Suffolk drag queens Sirena hART and Barby Wire share the highs and lows of living and performing in the county
Drag-fever has well and truly swept the nation, with three seasons of world-renowned RuPaul's Drag Race UK released in as many years and a fourth promised to eager fans.
Drag queen and West-End performer, Ella Vaday, who was one of three finalists in the latest season of the show, revealed that she was born in Suffolk but, aside from being the runner-up’s home county, the area has a relatively quiet drag scene.
Hoping to change this and put Suffolk on the map are a handful of queens who grew up here and have experienced first-hand the trials and tribulations that come with emerging as a drag artist in the county.
Sirena hART is a 26-year-old gender-fluid queen from Sudbury who started performing in drag after the Covid-19 pandemic forced them to return to their hometown.
The self-proclaimed ‘Love Child of Poseidon and Aphrodite or Ariana Grande and Hagrid’ adopts a unique style that incorporates traditionally feminine and typically masculine traits alongside one another.
Explaining this choice, Sirena said: “My whole thing is that gender is all psychological. Mine, personally, lucky me, is both.
“I wake up some days feeling like the most feminine thing ever and I will wake up other days feeling like Mr Butch.
“In terms of my body and chest hair, I will never get rid of it. I don’t believe that I need to get rid of those masculine features to become feminine.”
While they can now be found performing their increasingly popular ‘Drageoke’ show at The Prince in Sudbury on a weekly basis, the journey of Brad, the individual behind the bright make-up and bubblegum pop outfits, wasn’t always an easy one.
“My whole life I spent a long time trying to argue that I am both masculine and feminine. I’ve been told I am too feminine at times or I am too masculine at times and it’s kind of like, I am not ‘too’ anything,” they said.
The 26-year-old first discovered drag at the age of 19 when they were introduced to RuPaul’s Drag Race while studying for a drama degree.
“I was going through all of this insecurity with how I looked and my gender and my sexuality and I felt a bit lost in the world,” Sirena said.
“I remember seeing Drag Race and being like ‘oh my god this is so fun.’ I have never felt so identified with something.”
Seven years on, four of which were lived out in Latin America before an abrupt return to Suffolk due to the pandemic, Sirena decided it was time to take to the stage themselves.
“When I came back another drag queen that I know that lived in the area got me into the scene and I entered a competition,” Sirena said.
“To be honest I just excelled. I had all the confidence, I knew what I was doing. It comes really naturally to me.
“When I started doing my shows it was like a ding of a lightbulb, it was like this is what I am good at, it all makes sense for me.”
To begin with Sirena, who is also an avid artist and portrait painter, said they found it difficult to make other people believe in drag as a career path.
But the Sudbury queen did not give up, a trait that seems typical of Sirena, and even in the face of mental health struggles, they continued to pursue their dream.
“My depression is rooted in feeling like I can’t always be myself. At times it felt like the whole world was against me and all I wanted to do was do nice things for people and it really gets to me,” Sirena said.
“I sit there and think, I’m 26, I should have a normal life like any other hetero-normative people. I should be able to meet someone in the street and go on a date with them like any other person.
“It feels like we have to hide in the shadows still here and that angers me a lot because in Latin America I never had to do that,” they added.
For Sirena, drag is not just about self-acceptance and expression, but also about sharing important messages in the fight for equality and educating people on the issues facing the queer community.
The queen said they often face derogatory comments like ‘You’re actually alright’ or ‘You’re not like the rest of them’ spoken as terms of endearment, which they view as homophobic and offensive.
“You’re talking about people in my community, people just like me. That’s not a compliment, not for one second have they complimented me there,” Sirena said.
“A lot of people’s prejudice are just ignorant comments which I have learnt how to deal with and process, I get those quite regularly.”
Sirena also said that as a queer person in the UK you have to have a heightened understanding of whether you are in a ‘safe space’ or not, a reality that they find ‘exhausting'.
“I know how deep prejudice and homophobia can go and I know that the sad truth is because I am gay someone could literally think I am the enemy and evil. I could offend someone so much that I am not safe just by being myself,” they said.
“The world is changing, it definitely is, but there are still those people rooted in those beliefs and they are still difficult to deal with.”
While Sirena has only been performing for just under a year, they said they feel the persona has been a part of them their whole life.
“Things make a lot of sense now. She was there the first time I put my nan’s shoes on, she’s always been a part of me,” they said.
