The Drag Queen of Geekdom Embraces the Fifth Element
Phi Phi O'Hara has brought her cosplay looks to both the stage and the 'RuPaul's Drag Race' runway.
Since appearing on Season 4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Phi Phi O’Hara has been one of the busiest people in drag. Between all the bar appearances and club performances, she still has 365 Days of Drag, a project that has the cosplaying drag queen dressing up as Pokémon trainer beauties, Suicide Squad villains, classic cartoons, and pretty much every other geek icon. Oh, and she’s still putting out music as Jaremi Carey, her real name.
When Phi Phi returned to RuPaul for this past season of Drag Race All Stars 2, she served up looks that made comic book fans do double takes, stunning as the Riddler, and standing out with a “Future of Drag” ensemble that basically transformed her into a blue alien goddess with the ultimate accessory: a huge ray gun. In doing so, she accepted a sort of mantle. O’Hara is the queen of geeky drag. And she has an ever-increasing number of subjects.
Inverse chatted with Phi Phi about the inspiration behind her cosplay couture, fellow queens mixing sci-fi into their aesthetics, and more.
What were some of your favorite video games and cartoons growing up?
Oh man. I mean as a kid, I grew up first with Atari, if that shows how old I am. Then you know, the Nintendo and Sega and stuff. My sister and I would always compete and play fighting games. I would always play Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. I would always pick the girls so I don’t know how my family didn’t know I was gay.
When did you start incorporating some of these interest into your looks?
I used to do a lot of cosplay growing up in Texas. I would only do it for Halloween because it was an excuse to do it. Comic Cons and stuff like that weren’t super huge way back then. They grow bigger every year. For me, especially because I grew up watching the ‘90s X-Men, I used to watch those shows to get lost in the characters because being a gay kid growing up in Texas, you’re constantly picked on. I kind of got lost with these freaks and geeks that were different than everybody else, but they felt accepted with their family. Which I think that I could just relate to that. I think everybody in the LGBT community can relate to that. Me dressing up as these characters is my outlet for not only my creativity, but kind of like live life in their shoes. Like an escape.
What was the first drag cosplay that you did?
My original drag name was Phoenix. It was actually named after Phoenix from X-Men. I changed it to Phi Phi for the show. She was my first cosplay and everything as Phi Phi. I related to her because I think everybody has two sides to them. There’s a good and the bad side. If you just know how to harness it, you can be the most powerful you can be. I think that was exactly who Phoenix was. She was fighting with those inner demons. I just thought she was really cool. She’s bad ass.
What kind of reactions have you gotten for incorporating geek culture and cosplay into your drag?
Well, it’s been amazing. I didn’t realize the response. Also I didn’t realize the connection between cosplay and then Drag Race. There’s a huge audience. Then I started thinking about it. Cosplay, we cosplay as women every day. I know that people are like “No there’s a difference,” but there really isn’t. You’re putting on a wig and you’re creating this woman cosplay. You’re dressing as a woman every day. Then it made more sense why there was that huge connection there. I think why people grasp onto what I do, and think it’s a positive, is because it brings a sense of nostalgia. That just makes people happy. The fact that you can geek out and nerd out, and it’s appreciated, I think is what’s cool. I’m showing that it’s fun. Be who you want to be. Dress up. Put your cape on and run around the city if you want to.
What challenges have you faced as you’ve done more cosplay looks?
This is going to sound really cocky, but I’m not trying to sound cocky. Making the costumes and everything, that’s the easiest part for me. I love doing that. I can whip out a costume in a day. The hard part is I guess my 365 has kind of kicked me in the butt. I got a little cocky with that. Spinning these out daily ahead of time, since I have to shoot multiple in a day, that’s been the big challenge doing this. The only other thing that’s been challenging, because now that I’m so into the cosplay scene, and I find that it’s more with gamers, is that they seriously pay attention to every detail. Every crack on their armor, every rip in their tights. They pay attention to every detail. Now I have to make sure that it’s down to the nitty gritty. I had a bracelet on one hand in one of my pictures, and I got called out by so many people for it. I was like damn. I got to be on my game.
Yeah, I guess it’s kind of the difficulty with portraying these characters. There is an image already created for them that people have in their head and everything.
Well, they’re like idols to a lot of people. A lot of people want these characters done right. You know? When it’s not done right they, they don’t personally attack, but they’re like “Oh you should have did this better.” I totally get it.
