Pussay Pops Off: In Conversation with Tasmania’s Drag Sweetheart

Pussay Poppins is the politically charged, Lady Gaga loving, nipaluna/Hobart based drag artist behind many of Hobart’s favourite queer events. The self-described “queen of self-defecating humour”, runs Altar’s ‘Judy’s’- a queer safe space, dance night which hosts a range of local DJs and drag performances curated by Miss Poppins. Poppins herself has stayed booked and busy after her state win in the prestigious Dragnation competition, participating in a wide range of drag related events that span from community fundraising efforts, festivals, drag bingos, to pride rallies. Outside of her work as Tasmania’s drag sweetheart, she has a day job in health. Togatus’ Chelsea Menzie got the chance to chat with Pussay to talk about Tasmanian drag, Gaga’s influence, RuPaul’s Drag Race, identity, the politics of drag and her upcoming projects.

Chelsea: Hi Pussay, thanks so much for your time.

Pussay: Of course, welcome to my studio!

We are chatting over zoom and Pussay proceeds to show me a collection of beautiful, if not chaotic, wigs and drag costumes. There’s even a signature Lady Gaga red, latex, look which she says she sewed in 8 hours after the release of the music video for 911. I remark to her that she has her priorities in order.

Was there a Catalyst for you starting drag? Who are your drag inspirations?

P: It’s so stereotypical but Gaga was such a big inspiration. I’ve been a massive fan since The Fame era and I’ve been a Gaga fan longer than I’ve been a drag performer. I love the theatrical components and it kind of combined everything that I loved: pop music, technology and art in a mix. I was really obsessed. I really liked costume design and things that weren’t specifically drag, lots of gaga inspired bits and pieces.

I’m Lebanese and Catholic, I come from a really Catholic family. Being effeminate, being homosexual, being generally very queer is not always something that is liked much. I kind of used drag as an outlet to put my effeminate energy and all of those aspects I didn’t like about myself. Being creative and very artistic, liking makeup, that whole different side to myself. Over time Pussay and Andrew merged together. Now it’s really indifferentiable who is what. It made me kind of realise and accept myself, to show that there is a lot of strength behind both aspects, the masculine and the feminine.

My drag inspirations are people like Bob the Drag Queen, Trixie Mattel and Katya. The standard kind of Ru girls, which are very funny and comedic rather than just typical pageantry. When I grew up in Sydney all I would see would be very beautiful drag queens and I really saw them at a distance because I never could see myself fitting in with them. I was never typically a very pretty queen, or a glamourous person, I saw myself as a bit of an artsy clown. As I started getting more exposure to drag and seeing more things like RuPaul’s Drag Race and visiting other areas like Melbourne seeing very artistic drag it influenced me. Things that were cerebral, creative, comedy, politically charged performance aspects brought together. Sasha Velour was another amazing queen that I saw from Drag Race. There’s also local people that very much inspire me too. As well as Australian drag queens like Lazy Susan, who does spoken word recitals of things like ‘Tik Tok’ by Kesha. She also did a birth of drag piece that had multiple reveals, taking off outfits for it to be the same thing underneath.

How old were you when you started drag, was it ever something you saw becoming normalised in Tasmania?

I would say I started doing drag kind of in my mid 20s in my Gaga phase, although it wasn’t Pussay it was sort of starting where that was going. I grew up in rural New South Wales in a small town and it was very much like we didn’t talk about that. Pussay was really born nine or ten years ago doing different characters, but I settled on Pussay sixish years ago when I moved to Hobart.

I never thought that it would be as normalised or as accepted as it is right now. Even coming down here and going to gay clubs in the earlier days I always would wonder if I was safe, especially ten or so years ago. There was a real worry about if it was safe to be queer. Going to queer friendly venues and bars here and in Launceston where I first moved was crazy. As the years started moving on and I started doing more and doing more political and volunteer work as well with groups like Diversity Launceston, TasPride, Working It Out, linking with MONA and DarkMOFO it felt like spreading that love and spreading acceptance.

The big thing I found was when I went to the North West in Ulverstone was shock. Two years ago there I did Ulverstone’s first Pride Festival and Ulverstone historically was voted one of the most homophobic towns in Australia in the 80s and 90s…they had anti-gay rallies in the street. Twenty years later I rocked up cross-dressing, reading books to kids in the middle of the day in Ulverstone, it was very surreal. I didn’t realise the impact until I stood back away from it. It was like “this is a big thing and I never thought I would see the day”. Now we’re doing sold out shows in Ulverstone, Burnie and Devonport every three months. I’m going up to Launnie next weekend to perform and I can’t believe it. Tasmania keeps changing as a state and its incredible.