“I feel like I refused her and put her away for a long time, I felt like I couldn’t be that person for ages.”
During their time in Latin America, Sirena was able to find their self-confidence and passion for activism, something they made sure they brought with them on the 7,342-mile trip back home.
“I thought if I am coming home from Argentina I am not going to lose that confidence or that pride or individuality that I have and so I didn’t,” Serena said.
“I know it sounds dramatic but if I can’t be myself, I don’t want to be anyone.”
Appearing this Saturday evening on ITV talent-come-dating show, Romeo and Duet, you can expect to see a lot more of Sirena and their bold, glamorous make-up in the months and years to come.
Sirena’s message of acceptance and self-expression is one that resonates with so many other young people who feel they can’t be themselves or have to hide certain parts of their identity to be accepted.
Sirena said, of those people: “If you believe deep down you need to do something, whether that is wear heels, wear a skirt, wear hoops, whatever it is, honestly, dear young queer people, you know yourself better than anyone else.
“You have to learn and it's so hard to learn this because this world will try and knock you down, but you have to learn to trust that over anything else.”
Meanwhile in Ipswich, drag artist Barby Wire is trying to make a break into the scene with a more unconventional style.
The 25-year-old skateboarding coach, also known as Lewis, was inspired to get into drag by horror-themed drag television series Dragula.
“It's very dark, very kind of grotesque, really pushing the boundaries of what drag could be,” said Barby.
“Even though drag has an accepting culture anyway, this sub-genre is even more varied and even more accepting I would say than some of the others.
“It was that which made me think drag can be different, it doesn’t have to fall into any sort of category to be drag, it's just an expression of yourself.”
Inspired by the likes of Doja Cat, Grimes and UK drag race favourite Bimini Bon Boulash, Barby opts for a darker and more ‘emo’ look to their drag.
Describing their drag as somewhere in the middle of ‘a huge Venn Diagram’ of influences, Barby was born at Halloween in 2019 when Lewis plucked up the courage to dress in drag for a work party.
“I thought this was a great time to go out in drag because it's very daunting at first especially when you’re trying to explore and find your own self-identity,” said Barby.
“You worry, what will people think? What will people say? You think of the worst things in your head before anyone else has even said them.
“But Halloween, because everyone is dressing up anyway and it's all fun, is a bit of a safety net. Even if people don’t like it, it could be viewed as a costume,” they added.
Barby said when they started out in drag they quickly noticed the lack of drag shows in the county and began making trips to Norwich in search of others in the community.
“In terms of Ipswich it can feel quite disjointed and segregated. I don’t really know other queens in Ipswich at all - it does feel like the drip feeding of drag into Ipswich is coming from Norwich,” Barby said.
“We don’t have cities dotted about in Suffolk, it’s towns and villages even. It brings a bit of a smaller mindset, which can come across as less accepting.
“I also think that on that same line it's not always the mindset, it might just be an exposure thing. The general public might not be as exposed to drag as they would be in the city.
“They might not be against it at all or have any bad feelings towards it but they just might not know about it,” they added.
It is for this reason that Barby is intent on breaking into the rap music and hip-hop scene, in order to bring their style to those outside of the drag community.
“I want to try and bring my music to a new demographic that it can challenge in that sense, that new sub-genre of people.
“I want to bring drag to people who might not accept it at first. I want them to potentially accept it for the music first and the drag second, and the music will help them accept it.”
A few years into their drag journey, Barby Wire has grown in confidence and after phasing in their drag performances in ‘queer safe spaces’ they are looking forward to their future in drag.
Looking back on their experiences so far, Barby said: “Exploring gender identity and general identity is one of the most freeing things.
“What I have found is that through exploring my identity through drag it has helped me as Lewis to explore myself better. It has made me more open to things, more confident with things.
“I would say there’s no rush, take your time, do it how you want at your own pace because at the end of the day it is your identity.
“No one can tell you how you feel, only you know it and sometimes it needs a bit of exploring.”
With Suffolk Pride festival taking place on June 18 and the group undertaking year-round fundraising to promote equality and eliminate discrimination, it seems the county is becoming a more accepting and welcoming place than ever before.
For Sirena hART and Barby Wire, drag is all about challenging the prejudices that the queer community often face while expressing themselves and their unique styles.
While the journeys of young drag queens all over the country will be inevitably different and incredibly personal, it is clear that all of these individuals are hoping to find a place to belong, be accepted and feel they can be completely themselves.