The day after he won the first drag competition at the Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival three months ago, it was impossible to get hold of Aviv Shalem. His energetic, satiric rendition of the song “Call Me Maybe,” by Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen, lit up the audience and got a standing ovation.
Yet unlike the obsessive, neurotic woman he portrayed in the contest, who pulled hundreds of slips with her telephone number out of her bra and threw them up in the air in a desperate effort to get a date, Shalem decided to take a break from his cell phone. And when he did finally answer, he said, “I don’t currently have Facebook, or Instagram either.”
But two weeks later, everything had changed. Not only did Shalem open an Instagram account, he also turned into an exhibitionist denizen of the web. One day, he hung completely naked from a tree in Nahal Shikma with the caption, “Climb a tree. Get a new perspective.” The next day he wandered naked along the Jordan River with half a watermelon in his hand. Here he is in a pink one-piece bathing suit at the beach, and a moment later he’s sheltering under a parasol in nothing but a turban and Speedo swim trunks.
“The body is wonderful, and it’s great to be proud of it,” he said of his pictures. “It doesn’t matter how it looks. I happen to have been born short and dark.”
Asis D’Orange, Shalem’s stage name and the alter ego he created for himself, admittedly isn’t yet fully finished. But she’s taking over a large chunk of his personal and professional life. Even in his daily life, Shalem presents himself mainly as Asis. When we arranged to meet for an interview, he told me, “I live near the Cinematheque.” Asked whether I should address him using the masculine or feminine form of Hebrew words, he replied, “Mixed. Thanks (:”
Over the past few years, Asis has managed to become a household name among the young, underground drag community. Unlike the drag queens who have been well-known in Israel since the 1990s, the current generation is more political, more anarchist and more queer.
Asis was born among the Israeli avant-garde genderqueer artists with fluid or multiple gender identities, who engage in exploring and smashing the axioms of “male” or “female” behavior. Prominent members of this community include Shoshana BenHachochim (Uri Karin), Michael Angelo (Shirley Charlie Kleinman), AnA TachmeT, (Moran Rozenthal), and a wonderful drag king called “the artist formerly known as Anton” (Zoya Bronshteyn). Two other interesting artists, who represent the presence of new genders in the movement, are the transgender drag queens Miss Plastico (Vanessa Sandiuk) and Ella Stardust (Ella Markovsky).
The rise of this new generation is clearly connected to the global popularity of the reality television show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which featured a variety of daring and creative drag queens.
“This is a generation that grew up on new cultural heroes, gender-blenders who can perform with a beard and choose an aesthetic that contradicts what we call pretty or attractive,” Shalem said. “Sometimes people actually turn themselves into creatures, with completely black pupils, smeared, flawed lipstick, or a nose that looks as if it’s broken or bleeding.”
In contrast to the comparatively conservative drag show with which she won the festival competition, which featured a clearly feminine appearance and a well-known pop song, most of Asis’ drag performances are fundamentally avant-garde and experimental. She does use the basic elements of drag – lip-synch, gender games, original and theatrical clothing – but she mixes them up to create a new order, as far as possible from classical drag, usually without wearing wigs and without shaving.
“Most of my performances aren’t the drag in which a man imitates a woman, which ridicules stereotypes laden with misogyny and chauvinism,” Asis said. “You can also do drag if you’re a man in the persona of a man, or a woman in the persona of a woman. Gender is fluid in any case.”
Radical Faeries and Soviet-Arabic drag
Even though her performances seek to get away from classical drag, Asis doesn’t completely leave the comfort zone that’s at the basis of drag – repetition, imitation and use of material created in the past. She also makes frequent use of shock effect.
She regularly appears at prominent queer events and parties, like the POP It line of parties. (“This is Soviet-Mizrahi drag, very political,” she said.)
She does voguing at events like Butch Queen at the Joz ve Loz restaurant in Tel Aviv (“a complete culture that takes the queer, the spurned, and produces a ball for him at which he can put himself on display, usually in poses taken from fashion magazines”). She participates in Drag Up Your Ass events, where she appears alongside other young, experimental artists (“We did Riki Gal and Si Himan with a lesbian twist to the tune of ‘With No Great Sorrow’”).
Shalem has put on shows where he lip-synched to the recorded voice of poetess Yona Wallach, who talks about gender, or to a speech by Madonna while dressed as Catwoman. In another show, he sings an electronic rock version of “Tainted Love” while stripping off an Israeli army uniform against the background of an Israeli flag. In the latter, he is eventually helped to wipe off the pink paint that people from the audience sprayed him with.
