With high heels and a swing of the hips, Brazilian-born drag queen Catherrine Leclery easily wows her audiences. She spoke to DW about the art of drag, love and carnival festivities in Cologne and Rio.
Lipstick, mascara, powder — Andre's compact beauty case holds about 100 accessories. He unpacks each one and put it on the dressing table, neatly, accurately: everything has its place. Less than an hour later, Andre has become Catherrine, as on most days. He has every move down to a tee: wig, high heels, elegant costume. "It's show time baby," Catherrine Leclery says. She's ready to go.
"We all came into this world naked. The rest is all drag," RuPaul, a famous American presenter and trendsetter on the drag queen scene, once said. "We are all drags," argues Catherrine Leclery. "Women put on make-up on when they go out, they wear high heels, do their hair, put on jewelry." Men groom their beards and dress up, too, she says. "It's all really a kind of drag," says Leclery, who sees herself as an artist. "I love to transform myself and, in a positive way, to shock people."
Catherrine Leclery was born as Andre in southern Brazil. In 1995, he and his mother visited a friend in Düsseldorf, Germany. They had return tickets in their pocket and a wig in their suitcase. Things didn't turn out as planned, however. A few days after visiting a Brazilian bar in the western German city, Andre was offered a contract. When he saw the fee he was to receive, he remembers thinking it was very generous and asking, "Is that a monthly fee?" It turned out to be his daily allowance.
"I turned round, gave my mother a kiss and said, 'I'm staying here,'" Andre says.
Ever since, Catherrine Leclery has been touring the world, show after show: shrill, loud and entertaining. 2019 was very special: She was the first drag queen ever allowed to dance in the first float at the carnival in Rio. That was a great honor and a big step towards acceptance and tolerance, she says.
Carnival in Rio vs. Cologne
"Mangueira is one of the best and most traditional samba schools in Brazil," Leclery told DW. "It has been around for 90 years, and I was allowed to be a part of it. It was fantastic. I was all over TV, and reactions were positive throughout."
Leclery planned to head back to Brazil again this year for Carnival, not just because the weather in Rio is much warmer and sunnier than in the Rhineland. "Cologne is my home, I live here and feel mega comfortable, but for carnival, I'm flying to Brazil," smiles Leclery. "The Brazilian carnival is a big spectacle, no doubt about it."
"Dancing and the samba rhythm are in our blood," she adds. "In Germany people need a lot of beer to loosen up. I'm very surprised when they're drunk on the floor at noon. I always think, 'Guys, it's only just beginning!' What a pity."
Appreciation of her native Brazil wasn't a given, however, particularly during childhood.
Love and respect, please
"I was black, poor and gay," Catherrine recalls growing up in Brazil as Andre. "You have to be very strong and have balls. You have to fight and carry on and tell yourself again and again that you don't care what other people say and think."
Andre's father left the family when he was just ten years old. It took his mother a long time to come to terms with her son's homosexuality. She even tried to get him to see a psychiatrist. For the most part he was raised by his grandmother, who supported and accepted him. Early on, the boy learned to cope with homophobic reactions. "I get homophobic remarks in Brazil, and I get them in Germany, even in Cologne, a city people think is liberal," says Leclery. "People today are very aggressive. I think people need a little more love."
It's easier for drag queens than for transsexuals, she adds. Whereas drag queens take on a persona, are admired, put on a show and present themselves as artists, transsexuals "are not liked, neither on the street nor at work. They're not accepted, they're misunderstood — unlike a drag queen, a fictional character that ceases to exist after the show."
'Mama, is that a man or a woman?'
Catherrine Leclery wants to educate people, to talk to them — an opportunity she has almost every day at the Oscar Restaurant in Cologne where she works as a hostess, assigning tables and taking reservations. People like taking photos with her, she says. "Some are prim, but when they see others hug and kiss me, they want a kiss, too," she smiles. Some people are arrogant and rude, Leclery says, adding that she just stays polite but firm. All she wants is respect.
Parents tend to be embarrassed when children ask, 'Mom, what's that, a man or a woman?'" she says, so she tries to help out. "I say: 'Have you ever been to the circus and seen a clown? He was wearing make-up and had a red nose? He is an artist. I am the same, only without a red nose, but with hair." The moms and dads thank her, she says. "Children will only grow up to be more open, without prejudice, if we explain things to them."
We are all drags after all — in one way or another, she adds.