Candy Warhol brings her Drag Race expertise to Cork

'Candy Warhol' has worked with everyone from the queens of RuPaul's Drag Race to Ireland's own Panti Bliss. Now she's running masterclasses in Cork. Caroline O'Donoghue because a student for a day

It is 9.30pm on a wet Monday evening in early March, and I am a living doll. To specify: I am not the Barbie doll that I so often see upside-down in my niece’s toy chest, who is generally naked, covered in magic marker, and sporting a homemade haircut that felt like a good idea at the time but now she deeply regrets. I am the kind of doll made for careful, polite children. My head is bowed from trying to stay steady under my huge black wig. My eyes are half-closed from the weight of my 401 lashes. My limbs are articulated with great care as I watch the world from the inner folds of this costume, watching as three men put the finishing touches on three hours of work. They are Candy Warhol, Mia Gold and Victoria Lodge. Sisters from Cork’s very first drag family, Mockie Ah.

“Oh my god,” Mia says, stepping back from the finished product. “Candy, she looks just like you.” Mia then pauses for a second.

“...but pretty.” The four of us scream laughing, Candy whacking Mia with the heel of her fan in mock-horror.

To be clear, I am Candy’s creation. Her drag daughter, to use official parlance. Candy Warhol is the “mother” of the House of Mockie Ah, a title which means that she essentially is responsible for everything the “family” requires. From organising shows, to managing new recruits, to ensuring peace and harmony among the queens, the buck stops with Candy. Mockie Ah is unique in that it is Cork’s premier drag family: one that, for the sake of this article, I am temporarily initiated into.

“I like being a Mom,” Candy says playfully, drawing on my eyebrows, which start two inches above where my original ones sit. “Ish.” Although at 28 she seems young to be a single mum of a dozen drag queens, the Cork native has racked up a decade in the industry. She has worked with everyone, from the queens of the Emmy award-winning RuPaul’s Drag Race to Ireland’s own Panti Bliss. Unusually for a drag queen, Candy doesn’t have a figurative family relation to drag – a “mother” who schooled her through wigs and eyelashes, the way she is doing for me right now – but a literal one. Candy is the grand-nephew of Danny La Rue, the legendary queen who, during the 1960s, commanded one of the highest salaries of any UK entertainer.

“Growing up I was aware of it but it was one of those things that just became normalised to the point that I forgot about it. Then a year into my drag someone said ‘oh, just like your grand-uncle!’ It was surreal,” she says, drawing thick brown lines of contour down my skin, carving light and shade into my face. “The only time I saw him perform was when I was nine. He was mostly based in the UK but he came back on this tour and did the Everyman Palace, and my dad brought me. To be honest, no one in my family was really that close to him. I never got one-on-one time with him, which is what I always wanted. He passed away just as I was starting.” A drag family is not a new idea in itself. They were a staple of the culture that grew out of the 1970s ball scene, where primarily black and Latinx LGBTQ+ kids would “walk” in contests that were designed to playfully subvert the poverty they generally lived in. They walked in ball gowns they spent months sewing sequins onto; tailored suits for job interviews they would never actually be invited on. These kids were often rejected by their blood families, so found drag families in the wild. The House of Xtravaganza and The House of LaBeija dominated the New York drag scene. Now, Mockie Ah dominates the Cork one.

One of the first questions I ask Candy is whether, in a post gay-marriage world, there’s still a need for drag families. She maintains that solidarity is still a thing that drag queens desperately need. All three of the queens maintain that when they started drag, their parents were shocked, even linking it to prostitution. Victoria Lodge, a young queen from Tipperary who is a walking encyclopedia of camp references, says that his parents still don’t know about his drag career.

“I started drag a year before RuPaul’s Drag Race was even out,” says Candy. “My parents were terrified. The first they heard of me doing drag was, ironically, in The Irish Examiner. It was the first time I had ever been photographed in drag. It was when I was runner-up in The Alternative Miss Ireland.” The show, which used to be hosted by Panti Bliss and held annually in the Olympia, became a defining moment for Candy.

“I started in art college, through performance art and using drag as a subject matter. I was recreating all these Andy Warhol films, frame for frame, and I invented Candy Warhol as his art creation who would come to life. I put a video on Youtube and I got contacted by Alternative Miss Ireland to be in the show. I was 19. Such a baby, I didn’t know what I was doing! There was no make-up tutorials. I had my Maybelline Dream Matte Mousse and I was surrounded by all these Dublin queens who had been doing it years. I had only performed twice. My drag was just a white face, my whole body white, black hair extensions, and a blazer from Penneys with strings hanging off it.” Candy might have been a green performer, but this first appearance got her noticed. Especially when she jumped off stage, landing squarely on the camera crew.

“From then on, I just had to do crazy stunts because all the clubs that were hiring me were just asking “what is she going to do next?” I would go to the butchers and just sit on stage and eat raw meat. I’d smash glasses, jump off stage, and then I was like: I’m not even enjoying this!” After that came a residency at The George, Dublin’s most famous gay club, where the hyper-competitive atmosphere became the inspiration for Mockie Ah.

“I remember someone saying at The George: ‘When you leave the dressing room, everyone’s going to bitch about you, so just get used to it. That’s how it is.’ I remember thinking, why does that have to be how it is?” says Candy. “That’s why on Mockie Ah, I have rules. Clean up after yourself, be friendly, that kind of stuff. But my main thing is, we’re a family. We don’t tolerate any diva behaviour. We don’t tolerate bitchiness, and if I see it, you’re out. We’re there to have fun, and we’re there to work. Drag doesn’t have to be a bitchy competition.” Since the founding of Mockie Ah in 2017 after Candy hosted a vogueing competition in The Village Hall in Patrick’s Quay, the house has gone from strength to strength. Candy is approached by drag-admirers as young as 13 right up to people in middle-age, all asking if they can join the family. But there’s no official application process: you simply turn up to one of Candy’s new performer nights, do your thing, and wait to be invited back. Unlike some drag mothers, Candy includes “bio queens” (cis-gendered women who do drag) in the show. Mockie Ah currently has two: Maude Gonne Wrong and Denise Devereaux.

“I don’t care what you are, as long as you’re talented, and as long as you’re original,” Candy says. “There’s a misconception that it’s just about make-up and copying drag queens you see on social media. You can get away with that with the audience, but not with me, and not with the other queens,” she says staunchly.

“Drag is about punk, originality, and the underground. Drag queens are fearless, and they don’t care about the norm. Whether it’s freaky-deaky drag or pretty-girly drag, it’s all still a ‘f*ck you’ to the norm. If you’re doing drag properly, it means you’re taking everything you know about society and pop-culture, boiling it down, and then throwing it back in their face.”

At this point, I have been hanging out with the queens for three hours, and have been utterly transformed in the process. My usual make-up style of lip balm and eyeliner has given way to an utterly different creature. Along with my huge black wig and enormous lashes, I have been given a gown of red velvet and peacock feathers to wear. I look like I run a brothel in the old South. I don’t feel like I do when I’m dressed up for a wedding or a formal event – which often feels like I’m playing a tricky game of femininity and losing – but like a different creature entirely. The art of drag is that you are exaggerating the stereotypes of gender so much that you feel like you transcend them completely. Not a woman trying to look pretty in make-up, but a funny joke about a woman looking pretty in make-up. A joke where you are the teller, set-up, the punchline, and the banana peel all at once. Not quite a woman, not quite a man, but 100% queen.

I am transfixed. I touch my lip. Have my lips always been this huge?

“Don’t touch your face,” Candy says, smacking my hand away. Because after all, mother knows best.

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