently, and I came with a few questions about living in Pittsburgh and his thoughts on drag. Here’s what he had to say:

veronica2OT: Your drag career started in 2004 when you came to the University of Pittsburgh to pursue your interests in psychology and English literature. What got you into drag? Are there any moments from your childhood that you look back on now and recognize as a build-up to your debut as Veronica Bleaus?

JM: More than anything else in my childhood, I suppose I would have to blame the birth of Veronica Bleaus on my enrollment into the University of Pittsburgh. Within a month of starting my freshman year, I was already hitting the coming-out process full swing. Several of my new friends were immersing me into aspects of gay culture, with which I was otherwise unfamiliar. The first seedlings of Veronica were planted when my friend Jess had decided to slather some makeup onto me on a Tuesday night. I decided that I should go in drag for Halloween and constructed a monstrosity of an outfit for myself, while relying on the kindness of women to paint their attempt at drag on my face. Even my name was bestowed upon me by others (in two parts and on two separate occasions). Veronica was not wholly a being of my own creation. I owe large portions of Veronica’s identity to the people who helped sculpt her; in some sense, Veronica has never really lost that feeling of mutability that helps her to adapt to so many different aesthetic representations. Subsequently, doing drag for yet another Halloween showed me that I made an attractive woman, and it at least gave me another reason to pursue this peculiarly wonderful hobby. Oddly enough, my childhood seems to have no moments that I can look back and say, “Veronica was here!” Even just months prior to my attending Pitt, I had thought that drag queens must be strange people, and I didn’t quite understand their place in the gay community. My mind was strewn with the mechanics of how drag queens would have sex; it wasn’t until I had actually seen my first drag show the summer before my Freshman year that drag suddenly made sense. It was nothing more than pure performance, illusion, fantasy, and fun. I was in awe.

OT: How has your conception of drag changed since you started performing? Are there any common misconceptions that you have noticed that you would like to dispel?

JM: I think, to a certain extent, that when a young queen begins to perform, she thinks that she must ‘pass’ as a woman. I was no exception. I initially evaluated the success of my looks based on how womanly I appeared. Thankfully, those days are over. The drive of young queens to look like real, slutty women, doing Top 40 numbers and performances, shows nothing about the real intricacies involved behind a well-crafted drag persona and production. I’m not saying that drag queens shouldn’t look feminine, or shouldn’t draw from a feminine aesthetic, but I’m rather suggesting that drag is more than just impersonation (while that is/can be a part of it). Drag is also camp, glamour, excess, inversion, wit, and frequently pain. The drag that is only as deep as illusion is about as shallow as a puddle. With that being said, drag does not have to impersonate; drag can create. Drag has and can create new aesthetics and new cultural amalgamations drawn from several aspects of both high art and pop culture. The Gender-F*ck look (i.e. queens who don’t shave, don’t wear wigs/tits/etc.), for example, has gone beyond traditional questions raised by drag, “what does it mean to be a woman?” and created several new ones, “what does it mean to be a drag queen/be in drag?” Also, consider the ways in which drag queens, almost effortlessly, cut and paste sounds from classic movies and songs to create a new, camp interpretation of a concept. I guess to summarize, drag is not just about looking like a woman.

veronica4OT: Veronica Bleaus’s style and attitude is one that borrows equally from classic Hollywood glamour and contemporary pop culture, while referencing a rich history of drag performance. Where would you place yourself within drag history? Are there any particular performers, cultural figures, or style icons that you continually find yourself attracted to?

JM: What an astute description of Veronica! Consider me flattered. Within the grand scheme of drag culture/history, I’m insecure enough to say that I’m a chip off the old block, but insightful enough to understand that what I do isn’t exactly the same as the rest of the queen crowd. While I do borrow from the classic drag repertoire, like the standards of Liza and Judy, I have an equally special place in my heart for more modern drag fixtures like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Kylie Minogue. I think there’s a part of Veronica that wants to be noticed by a greater audience than the audience that more traditional bar queens shoot for. If drag history had a page about me, I would like it to say that I helped to bring drag out of the bar and into the streets (hide your children!). I have a love of so many icons that have influenced my drag; these figures might not be the most famous or popular, but have somehow left marks on the way Veronica thinks and acts. Audrey Hepburn comes to mind, for her aversion to trends, opting instead for classic, classy, unequivocal glamour. Judy Garland for her humor and the way she never quite seemed afraid to laugh at herself amidst all of her insecurities; she is still a legend. And Kylie Minogue, it seems, is the perfect blend between high fashion glamour and a camp aesthetic that hasn’t been matched in recent years.

veronica61OT: During your time at Pitt, you often studied the history of drag, tracing it back through the socio-economic underpinnings of voguing (dance) in the late 80s, Susan Sontag’s essay on camp in the 60s, all the way back to the writings of Oscar Wilde. How does this knowledge, if at all, effect how you approach a performance? Is there anything you hope to accomplish through this combination of drag performance and critical study?

JM: Ah yes, some of my most pleasing and successful academic work was my investigation of drag that began with Oscar Wilde, who in turn planted several seeds of influence that ultimately bloomed and coalesced into a more modern understanding and image of how we view and discuss drag. However pleasing this work may have been, I don’t honestly believe that it helped to improve my drag. How I approach a performance? Maybe only slightly, in that I might consider the dimensions of what I’m performing i.e. not only performing gender, but perhaps class and other representations, too. There is always an essential disconnect between the worlds of tangible research/writing and the ethereal world of performance. My academic work improved through practice. The same applies to my drag; the more comfortable I become within my character and the better I know and develop Veronica, the better my performances become. Though this disconnect exists, I see my role as a drag performer as a unique opportunity to glean insight into an otherwise academically neglected cultural phenomenon.

OT: You and your partner in drag, Daniel Stuchel a.k.a. Dani Lamorte, recently began doing Drive-by Drag performances, where you show up to various public locations in the Pittsburgh area, do a number, and then leave without a trace. What was the impetus behind this type of performance? What kind of reception from the public do you hope to get/have gotten?

veronica31JM: Drive-by-Drag was born out of a kind of frustration with the bar scene in Pittsburgh, specifically the gay bar scene, and how a drag performer has to go about to be noticed. With that in mind, I had been going through a particularly long dry spell in bookings, and had suggested to Dani(el) that we should begin doing numbers anywhere we felt like it as a way to break free of the bar scene and create a performance space that was new and challenging. Not only that, but when the walls of a gay bar are removed, the presence of the audience becomes that much more alluring in its uncertainty. Dani and I have realized that far contrary to the general expectation that drag would be treated in a hostile manner if leaked out into the daylight amongst the more heterosexual crowd, that regular people are oftentimes thrilled and surprised by drag when they encounter it. Aside from the occasional schizophrenic old man yelling at us to be men, it seems that Drive-by-Drag brightens people’s days and raises consciousness. Lofty goals, eh?

OT What can OT readers expect from you or your alter ego in the near future?

JM: As far as John knows, he’ll be in Pittsburgh for at least one more year working and preparing for graduate school. During that time, Veronica will most certainly still be around, causing chaos and joy wherever she sees fit. If she feels up for it, she might try to re-enter the bar scene and enter a few pageants, but I daresay Veronica now has some different aspirations. Her booking calendar is almost entirely wide open. Keep this in mind if anyone wants to see Veronica at his/her neighborhood book sale, grand opening, bar mitzvah, donkey show, or Open Thread event (hint hint).

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