There is queer people everywhere. It’s not like it’s just in Hobart. Again Ulverstone was incredible, there were hundreds of people… the whole park was full. Lines of people telling me that I’m amazing. I was like “I did my makeup in the car on the way up from Campbell Town! What are you on about?”. I hit every pothole between Oatlands and Ulverstone! The community was so much bigger than expected especially in that younger demographic. They can’t come to a club because they’re not 18. So it was very overwhelming being there and seeing the community. It gave me more of a fire to do more for the community and reach out to all the different parts around the state because accessibility is obviously a very big thing…It’s hard for people to find a safe space. It made me want to give people the space and the permission to be themselves. It makes young people think that if I can be open as a queer person in the community then they can be too. [Queer] Kids that do the things they do at the age that they do is just unbelievable to me, when I was 13 I would’ve never of thought of it. I never even thought I’d find acceptance. So it’s really important. It’s about building up that community to continue fighting that battle, because there is a battle still to be fought.

If you don’t mind answering, how do you identify outside of drag?

It’s very interesting because it’s something that I’ve always not been one hundred per cent sure where I sit with it. Now that pronouns are evolving its different… when I was younger I thought I was a ‘he’ but doing drag sometimes confuses you a bit. You get a lot of praise and attention and positive reinforcement from people when you are portraying yourself as a different gender (or however you express yourself artistically in a drag sense). So I’m finding myself I’m very much a gender fluid kind of person. I find myself in a work setting as male but I feel that I can float in between the feminine and masculine, not really in a typical binary of anything. Predominately he/him, but I will answer to any pronouns really.

(All images supplied by Pussay Poppins)

Has Pussay helped you in your ‘regular life’ outside of being a drag queen?

She has really just given me so much confidence in Andrew’s life. It’s given me the permission. My therapist asked me, “how can you be so confident and so unapologetic as Pussay, but can’t talk to people outside of drag as Andrew?”. Where do I go from one extreme to the other where I do the most outrageous things on stage but I can’t talk to some boy? There really isn’t any difference. With that shift I actually utilised all of Pussay’s assertiveness, confidence and glamorousness. Using her charm and ability to hold a conversation made me think if Pussay can do it then why can’t Andrew do it? I’m the hand up… the puppet in Pussay. There’s a fisting joke there somewhere.

You’re Tasmania’s Dragnation sweetheart. What’s it like competing in drag competitions?

I hate it! Hate it! It’s interesting because it’s such a different thing. My day job is in health which is very clinical and facts based. Doing drag is this thing where everyone has an interpretation and its very subjective. I was never good at things like English because I was very science minded where everything is one or the other. My brain goes into a big cycle doing a competition where I’m thinking, “what are you doing?”, “you’re going to embarrass yourself”. My anxiety can really get the better of me. I don’t go great in competitions because I doubt myself a lot. I’m very lucky that I have a support network in my partner and my friends that I can bounce ideas off. But if I were in a setting like RuPaul’s Drag Race it would be so much more challenging. Knowing me if I ever did another competition it would be hard for my mindset. It’s hard to always put an objective measure on a subjective piece. I love judging a competition! But participating is complete anxiety. Even thinking about it I’m like shaking haha!

I’m so sorry to bring back traumatic memories

Please! The amount of stuff that I do on stage… this is not even trauma! I do think it’s good to normalise anxiety and be very open with it. I think that I’m very approachable and real with what I do even as much as Pussay is a character, being open and honest about my mental health. Everyone thinks that it looks easy, and the reality is that I’ve taken eight gastrostoppers because I want to shit myself every time I walk on stage. It is hard. Especially doing a competition. People think that they can’t do things because they’re anxious but I like to help people and say well these are my strategies. It’s important to be open. So no trauma. Well there is trauma but not from that!

In our queer history a lot of drag artists have often been people that make space for political change. Do you see your drag as political and do you think given its history political awareness is a responsibility in drag?

Yes! Basically Pussay was rebranded around six years ago because I wanted to bring politics and comedy onto the stage. As a performer and someone who can hold someone’s attention for a six minute period I think it’s important. Yes I’m deepthroating a dildo on stage, but let’s also talk about the upcoming election and why it’s important! From day dot I’ve been doing acts where I dress up as Bronwyn Bishop and getting money thrown at me from a bag that says ‘taxpayers dollars’. It’s something that is so important for our community, especially younger people who see politics as something that’s a big step away from them that they may not be able to digest. It’s my responsibility to say “hey this politician is saying that trans people can be excluded from sport”, or “this person wants to overturn same sex marriage” and it affects you. I think anyone who has a platform should use it responsibly. This is my community, the people who are paying to buy a ticket, how can I give back to them? It’s supporting the community because they’re the ones that are supporting me. I need to fight for you because you’re fighting for me.

