Anna Archen

How do you live openly and freely as a queer person in a country that wants to silence you?

That’s the question faced by many LGBTQ+ people living in Russia, where an anti-gay propaganda law makes it illegal to ‘promote’ homosexuality to minors, activists have been hunted down and murdered, and the majority of society (86% according to this study) believe gay people shouldn’t be accepted. Meanwhile, in the self-governed state of Chechnya, modern-day concentration camps have been created where LGBTQ+ people have been subject to abduction, interrogation, torture and even extrajudicial murder by authorities.

But there are people offering hope. Lorina Rey is a drag queen living in Moscow, the capital of Russia, who uses their art to question ideas of queerness and gender. Despite living in a society that largely disapproves of people who express themselves outside of heteronormative ideals, Lorina has paved the way with stunning looks and performance art. They’ve appeared in Vogue Russia and even shared a stage with pop music icon Charli XCX. Elsewhere, Tatler became the first Russian magazine to feature a trans woman, Natasha Maximova, on the cover this year.

“There is a disconnection of society. The younger generation seems to be more open, as opposed to the adult generation and those who live by old standards as most of the people in Russia do,” Lorina tells us. “But in general, yes, there is a lot of homophobia. Even a guy in colourful clothes can shock people on the streets, so what can we say about a drag queen on the streets!”

Although they’ve had to adapt to a new way of life to stay safe, including hiding their craft from neighbours and paying for special (and expensive) taxi services that will transport them to events and photoshoots, Lorina says doing drag has changed their life for the better. “It’s like a mask that you put on and become a superhero without any problems,” they say. “In everyday life, standards and the people around you can make you hide your true self, and in drag you become who you really are.”

We spoke to Lorina about the queer nightlife scene in Moscow, how doing drag has helped rid themselves of self-doubt and shame, and whether there’s hope for LGBTQ+ rights and equality in Russia in the future.

How did you get introduced to drag?
For about 10 years I’ve been working in the beauty industry as a hair and fashion stylist, creating looks on models. I also worked as a go-go dancer earlier and dealt with the stage. Once I was in a gay club and saw drag queens, and what I saw interested me. Drag queens, by the way, were terrible – so I decided to try the same thing on myself, but create a beautiful look. I began learning makeup while watching YouTube, and also shaved my eyebrows for better makeup. I remember watching Miss Fame’s makeup tutorials for inspiration.

What was your first experience of getting into drag?
My drag career began about five years ago at the local clubs in the south of Russia, where I lived at that time. The drag scene there is very old school, and at first I was a feminine drag queen, in wigs and with false breasts and I performed Russian pop songs like everyone else. Even then I wanted to experiment, but art directors of the clubs didn’t allow drag queens to experiment, and people around didn’t understand that I wanted to lip sync to MNDR or Roisin Murphy for example, which they had not even heard of. Then I met my boyfriend, he is a fashion designer and stylist, and we began to create. Soon we moved to Moscow, where I stopped doing drag for two years. I don’t know how it happened. One day I saw a post on Instagram that one Moscow gay club was looking for drag queens to perform. I decided to try and stayed there for three months. After some time I realised that art directors in Moscow do not have taste and try to drive artists into a certain framework, just like in the small cities where I began doing drag. It was not interesting for me there, I realised that I could not grow. And so I left the club. For all drag queens in Russia this could mean the end of their career, since clubs are their main job and without performing in the clubs you’re nobody in the Russian drag scene. Russian queens do not have contracts with cosmetic brands or any other resource for living and creating drag looks. After leaving I began to do makeup and create different looks every day. At some point it became boring for me to create looks only at home and we began to organise photoshoots. So my boyfriend and I began to express ourselves and create looks for our pleasure. I have been fully engaged in drag for the last two and a half years and during this time drag is gradually going mainstream in Russia. Even Vogue Russia has made two videos with me. This is a big deal for homophobic Russia, and a course towards greater freedom for the LGBTQ community.

Is there a big drag community and nightlife scene in Russia?  
Moscow is the largest city in Russia with a population of 12 million people and here we have two large clubs and about four small bars. In each club there are about five or six permanent queens and about 40 ‘freelance’ queens who perform from time to time in the different clubs. Then there are drag queens who perform for free once every half a year wearing their mother’s old dress. Each has their own goal in drag – some just want to put on a dress and feel like a girl, while others want to make art, show their acting abilities or to feel themselves as their favourite pop singer on stage. Each city has at least one gay club, where there’s only three or four drag queens. There is even a drag mafia in Moscow; about five queens who started back in the 90s and 00s and now earn a lot of money for their performances, preventing young and more progressive artists from earning money from performing at big clubs. The drag community is not united, there are those who perform only in clubs and do not pay attention to their social media and they are mostly stuck in the old time, not realising that it is necessary to promote themselves on social media. But there are young and interesting artists who exist only on social media, because they are not understood by art directors and the majority of the audience who go to the clubs.

