KAJ-ANNE PEPPER (stage name: "Pepper Pepper") is best known as one of Portland's most dynamic drag queens—but as an artist, he's multidisciplinary, and he'll be one of the first residents at Flock, the new dance center slated to open inside Disjecta in April. I visited Pepper during his February residence at Place gallery, inside Pioneer Place Mall, where we discussed Portland's infamous drag group Sissyboy and the evolution of the queer scene. and his recent show at Place, FAGGOTS: A Guerilla Residency.
MERCURY: You've been in Portland since 2005?
KAJ-ANNE PEPPER: I moved to Portland in 2005, and I immediately joined Sissyboy, the notorious drag terrorist group, where I cut my teeth as a performer. We were awful performance-art drag queens. We did that for a couple of years.
Portland is known as having a huge queer party scene; there's queer dance nights every weekend, but back then, in the early 2000s, there was Booty and there was Sissyboy, that was it. Since then, the scene has changed. I like to think that everyone went from being punk rock to disco. Now, because of RuPaul's Drag Race, I think drag has been really permeating the mainstream culture in a whole new way. There's a lot of competition. Everyone wants to be on the TV. She has a certain look she goes for: You have to be really pretty.
It's really refined.
You have to be refined, pretty, often catty. Very passing—in a drag queen sense, a lot of fem and camp. There's a whole history of it. There's the chronology of a drag queen: boy in a dress, then to performer, then to diva. You may put on a dress and realize that you're not a drag queen, you're a woman. You go through this whole gender-questioning process as you start to perform. It goes: exploration, figuring out what you'd like to look like, practice (doing a bunch of shows for free—learning what your style wants to be), and then you start performing and having a name for yourself, so you start treating yourself like you're somebody.
When I saw your show during the TBA Festival, you had black makeup running up your arms.
Yeah, I do that a lot. People tell me that I often look really beat up. And I didn't think about that until recently: that a lot of my work has to do with PTSD and the grotesque, and pain.
Something I'm dealing with is how do I bring people in, and how do I push people away. For a time I wanted just to be a pretty, pretty drag queen, have everyone love me, be popular, and everything would be fine. But that doesn't last. Doesn't work. When I started in Sissyboy, it was all about shock. Now I'm trying to invite people in to see how they react. I never thought of myself as a drag queen, or someone who would call themselves a drag queen, before last year. I was always a dancer and a creator. I still feel that way. I get called an art queen a lot. I don't really know what that means.
Let's talk about your show at Place gallery. The word "faggot" comes from the word for sticks...
FAGGOTS is an exploration of the word, into the grotesque, and finding beauty in that. The word "faggot" is scary. There are different ways to look at it—"faggot," in one way, is a bundle of sticks. During the Inquisition, not only would they burn women they didn't like and accuse them of being witches, but they would throw gay men on the fire as well.
That's what I've heard. "Faggots" were the sticks at the bottom, fueling the flames.
Yeah. [the Inquisition] would kill the woman for being a witch, but then they would throw the lesser beings—the gay men—on the fire, because obviously a gay man is just a woman in a man's body, and that's not acceptable to the church, or the patriarchy.
It's a long history of oppression and trauma, which we inherit. As an artist, I think it's important to acknowledge that and heal from that. There's a deep connection with queer men and women from witch-burning times that is really important to look at. You see things like American Horror Story: Coven; it's really touching on these identities in pop culture that relate to women in power, women in vengeance, women in trauma. And that willimmediately lead to gay men identifying with strong women. It goes in a cycle: ghosts, vampires, mummies, werewolves, repeat. All these supernatural creatures, which come from places of trauma and oppression, wheedle their way through art, back into the cultural concept. I guarantee you, behind every fancy pop TV show, there's a queer woman and a gay man, working behind the scenes, channeling it out.
As writers, as producers. There's the cultural machine that harvests ideas from minority communities, and we re-conglomerate, amalgamate, and [ideas] get sold back to us, and we take them and change them, and we send them back. But it all comes from a common history of turning trauma and pain into beauty.
It's a drag queen, who's... bigger than that?
Of course I'd want to be bigger than that! I don't want to be America's next top bar queen. I wanna get paid to pop balloons full of glitter on myself, while singin' songs 'bout redemption, cryin' blood. And flirtin' and fartin'.
You're not the only one.
I know. Well, give 'er a webcam.
When I left Kaj-anne Pepper at Place gallery, he had a handful of glitter and was blowing it like kisses at his portrait. You can catch Pepper every second Saturday at MRS Queer Dance Party at Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi, 10 pm; Flock opening party at Disjecta, 8371 N Interstate, April 26; and anytime at kpepper.net
photo by Aaron Lee