It’s a special kind of pleasure to sit with someone with the sole purpose of talking about their greatest passion. You get to watch them light up, first their eyes and then their entire body until they’re brimming over with enthusiasm. Speaking to Parker Tilghman – better known as Amazonian queen Pansy – about drag is one such pleasure.
“Going to a drag show on a Friday night is really my favourite thing in the world,” Parker begins. We’re sitting in a quiet cafe in the middle of a work day; our drinks haven’t arrived yet. He is unassuming and polite, but very much recognisable as the warm, open, and effervescent Pansy that Berlin knows and loves, with P-A-N-S-Y proudly tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand.
The last time we saw Parker he was in full face, wig, and heels as Pansy on stage at SO36, hosting a recent Pansy Presents event. Early in the show – an all-night tribute to Beyoncé – Pansy asked the audience: “Who’s never seen a drag show before?” A little less than a quarter of the room raised their hands, including a pair of young women stood directly in front of us. “I’m so excited for you,” she beamed, looking out across the crowd from underneath heavy false eyelashes. “Your life is about to change forever.” The show began, and mere minutes later those very young women were screaming with delight, turning to each other and laughing. Such is the infectious joy of a great drag show.
We ask Parker about the origins of Pansy, and what drag in Berlin was like before his parties got into full swing: “There was a drag scene, it’s not like I brought drag to Berlin or whatever.” Although he takes no credit for creating it, people do single out Pansy as a kick-start to Berlin’s drag scene, and we’re keen to know how Parker feels about this. “There wasn’t the kind of drag that I was used to,” he explains. “It was a different kind of drag – just as respectable – but I wanted a show where I could go and laugh and be entertained with stupid pop songs and shit, basically.”
Originally from a small town in South Carolina, art school graduate Parker came to Berlin from San Francisco and found the scenes of the two cities very different. “There was nothing here in the sense of people getting dressed up and going to the club,” he adds. “It was fully legitimate, it just wasn’t what I knew. For me, drag should not be serious. Drag is stupid and fun and silly, and it’s to make people laugh. I stress about how I look and make sure that everything’s perfect, but at the end of the day it’s just a costume, right? So, I wanted to create a space where people could do whatever.”
For me, drag should not be serious. Drag is stupid and fun and silly, and it’s to make people laugh.
What Parker tapped into by creating his parties and events was more than a gap in the market. It was an audience’s desire waiting to be satisfied, notwithstanding the fact that Berlin is known for things other than drag. “Don’t get me wrong, the techno scene is critically important and beautiful in its own way,” Parker continues. “It’s very special. You go there to disappear and be anonymous, and this is the exact opposite of that. People are still figuring it out, but you can tell they want it so bad.” It wasn’t long before others were gravitating towards Parker, to collaborate or to start doing drag themselves. “When I started it was just me. I hoped to find one or two other people, and eventually it grew into what it is now; there’s like 15 or 20 girls.” Together, they are known as the House of Presents. “We’re the gifts that keep on giving,” Parker adds with a smile.
The group put on a range of shows from screenings of reality TV hit RuPaul’s Drag Race, to queer dance parties, to iconic drag tributes such as the Beyoncé night, but they aren’t a house in the traditional sense of a drag house. “We all look different,” Parker explains, “we all have our own stuff going on. Some of the girls host their own parties, some of them do YouTube stuff and beauty conventions. A lot of them are so new, none of them had really done drag before this, and I’ve been doing it for ten years. I wouldn’t consider myself the ‘mother’, but someone has to keep it going.”
Parker smiles as he recounts the tale of their first gig together: “The first time we really all performed as a group we had Alaska Thunderfuck from RuPaul’s Drag Race come over, it was the kick-off party for the first year of my music festival. We did this whole routine to ‘I’m not Madonna’ by Hi Fashion. The whole song is like, ‘I’m not Madonna, I’m not Madonna…’ and all the girls were dressed up as different eras of Madonna. They kept coming out as the song was going on. The crowd was losing it, it was so amazing. So many people came up to us afterwards and were like, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before in Berlin, thank you so much,’ so it was a lot of fun.”
Since then, Pansy and the House of Presents have built an impressive repertoire of events with a terrific breadth of variety. On any given week, you’re guaranteed to find something to surprise and delight you. “Pansy is what ties them all together,” Parker explains, “I could do all of them as me, but that’s boring. Pansy is the character, the element that allows me to slip into this role.” The role that Parker is referring to is multifaceted, but inherently Pansy: hostess, performer, advocate.
That’s what I love about drag – you can really be whatever you want.
“I always like to say that Pansy is an older woman that dresses too young for her age,” he says, elaborating on the drag style he has refined over the last decade, “but I also do characters. I have an 80-year-old woman character, an overweight lesbian construction worker character, and I have a baby character that’s just really disgusting and gross, but then I like to be really pretty. It depends what mood I’m in. That’s what I love about drag – you can really be whatever you want.”
