It’s Saturday evening at R Place and a trickle of carousers is starting to tie one on, cradling cocktails in dark corners of the three-story gay bar that persists amid Seattle’s chronic makeover. Upstairs, gaggles of brides-to-be and their tiara-topped entourages join the ranks of patrons tossing dollars at drag queens taking turns onstage. These are classic queens, tightly tucked, some in fairy wings, some in schoolgirl skirts, some bearing the weight of towering bouffant wigs, dripping glitter, stuffed in Spanx.
Then there’s Arson Nicki.
Arson bursts on stage coifed in a blunt black bob a la Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction. White thighs flash between the hem of short shorts and knee-high stockings. Silk gloves up to the elbows cling like a second skin. A collared yellow shirt, untucked, whirls as they spin. And that face: a white mask with steep, unblended cheek contours, a veil of thick bottom lashes and big black lips. A whirling dervish stepped out of Weimar Berlin. A baby sprung from the collective loins of Leigh Bowery and Alexander McQueen. A face that Picasso or Cocteau might’ve drawn.
Smash Mouth’s “All Star” blasts through the speakers—a riff on a meme currently circulating on YouTube—interrupted by a staccato of ghoulish screeches. As Arson stomps in stripper heels through the crowd, their big black void of a mouth opens, their body contorts, struts, howls with the music.
It’s a WTF performance to match a WTF look. The wide-eyed crowd barely knows what to do, but no one can look away. The bachelorettes roar with glee and the phones come out.
In the light of day, 26-year-old Arson Nicki works a part-time ordinary office job. Also in said light, Arson is a touch less Weimar, arriving for a coffee interview in a sleeveless denim top and tortoiseshell Ray-Bans. There’s yet a whiff of eleganza: a studied grace to their movements, head neatly shaved and gray knit scarf draped around that svelte neck. Neither masculine nor feminine nor other. Arson isn’t drag, isn’t Dada, isn’t avant-garde. Arson is just Arson.
“What you see is what you get, and I think that’s bothered people,” they say.
Arson’s demeanor is one of calm and warmth, tinged with a faint restless excitement.
“It rubs people the wrong way because they think they don’t get to see, get to know the real me. It causes cognitive dissonance for me all the time. Imagine when you’re in face and you know someone, but then you approach them while out of face—and you forget you’re not wearing makeup—and they have no idea who you are.”
* * *
Drag is a complex art form. In the last century, it frequently served as a tool of political protest and queer expression with roots in activism, particularly in the era when transgender queens like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Riveras spearheaded violent protests such as the Stonewall Riots of 1969.
Since the advent of RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag has become, for many, merely a branch of reality TV competition, a sideshow spectacle fit for bachelorette parties. Yet there’s still a space where drag exists beyond lip sync.
“Arson’s performance art is provocative and political with a hint of sensuality,” says Aleksa Manila, a drag star who identifies as “trans*gender-fluid FilipinX” and works as an addiction counselor at Seattle Counseling Service by day. “It fits perfectly here, as it blends with Seattle’s rebellious character and at the same time disrupts the status quo of stereotypical drag. Arson creates chaos whilst creating art.”
Arson’s performances adhere to the four-minute lip-sync traditional to drag, but their ultra-polished movement is hyper-kinetic, aggressively athletic and in your face. Rather than use songs from the usual drag canon, they use weird versions of weird songs (like a coquettish strip tease out of a Kermit onesie performed to Brenna Whitaker’s rendition of “It’s Not Easy Being Green”). It’s theatrical experience that provokes.
“Arson is the same person on stage and off, the same kind being with a gentle spirit,” Manila says. “I think we have many more Arsons in the world, we just need to provide safe space and opportunity and instill courage and self-esteem. For that, Arson is a special creature.”
Arson has a reputation for gathering community, working in unconventional venues and channeling the spirit of performance artists, designers and club-kid style. Since donning the face and personhood of Arson Nicki three years ago, their community-driven projects, performances and events have taken off: FRESH, at 18th and Union, is an ongoing, noncompetitive showcase that serves as a launchpad for new drag artists. Rapture, a monthly avant-garde drag show mashed up with dark techno dance night held at the Timbre Room, leans into the artistic and outrageous side of drag, a place to see and be seen. The events, buried in the subterranean grotto, ooze with looks that defy the formalities of drag proper, somewhere between hallucinatory and alien.
Those shows are a small piece of Arson’s intense hustle. In addition to occasional appearances go-go dancing at Pony and their guest appearances at the recurring Lashes Cabaret at R Place, last month Arson DJed in drag for Le Freak C’est Chic at Queer Bar, and a few days later was DJing out of drag at Bait Shop as well as at Tush at Clock-Out Lounge in Beacon Hill. They hosted and performed Drag the Vote, a free drag show at Timbre Room to urge people to register for the November vote. And then there’s Queens of Adventure, a D&D podcast featuring Arson, Fraya Love, Butylene O’Kipple and Harlotte O’Scara recorded in the apartment of Dungeon Master Matt Baume.
The hustle is not without its emotional and financial ups and downs. But with very few exceptions, drag has never been about money. Drag remains a frontier for transforming ideas about gender and the self—and the politics that touch on both.
* * *
In Roman mythology, the god Janus has two faces, one looking to the future, the other to the past, symbolic of beginnings and endings, of transitions. Yet in the popular imagination today, to be Janus-faced implies a duplicitous nature.
In the defense of the baffled, Arson Nicki on the street and Arson Nicki on stage are two quite different looks. For Arson there’s no schism between illusory and real. But one doesn’t become Janus—nor does one become Arson Nicki—overnight.
