Swathed in a diaphanous white gown of his own design, decorated all over with a pattern of childishly drawn penises in black paint, Fábio M Silva, a.k.a. Collapsella, laughs as he describes the crowd’s reaction to the Real Housewives of Neukolln’s debut performance. “No one knew what was happening, including us, so the reaction was pretty much, ‘What the fuck is going on?” He smiles, “but everyone loved it because it was just so easy and weird.” From that moment on, the Housewives’ regular slot at The Club bar in Berlin on Friday nights became a packed out event, beloved by stalwarts of the queer party scene and newcomers alike.
The group’s genesis came about in response to an ultimatum from Fábio and James’ boss, the owner of The Club, whose previous Friday night star, Olympia Bukkakis, was moving her show to a larger venue. They were given a week to pull something together for the slot the following Friday night, so they enlisted the help of friends Henry Boles and Jake Indiana. the group brainstormed and came up with a few musical numbers they could perform live, as well as games and crowd exercises that might work to energise the potentially bemused audience if things went awry.
Fábio had previously used #realhousewivesofneukölln as a hashtag on Instagram: an homage to the trashy-chic, historically Turkish neighbourhood of Neukölln in south central Berlin, populated by artists seeking the (relatively) low rents of mid-gentrification as opposed to the soaring prices of neighbouring Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. The group adopted the hashtag as their name and the Housewives were born: Collapsella, Ash Traylia, Fanny Crackwhore, Cheryl Nobyl and later, Ida Entity.
Despite a lack of any real concept or theme, the wild energy and emotional honesty of that first show struck a chord with the crowd and kept them coming back week after week, watching the Housewives’ repertoires grow and develop in real time. Gradually they became more confident and the characters, their alter-egos, became more defined. A couple of weeks in, a serendipitous meeting in the bathroom of Schwuz, a queer club in Berlin, put Fábio on the radar of Réda Ait, a young documentary filmmaker from Paris, newly arrived in Berlin. Réda, an enthusiastic fan of drag, had already made a couple of short documentaries about drag artists in Paris, and was thrilled by Fábio’s invitation to come and see the show. Exhilarated by the rawness of the Housewives’ performances and their defiantly anti-perfect aesthetic, Réda rushed to tell his friend and fellow filmmaker, Joséphine Page about the show, and soon after the pair began work on a documentary project about the group.
The result is a brilliant mid-length feature documentary, composed of one-on-one interviews with each of the performers, footage from various shows, video clips and a dreamlike sequence in which the cast lie in each others’ arms, posed as a tableau vivant, illuminated by the eerie glow of fairy lights.
“At the beginning it was difficult,” recalls Réda. “I felt that they were uncomfortable with me and I only knew Fábio. But the deeper we got into the filming process, the more Joséphine and I became invisible. We were always there. When I couldn’t go, she would be there and vice versa.”
Joséphine nods in agreement: “I remember the first time we went backstage and I still didn’t know them at all, so filming them getting dressed and putting their makeup on was like my introduction. Réda I had met through friend in common and he told me about this show but it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.”
What was she expecting?
“Well, he told me ‘drag show in a bar’, so I thought it would be a normal show. But when I saw the first one, I laughed so much. It’s more like theatre or live comedy than typical drag.”
At this, Fábio murmurs assent. “We have incorporated lots of theatrical influences, so it’s like cabaret. We’ve been compared to cabaret performers of the Weimar era, which hadn’t occurred to me before someone said it but I think it’s accurate.”
“Each of them have their own specificity,” Joséphine adds. “James [Fanny Crackwhore] is really good at interacting with the audience and Fábio [Collapsella] is more experimental, angry and often political.”
Réda laughs: “She always looks like she’s been placed onstage without any warning and thinks ‘Ooh, what shall I do?’ And then something brilliant and totally unexpected comes out. Then Jana [Ida Entity] is an amazing singer and Jake [Cheryl Nobyl] is like a real Broadway actor and singer.”
“Jake actually studied theatre,” Fábio points out. “Plus he’s American, which automatically makes him seem more polished.”
“Henry’s the spiritual one,” Joséphine says, after consideration, “the poet”.
“Oh, yes, he’s the Oscar Wilde of the group,” Réda agrees.
