Multimedia artist Jeremy Kost has become synonymous with queer culture and its legacy. His salacious portraits, which capture the red-blooded eroticism of masculinity - as well as his narratives of iconic drag queens - explore (and push) boundaries of gender, sex, and identity. His artistic perspective externalizes the grandiose power of transformation.
Kost recently self-published a collection of 66 archival painted polaroids entitled "Like One of Your French Girls," which incorporates his documentation of drag queens from 2009-2012. Starlettes include RuPaul's Drag Race luminaries such as Alaska, Detox, Raja, Trixie Mattel, Violet Chacki, and Willam, to name a few, and each copy comes with a unique oil-painted portrait on the reverse side.
The cover of "Like One of Your French Girls" features Party City icon and spooky archetype Sharon Needles veiled in black lace with long claws for fingernails, her body submerged in gobs of lavender and yellow oil paint. Her severe contour and magenta lip hiss from a disco-underworld, and soft lighting adoringly warms the instant photo.
In Kost's recount of drag herstory, the prospect of ascension is stained with makeup and paint daubs.
What has been the most rewarding takeaway from working with the queens you've photographed?
Each queen is totally different. My characters have often been a bit more fucked up and a bit more left-of-center and not so traditional, not the gorgeous woman "fish" kind of thing. I've always played in a different territory where it was more about performance and costume and all that jazz. I don't want to make this more complicated than it is in terms of the process: really they are pure collaborations, based on an idea.
How does our performance and self-presentation in society function as a coping mechanism?
My impression or my sense would be, becoming this character becomes an escape from reality on some level. And I don't know that that's what it is for them, but I do think that to be able to become something else - even if it's temporary - it's part of why people love Halloween so much. I don't think it's that different when you think about it on a daily, weekly, nightly basis - even if it's once a month. I think that's part of why you have so many people getting dressed up to go to Ladyfag's things or Susanne Bartsch's things - they're doing it because they love the process, and becoming that character or that other world.
You've spoken about how you grew up closeted in a conservative Texas environment. What was that setting like to withstand and to grow in psychologically, and how did it influence who you've become?
I really don't have many complaints in terms of how I grew up; my family has been incredibly supportive. I think when you're not accepting yourself, you're not aware of what you're experiencing or not experiencing - if that makes sense. My support system has come later in life when I came to terms with my identity, but before that, until I was 21, I was just kind of living- dealing with things internally and not really accepting them. The root of what I'm always dealing with is my own experience of my own physical being, body, presentation, through different forms - whether it's male nudes or whether it’s drag queens- it’s more of representation discussion on how that can be universally approached by other people.
How does the embracement of RuPaul's Drag Race by the mainstream affect queer culture - for better and for worse?
I was just in London for the book release, and the first night I went to the "Queens WERQ the World" tour stop at the Troxy theatre, which was just insane, and then that following Sunday there was this troupe of queens in London called Sink the Pink, and they did this thing called Mighty Hoopla in Victoria Park, and it was enormous, and it was fully accepting, and it was really sort of incredible - just this massive, queer expression. My gut feeling is that as drag race has become so mainstream and accepted and celebrated, it just makes everyone more accepted. I think. I could be totally wrong, but I think. I don't think Drag Race's success would be a negative draw on queer culture, I think it can only be a positive.
In my experience with nightlife in the New York underground, drag seemed to be a way for an underdog to come to life on their own terms. With queens now gaining such a large following, does the underground become obsolete? Can drag continue to exist as a subculture if it is also considered pop?
To a degree, I think there will always be an underground component to it. There will always be a crew of new kids, and by default, they will be underground. I hope that people still occasionally do it because they believe in it and they love doing it and it's not just for instagram followers and to try to get on Drag Race- and I know that's what a lot of people's vision is, but I think that by default it's all underground in the beginning. No matter who you are in terms of how famous you are, they all started somewhere.
How have your subjects become liberated by participating in the ritual of performing female? How do you identify the force that comes from embracing femininity?
They clearly change. I'm not one to embrace femininity so heavily, I'm kind of a dude's dude on some level - I'm forever in a vintage t-shirt and jeans, but I do think part of what's happening with all of this is it's giving people license to be more liberated than I think they've ever been - in public, and without fear - and maybe not everywhere, but at least in major cities, and I think that's pretty awesome.
I recently heard someone (the name is escaping me now) say something to the effect of: "People are uncomfortable when you can't put someone's gender into a box - because it makes it harder to sexualize them." What is your take on that?
My world is very cut and dry with the dichotomy of both of my Instagram accounts. My whole life is sexualizing things in some way or another, and I don't really think about them in one box or another. Historically, everybody wants to put something in a box so they can understand it and I'm not sure if it has much to do with sexualization. I'm definitely seeing more and more people that are openly into trans people, more than ever before. I don't really have the experience of blurring those lines - it's hard for me to say how that might feel. I'm not often sexualized in that way even as a male, so it's hard to process.
RuPaul often talks about how his successes have come during open windows within current political landscapes. How does Trump's America leave an imprint on drag and vice versa?
As an example, I wanted to make pictures in the fall that I ended up making with Misty Violet in LA where she took on the persona of a cliche Trump voter - you know, big buck teeth, a “Grab My Pussy” t-shirt, and getting queens to be a part of it was really, really challenging. I say the things that I feel I need to say, and I felt like I said the things I needed to say with that image, but that was kind of the extent of it for me.
Yeah, Sharon (Needles) recreated that controversial Kathy Griffin/bleeding Trump head photograph.
Totally. She's her own animal, she's always been her own animal, and nothing's ever going to change. She's going to continue saying "fuck whatever" and be who she is. A number of queens did not want to get involved with those issues, in my experience.
How does nightlife act as a sanctuary for those who are on the fringe?
The nightclub has always been historically a safe place for people to be able to go and express themselves, and to have that taken away on some level (with the Pulse massacre) is really disturbing, and really dark and sort of troubling.
The public can definitely tend to write off drag as simply "men dressed up as women," but there is obviously so much more to the art form. What would you like to convey to those who are inexperienced in drag culture about the magic it taps into?
If someone can't see what's so great about drag after seeing it for the first time, then it's a lost cause. The first time you see a really great performance and a powerful moment, their gender shouldn’t matter. It's about the experience, and there's a spectacular feeling within it.
Top photo: Sharon Needles in Tom Ford
All photos by Jeremy Kost
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Jessie Askinazi is a Writer, Photographer, PR Consultant and Director/Curator of the #YESALLWOMEN art project. She resides in Los Angeles, California. Follow her on Twitter @JessieAskinazi.