Arson was born in Overland Park, Kansas, in 1992, to two lesbian parents. At the time, Asron’s parents weren’t out—a situation they recall being “pretty intense” for anyone in the ’90s, and especially in Kansas.
The family moved to Seattle when Arson was two, shortly after a younger brother was born. They created a pleasant “super middle-class life,” as Arson puts it.
They never hurt for money, but being devoutly religious at the time (as was Arson, into their teens), the family’s extra income went toward a private Catholic education for the kids. Most of Arson’s schoolmates lived and socialized in more affluent circles.
“Whenever I’d enter a new school situation I’d gravitate to people more like me,” Arson says. “It influenced how I made friends and moved through life, associating with the have-nots, since my family didn’t run companies and corporations.”
Arson felt at home in theater and was accepted at UC Berkeley, where they pursued a double major in computer science and theater. The former was intended to pad a creative life onstage, but within a few months it was clear that comp-sci was not the right fit. Arson transferred to the University of Washington’s theater program to be closer to home.
Immersed in learning, producing and performing with a close-knit crew, Arson figured acting and directing was their future. The group adapted classics by Chekhov and Tennessee Williams to make them more relevant, but something about Arson—their physicality, their temperament—didn’t lend itself to lead roles. More often than not, they were cast in character roles that delivered comic relief.
Feeling stymied, Arson took on projects outside school, directing and stage managing independent productions. When Arson was at last offered the opportunity to put their musical chops to work in the main role in a 2015 production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the UW’s Ethnic Cultural Theater, their world transformed. They’d dabbled in dressing in drag on occasion, but not like this—a 90-minute show where Arson essentially carried the entire thing.
“I’d never given myself over to something like that,” Arson says. “I’d never felt that before in such a complete, full way.”
Enchanted with the possibility of presenting in drag, Arson started dressing up more, running around town in their heels and face, reveling in a different kind of recognition, in stares and comments and the occasional free drink. Dipping into amateur drag competitions in 2015, an identity began to emerge, an entity both personal and professional. They assumed the name Arson Nicki—both in and out of drag—with its tinge of danger, playing on the poison arsenic.
“I finally got to own my queer femininity,” Arson says. “The [character] facet of drag—the backstories or using the protective layer of a costume as a way to come out of your shell—never really interested me. I never felt I needed to invent something to do that. I was just about having a good time and expressing myself creatively in a way that felt like I was fully giving myself to my work.”
For Arson, drag as a medium immediately clicked, a platform they’d never had access to before. It provided the ideal stage in the public realm, and in private, a tool for reinvention. Louder and larger than life, it handed Arson a bullhorn to address the shifting politics of identity, putting a human face on issues that can swim fuzzily in the realm of abstraction.
“As a queer, non-binary person, as a person living with HIV, I’ve been able to tell people these things need to be respected,” says Arson. “I’m not a she, he, it: I’m a they. These are parts of my identity that speak directly to the things I want to communicate”.
Onstage Arson quips and jokes about being misgendered—dark humor being one of drag’s fundamental tools for poking holes in the status quo—or being left out of binary gender expectations that still dominate nearly every aspect of culture. On and offstage, Arson cultivates an aesthetic of androgyny, a deliberately genderless self. In doing so they flip the script on drag queen culture, which is itself heavily gendered.
Betty Wetter, another rising star in Seattle’s drag scene, also bucks against the norms of traditional drag. “Gender and identity can leave people in a place where they are quite literally uncomfortable in their own skin,” she says. “Arson creates space for people to see someone in the spotlight who doesn’t listen to the rules about who/how/what to be. I think we’ll see the next generations of drag performers carry it even further.”
If RuPaul paved the way for drag to enter the popular imagination of a mainstream audience, projects like the Queens of Adventure podcast push the boundaries of drag’s influence yet further, weaving an unlikely array of political theater and fantasy storytelling.
Each Sunday afternoon, surrounded by Domino’s pizza, Monster energy drinks and D&D guides, the self-described band of queer geeks gathers in Matt Baume’s living room to unfold an ongoing campaign filled with wigs and shade and glamorous misadventure. A troupe of ever-improvising fantasy characters embroiled on quests in the “faewild” isn’t such a leap from the practice of donning or amplifying drag identities onstage. Now in its second season, the podcast’s fanbase continues to grow, and the cast occasionally performs in front of live audiences. On Nov. 4 they’ll livestream an interactive version of their game to raise funds for Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Events like these reflect the shifting tide of drag as a platform, at least in Seattle. Arson is looking to create and produce more performances that live outside the club framework, to reach a broader audience.
“When you have a rapt audience with a mic it’s a lot easier to get a message across,” Arson says. “I sit at quite a few intersections of my identity that experience the oppressive structure of the system that’s being forced on us, but there are parts of me afforded a lot more privilege than other people, and I use those things to address those issues. Working nightlife, club scene, gay scene—and I love, love, love that scene—I have things I have to say, and I say them over and over again. But I feel I’m saying the same things to the same people. I want to access other spaces. I want to get the word out.”
In the midst of ever-intensifying social unrest, Arson is of a generation that doesn’t just don a mask, but bends drag to new purposes, taking it to its binary-annihilating extreme.
“I’m not doing it solely for me,” they say. “My work is in the service of trying to influence, and a lot of that involves raising awareness. If I can make people’s lives better while doing performance, that’s the sweet spot.”
For Arson Nicki, drag is the vortex where self and art and society and politics meld. Everything monolithic and rigid is undone. Subjectivity is fluid, selfhood is a playground. Everything is possible.