When we met face to face, Shalem turned out to be surprisingly different from either his stage or social media persona. Granted, he came to the interview wearing a mesh shirt, shorts and yellow sneakers, but his behavior was very relaxed and his voice quiet and calm.
Asis was born three years ago, when Shalem, 28, was a member of Israel’s Radical Faeries community – a branch of the worldwide community that was born in the U.S. in the 1970s as an alternative queer movement. Members of the community give their alter ego a “fairy name,” and Shalem decided on one linked to creativity and sexuality. In the Radical Faeries community, he discovered a whole different universe from the one in which he grew up.
Anastasia, Tel Aviv
“I studied in the religious school system, with a yarmulke and ritual fringes, in Rishon Letzion’s Hamizrach neighborhood, where Zohar Argov grew up,” he explained, referring to the late, original king of Mizrahi music. “King Zohar, Queen Asis,” he added with a laugh.
His background also helps explain why he came out of the closet as bisexual only at age 21. “If I were gay, I wouldn’t have been able to flee from it,” he said. “But because I’m bisexual – I like men, women and also transgender people – my acception of my sexuality was more complicated. Gender isn’t a factor in the question of whether I’m attracted to someone and want to get closer to him.”
The Radical Faeries weren’t the only community of which Asis was a member; in fact, he seems to be an obsessive community-joiner. He was part of the Wander Gatherers community, and afterward joined the Peace Research Village, a subsidiary of the international Tamera community; he also lived for a time with the parent community in southern Portugal. Later, he moved to a commune belonging to the CityTree community in Tel Aviv and, in between performance workshops on Dor Beach, he also completed an ecology course focused on sustainable agriculture.
In addition to all these other venues, one of Asis D’Orange’s main stages was and remains Anastasia, a vegan coffeehouse in central Tel Aviv, where he still works full-time as a waiter. He makes use of its regular crowd of bourgeois patrons to appear every day in a different unusual costume. Its queer staff is one of Anastasia’s hallmarks, and Asis claims to be the one who introduced the workers’ avant-garde, unapologetic tone.
“At first, there were only waitresses there,” he said. “When I was hired, I told my boss that sometimes I’d come in a skirt and that I wanted to be addressed in mixed [both masculine and feminine] form. Slowly, a queerer staff arrived.”
Of the unusual costumes in which he serves his customers banana-saffron shakes or sprouted lentil salad, he said, “Sometimes I come in shorts and a cap on backwards, and the next day in a floor-length dress and jewelry. I like the fact that I’ve become part of the human landscape, one more thing that people see, and that I give them inspiration and even courage.”
He said that variety like the kind he engages in at Anastasia gives him a sense of security. “People always want peace and security through homogeneity, but variety is actually what produces my sense of security. I don’t look for comfort at all. Orgasm, for instance, isn’t comfortable, but it’s anchoring. Discomfort isn’t something I’m afraid of; comfort isn’t a value.”
Your personas are clearly very diverse and constantly changing. You aren’t yet considering a specific direction for your performances?
“I try to be in dialogue with my inner voices all the time. I have both a man and a woman inside me, both a religious person who eats kosher and a gay man who dances in tight clothes on a truck, both a Jew and a Nazi. I try to examine my feelings, my rages, my jealousy. It’s controlled schizophrenia.”
Miss Congeniality or Fan Favorite?
His many collaborations stem from his view that he isn’t exceptional. “I don’t think I’m so different,” he said. “I also don’t feel any need to prove I am. I don’t see differences as a value or a merit. There are millions of others like me, but I feel secure in what I am – I learn and change all the time. I like to do art with other people, and I’ll continue doing so.”
Nevertheless, he admitted, the drag competition at the LGBT Film Festival against those who are generally considered his closest colleagues and friends managed to unearth an ambitious side to him. “Suddenly, the minute before I went on stage, I told myself I have to win.”
What’s the next step in his career? “There’s a developing new drag evening named ‘Strange Fruit,’ in cooperation with the Clipa Theater. It will be a bizarre drag evening, a kind of visual theater with hallmarks of drag. It definitely won’t be something just for theater lovers or drag lovers, and I hope it will speak to a larger audience that simply knows how to enjoy a good show.”