He's a 26-year-old communications officer at an NGO called Solidarity Foundation. His job deals with providing better livelihood opportunities and rehabilitating sex workers and disadvantaged members of the Indian LGBT community.
But Alex Mathews also has a very different side to him. He's a drag queen who goes by the name Mayamma, or Maya The Drag Queen. After giving a talk at a recent Tedx event, Alex aka Mayamma spoke to Catch about sexual fluidity, drag, and his masculinity.
These are the edited excerpts:
Durga M Sengupta (DS): What got you started?
Alex Mathew (AM): By the time I was in 11-12th I felt like I wasn't doing much of cultural activities, like singing, dancing. So this one time there was a fancy dress competition, and I hadn't participated in a single fancy dress from upper kindergarten till then. So this was my first shot and I went in as Nagavalli from Manichitrathazhu (or Manjulika from its Hindi counterpart Bhool Bhulaiyaa), and that was my first drag.
But after that I had to concentrate on my studies, you know how it is. So then I didn't do drag, till [I turned] 25.
Photo: Sumalika VJ
DS: What sort of reaction did you get at your school?
AM: I was really scared. All my school friends were watching me. And all of them said, “Alex, we didn't know it was you! We thought it was some graceful lady walking on stage.”
That actually made me feel good.
Till then people would tease me because I walk “like a lady”. Back then I would come back home crying, now when I look back I think, “Hey! They called me a lady. That's a good thing”. I would like to go back in a time machine and tell my younger self, “Being a lady is not that bad, you know”.
I took that step [dressed up as Nagavalli] and I'm really proud of doing it. Because now that I do drag I know that because I explored [drag] then I was able to take a bold step at 25. Doing drag at 25 actually brought me out of the closet as well. I've come a long way.
DS: And what about your parents, are they supportive?
AM: So, my mother did drag in college, played a king. It was perfectly [acceptable] there. And she enjoys Mrs Doubtfire, Chachi 420, Avvai Shanmughi, any movie that has a famous actor doing drag, she appreciates it.
But the moment somebody who's close to you does drag, it's a big NO. My mother helped [in understanding] my sexuality but was against drag, and my dad was like “Sexuality is a sin” but drag is okay if you get money out of it.
I was like okay, both are confused. But as time passed we realised we were all hurting each other, and that's when my parents moved to Bangalore. Moving to Bangalore healed all of us together.
My mother has reservations, but she helped me pack the suitcase for Tedx. With all the drag makeup, wig and all. That's a huge step.
At Tedx I said that I hope for a future where my parents are sitting in the audience, watching me perform as Mayamma. That's a milestone I want to achieve.
Photo: Rathin GM
DS: Mayamma just happened?
AM: I had this dream of becoming a Broadway performer. I was doing theatre, I was singing at karaoke bars, but I wasn't getting that adrenaline rush that I longed for.
So I shut myself out and started watching movies for inspiration, and I came across this movie – Mrs Doubtfire. When I saw that I thought “Hey, if Robin Williams can do drag, then I can do drag too!” That's how this started.
There was also this [problem directors had] with my huge Malayali accent. Audiences would listen and tell me, “Hmm, you know you have an accent. It won't work.” Now because I'd sing really well they used to put me in choir [instead].
I thought, if people are going to notice my accent as my weakness, I'll turn it into my strength. And that's how I created this Malayali woman, on the lines of Lolakutty. I wanted her to be a village woman who moved to the city for better opportunities and to live with the love of her life. I made that character, and created a really strong background story for her as well.
Since then, I've been fleshing her out. The beauty of drag is that it's actually imagination coming to life on stage. I am actually a walking, talking piece of art. From wearing the wig, to the makeup, to draping a gorgeous sari, to even walking as a woman...
When I initially started I was just concentrating on being a South Indian woman but then I realised I was limiting myself, my future. So I decided to be an Indian drag queen, let her try out the different sari styles in India, different bridal get ups, so that she can show we are diverse, ethnically rich, vibrant.
DS: Do you believe you and Mayamma are the same person?
AM: Yeah, we're the same. Absolutely. The only difference is that when I'm on stage I'm Mayamma, and when I'm off stage I'm Alex. Honestly, I prefer being a guy, out of drag. Because once the performance is over I quickly take off the wig, I feel like I'm sweating inside... Even the makeup and all. I'm pretty sure even women don't like wearing makeup all the time.
And also, even putting on saris... Whenever my girl friends tell me they need time [to get dressed] I'm like yes, please take your own sweet time! I know that I take two hours to get ready [as Mayamma].
For Tedx, they told me to come at 7:30 and I only reached by 8:30, even though I started getting ready by 5:45. Changing out of being a guy and turning into a woman, it's not that easy. My makeup takes a lot of time because I have such a long face. (Laughs) Endless face, yes.
Initially I didn't know how to hide my flaws, like hiding my beard area, masculine features of my face. Now I'm a pro at it, I can hide, I can contour, so I do end up looking very womanly.
My aesthetic is not entirely drag because if you look at western drag it is very loud, and not exactly womanly. It's almost like you're painting on your own face. My inspiration is RuPaul [Andre Charles], she's very womanly. You'll see her and think, “Oh my god, such a gorgeous black woman”. But it's actually a black man.
I want to look like a really gorgeous Indian woman.
Photo: Abhijna RN
DS: You've been called the 'first' Indian drag queen? Is this for real?
