Topless dancers hang from aerial hoops as a bald figure, with skin painted entirely red, struts across the stage to the Deftones' tempestuous alt-rock hit "Change (In the House of Flies)." Black tentacles, like Ursula's in The Little Mermaid, hang from the leather apron covering his torso, and devilish, vinyl bat wings protrude from his back. He flares the wings slowly while descending into a squat, in time with a crescendo of thundering guitars and drums—a total power move, like a sci-fi villain flexing his might.
This is drag in San Francisco in 2018—and Jader, the performer on stage at SOMArts this night in April, is among an exciting new breed of artists pushing the boundaries of the art form.
As I approach Jader's SoMA apartment building six weeks after his performance at the event, I realize I have no clue what he looks like under the theatrical, alien-like makeup he wears for his shows. When I arrive at the gate, a white man in his thirties answers the door looking comparatively naked with his shaved head, black button-down shirt and jeans, with only a septum ring adorning his face.
All smiles, Jader apologizes for the cat's litter box as leads me through the hall and into the living room. I eye a packed clothing rack of dresses, capes, a bodice made out of Viking shin guards and a red dress with vinyl piping that looks almost inflatable. The folded bat wings he wore at SOMArts protrude from the row of garments, hanging next to the bondage-y, latex seal tail and flippers; Jader's accessorized them with a leather choker and dental cheek retractors for a performance piece at Untitled Art Fair.
Jader's nocturnal schedule of bartending at the Great American Music Hall—plus some shifts at Costumes on Haight, his second job—allow him the free time and access to materials to create these intricate, shapeshifting looks.
"To me, drag is about having fun and not always trying to be beautiful," says Jader. "I'm happy to have a face full of boils and act like a model."
Jader is a drag performer, but he's not a drag queen per se; his style is typically more phantasmagorical and gender-neutral than the high-femme looks most people associate with the medium. And it's certainly much weirder than anything seen on RuPaul's Drag Race, the reality show that's become drag's most mainstream platform since moving to VH1 last year.
"I'm appreciative that queer art is so international now, but because of it, there are certain people who believe drag has to be done a certain way," says Jader. "But it's really awesome, because with all this interest in this art form, there are so many people who are really challenging the structures of drag, and challenging that narrative and pushing it further—especially in the Bay Area."
Drag Race has faced criticism for its treatment of black and plus-size contestants, as well as RuPaul's comments implying that transitioning trans women—and anyone who's not a cis man outside of drag—need not apply. But the Bay Area drag scene, which has produced stars like gender nonconforming performance artist and model Boychild, has long embraced diversity and gender fluidity. Jader considers it the perfect home for his very unconventional approach.
"I feel really lucky to be working in such a queer hub where people think about it differently," he says of the Bay Area. "It's not just about, 'Are you able to look like a cis-gender woman?' That is typically not the goal here."
Jader came into drag by way of visual art. He grew up in "vanilla-ass" Irvine and fled its homophobic high school bullies to study art history at UCLA. While living in Los Angeles after college, Jader began curating underground art shows and art-directing photo shoots, eventually shifting his focus to surreal, Cindy Sherman-esque self-portraits (basically, drag without the performance) that he styled and photographed himself.
Jader's expertise in special effects makeup—all gleaned from YouTube—earned him a reputation as a master of illusion once he moved to San Francisco in 2009. But the artist didn't take those looks to the stage until 2015, at the album release party for VAINHEIN, Jader's good friend and fellow avant-drag performer.
That debut performance, where Jader wore a headdress made of lights and sealed his mouth shut with latex, was the impetus for Jader, VAINHEIN and Pseuda (another drag queen and close friend) to start the collective Toxic Waste Face, a trio that focuses on a more theatrical, performance-art mode of drag and does production for other genre- and gender-bending artists. (They recently produced fellow drag performer Bebe Huxley's music video, directed by Jader, for her single, "Venom.")
Though the three members of Toxic Waste Face cut their teeth in nightlife at parties like Dark Room, an industrial goth drag night that moved from the Stud in SoMA to Oakland's Golden Bull, Toxic Waste Face have their sights set on more collaborations with performing arts institutions, galleries and museums—organizations with budgets that can fund more elaborate artistry.
The collective's most ambitious project to date is a 45-minute multimedia theater piece called Mega Mall, which premiered in 2017. The play, about mutants in a post-World War III nuclear fallout, features live acting, video vignettes, and 14 different costumes. "It's very much a commentary on the 'other,' on queerness, etc., where these mutants are being vilified by these corporate, hegemonic structures," says Jader. "But then the mutants mount this coupe and break into the facility and everyone starts mutating."
The play, like Jader's own drag, comes with a simple, powerful message. As Jader puts it: "Own what makes you different."
Jader performs Friday, June 29, at The Stud in San Francisco for Stereo Argento. Details here.
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