In your 365 Days of Drag, you’ve done some more obscure characters, like Agatha and Lorelei from Pokémon. Why did you want to do some of these lesser-known ones?
The more traditional ones are always seen. We’ve seen them done a billion times. Some of my favorite characters are the obscure characters. I just think that when people see them, it’s unexpected. It garnishes a better response.
One of the most iconic looks this past season from Drag Race All-Stars was your blue alien look for the “Future of Drag” runway. Could you just walk me through the whole process of what went into it?
It’s my favorite too. I’m glad that everybody loved it. We can’t do copyrighted characters on the show. Even with the Riddler outfit that I walked in with, the only reason I got away with it is because it was a dress and not a pants suit. I was able to do it that way. Since we’re not allowed to do cosplay characters on the show, it was what can I do as my outlet to bring this to life? I always sketch in books and stuff. For my 365 I always have this art stuff I want to do that I can’t do as a normal show because we only have a few minutes to get ready.
So I had this idea of this blue alien. I contacted one of my friends that helps make gold armor. I was like “Hey I have this idea, I want to make it for the show. Let’s do it.” Yeah, we ended up doing it. We actually only had like 25 minutes to change from our Women of HERstory into our alien futuristic outfits. Then the gun … So that episode was actually shot on a Friday. The second part of it was shot, the runway, was shot on Monday. So we had the weekend off. In my hotel room, I asked everybody if I could take all of these Gatorade bottles and glue guns and pizza boxes back to my hotel room. They’re like “For what?” I was like “I’m just going to make a gun.” They are like, “Oh okay.” I went into the hotel room, and I popped out with that gun, because I couldn’t pack it. Originally it was going to be a lipstick gun, but mine worked fine.
What sci-fi properties were you inspired by for the gun and look?
The Fifth Element had a lot of influence on them. I actually wanted to do Diva for the latex runway. But I was like there was no way, there’s no way I’m going to have time to walk out in this. They would tell me I couldn’t wear that, and I would be so upset to bring that and not get to wear it. Then I was like what can I do that’s blue? I knew that I wanted to do blue already. I figured just in my head and just assuming that people were going to stick to the black and silver look. I feel like that’s the traditional way to go. I was like okay, let me be different. I thought with the blue, the gold would pop the most.
Have you done performances in cosplay?
All the time. I even do cosplay parties at clubs and events and stuff. Which I love. It’s so much fun. People don’t expect, I mean I think now they expect me to pop out in cosplay, which is cool. For the most part, when they go to a drag show, they don’t normally expect to see Rita Repulsa or Catsy from Sailor Moon pop up, or stuff like that. It’s cool to see that fans get excited when I do do that.
Who are some other drag queens that have incorporated cosplay and geek culture into their aesthetic that you’ve been amazed by?
The first one I could say is Chad Michaels. She’s been doing it before me. Everything that Chad Michaels does is tip-top perfection. I completely admire her drive for doing characters and cosplay. Then from Drag Race I would say definitely Dax Exclamationpoint. Dax loves to do cosplay. I like that Dax is not afraid. I’ve watched, I followed her on Instagram, and I think it’s cool when Dax messes up on something. She’ll post and do a “Whoops messed up.” I think that’s cool. That shows even people that others look up to know that it’s not easy making all of this stuff. A lot of the tools that we use are not easy. We might make it look easy, but it’s not. I think that journey can relate to a lot of people.
Who has been the favorite character you’ve recently dressed up as?
My favorite character? Oh Dang. I’m trying to think. I don’t want to say… You know what, Enchantress. That was actually one of my favorites that I did.
Do you feel like this cosplay drag could be a way for straight people to have their entryway into drag? Be kind of more aware of it or interested in it?
Totally. I actually have a lot of people, like straight men cosplayers that follow me on Instagram. They love the fact that I can totally change the illusion of me being a man to a woman. Granted, I think most of these female characters are ripped, and have a better body and more masculine looking than I am. I think that just the fact that I can put my heart and dedication into the illusion is what they respect. Once they see that, then they want to talk to you. Then they see that you’re cool and you’re different and it’s accepted. Then they kind of let that wall down.
So you’re an ambassador of a sort?
It’s funny, being part of the LGBT community, and then going to the cosplay community, but then trying to bring them together. Every community has the same problems and the same hate and unsupportiveness within their communities. I think what we have to remember, especially with cosplay, is that it’s supposed to be fun. I always tell people, especially with drag, there are no rules. You just do who you want.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.