by Israel Mejia
Aquaria smells like an alien. I quietly ask her what perfume she’s wearing, as we sit across from each other having dinner one cold March evening in the Lower East Side. It was surprisingly packed for a weeknight at Russ & Daughter’s. The question seemed to throw her off, only for the fact that she had just finished going on a rant about an Instagram homebody who had recently accused her of copying her housewife look. After a quizzical look, she answers that it’s her favorite scent, the ever so popular “Alien” by Thierry Mugler. It makes sense that she would wear a perfume that almost perfectly seems to define who she is: different.
To live in New York City and not have attended an Aquaria performance is almost impossible, unless you are middle-aged straight male. And even they are probably secret fans of hers, constantly flipping through her Instagram profile, feverishly tapping the ‘like’ button on each picture. Each frame of said Instagram captures her flawless makeup and carefully coiffed wig. It captures a character, which she seemed to pull out of thin air, neatly packaged and presented to us, the audience.
Describing her fantasy world, she says, “It’s whatever I want, and other people enjoy it.”
Visiting Aquaria’s world is much more than just enjoying it, and actually living in it is certainly it’s own experience. It is not just drag that she performs; it is a lifestyle that easily blurs the lines between her and her “boy” self. At times it’s hard to keep track as to whether you’re talking to Giovanni or Aquaria.
Giovanni Palandrani was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and spent his tween years watching hours of videos on YouTube of other boys like himself putting on makeup for fun. At the time he wasn’t aware that what he was doing; by just observing, he was laying the groundwork for who he was to become just a couple of years later. Giovanni’s earliest memory of seeing another male do drag was Josh Petrilude, who would film himself trying on M.A.C. products, eventually recording himself as his alter ego, Misty Maven. Giovanni says that he was old enough to understand the concept of a man wearing what is typically women’s clothes, but at first didn’t grasp the fact that Maven was actually Josh and not another person filming a cameo of Mr. Pertilude’s YouTube channel. Only in middle school, Giovanni was merely an observer, aside from acquiring concealer to cover his puberty-gifted acne. He describes his parents as being “totally cool” with him wearing makeup, but was quick to note that he was never the kind to steal his mother’s. Around this time was also when he was introduced to RuPaul’s Drag Race. It wasn’t until high school that he started experimenting with wigs and accessories. He mentions that between watching Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire, something had to stick. “I bought the ‘Born This Way’ wig from Party City and took it apart to make it into something different,” he describes between bites of his egg omelet. “I only needed it to look good from the front for the picture on my computer and lip-syncs.” All the pictures and videos he took of himself he primarily did it for his own records and the small audience he had gained on Tumblr. He describes his early drag as, “Nothing good but not anything bad either. I still stand by it”
It’s so easy to associate the art of drag to RuPaul’s Drag Race lately, as the show successfully managed to capitalize on drag culture, and breaking the barrier between the LGBTQ+ world and the seemingly overexposed heterosexual media. It’s no surprise that Giovanni was taken under Season 4 winner Sharon Needles’ dark angel wings. Before Miss Needles was a competitor, she was preforming at small clubs, and when in Pennsylvania, she would invite Giovanni to her hotel room to watch her get in drag. But the fantasy would end there for Giovanni, as he was underage at the time and couldn’t attend the actual performances. Despite that, he quickly picked up on what drag could be and was well on his way to becoming the main act himself.
Right after high school, he found himself at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, majoring in Womenswear and living in the dorms. Smart he was to procure a fake ID and get into some of the clubs to see his favorite performers. He quickly branded himself as Aquaria, a name he and childhood friend Heather Guyer had come up with on a long list of “ridiculous drag names we thought were funny.” Even without the actual name, it is apparent that he was always Aquaria, or at least destined to be someone else but himself.
Aquaria’s first performance was at the original locations of Boots and Saddle in the West Village, opening for Yuhua Hamasaki. She describes having only two outfits and relying on those two looks to get her through two performances. Eventually she was brought uptown to preform by Schwa de Vivre and season nine contestant on Drag Race, Alexis Michelle. She describes that time being spent hustling, making sure people knew her name and her act in hopes of booking her for future performances.
Shortly after dropping out of F.I.T. with only one year of college under her corset, Aquaria met Miss Queen Sateen and her partner Exquisite at Frankie Sharp’s Brooklyn party, “Girls.” She describes Sateen as, “a crazy bitch who showed me her hoo-ha in the bathroom, but super friendly.” Through the duo, Aquaria was introduced to Sussi, the flamboyantly over-dressed modern Club Kid. At the time, Aquaria did not seem receptive of Sussi. “Her makeup was messy, her clothes were messy. I just did not understand that,” was Aquaria’s first impression. Whatever initial qualms she at first were quickly forgotten, as eventually both of them became roommates that following summer. Harry Charlesworth, another creature of the New York night, would constantly suggest one of them joining a reality competition in order to win some money to buy the building, and “turn it into ‘Aquaria’s Home for Unfortunate Drag Queens.’”
