Creative Spotlight: Powdered Sugar on performing drag in Cambridge
Self-proclaimed ‘chaotic gender-fluid dumpster fire’
Powdered Sugar (aka Collins Brand Powdered Sugar or Pau D’Açúcar), a drag artist and fourth-year MML student at Trinity Hall, began experimenting with drag in their second year at Cambridge.
Since then, they’ve had their debut with Dragtime Cambridge in October 2020, continued to create incredible new looks and explored both their gender expression and identity as a drag artist.
The Tab Cambridge spoke to Powdered Sugar about their time as a drag artist, the personal impact drag has had on them, and the celebratory joy of drag as an art form.
Starting out: ‘I’d sometimes go to clubs and BOPS in drag and just really let go’
It all began in Powdered Sugar’s second year at Cambridge, when, as the LGBT+ officer on their college’s JCR, they helped to organise a freshers’ BOP based on different decades: “The staircase I was responsible for were doing 50s so I tried to paint my face like a pop art painting. It was a hot mess – no one understood my reference, my face started melting about an hour in, I’m pretty sure I swallowed more Snazaroo face paint than should really be safe – but it was fun, so I decided whenever I got bored of my weekly essay, I’d just paint my face.”
Make-up and drag became a real means of expression and escapism for them: “I’d sometimes go to clubs and BOPs in drag and just really let go – though this was before I’d discovered setting powder so my boyfriend would always have to bring a flannel to wipe all my make-up off when it started melting in my eyes.”
Coming up with their drag name: ‘Pau D’Açúcar (literally Sugar Dick) would be a great name for a drag artist’
Their drag name actually came about after an unexpected incident in a Portuguese class for their course: “We were reading this text and this student read out ‘Pão D’Açúcar’ (the Portuguese name for Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain) as “Pau D’Açúcar”. Our teacher then responds, ‘right. Pão means bread. Pau means dick.’ So lightbulb moment: ‘Pau D’Açúcar’ (literally Sugar Dick) would be a great name for a drag artist.”
From there, they landed on Powdered Sugar as their name, an English equivalent of Pau D’Açúcar. They also explained the third version of their name (impressive), Collins Brand Powdered Sugar: “The ‘Collins Brand’ prefix is because I am the Drag Spawn of Dragtime Cambridge’s ‘permanent skid mark’ Charlene Collins (@queencharlenecollins on Instagram).
“I rarely use that full name because it’s a mouthful and no one needs reminding about Charlene Collins, she just makes her presence known whether you like it or not.”
Creative inspiration: ‘My drag persona is very much a chaotic gender-fluid dumpster fire’
Powdered Sugar considers themselves a Club Kid, and talks about what influences shape their looks: “I’m inspired by what Michael Musto described as a ‘cult of crazy fashion and petulance’ with ‘dubious aesthetic values’, as well as the fluidity of gender and the very DIY nature of its aesthetic. I think that describes my drag to a T.
“Specific artists I adore include Laurel Charleston, Yoska or Elliot Barnicle […] I’m nowhere close to emulating the sheer skill of these artists, but I enjoy the aesthetic I’ve fallen into while trying and failing.”
Their drag persona is “very much a chaotic gender-fluid dumpster fire. I like to emulate different characters in this dumpster fire: a horny leather gay that will get off with anything that moves; a 50s house-spouse waiting for their husband to come home from work and bring them some flowers; the clingy ex-girlfriend who still stalks her ex after 17 years apart; a cult leader who can’t even get a single follower.
“I think my Drag Mum put it best when we were talking about this when I first started out: ‘I know the space I occupy, even if no one else does.’”
Performing with Dragtime Cambridge: ‘It has honestly been one of the most fun experiences I’ve done in my four years at Cambridge’
Powdered Sugar had their debut show with Dragtime Cambridge in October 2020: “I dressed as a leather pup and did a lip sync number to a Lady Gaga song (you know, as you do!). It has honestly been one of the most fun experiences I’ve done in my four years at Cambridge.”
This is definitely one to be talked about at family Christmas dinner: “Of course it’s slightly nerve-wracking to do a quite explicit number knowing your grandparents and your boyfriend’s mum are watching in the audience (especially when your Drag Mum makes a joke about having sex with a Pets At Home employee to buy your costume), but it’s also so liberating to just go wild and chaotic onstage.”
And their friends were there cheering them on too: “The reactions from my friends were very much a mix of ‘I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t this’ but on the whole I think they enjoyed it (though one of my friends is now boycotting Pets At Home over that number).”
Powdered Sugar got some very well-deserved praise for their performance: “It was such a confidence boost mid-way into the run to be given positive shoutouts in both The Tab and TCS’s reviews (write ‘the new talent Powdered Sugar, whose intensity and energy was infectious’ on my gravestone!).”
They loved being able to share the experience with a group of such supportive and talented performers: “The main organisers, Magic Dyke (@kyliegenderdrag on Instagram) and Charlene Collins, are also some of the friendliest people I’ve worked with.