AM: No, there are other people. I will never call myself the 'first' Indian drag queen, no. Please don't write that! (laughs)
I have received a lot of flak for it. Yeah, no, I don't like that title. You could call me drag queen from Kerala maybe, sure. Even then I'm not first.
See most journalists these days go for click bait, so 'first' comes from there, so that people see it and quickly click it. They don't understand that it can affect the person and my LGBT community is very sensitive towards this.
Call me a drag queen with substance, I'll be SO happy. (laughs)
DS: Should I say drag queen with a long face?
AM: I don't mind! I'll be happy with a joke. Besides, I keep saying that the moment you can laugh at yourself, it's pure joy.
DS: Is there a larger purpose behind your drag?
AM: My purpose [is] me taking drag as an artform, educating people about it, going to schools and colleges and telling students that it's okay to do drag. You can actually pursue it, it's art.
I am here, as a living example. And that's what I look forward to.
DS: But are you also fighting against the popular politics of our time?
AM: As Mayamma, or Maya The Drag Queen, I don't deal with politics. My agenda is clear, I only do performance, and I'm a performance based activist. The only activism I do is on stage when I go on as a woman, that for me is activism.
My focus is always on gender equality, individualism, and feminism.
DS: Those things are political...
AM: See, it's not that I'm against parades or protests. But showing the visibility of the LGBT community is very less. I intend to show it by doing a talk show called Chaya With Maya.
(Laughs) Yeah, the focus here is on the LGBT community. My purpose of the this show is not some legacy conversation, it will be short. About 3-4 minutes, and that's about it.
So if we're talking about me being political, I think Chaya With Maya will be where I'll be political. I'm hoping, fingers crossed, that I'll start by next month!
Season 1 should be 10 episodes. It'll be a YouTube thing, mostly because I don't have a channel waiting at my doorstep. At least I'll start with YouTube, maybe some channel will approach me, let's see!
DS: Drag is tricky in India. Is Mayamma confused with a transgender?
AM: See I serve an illusion, the illusion of a woman. But people think I've gone through a surgery. There are times when people look at me and ask me:
“When are you planning to do sex reassignment surgery?”
“But you do feel like a woman inside?”
You ask me such a question today and I'll tell you, “No, I love being a guy. I love myself, truly and I love what god has gifted me. There are people out there who feel they're in the wrong body, and it's their journey, you should respect them for that.”
When I'm not doing drag, I like to grow out my beard. Usually I shave my whole body for drag, and I like to grow all of that.
People spread this notion, that if you're a drag queen, in the process you become a transgender. Which is wrong.
DS: So there's some drag on TV with Gaurav Gera and all. But is that more of caricaturing?
AM: All these “ladies” on comedy shows, like on Kapil Sharma's, are all caricatures of women. Show me one drag queen in TV or in movies [in India] that is not a caricature.
Coming on stage, serving an illusion is drag. Caricaturing is not. I know people who did drag of Radhe Ma, she was just a passing phase. Drag is making a woman/man of substance, and that's something which is not there.
Photo: Sameer Raichur
DS: And your woman of substance, Mayamma. Where does she get her name?
AM: So there was this movie in Malayalam, Mayamohini. Dileep played drag in that. So when I was trying to figure out a name that was Indian, and after seeing this movie I thought, why can't I call her Mayamma? Because the literal translation for that becomes 'Mother of Illusion' or 'Mother of Magic'.
So that just stuck. Now, because I'm a glamourous woman I call myself Maya The Drag Queen. Plus, people think I'm a transgender or crossdresser, so I stick to 'The Drag Queen' so that people can Google 'Drag Queen'.
See, crossdressing is very sexualised in Indian society. They will not question themselves about their sexuality [when sleeping with a crossdresser]. Who's coming in bed? A woman. A man dressed as a woman, but [for appearance's sake] a woman.
The moment you say [you slept with a man] your sexuality is questioned.
See female sexuality is fluid, but Indian men are not ready to accept that sexuality is fluid. They think they kiss a guy and turn gay.
DS: You've observed Indian society both as a man and a woman. Have you experienced something differently?
AM: You know the moment I get into drag, I see people. It's like a purdah is removed. I can see who is comfortable, who is uncomfortable. Somebody who is comfortable with their sexuality will approach me and be okay with me, but somebody who isn't will either not want to interact with me or not hold eye contact.
For me it's a fun thing to do. I look into the eyes of people who are uncomfortable. Peer into their souls. (Laughs)
As a woman, I like to shake up people's sexuality, show them I'm here. The thrill that I get out of testing them, it's out of this world.
There are times when I've faced homophobia/transphobia [while in drag]. I had to perform somewhere where there was no green room, so I went and sat in a coffee shop called Cuppas. I was waiting for a friend who was putting on makeup. Surprisingly, the waiter said the table was reserved. Who reserves a table in a coffee shop?
Then we shifted to another table and they were showing this sort of uneasiness. I got really pissed off and walked out. I thought “This place will never flourish with this sort of mentality”.
Photo: Sumalika VJ
DS: Would you say you're religious? Is there a conflict?
AM: (Nervous laugh) Conflict, um. I would say I don't go literally with the book. The Bible. I only believe what Jesus Christ preached.
I would call myself a true Christian, because Jesus Christ said, 'Love yourself, love one another, love your neighbour as yourself'. I believe in only that.