Drag is a resplendent art form as old as history. An exuberant cultural space that stands devoid of the rigid and imposing checkboxes of gender and sexuality. A term used previously in theatre, it was used to describe a man or a woman dressed as the opposite sex. It was called ‘Drag’ because of the long skirts that used to drag along the stage floor. I had the honour of talking to one of India’s first drag queens, known to the world as ‘Maya The Drag Queen’ and popularly referred to by her more endearing stage name ‘Mayamma’.
Maya, a word that means ‘magic’ in Sanskrit, is a name aptly suited for a person who has inspired many people and won many hearts across India. Like a magician draws crowds with his magic, Maya, The Drag Queen, has garnered attention through Ted Talks, live performances and videos on social media. Taking over the stage in 2014, Alex Mathew was just one of a few who chose drag art as a profession. Fast forward from then, Alex Mathew a.k.a Maya The Drag Queen has transformed into becoming not just a drag queen but also an activist who champions for equality for the LGBTQIA+ community and women. Here’s an exclusive interview that provides a peek into Alex Mathew’s perspectives on Indian society, his drag career in Bangalore, future plans and many more. Read on to find out more about a majestic queen with a sui generis personality.
Can you describe what you feel when you transform into Mayamma onstage, and what are the traits that are specific to her personality?
Everybody goes to parties, right? To get that kick, to loosen up and to get that adrenaline rush. When I go on stage, I get that kick. And it’s the best thing I’ve ever felt to date. It’s like my body telling me that this is my purpose. When I started performing as Maya, the reason why I did it was not for the community. I did it for fun and because I loved to perform on stage. And then slowly, I realized that people were getting messed up with the ideas of gender, identity, individualism and feminism. That’s when I felt the need to talk about it as a drag queen.
I’ve been frequently asked ‘why have you chosen drag?’ Doesn’t it affect your gender? And to be frank, it has not affected my gender; I am the same Alex. Just that I’ve matured, that’s the only difference. Maya has been part of me for the longest time. It was only in 2014, I opened the lock, and she came out, and she brought me out as well. That’s what happened.
Maya magnifies my personality, and she carries confidence like crazy. I think I’ve seen a lot of women in my family who are bold. And that is something which stuck with me, and that’s the impression I want people to get. And that is something which is missing in Alex’s life, so I think I’ve learned a lot from Maya. So in turn, even if we are the same, we learn from each other. That is how we’ve been able to complete six years of this amazing journey.
Were there moments during your journey of becoming Maya the Drag Queen when you felt like giving up?
I think that happened when I didn’t have a job for two months. But now I’m glad I didn’t quit. Because everything that happened after that was great. Nowadays, people want fast track success. But they don’t understand that all that will quickly fade. Mine is a slow progress, but I am on an upward tangent. There are times when it is stagnant. But what if I go straight up there, and then go down. That is not the right progression. So rather than giving up, I’m like, you know what, I’ve come this far, I don’t think I should give up.
If you were granted a superpower, what superpower would you choose and why?
I want the power to remove bigotry and hatred towards the community. I wish I had that superpower by which, when I talk to people, they understand the community and are rid of their conditioning. People do not see us as human beings. They think we are wrong, according to religion, or according to what the society says. And that’s it. They don’t have anything more to do with it. We can’t make everybody happy, because it’s scarce that someone thinks that you’re right. We’re not asking for money from them. We’re just asking them to be more humane.
Mayamma the character is from a fisherman family. Where did you get the inspiration from? Can it be said that the story of Mayamma is a reflection of your own personal experiences?
So, all the intensity in Mayamma’s story came from the women my mother used to meet and interact with. And these are women who have faced physical, emotional and mental abuse, who have stood firm despite the abuse they faced. They inspired me.
So, if you see the story that I created, I wanted it to be something from which people can identify immediately that it is about Kerala. And when I say Kuttanad, immediately people think about Onam, Boat Race, coconut trees and lagoons. And what’s the main occupation in Kuttanad? It’s fishing. So that is how I came up with this story. Some people still think I am from Kuttanad and I am married to a man and settled in Bangalore. But I’ve never been married in my life. It is a story. But I’m glad the story is so believable that people think that I am married, but it’s just not true.
Today you stand tall and free from gender norms and represent an alluring epitome of sheer confidence! How did you deal with criticism initially? Do you still face criticism?
