Cheap outfits, big wonky teeth but intellectually thorough: it’s everything queer culture should embody.
In the middle of lockdown in 2020, a then largely obscure Bailey J Mills took to Instagram to post a video of herself in a Velma Dinkley costume, shaking their fundament furiously and raunchily, and slut dropping in a way that has given more life to the character than any recent films made about her. Following this humble bum waving foray is a litany of absurd characters and sketches online that have brought prodigious entertainment in lockdown and beyond. As contact has resumed, Mills has done countless drag shows, and situates herself well in the often-tempestuous community. I interviewed Mills the other day, whose self-satirising, shameless and uproariously funny demeanour constitutes a transgression within what some would consider an already transgressive cultural output.
There is a sense in which the mould of modern drag is monochromatic; Mills obviously and self consciously dissents from this. Terrifically large latex tatas, and terrible fake teeth that invoke co-op reduced Halloween section fangs, are hallmarks of what many consider a truly distinct performative style within what is supposed to be a loud and proud scene. In many of her performances, which have traversed much of Britain, Mills’ massive latex tatas, whose price we cannot disclose, bounce to attention and enrapture audiences. Seeming at first mindless, Mills obviously has an intellectual drive behind what she offers. She invokes Shakespeare’s penchant for a reversal of roles and sexes, though it is obvious that Mills straddles lines beyond that which gender theorists have considered. On a budget of sixty pence and a packet of crisps, Mills, considered by some an upstart in the community, gives them a run for their money. Her audiovisual mindfuck has no doubt made it several times into Westminster Whatsapp groups.
What is so striking about Mills is her militancy, this self-satirising nature that invites and endears fans towards her. A cursory glance at Ru Paul’s Drag Race, with which I am limitedly au fait, reveals psychodrama and peculiar ego driven feuds between often bawdy, corpulent and culturally impotent prima donnas. Drag is often suffused with latent tawdry bitchfest that sits underneath the veneer of the fabulous. Yet, Mills’ nature is gentler; her modus operandi is to generate entertainment, bring joy and characterise lovingly. She confides that many on the scene have responded negatively to her relatively quick ascension. There is a beauty in circumventing whatever the proper ladder is for drag. Acrimony towards Mills, whose position is entirely unique within the world of drag, can only be read, to me, as jealousy.
Her immediate dissent is the sacrifice of taxing, demanding beauty standards in the industry. This should invite praise. There is something transcendently fabulous about a cheap outfit and big wonky teeth (which they tell me may have to be curtailed for future performances), that doesn’t need to ask its Mum and Dad for an allowance to assemble. Exercising fiscal prudence, she is conceptually and performatively richer than the big shite pick and mix of drag acts in the scope of most people’s cultural awareness.
Whilst she admits she is not inspired by Divine, she recalls their militant queerness, and the effect she generates is similar. She is a transgressor in gender terms, but in a field that no longer feels transgressive. She has the ability to generate a conversation and stir in a way that most reproducible and unremarkable drag acts cannot. Divine blended superbly both revulsion and beauty; a juxtaposition which I consider to be the most sublime expression of queerness and of queer people. Mills is simultaneously trashy, kitsch and low budget, yet beautiful, strident and intellectually thorough. To blend both and to embody them is queer to the nth degree.
When we look at the paradigmatic shift in social attitudes, and the relative normalisation of queer culture, there is rightly a concern. This concern, however, does not apply to Mills, who continues to innovate with her sundry characters and extraordinary creativity that elides the boundaries of Ru Paul. Whilst not citing a particular idol, Mills is indebted to a queer lineage of icons, but clearly stands as something in a league of her own (in gushing about the potential of Mills, I have had to take my packet of crisps up to bed). She is on the cutting edge of queer culture in a way that is genuinely pioneering.
As overcompensation for years of oppression and repression, the world is now somewhat saturated with queer art output. The notion, however, that all of it should be lauded ad infinitum, or without it standing up to critical attention, is problematic. There are an array of icons to whom, wittingly or otherwise, many queer artists are indebted. Many of these artists, such as Divine, only received the credit of a suffusion of ofcom complaints and widespread censure from staunch religious groups. Infinitely more bracing are the contributions they offered in a fight for a shift in social attitudes. It seems Mills, who doesn’t deny this, is still part of this fight. She is a non-conformist within a group of supposedly non-conformists.
Mills, who confirms she’s having a baby, is, to me and many others, the inheritor of that bracing queer militance that advanced narratives and conversations across the country and indeed the world. Her peculiarly British antics and humour have even percolated into Poland and other regions where that fight for rights of the people most stigmatised in society continues.