LadyFag reached out to Aquaria and asked her to attend Riccardo Tisci’s Givenchy Fashion Week after party, which is how she ended up dancing all night long on top of a car. Aquaria mentions that at first she was not a fan of LadyFag’s parties and would refuse to go, but after prying from her friends, she ended up taking over hosting duties of 11:11 from Sussi when she left New York for London. Soon after, a residency started at most of – if not all of – LadyFag’s parties. You can catch Aquaria and her gaggle of fellow misfit queens and hanger-on’s at Battle Hymn, Holy Mountain, 11:11, and more. She recently attended the launch of Pat McGrath’s Sephora collaboration, where she stood atop an elevated platform and simply posed. She describes her foray into nightlife as fun yet business. Being sought out by some of New York City’s most legendary party promoters isn’t a bad gig, and surely pays the rent.
“Susanne [Bartsch] loves me to death, LadyFag loves me until she wants to strangle me because I try to start shit, and Frankie [Sharp] just loves me. They understand that we are going places and that we are going to be superstars.”
Despite not being from New York herself, Aquaria feels as if she represents an idea of what New York is. Another famous New Yorker who she sees herself in is Lady Gaga. She describes recently meeting Gaga at her latest album listening party, saying, “it was like meeting a coworker, because in a way we are in the same industry, which is entertainment. I wasn’t starstruck, which is weird to say, but I felt like I know what she was going through as a performer because I go through it, too.” She notes that while she was given a non-disclosure to sign at the time, she doesn’t really remember what it actually prohibited her from doing, as she quickly signed away and was only focused on making a beeline for Gaga. She notes she was in drag at the time, as she had a performance to make it to after the listening party, and that she never imagined meeting her idol in a situation where Lady Gaga was a lot less in drag than herself.
When asked which current drag queen she has had her eye on, Aquaria quickly mentions Sasha Velour. Velour is a current contestant on season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but before that, she is Aquaria’s friend. Together they have performed on stage, and they each attend each other’s shows. Aquaria can be regularly found at her friends’ performances, not only because she just turned twenty-one and has a brand new official ID, but also because she feels that the only way to improve one’s drag is to see others perform in order to perfect your routine. Lately she’s started going out for enjoyment rather than under the guise of work, simply but because she can. She also makes sure to carry a wad of dollar bills in order to tip her fellow queens performing.
Regarding what she does on her days off in order to relax, she mentions, “smoke weed, jerk off and watch YouTube videos – in that order.” She doesn’t date, she says, as she is too busy to deal with men at the moment. Ideally, she would like to meet someone when she can be equally dominant to him. She says she would like to pick up the bill now and then and be able to spoil her future boyfriend. It usually takes her on average about two hours to get into drag, and three if she has no specific look planned. Ultimately, she says that she does drag for herself, and that if the world came crashing down and everyone died, then she would perform for herself. Fame is something that Aquaria welcomes, but is also aware that for people who put some part of themselves onto the Internet for the entire world to see, there will be negativity. With all the “Come to Brazil!” comments left on her Instagram, you are bound to find a hater or two. Aquaria reminisces on someone who publicly accused her of stealing looks from him, though she is swift to note that it isn’t possible to steal something from someone who never had anything to begin with. “You can’t be mad at me for having so many looks,” she says. “I don’t give people a reason to come for me, so when they do, I am taken aback.” About her recent tussle she continues, “I’m not going to get my gigs taken away, you’re just not going to get any gigs. Have fun coming to New York and not being able to get in anywhere!”
When talking about drag queens past and present, it will be hard not to mention Aquaria. Google her and you fall into a Reddit hole of anonymous commenters either loving, hating, or wanting to be her. The next logical step seems obvious, and it might involve a 6’4” glamazon host with a New York City party past not very different from Aquaria’s own. The only thing one can do is sit tight and see whether or not she chooses that path for herself.
As we are wrapping dinner, I ask Aquaria what her advice would be to another young teen in West Chester, Pennsylvania, who possibly wanted to start drag.
Editor’s Note: Aquaria would like it to be known that she hates coffee and considers it to be bean water, her favorite makeup tool is the New York Liquid Eyeliner, and always remember to tip your queens.