Families of our own making: An interview with drag mother-daughter duo Ariana Grindr and Daya Bee-Dee

Wednesday, May 8, 2019 - 9:02pm

Ariel Friedlander

Ariel Friedlander Buy this photo
NOSELL

Equal parts carefree and captivating, drag mother-daughter duo Ariana Grindr and Daya Bee-Dee have become something of a fixture in the Ann Arbor queer community. Ariana, given name Will Beischel, and Daya Bee-Dee, given name Ariel Friedlander, sat down with me to talk about themselves, their relationship, the local drag scene and the all-encompassing presence of Lady Gaga.

The Michigan Daily: Thank you both so much for being here, you’re both amazing queens and I’m very excited to speak with you today. How long have each of you been performing, and what made you decide to participate in the art of drag?

Ariana Grindr: I started performing about two-and-a-half to three years ago in Chicago, before I moved here, but even before that — I was going to gay bars in Cincinnati, where I’m from, since I was 18 and (that was) before I came out. I was going to see these performances with my best friends and becoming enthralled with the queens. I think that being there and seeing people celebrate their femininity and their queerness in such a loud, sort of in-your-face way was really refreshing and inspiring, so I’ve always had a special place in my heart for drag.

I toyed with the idea of doing it for a while, but I never was able to go through with it until one of my friends in Chicago, Alex Kay, started doing drag and I saw him become really good at it. There was a new space in Chicago at the time called Crash Landing, which was a competition show that allowed new queens a space to try it out for the first time and get their name out there in a supportive environment. After I saw Alex perform for a while, I was like “Alright, I’m signed up for it so I better do this … ” Alex helped me get into drag for my first time and, yeah, the rest is herstory.

TMD: That’s beautiful, what about you (Daya)?

Daya Bee-Dee: So I’m what the kids call a baby queen, because I only started about 10 months ago. The first time I ever did drag, in public, was for a protest/guerilla fashion show with a radical leftist group called RadFun.

TMD: I’ve heard of RadFun.

DB: I invited a couple local queens to join, which was where I first met Ariana Grindr in person, so it’s very near and dear to my heart. From there … I was posting stories on Instagram when another queen found me and said I had to start performing, so I did a couple shows, and then I went to New York for the summer. When I came back, I started taking my drag really seriously, and for the past few months I’ve been trying to do shows more consistently to try and step up my game in terms of makeup, performance, etc. But I’ve just really loved (drag) from a really young age, I got pretty into “RuPaul’s Drag Race” soon after because my mom was pretty into it.

I always loved “Drag Race,” but I never really thought that drag was necessarily for me because the presentation that I saw of drag was something that was for cis men. It just wasn’t something I felt like I could do until I found out that my absolute favorite drag queen, Creme Fatale, is actually a woman! And that really opened up a world of possibilities, and I’m honored to be a part of such an incredible community. I love that I can express my gender, my sexuality, my everything, and I truly believe that drag is for everyone.

TMD: You were talking about “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the modern conception of what drag is. While what the show has done and what it means in the larger framework of popular culture is undoubtedly a net positive, it has also created a model for what drag should be and commodified it in the process. Do you want to talk a little bit about what your experiences have been as a woman participating in drag and existing in a space that might be outside of that conception?

DB: I’m really lucky because, here in Ann Arbor, the scene is really supportive. Online, you do see a lot of hatred, a lot of misunderstandings that can be hard to look at. Even here, I’ve heard people say things that are just complete misconceptions about what drag is, who it’s for and what it represents. I’m not laughing at women by being a drag queen. I am a fucking woman, and I love being a woman. I almost see drag as an extension of my gender identity, expressing something that’s as hyper-feminine as you can get, and it’s a way for me to celebrate being a high-femme, bisexual woman.

People love to say that I’m appropriating drag, which is funny to me because the modern drag movement in the U.S. was pioneered by trans women of color. Trans women are women, so for someone to say that women can’t do drag invalidates the work that those people have done. If it weren’t for those women, we literally would not have drag in this country, so I’m not appropriating anything. I know the space I occupy and I know my place as a woman. I also see a lot of misogyny within the queer community and I experience it firsthand, which is something I don’t think a lot of other drag queens necessarily see, so I like to use my platform to call in the queer community and say, “Hey, we have some things to work on in terms of respecting women, in terms of respecting gender diversity, in terms of respecting people of different religions, in terms of respecting everyone.”