Boles is indeed a prolific writer, actor and director outside of his work with the Housewives, producing plays and short films that toggle tonally between acerbic social satire and darker, more existential fare, with the same deftness as his performances with the Housewives. In the film, Boles describes her as, “spiritual,” in implicit inverted commas, “from a very privileged background. Infectiously bubbly and a bit of a bitch but she has a good heart, I think.” Thanks to Boles’ cherubic face and skill with a makeup brush, Ash Traylia is the most traditionally ‘feminine’ of the Housewives, with neat platinum (synthetic) locks, peachy lips and a wardrobe that strikes somewhere between Coachella and Bree from Desperate Housewives. “God, it’s so much fun to be feminine,” Boles exclaims. “And to watch people, discovering this for the first time.”
But the character of Ash Traylia contains multitudes. In one incarnation, Boles appears on a dark stage, illuminated by a speckled spotlight—a projected image of the moon from space. Wearing a bulky white blindfold across ‘her’ eyes, bedraggled strands of wet black (real) hair snaking over the top of it, offset by matching red lipstick and nail polish—a semi-comical nod to such outmoded feminine tropes—’she’ looks blindly into the beam of the projector and asks: “What is freedom? With the regrets of our ancestors hanging over us, like an endless grey horizon, my life is not an adventure…” Of these largely improvised pieces, Boles explains, “You can’t help it, something new comes out. You accept that this person’s living inside you and wait, to see what they’re going to say.”
Réda and Joséphine did not set out with a clear idea of the shape they wanted the film to take. “We were just gathering footage, filming everything. It was really in the editing that the structure emerged,” Joséphine says. Réda nods, “You have an idea of, say, a leitmotif that might apply, but you’re always surprised by what you find. Each character, the more you get to know them, the more you think you know what to expect, but then they do something completely different. That’s the great thing about documentary—you don’t know where you’re going.”
Réda was introduced to drag two years ago, by a friend who asked him to accompany him to Dragathon, an event in Paris. Backstage, Réda helped him with makeup and hair, trying to boost his confidence and soothe his rattled nerves before he took the stage. As soon as the show started, it was love at first sight. “I was like, ‘Oh my god! What is this energy?’” he recalls. “Suddenly I understood why people were fighting to be in this House.” He was studying at film school at this time, and began to make short documentaries about characters from the drag scene in Paris, although when he came to Berlin and saw the Housewives, “what I saw then was completely different.”
Coming from the Parisian scene, which has a tendency towards insularity and elitism, the pair found the Housewives’ trashy, riotous energy incredibly liberating. “From what I saw in Paris,” Réda says almost conspiratorially, “it’s a very closed community. All the parties they throw—if you don’t know them, they won’t talk to you. They judge you for your skills but they also judge each other so much. Shade! They think they’re in a TV show and are motivated more by fame than by passion. You can feel that they don’t need you.” Whereas with the Housewives, Joséphine says with a smile,
“For the first time I saw that it could be something easygoing and entertaining, where everyone could have fun. That they could keep their moustaches if they wanted to.”
At this, Fábio interjects, “I think it has always been like that. It’s just since Rupaul’s Drag Race, which has great value for queer culture but perpetuates an image of the Drag Queen as this impossible being, who wants to look more female than even natural born females. So it’s unachievable for most people and sets a standard for drag beauty which is just unrealistic. But there have always been bearded drag queens, there just hasn’t been as much exposure of that side of drag. We [the Housewives] appeared in Berlin at a moment when we could fill that gap.”
“And it’s wonderful for Jana, a girl, to be part of the team,” adds Joséphine. “In Berlin, everyone comes from everywhere, so it’s impossible to create a closed group. I don’t know if a show like this could work in Paris, yet…”
One of the most famous depictions of a city’s drag scene, Jenny Livingstone’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, introduced many people to the form for the first time. The film highlighted the often fine line between the luxury and entitlement performed onstage and the desperate poverty and vulnerability of the performers in their offstage lives. Even in RuPaul’s Drag Race, the contestants almost invariably have tragic tales to tell, belying the insouciant cockiness they present onstage. “Oh I’ve cried watching it so many times!” exclaims Réda. Fábio rolls his eyes: “But it’s always in such an American way, it’s so annoying. When the piano starts…you think, Oh not again. The poor gay kid, yes—we’ve all been there.”
The Housewives do deal in dark themes, but always inflected with some element of humour, however black. The tale of a girl, high as a kite and lost in the entrails of Berghain, is set to the tune of Adele’s ‘Hello’, the lyrics embellished with references to GHB and syringes. It’s met with roars of hysterical laughter and recognition from the audience. “We all come from completely different backgrounds,” explains Fábio, “but somehow we all found that this platform could be a cathartic way of saying what we have to say, without making it too serious for other people, or ourselves. You laugh about your problems.”
How does he feel at the end of a show? “I always feel different,” he says. “There have been nights that I’ve cried for hours afterwards and other times that I’ve felt super happy.”