This aspect of drag – the unbridled form of self-expression – is something Parker cares deeply about. Its apparent frivolity is laden with the political implications of a community coming together in bold, brash, unapologetic performance that challenges many sexual and gender norms. He explains: “My father was a politician when I was growing up, so I’ve always been very political, but I’m also the only staunchly liberal person in my family. So throughout my life I’ve been fighting for justice, if you will – at school or at home – I see where the power shifts are happening, where the negativity is coming from, and try to fight against that, so that’s a natural part of Pansy.”
One of Parker’s proudest achievements to date is the music festival Yo! Sissy, now entering its third year as Germany’s queer international music festival: “I’d been doing this dance party called Sissy where we played all-female hip hop and R&B, and my business partner Scout was doing a karaoke dance party called CherrYO!-kie, and I had an idea that I wanted to do a music festival. I thought it would be something small because there are so many cool local performers in Berlin, and I’d always tried to have one local act at my party each time, so then we were naïvely like, ‘let’s do it!’”
“Berlin has such a beautiful underground music scene but it’s also home to a lot of more established artists like Peaches, The Knife, Pet Shop Boys, and then there are a lot of people who want to come to Berlin, and queer musicians who are working together collaboratively from all over the world, so we really wanted to bring them together. Yo! Sissy was born from that.” The line up in 2016 was as impressive as it was diverse, with the likes of Mykki Blanco, Hi Fashion, Ballet School, Le1f and Christeene all taking the stage. “There are so many different bands, they’re so talented. What I like is that it’s just about bringing all of these different people together and mixing them all up in this one big sweaty mess.”
After the excitement of the festival, Parker took to social media to express his gratitude to the people and performances that made the event such a success. One post, in which he proclaimed Berlin as being in a second Weimar era, sparked a heated debate, so we ask Parker to comment. “Oh, the Weimar thing,” he rolls his eyes and smiles, “I said that we’re living in a second Weimar era because when I was looking around Yo! Sissy there were so many queers just expressing themselves and looking beautiful, adorning their bodies, being comfortable and free, and that moment – that energy – has always been a part of Berlin, and it’s coming back, it’s awakening again in a beautiful way.
We can live in this expressive, open society that is caring and loving, if we so choose to.
“Unfortunately when you have that, the flip side is always present. The more right wing, the more openly hateful is there too. What I said that people seemed to miss was that we have the option to stand up and say ‘no’. We can live in this expressive, open society that is caring and loving, if we so choose to. As that post showed, it has to start within our own community. We’re constantly attacking each other, we’re constantly saying, ‘You’re not progressive enough, you’re not un-racist enough, you’re not using the right language to talk about these things,’ and of course we’re not using the right language to talk about this shit. It’s messy and fucked up and imperfect, we’re going to make mistakes as we go along, but we have to be open and we have to talk about it. That’s why I create the kinds of spaces that I’m trying to create.”
Each of the Pansy Presents events are imbued with a real sense of community, but none more so than Let’s Talk About Sex and Drugs, organised with doctor’s office Praxis Dr. Cordes. Parker explains, “This is a really important project for me on a couple of levels. A lot of people in Berlin like to have sex and a lot of people in Berlin like to do drugs, and a lot of people end up doing them together. The problem I think is that no one really talks about it, and people have a lot of questions.”
The monthly event takes the form of an open mic, where audience members can talk with a rotating panel of medical experts, activists, performers and artists about literally anything. “It’s not really about what’s said on stage,” Parker continues. “It’s about people mingling in the middle and asking questions; about HIV, mixing HIV medication with ecstasy, everything that people don’t know and want to talk about: PrEP, bareback, all this kind of stuff. Things that greatly affect our community. It’s so funny to me, people in Berlin are literally willing to fuck anywhere, but won’t talk about it.” The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and Let’s Talk About Sex and Drugs will continue as a monthly event.
Finally, we ask Parker about how he sees drag changing in Berlin. “Oh it’s changed so much,” he says. “There are so many new queens everywhere, which I love. The funny thing is, even for me, it still feels funny to be out on the street in drag. In San Francisco it didn’t feel this way, but in Berlin it really does. It feels weird, somewhat unsafe. Hopefully that is changing, because that is what it’s going to take for people to go out in drag – they have to feel safe. My girls are really pushing it because they’re doing shit like getting on the train, walking down the street, full on, during the daytime.”
We wonder if this is Parker’s vision of starting a drag revolution in Berlin, something he voiced in a rallying cry the last time we saw him on stage. He doesn’t recall: “Oh God, who knows what the fuck I said!” He laughs, “I would just love to see people at the club, in drag, just because. When I first started doing drag I was just at the club, in drag, just because it was fun. I don’t want to come in and start complaining about it and trying to change it, I want to add to it. I want to bring out what’s already there. It’s really beautiful to see so many people getting dressed up, looking silly, being themselves and doing their thing, so that to me is a drag revolution – opening up and expressing yourself. It’s us coming together and saying, ‘This is who we are. We’re here. Eat it, love it, do it.’”
Keep up with the latest Pansy Presents events by following Pansy on Facebook. Pansy will be appearing at BedTalks Berlin on Friday, November 29 at The Student Hotel. Get tickets via Eventbrite and attend on Facebook.