“They gave such great advice during rehearsals, and they really go the extra mile to try to make Dragtime an inclusive space for all types of performers. And of course, it was such a privilege to share the stage with such amazing talent.”
The joy of drag: ‘The freedom to explore my gender expression in a safe environment’
Powdered Sugar explained what they love most about drag: “This is probably a cliché by now, but very much both the freedom to explore gender expression in a safe environment as well as the sense of community that doing drag brings.
“As much as I love shading my Cambridge drag family (and they of course return the favour), I really appreciate the encouragement they’ve given me to share my art and explore what gender means to me.”
They also talk about the “complete and utter chaos” of being a drag artist: “When I was sorting my outfit for the Dragtime show, I needed to get a leash (you know, to give you the leather pup realness!).
“When I was checking out at Pets At Home, the cashier asked me what kind of dog I had. In this moment, I forget the names of every single dog breed, and so my response is just to call over my boyfriend and ask him what kind of dog we had. We were dying of laughter on the walk home.”
Drag as a diverse art form: ‘Ignoring this diversity of drag is to undermine the entire point of drag as an art form’
Powdered Sugar also talks about some of the misconceptions people often have about drag: “I think when most people’s exposure to drag is through reality TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, they learn this narrow view of what it means to be a drag artist, and think it’s only for people who present as ‘men’ dressing as ‘women’.
“Drag is such a diverse art form, and it aims to question our understanding of norms of gender identity and expression: reducing drag to ‘dressed as a girl’ (which is not in any way the etymology of drag like some people erroneously claim) is so limiting.”
Powdered Sugar describes some of the range of performances that come under the umbrella of drag: “There are drag kings, queens, club kids like me. There are artists like Yovska or Dahli, whose drag is just dressing as genderless monsters.
“And all of these expressions are done by performers who, out of drag, identify under the entire spectrum of gender identity. To me, ignoring this diversity of drag is to undermine the entire point of drag as an art form.”
The personal significance of drag: ‘My drag is just an exaggeration of the gender I wished I could present as on a day-to-day basis’
Powdered Sugar explains how drag has given them a supportive space to explore their gender identity, something they spent a lot of time thinking about on their Year Abroad: “I realised I wasn’t cisgender during my Year Abroad – there was something that resonated with me being the only person to present as male in my office and, because Portuguese has grammatical gender, having that constantly highlighted to me.
“It really made me question something that for years I had always just ignored, even though looking back it makes a lot more sense now.”
They talk about the relationship between their gender and their drag performances: “My drag is just an exaggeration of the gender I wished I could present as on a day-to-day basis: namely complete and utter trash, but make it fashion, but without feeling forced to connect myself to binary gender expression.”
Drag has also made them feel more comfortable with their gender identity in everyday life: “It’s also made me a lot more confident in experimenting with gender expression when I’m not in drag – I’ll now often wear some subtle eyeliner in public (read: massive winged eyeliner that can be seen with my awful webcam quality in my online seminars).
“It’s got to the point where the Tit Hall Porters are surprised if I turn up for a parcel and I’m not wearing make-up!”
Reflecting: ‘Just focus on bringing art into the world that you aren’t seeing and you want seen’
Powdered Sugar reflects on their time doing drag so far: “Improving in my craft will always be a journey (one that is nowhere near completed) but I don’t have any regrets in how I’ve taken this journey so far: I’m exploring an aesthetic I find suits me, I in *no way* take myself seriously (cf. me dressing as a leather pup for #squadghouls) and I’m having fun with my art.”
They have some advice for others looking to start drag too: “Do whatever brings you that fun […] just focus on bringing art into the world that you aren’t seeing and you want seen.”
Powdered Sugar talked about what’s next for them in drag performing too: “It’s hard to really plan next steps in a drag career in the middle of a pandemic. Hopefully when this all blows over I’ll put myself out there for more live gigs (book me, I’m not beneath begging!).
“I’m also planning some digital performances that I’ll probably put on my Insta soon, bring you that quarantine content that nobody wanted but you’re getting anyway.”
They’ve recently been finding their inner Great British Sewing Bee too: “I’ve also learnt to sew so I’ve been making some incredibly chaotic outfits: made a button up crop-top for Grant Favours (@grantfavoursdrag on Instagram), a fringe dad shirt for Sir Evervayne (@sirevervayne on Instagram), and a pink-navy fringe shirt.
“They are so poorly constructed I’d be surprised if they survive lockdown, but they’re fun so I’m going with it.”
But for them, it’s mostly about continuing to enjoy themselves through the utterly joyful art form that is drag performance: “I’m just gonna have fun with my art and see where it takes me. Maybe if I get bored of a full-time job after this year, I’ll audition for Dragula and see what torturous extermination challenges they’ll inflict upon me.”
Looking forward to more leather pup, fringe shirt, Snazaroo face paint realness as we swoop through 2021.
If you’re a creative from the University of Cambridge and you would like to be featured in the Creative Spotlight column, please email The Tab Cambridge at [email protected]
Featured image credit: Powdered Sugar