TMD: Thank you so much for sharing that. There are a lot of issues within the community that need to be addressed and that can get glossed over due to a sort of male-centric unitarianism, so I really appreciate that you incorporate that into your work.

DB: Thank you!

TMD: You touched on this a little bit already, but could you elaborate a little bit on the circumstances under which you two met?

DB: So I actually first saw Ariana perform at a feminist magazine’s Halloween drag show and she had no idea who I was at that point. At some point we became Facebook friends … don’t know exactly when that happened, but when I was helping put together this guerrilla fashion show with RadFun, we were looking for other people and organizations to reach out to. I was starting to get a little bit more into drag at that point even though I hadn’t performed very much myself. I knew that Ariana had the reputation of being a very political queen, so I reached out to her on Facebook and I was so nervous messaging her.

AG: (laughs)

DB: I actually looked back at our first exchange and I can tell just how nervous I was and how I was trying so hard to make her happy. But it was the day of the fashion show and we were in Graffiti Alley, I basically had my whole closet with me dressing people up in my clothes and preparing to walk through the Diag a little bit later, and there was Ariana. She was wearing all black, in her natural, short boy hair, face full of gold makeup and these massive 12-inch heels,

TMD: I’ve seen those heels!

DB: We strutted all the way down the Diag together, we even infiltrated an ROTC ceremony and screamed about Syria and Palestine — it was a very confrontational demonstration. Anyway, that was where I met my drag mother. At the time I didn’t know what our relationship would turn out to be. I had just spent the summer in New York and I was really hard on myself during that time. I was surrounded by this really beautiful drag and I was flooded on social media by people who were so good at makeup and so good at performing and it was so overwhelming — the person who won (RuPaul’s) Drag Race at the time (Aquaria) was like 22 years old and stunning and I was like, “Fuck, I am so behind on my art.”

I remember having a conversation with Ariana on Instagram, she ended up inviting me over to her apartment to get ready and work on our makeup together and I remember just feeling so honored and my heart was so full with gratefulness and joy. At the time I really looked up to her because she was just this really political, put-together, well-respected queen in Ann Arbor. So I went over there, we shared our woes and I laid all of my insecurities out on the line, and after that conversation it pretty much was mother-daughter.

TMD: Will you tell me a little bit about your working relationship?

AG: Well, we call ourselves Artflop. (laughs)

TMD: Hmmm, I wonder what that’s a reference to.

DB: Okay, let’s get this straight, If you know who Daya Bee-Dee is as a drag queen, you know that all she cares about is Lady Gaga and the queer liberation.

AG: Nothing we do is not touched by Lady Gaga.

DB: We’ve only done a couple of performances together, but they’ve all been very positive and empowering. I think when we’re on stage, you can feel how much we love each other. Not everyone understands what we’re doing or what we’re trying to achieve. A lot of people think that she’s my relative or we’re romantically involved.

AG: They’re not wrong.

DB: They’re not wrong. I’ve accepted the perceptions and the misunderstandings because I think what we have is really special. It’s a very queer thing to be in a relationship that’s so involved and not adhering to one label, like some sort of binary. You’re either platonic or you’re lovers, you’re either family or you’re friends, but we break that.

When I call Ariana my mother I mean it. I don’t think people realize how deep these families go. Drag families originated in the (New York) ball scene. Mothers would have a house and they took people in— marginalized people, people of color, trans people — and it was about survival. They were families, and even though it’s very different today — we’re obviously both white, and we recognize the privileges we have, but that familial structure still holds so much power and meaning and it can’t be defined. It’s rude to say that we’re just friends or that it’s just a title.

We don’t need to put a label on our relationship. I’m so lucky to have someone in my life who I can work with and perform with, but I can also go to when I’m struggling and see as a motherly figure in my life. She can give me guidance and we can make out on stage.

AG: Somehow that’s just always how it ends.

DB: It’s love!

AG: Love and making out.

DB: It’s okay that people don’t understand what our relationship is, because in the end I don’t care: It’s ours and it’s special to us and that’s what matters.

TMD: Thank you for shedding a little bit of light on the inner-workings of your relationship and what it takes to get established. You both work in the Ann Arbor/Detroit area; tell me a little bit about what it’s like to work in Southeast Michigan.