I will be lying if I say I don’t face criticism. When I started, people used to tell me my makeup is not great. Why can’t I wear western clothes? I was told ‘I’ve been making a lot of bad art’. I took it as constructive. I worked on myself, but I never gave up on the idea of Maya, dressed in a saree. To me, this is who I am, and this is who I will be. I take criticism which applies to me. And I don’t take the criticism, which does not. I think to myself that it is their insecurity that is being projected on me. And I don’t want that to affect me.
Has ‘Bangalore’, the melting pot of diverse cultures played a role in the accepting and thriving of drag culture and the moulding of Mayamma as one of India’s few drag queens?
When I was living in Kerala, I was terrified to meet people. I had a constant fear of how society will treat me. I was in the closet for the longest time. But coming to Bangalore, I saw the community was free and open. They honestly don’t care about your sexuality; they honestly don’t care about who you are; they don’t care if you’re a drag queen or not a drag queen or anything. Kerala and Bangalore are poles apart. If I compare Bangalore to Mercury, Kerala would be Pluto.
We claim to possess a progressive attitude towards gender and sexuality in the 21st century. Would you say that the attitude of the public towards drag and the LGBTQIA+ community is changing?
In 2015, I felt I was the only drag queen out there, and nobody was ready to drag. But now in 2020, I see a lot of changes, but they are baby steps. In 2014, I said ‘I am fabulous’, I’m fierce, but now I’ve come to a point where I tell people ‘Can you please understand us?’
I still see brands who do campaigns with drag queens use us for profit. We are there in their campaign, but what else are they doing? Are they giving us gender-neutral changing rooms?
It’s just tokenism. Basically, they’re doing it only to show that they are inclusive. The same thing goes with corporate as well as colleges and schools. Are they inclusive? Are they telling people that it’s a safe space? This tokenism is at large, especially in June. I get work for an entire year in June. Why? Because June is a pride month. And that is when suddenly all these brands and companies wake up and decide to reach out to the drag community. But they should realize that we also exist throughout the year. We’re human beings throughout the year. Even when section 377 was repealed, the first thing that the country had to do was go through heavy sex education to understand the LGBT community. But they’re still clueless. When people see me, they still think I’m a transgender. I am a cisgender man performing as a drag queen. So there’s a lot of work, and we have a lot more to do.
There are a lot of people who misunderstand drag as cross-dressing. How would you differentiate between cross-dressing and drag?
Cross-dressing is a choice, whereas drag is an art form. You can’t mix it with gender or sexuality. Some straight people perform drag. I don’t walk out of the room in drag. I get into drag at the place where I have to perform. But people confuse us with cross-dressers. They also confuse us with transgender people as well, especially me, because I wear a saree. That’s not the truth. Trans women are basically men who want to transition into women, and trans men are women who want to transition into men. Many people get confused with us, but I keep reiterating that we are performers, so you need to view us like that.
How far or near are you to your goal of becoming an artist on Broadway and extending your reach to an international audience?
Unless and until I get a free transition into New York, I don’t think it’s happening. But I am still stuck to that dream because I love musicals and dance and act. Now that the U.S political climate has changed a lot, I hope it’s easier for me to go to the U.S. So, fingers crossed.
If you were to write an autobiography, what would be its title? What will be the message you convey through it? Looking back on your journey so far, do you feel satisfied with where you are?
My autobiography would be known as Confessions of an Indian Drag Queen. From a person who was not happy being in a corporate setup, I’ve come to a point where I am proud to say that I’m an artist, and I’m living by who I truly should be. That is something which people need to see me as. I’m meant to create queer content for the community so that people can understand us better. And that is my life purpose. So right now, I’m 200% satisfied.
What are your hopes for the future?
I really want to work with movies and web series. I want to do a web series because I see that there is less content about the community, written by the community and for the community. There is so much content about straight people. So, I think I should write for the community. I also want to start my own school when I’m really old and have many investors. Because the education system we have now is very clerical. You’re expected to either become a doctor, an engineer or an accountant. I want to focus on artists and want to start a curriculum that applies to students of all ages so that when they graduate from my school or college, they come out known as artists. I see many people who are angry because they can’t pursue what they love to do. This is something we need to have an honest conversation about. Why can’t they pursue what they love and make money out of it? Artists are always considered low and don’t get that much money as a CEO of a company or a chartered accountant. I want to fix this disparity.