How would you describe your drag style?
It’s hard for me to describe my style of drag, it’s me, just my alter ego – Lorina. In my drag, I can do whatever I want with fashion and makeup, I have no restrictions. But I don’t like wigs, because they restrain my makeup, and I love huge arrows on my eyes, huge eyelashes and I love that my makeup is all over my head. I like to mix male and female elements of fashion. I am pretty brutal in my everyday life, but I partially bring it to my drag, as it seems to me. Lorina can hardly be called exceedingly feminine, however, at the same time I find her to be more feminine than a real girl. In general, it’s a creature from another planet, with no time around her. 

How has doing drag changed your life?
Drag really changed my life. If in ordinary life I can have self-doubt or be ashamed of something, then in drag I am not afraid of anything. It’s like a mask that you put on and become a superhero without any problems. In everyday life, standards and the people around you can make you hide your true self, and in drag you become who you really are. Thanks to drag, I’ve had a lot of new opportunities and interesting collaborations with artists, musicians, photographers and other creative people. Drag gives me endless inspiration.

How did your family and friends react to your love for drag? Do they know?
Yes, my family and all my friends know that I am a drag queen. My mother supports me and follows my drag accounts on social media and sometimes gives me advice. Even my clients who come to me to do their hair have discovered drag with my help. I am very pleased to acquaint people around me with drag and that everyone reacts very positively. In this regard, I am a very happy person.

Most people think Russia is very homophobic. As someone who lives in the country, do you agree with that view?
In the 90s and early 00s, Russia was a fairly free country, we had t.A.T.u on MTV. Then, at some point, a law about gay propaganda appeared and people stopped talking openly about LGBTQ issues in the media. But thanks to the internet, in the past few years more queer bloggers have appeared and the new generation has begun to speak more openly about LGBTQ people, while the older generation is conservative. There is a disconnection of society. The younger generation seems to be more open, as opposed to the adult generation and those who live by old standards as most of the people in Russia do. But in general, yes, there is a lot of homophobia. Even a guy in colourful clothes can shock people on the streets, so what can we say about a drag queen on the streets!

Do you feel safe being a drag queen in Russia?
It’s difficult when I need to go to for a photoshoot or some kind of event in drag, I need to come up with ways to get out of the house unnoticed. If my neighbours see me in drag, then I may have problems. Well, it’s difficult to walk on the street in drag because you don’t know what reaction people will have. Also, to get somewhere in drag I need to order a special expensive taxi, where taxi drivers are trained not to pay attention for people’s looks and not to ask unnecessary questions. It sounds funny, but it’s rather difficult to live like this. It annoys me that because of the stupid society, I have to adapt to these rules to be safe.

You have quite a big following on social media – have you ever received hate on there?
There’s no hate on my Instagram page. But also I have a TikTok account. If on Instagram people who follow my page understand that I am a drag queen, on TikTok random people can see my videos, even homophobic people who don’t follow me. This social network full of rude and uneducated people, probably 80% of the audience is them. So there’s quite a lot of hate when they see my videos. But many people are homophobic because of their ignorance or a lack of education, so sometimes I answer the hate comments and try to explain to the person what drag is and that you should not kill me just because I use cosmetics and create ‘strange’ looks. And sometimes I manage to provide the right information to a person and the funny thing is that after that he or she becomes a fan of what I’m doing. 

At the same time, do you receive messages from other queer Russian people who want advice or help?
A lot of people ask about drag. Some people are interested and want to try it, but are afraid or don’t know how to start. I try to pay attention to those people. Many people have problems with self-identification. Every time I do drag makeup on someone, after a complete transformation, this person changes completely from the inside out. I think drag is like therapy and everyone should try it at least once in a lifetime.

How do you keep being creative and living as your true self when the country you live in has anti-gay laws and views?
I try not to pay attention to hate, prohibitions and anti-LGBTQ laws. My boyfriend and I live in our own creative bubble. We try to think positively and a positive environment is developing around us. I have my social media where I share my work with the world – it helps me to live my life brightly. There are also positive things that happen. For example, Charli XCX recently came to Russia for a concert and me with other drag queens shared the stage with her. And this is a big deal for homophobic Russia.

Do you have hope that things are getting better for queer people in Russia, then?
Some time ago, it seemed to me that everything was getting better. A couple of years ago we had the first modern online LGBTQ magazine O-zine, which educates people on queer topics and features new names in Russian queer art and music. We are also preparing for printing the first zine about drag, Dragzina, that will tell the public everything about drag from A to Z. The younger generation wants to be open and tolerant, we have a lot of LGBTQ bloggers and activists on social media. If it weren’t for the internet, it would be very difficult for us. There is a big gap and misunderstanding between generations and different groups of society. Periodically, I hear news of harassment and murder of representatives of the LGBTQ community. We even had a YouTube channel where a group of people got acquainted with gays on Grindr and on dating sites, met with them at home and began to mock them, filming this on video and uploading it on YouTube. After that, the idea that soon everything will be better fades away. 

You can follow Lorina Rey on Instagram here.

Photography Anna Archen
Style Alexey Golubev
Words Daniel Megarry