AG: The drag community here is great. I’ve been pleasantly surprised about how much there is going on here. I moved from Chicago where there are approximately five billion drag queens. There’s a huge community there, so when I moved here for school, I was worried that I was going to have to give drag up because, while I knew about Necto, I knew it was really only the Drag Race queens that went there.

I actually almost immediately started performing at \aut\ Bar, my drag mother put me in contact with the person who runs those shows, so I was able to get into the scene really quickly and everyone’s been very supportive. It’s a very diverse community, which I was really excited about because Chicago was a very diverse community compared to other areas. There are performers that will post after every show about how grateful they are to have this space, and that’s really special to me.

There’s a perception about the drag community: That it’s very catty and everyone’s throwing shade and reading everyone all the time. And while that does happen a little bit, it’s mostly about love and community and everyone is really there for each other. There’s a lot of opportunities around here, too. I’ve been able to perform nearly every week this past semester, which goes to show that once you get into it, there really is plenty of work out there.

DB: Because we’re in buttfuck Michigan, in a largely Trump-supporting part of the Midwest, you could say that we’re in one of the more dangerous parts of our country. I think this community is supportive of each other out of necessity. When you get to big cities, they don’t have that same type of culture that we do here. There’s no cattiness, there’s no real competitiveness because we’re all doing this as a form of expression, as a form of survival in some circumstances, so even when you could look at us from an outside perspective and say that we’re amateur and that we don’t have the resources like a wig shop and a costume shop on every block, what we do is really special because it’s so diverse and it’s so loving.

It’s because there is a need for it. It really is only love. If you’re a burlesque queen, if you want to sing and dance, if you want to do spoken word, there’s room for you here. It’s not a full-time job. Even the most established queens get maybe 50 dollars for a gig; I do mostly unpaid performances and get 10 dollars in tips. Unlike other cities, there’s no top to climb to — people are doing this for fun, because they’re looking for a form of community that they can’t get in other areas of their lives.

TMD: Exactly, like I said before, it’s amazing that you can make a career out of performing in drag now, but it does mold a certain kind of ideal to attain and it’s become a little bit more oriented towards the image.

DB: There are a lot of expectations on drag and they aren’t very representative of the community. When I say we have all forms of drag here, we have pageant girls doing bingo nights with straight people, making all this money and raising all this awareness for the community. We have more alternative shows in restaurants and bars with people doing exploding guts and, well, everything. Drag needs to be everything.

TMD: On a side note, drag bingo is so much fun.

DB: I think a lot of people look down on pageant queens doing bingo, too, because they’re not tearing the world apart with their performances, but it’s activism. They’re opening minds: Real work is being done there. All drag is protest and there’s no need for hate.

TMD: Tell me about some of the queens and a few of the venues that you like to support.

DB: I think the best energy you’ll get in Ann Arbor is at Live Candy Bar on Thursday nights. Selina Style is the DJ, and she knows who needs what kind of energy and how to give it. There could be a queen performing for the first time who’s a total mess and has lost her wig and everyone’s still going wild because she knows how to foster that kind of space. Also, my favorite house in this area is the Pop Tart family, and they have a show every month at Bona Sera in Ypsilanti. They’re incredible — after the show they’ll post a paragraph about each performer and what kind of work they’re doing and why they’re worth paying attention to. Every show has had some of the most original drag I’ve ever seen, and I’d love to boost their platform as much as I can because what they do is really like nothing I’ve seen before.

AG: There’s also a show on the first and third Thursday of every month at /aut/ Bar, and that’s hosted by Zooey Gaychanel, who was the first person to give me a space to perform after moving here. There’s also drag Bingo at the Tap Room in Ypsilanti. I think those are all of the major venues.

TMD: So I have a couple questions for you two individually. Ariana, you’re currently a P.h.D. candidate at the University of Michigan for Psychology, and I know that your studies involve the intersection between gender and sexuality. Could you tell me about your academic work and its relationship to drag?

AG: I study gender and sexual diversity and my master’s thesis, the first project that I did in grad school, used a theory my advisor created called Sexual Configurations Theory, which employs diagrams that help people describe their diverse sexualities and gender identities. I put out an online survey and people drew on them to describe their gender identity and their sexuality. I got this beautifully diverse set of responses of all the different ways that people are gendered.