How do you make sense of your drag then considering the growing political attacks on the LGBT community?

Well my drag doesn’t really make sense at the best of times, thank you! But it just means that we have to be more visible and more brash. Just like Ulverstone it started off as one thing in the park where people probably thought “who’s this poofter in a dress in the park?” but we need to normalise it and get a lot of the stigma out of the way for the general community. Even being in drag can just be political. It can change people’s views on gender norms and let them see a different experience. I like doing queer things with non queer people, or allies in the community, to show that there is a different world they probably haven’t experienced. From a political standpoint too it’s showing people that have voted conservative in the past that even if things like the plebiscite didn’t affect them that actually we have a story. This is my life that is affected by this. Conversion therapy laws at the moment are another one where it may not feel like to people outside that it’s something they need to worry about, but it is something that other people need to worry about. It’s something I worry about every day for myself and for my kids, my community. Being an entertainer it’s what my role is, changing people’s perspective.

Sometimes our lives as queer people can often look different to heterosexual people’s. We don’t always have traditional timelines for ‘success’, families or jobs, this can be confusing to navigate as we grow up. Was that something you faced in your own life?

Definitely growing up in a small rural town having very Catholic and Lebanese influence in my parents it was very much that many things I saw around me was not what I felt in myself. It was very hard. I didn’t come out until I was maybe 19, even then that was very much a push from my family. Growing up in a small town too it felt like it was everything. I never really saw anything that was me. The only things I could kind of see was like Carson Kressley or Bob Downe on TV. Effeminate people on TV that I could kind of see myself in, but it was so removed because it was entertainment. It wasn’t like a person in front of me who was openly queer that I could relate to or have a discussion with. Watching Queer as Folk was another thing that just scared me beyond anything, I was like “Is this what its like? I’m going to get an STI and I’m going to get bashed every time I leave the house”. Sadly it is sometimes a reality of things that happen to our community but those kinds of representation were very overexaggerated and scary. Meeting so many queer people now unfortunately it is like I know somebody who has been attacked in Hobart, someone who has been kicked out of their family when they came out. I think it’s good for cis, straight people to know that we do have a different life from them in some ways. It’s also good to talk about as queer people that we do have experiences that mirror each other. When we have that visibility broadly too it does give people the chance to stop and consider another perspective that they may not have. People often think “you chose to be gay, you chose to live like this” but they don’t realise that I still get freaked out holding my partner’s hand in public and I’m 33. It’s ridiculous and people don’t always understand.

I’ve done a few different queer proms and events for young people, and I’m hoping to do another underaged version of Judy’s soon, to support queer youth, seeing those events where people are 14 and they’re openly gay is wild. I’ve met older gay people who didn’t come out until their 50s. They had so much of their life lost to heteronormative standards. Even for me, there was just 18 years of me living a heteronormative lifestyle and I missed out on having a typical first relationship at school, going to watch a movie together, I never had any of that. A lot of people don’t make that connection that we have to hide ourselves, how badly it can potentially impact someone.

What’s your go-to lip sync song?

That’s like choosing my favourite child! It’s hard, if I had a go to performance it would be a Lady Gaga song. Although I like to mix my tracks a lot so it’s hard to just say one, but it would probably be ‘Rain on Me’ if I had to. I do love doing my ‘Dirty Talk’ mix, which is like cut with overtly sexual cut scenes, it’s just stupid. I like starting off with a sexy or clubby kind of song and then just being so stupid. I have a Muppet vulva with googly eyes that I lip sync with to a jazz version of ‘My Neck my Back’, I also have a giant vulva suit that and I sometimes poke my head out of the Urethra. Another favourite is the yaassification of Pinocchio. I have a lot, I’ve been doing it for too long! I’ve wasted my life!

Where can we see you next?

You can’t get rid of me unfortunately. My website is www.pussaypoppins.com, I update it weekly with all of the events I’m doing. You’ll also see me at my club Judy’s, @judystasmania on Instagram. It’s a monthly queer drag and dance night at Altar. I also do regular bingos and trivia at Society Salamanca and Harlequin Lenah Valley. You can find my Instagram and Facebook on @pussaypoppins.

Thank you for your time!

Thank you! I really liked the questions they made me think about my life…

Hopefully in a good way not an existential way?

I kind of like it being existential rather than the typical drag queen questions… I want to tell people in the community about how I got to this point because anyone can do anything they want with their life. It’s yours to make it.