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It’s hard to describe the extent to which the world of drag exploded over the past decade. Yes, RuPaul’s Drag Race exported (and mega-commodified) the once niche subculture to the masses, but a far more radical expansion took place within the culture itself. Labels and sub-genres were formed, embraced, multiplied, and discarded simultaneously; the structural limits of the practice were questioned, deconstructed, and reimagined. Drag has grown from a subversive show of gender-play to a highly-individualized dramatization of the possibilities of the human experience.
Few individuals embody the full complexity and unlimited creative potential of drag today like Hungry. The German artist and performer wields a command of her visual presentation which is utterly captivating — potently combining jaw-dropping makeup skills with a razor-sharp sartorial edge. Words fail to describe the intricate, other-worldly manifestations of her aesthetic, though the closest one can come to capturing it might be her own terminology: “distorted drag.”
“[It] was sort of a way to be able to categorize it without having the restrictions that I thought drag had back then,” she says. We are discussing the origins of her practice, a journey that began six years ago. “Going into it, I was very serious about giving it restrictions, because I always approach things on a very technical level. Like, ‘Okay, I could either be very natural and feminine looking, or I could go the pedantry route and do a painted look, but visually that’s still within all the things I had known as ‘drag.’ I always had these rules that I thought existed, but when I actually started working with different drag families and in different cultures around the world that have drag within their entertainment industry, I realized there are so many broader aspects to it. People are now interpreting it in a way that's so much freer.”
The direction in which Hungry would develop her signature distorted drag may be the single most freeing interpretation of the artform yet. Far beyond gender binaries, her looks transcend the realm of humanity entirely; eerily black contact lenses, rippling lacerations of makeup, and eye-popping face appendages leave an impression which seems to belong to the extra-terrestrial. Presenting her wholly unique visions to the world garnered her an enormous Instagram following, catching the eye of one special fan in particular: the alien goddess herself, Björk. The pop icon enlisted Hungry to create her makeup for the artwork and music videos surrounding her 2017 album Utopia, and their collaboration has continued steadily in the years since.
It’s easy to see what would draw Björk to Hungry, but beyond their aesthetic sensibilities, they share a devotion to the craft of character-building in their art; every look is a window into a world unto itself. “I think in terms of ‘characters,’ just because whenever I make something, I tend to give it a name or a direction. But it's less about being a separate character and more about defining a look, really. I wouldn't act differently if I was in one look or the other,” Hungry clarifies.
So how does this process of crafting elaborate characters begin? “I always start with the clothes,” she answers unwaveringly. “It starts with something kind of straightforward, and then when it goes on, it goes into several directions — everything I make has a few points of inspiration, be it fashion, historical, or societal. Only at the end do I think about the makeup, and what it would need to look like for the character to make sense.”
There are countless examples in Hungry’s catalogue which convey her masterful literacy of cultural references, but my imagination returns most frequently to this astonishing take on the outerwear of Regency-era Britain. An homage to the fashion of the English fox hunt (which doubles as an homage to Stephen Jones for John Galliano for Dior couture 1999), it also reflects her seamless incorporation of found objects; in this instance, repurposing taxidermied materials from her Bavarian ancestors. I am equally blown away when her visit to the Highsnobiety office for an executive realness-themed shoot includes a corporate cyborg look with a nosepiece made of headphones.
More than a passing interest, her technical skill is bolstered by a degree in fashion design (which included an internship with Vivienne Westwood in London), but her ability to make living art out of inanimate objects comes from a much more personal place. “When I was growing up, I never had things of my own; with clothing and accessories, it was mostly things I had gotten passed down from my siblings,” she reflects. “So I would rummage about the house and find things, but I could never really utilize them — it would have been ridiculous to just run around with a weird, pretty rod I found in the attic or something. But it was nice to look at those objects and know they're there, and know they're somewhat yours. And so now, whenever I come across nice things that I know I could utilize, because I have more of an idea of what I can do, I'm just really inspired by the task and by the challenge of making it work.”
Each of Hungry’s looks are so richly detail-oriented in a classically editorial way that it’s easy to forget she is an equally consummate performer (something many of her fans who only know her through Instagram miss out on). And while her performative pieces are certainly enjoyable, they are not exactly… light-hearted. In previous interviews, she describes her live work as a chance to channel her anxieties, and I ask her to elaborate on the subject further:
“It varies — there's times where I just want to be fun and stupid, but the performances I relate to more are definitely the ones that are depressing. It makes more sense with what I do; it shows who I am, I suppose. I'm very upset by the progression of time, and the realization that everything is just so short-lived. And I guess, in a broader sense, it's the fear of aging and the fear of growing old. Well, the fear of being forgotten, so to speak. I was brought up as the youngest of four siblings, and I was always trying to be noticed and trying to get attention. And I think that has been blown out of proportion in my work.”
“Now that I came up with something that I feel is original, there's even more pressure on myself to make that count,” she continues. “There’s always this struggle of trying to create something that I'm satisfied with, which is difficult, because I'm really critical of myself. In the context of drag, specifically, you're asking for so much attention as soon as you go on stage, and you're asking for so much space, so you have to bring something to the table to justify that. I have to make work I’m really satisfied with, work that will represent me in the long run.”
The fear of being forgotten is a feeling nearly all artists share, to some extent, particularly those who work in such ephemeral mediums as performance. Realizing that this feeling is a crux of Hungry’s artistic drive makes me reevaluate one of her signature performances I’ve had the pleasure of seeing on several occasions. In it, she stands resolutely alone on a darkened stage, her face shrouded in one of her ornate masks. She lip syncs to the Robyn and Röyksopp song “Monument,” dramatically removing the mask to reveal an even more ornate painted face beneath. “This will be my monument,” she mouths, holding a simulacrum of her own face aloft. “This will be a beacon when I’m gone.”