Going through the survey, it calls you to think about all the different dimensions of gender. I see the different ways people are gendered in my community and in my research — they’ve fed into each other and forwarded my view of gender and how it functions in society. I love drag because it makes gender norms very visible, shows a mirror to society and parodies those norms. It’s all made-up, so we might as well have fun with it.

TMD: What about you, Daya?

DB: I’m currently a dual degree student in STAMPS as an Art & Design student and in LSA as a History of Art major. I belief that art is not a luxury of the elite, but something that is for and by the people. I think that belief and the things that I study are very much incorporated into my drag. I like to use my drag as a form of politics and as a form of self expression — at least, generally, I say that you first start doing drag because it’s a form of self expression, and then it becomes about being involved in the community.

I also think it’s fine if you want to do drag and don’t view it as a form of activism; there’s a lot of pressure on queer people in that everything that they do in their lives has to be for a greater cause. I think that doing what you love and existing as you are is important, even if it’s not directly moving toward some political meaning.

TMD: Just being is enough.

DB: Just being is enough. Of all the performances I’ve done, my favorite is easily my Artpop performance because I feel that it integrates all of what I do into one performance and engages with the audience. I painted myself, and then I had the audience paint me, and that’s where it got exciting, because it made the audience realize that they had as much stake in the outcome of the performance as me. They’re a part of it too, and everyone’s place in the performance has value. Everyone’s togetherness is what we need, that love. If we’re all supporting each other and lifting each other, then that’s how we’re going to find our liberation. When we lift together, when we create together, we find our place and we are unified.

TMD: I was there and was part of the piece, and what you’re saying about the engagement is spot-on. It externalizes this idea that everything that you do as a performer or as an audience member has weight.

DB: I’m trying to incorporate that kind of engagement more into my performance art. I actually realized that pretty much every protest I’ve ever been a part of has been like a performance art piece. The art that’s created in a setting that relies on people interacting is the most powerful because it’s the most vulnerable. Whether you’re performing a piece in a museum or you’re a drag queen at a bar, as an audience member, you are part of that.

Anything you decide to do in those settings is a choice. I want to make art accessible, and, in order to do that, you have to show people that it depends on them. Art is a reflection of culture and can change culture, and that mindset is a central part of everything I do. I want to uplift queer people and show every person that art has a place for them. You can’t separate art and artists from the culture that they’re a part of and I think the more we accept that, the stronger we will be.

AG: The audience in a drag show is a character of the performance. I’ve done the same performance with different audiences and they’ll feel completely different. Also, because gender is relational and it exists in communities, drag wouldn’t exist without specific kinds of interaction from the audience. I often know people that are in the audience, and to be able to interact with them in that way and have them be part a of the performance is important.

DB: I see my drag persona as an extension of myself, and when I get swept up in that energy, I feel like I’m the most beautiful person in the room, and no one can tell me otherwise. But if the audience doesn’t reflect that, my name is not Daya Bee-Dee. My name is Ariel Friedlander and I have clinical depression and anxiety. I mean (shoots look) you know, there can be a hundred people in the room, but all it takes is …

TMD: On that note, it was nice talking to both of you.

DB: (laughs)

TMD: I actually have one last question: What are your favorite things about working with each other?

DB: I’ve learned so much through our relationship. Ariana, Will, whatever you want to call him, is the most loving person I’ve ever met. When people see people who are genuinely loving like that, they think ignorance or they think that they’re being inauthentic, but everything that Will does is from a place of love. He makes me want to live my life as my most authentic self all the time. I want to be a source of love and I want to bring people together.

AG: A lot of what you were saying, I was going to say about you. Our relationship has reinvigorated me and reminded me that what we do is about love. Love is political. We live in a culture of negativity, and it is such a gift to be able to bring joy to people. Being in this relationship has made me realize that what we do is important. Daya has the biggest heart I know and she wears it on her sleeve. I can struggle with showing emotion and being open and honest with my emotions. Daya is radically honest about emotion and love and that is very inspiring to me. It’s taught me to be more authentic with how I feel and why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Support these two queens by following Daya (@harsh__babe) and Ariana (@arianagrindr__) on Instagram, going to one of their performances on Thursday nights at Live and tipping!