And how much do the shows vary in energy and tone?
“It can swing from one end of the scale to the opposite side, even within the space of one show.”
“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” laughs Réda.
An emotional rollercoaster. “A drag rollercoaster,” corrects Fábio, with a sweep of his hand.
“You can feel that they’ve gained confidence,” Réda continues, “and in terms of emotional range. I remember one show where Henry was doing something really deep and dark, kind of funereal, and then the next bit was a song about a shopping channel. Those are the moments that make me feel, “Oh, I’m in the right place.’”
“It’s definitely become a lot more structured since the beginning,” Fábio nods. “Back then we didn’t have a theme, so we would each prepare one song and then stick them all together, so it didn’t make any sense. But now we find a way to pull it all together.”
Do they rehearse?
“Not a lot, but a bit. If we have a big show, like Yo Sissy! [a queer festival that ran in Berlin from 2015 until this year] we rehearse properly.”
“This is why it was interesting for us to make the film,” muses Joséphine. “Because we wanted to capture the fact that they are trying, they are exploring…”
“You caught it right at the beginning,” says Fábio.
“It’s been great to see the progression,” Joséphine continues. ‘At their last show there were so many people, there weren’t enough seats. We had to squeeze in at the side.”
“A complete fire hazard,” Fábio quips, deadpan.
Réda sighs, “The one I really remember is Neukölln fashion Week. You had all the Housewives dressed in your designs!”
“Collapsella Couture,” Fábio provides drily. “At first I wanted to keep my Fábio M Silva designs separate from Collapsella’s looks but now I’m more comfortable mixing them up without being afraid of damaging either of their identity’s. Like when I styled the Housewives for this shoot, I felt like I could style each one of them in a way that reflected their character while also representing my clothes.”
“You know, Fábio told me he was a designer when we first met,” Réda says, “but it wasn’t until I went to his flat that I realised, ‘Oh he’s a real designer! His work is everywhere, it’s like an atelier. And he wears his own designs all the time.”
Would the Housewives ever accept a new member?
“It’s actually something that we’ve been discussing lately,” Fábio nods, thoughtfully, as Réda lets out a faint gasp of astonishment. “We never wanted to be a closed group,” Fábio continues, “it was just that we have a good dynamic together, but it’s still in our plan to invite people up to join us on stage. If the dynamic worked out and it seemed to be going in the right direction, I don’t think we would say no to another Housewife.”
What would they like the film to do, if anything?
“Money. Lots of money,” intones Fábio.
Réda and Josephine ponder this. “I think we want to encourage more people to try drag,” says Réda, “and then call me, so I can film them. People think that when you do drag, it’s because you have sexual problems or you’re depressed, but it’s not true! They have problems like anyone else but it’s all about joy and self-expression. I hope what this documentary will make people understand is just to be yourself and fuck it.”
People in Berlin often talk about the world outside as ‘the real world’, as if the city represents a different dimension, divorced from the laws and conventions of the rest of society; a kind of land of the Lotus-Eaters where hedonism has replaced logic. In this surreal, childlike state, concepts such as a ’career path’ or ‘five-year plan’ seem faintly absurd. And yet, the success of the Housewives and their forthcoming plans to host shows in New York, London and Stockholm, do suggest something close to a strategy.
“This is definitely part of my career,” assents Fábio, “but I also perform as Fábio, which is much darker and more autobiographical than Collapsella, and make music and design clothes, so it’s just one aspect. I can’t imagine being just Collapsella.”
Réda snorts, “You’d go crazy.”
“I would commit suicide after a month,” Fábio nods, with mock solemnity.
“That’s sexy though,” reasons Réda.
“But if I’m dead, what’s the point? Perhaps sexy and dead is the new thing?” Fábio suggests.
“Yes,” Réda cackles, “after ‘Poor but sexy’, the new trend is ‘Dead and sexy’.”
“It’s very low maintenance,” Fábio nods approvingly, “and everyone can afford it.”
A Swedish artist who’s been working with the group recently described them as, “the chorus from a Greek tragedy”. Fábio looks genuinely pleased by this comparison, “I think it’s the best description of us so far, and of drag queens in general. We’re not ‘real’, we’re just there, commenting on what is happening and then disappearing again a moment later.” Appropriately, of course, most of the drama in Greek tragedies occurs offstage, leaving the chorus to relay it to the audience after the fact. “And our dramas also happen offstage. Even when we’re singing a Katy Perry song, we’re doing it because somehow it relates to something that’s going on in our lives and our real experiences. That’s ultimately why people connect to what we’re doing.”