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What does it mean to be “fabulous”? A lot more than you think. Madison Moore – DJ, PhD and the pop-culture academic behind the viral How to be Beyoncé lecture, delivered complete with wind-machine – says that it’s a crucial declaration of personhood.

Pop culture academic Madison Moore.Handout

“When you are brown, queer and marginalized, embracing yourself is a defiant political act because there are multiple structures, laws, systems and people screaming that we shouldn’t exist,” he says.

Moore is a postdoctoral research associate in race, queer and media studies at King’s College, London and author of Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric. The book features timely conversations with trans-feminine multimedia performance artists such as Alok Vaid-Menon and offers a conceptual tweak that updates Thorstein Veblen’s famous Theory of the Leisure Class.

I spoke with Moore about fabulousness as a defiant response, reclaiming it as a means of power and why it’s time to take seriously the vocabulary of self-fashioning and clothing as a language of protest.

You argue that fabulousness is how queer, trans and other marginalized groups use greater visibility to seize space, and that it can’t be bought. It has to be created.

It’s about inhabiting “I am here.” It’s the same thing [drag performer] Victoria Sin says in their interview: “I am my wig, you cannot not see me.” Society doesn’t want us to exist, but we’re here and you can’t not see us, and we’re going to take up space on our terms.

What do you mean when you say that doing the work, or werk, of fabulousness is political and that every fabulous walk is a protest march?

It’s as simple as who can go get a sandwich at lunchtime. There are certain kinds of people or bodies who can leave the office or school and walk down the street to get that sandwich and be totally unbothered and know that they can return. Then other kinds of bodies: marginalized, trans, queer or in other ways not at the centre for whom that same journey is more precarious. They may not make it back safely, or may be on the way there verbally or physically attacked. Those are the stakes. What I’m trying to say and suggest is that people who are marginalized, in some ways, transform that marginalization into aesthetic.

There seems to momentum, between shows such as Pose, My House, the new Antonio Lopez documentary, even the recent New York Times T: Magazine theme issue of 1981-83, of nostalgia for pre-AIDS-crisis queer culture. Has that fabulousness of that time perhaps been overly mythologized?

I just helped Mic Oala at the Berlin Ballroom Community festival and we had icons like Jack Mizrahi telling us all about Ryan Murphy’s new show Pose, that it’s not contemporary and really focused on that 1980s moment. The reality is that we glamourize that time now. People on the margins have always lived in a state of emergency and under duress, so what’s exciting for me is they find other ways to exist even though their livelihoods are in question every day.

At the opposite end, you’ve mentioned normcore and the “dress normal” campaign that Gap did in 2014. How is being boring another oppressor identity?

All these norms are made to have people as conforming subjects, that you have to renounce yourself if you want to exist in society or else suffer the consequences. That’s at the heart of boringness – you suppress yourself to erase and circulate unnoticed. Not everyone has the luxury of circulating unnoticed, even if you’re not dressed in a spectacular way. Boringness is a privilege as well.

Is that the “instability” of identity you mention, that [performers of fabulousness] are invested only in flux?

That’s the creative and the aesthetic piece of it, being able to play. A lot of the people in the book are not invested in keeping gender as a fixed thing, for example, or any fixed identity category. We want to get rid of those things, because they terrorize us. We’re deeply interested in destabilizing identities, in play and not being defined by how you might be presenting, say, on a Wednesday.

How do you think that chameleon-like approach has influenced mainstream culture?

Marginalized bodies – brown, black, queer, trans – have innovated in every field and at all times. Music or fashion styles or foods, it isn’t a surprise that they often have roots in these kinds of spaces. And it teeters on the questions around cultural appropriation.

If fabulousness is the idea of reclaiming flamboyance as a means of power and taking up space, then shouldn’t the people who do it be the ones to profit from it?

I think what you say is precisely what’s at stake. Who is being paid? What about the trans Latinx in the Bronx, where’s her coin? It’s also a gentrification narrative, of presenting black culture to a white art-going audience.

You bring up the “digital zoo,” the idea that fabulousness is a performance that’s often conveniently boxed and separated by onlookers, whether it’s the frame of the stage, Instagram or the TV screen, it’s something that keeps it other. Is it dangerous to commodify and think of “fabulousness” as merely an entertainment?

It’s like what Alok was saying, that trans and queer people can only exist on a stage, as entertainment. But what about the days when we don’t want to be and when we’re not feeling fabulous and when we have been harassed or are depressed? Can you still love us on those days as well?

Regarding the digital zoo, you talk about the queer community’s challenge to translate social-media visibility into real institutional power.

As with everything, all technology can be used for good or evil, and of course the “digital blackface” of that is real. You [also] can’t really hand your phone to your landlord to pay rent if you have a hundred thousand or a million followers. It’s not real currency.

But what I think is most interesting about Instagram and the digital zoo is the other side, where you create a space of community. Maybe it’s my innate optimism. Sometimes someone will start a selfie thread, if they’re feeling low. So everyone then takes a picture of themselves, done up or not, to create the sense that they are not alone, to show that they’re in a space with a lot of other people who are having the same experience as you. I don’t want to valorize social media, but I do think it’s a different moment now, where you can go on YouTube and maybe watch a coming-out video or have a private selfie thread with a thousand other queer people as fortification.

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