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Pop Personae: Why Do Some Women Perform In Character?

Beyonce onstage ; credit: Christopher Polk / Getty Images i i

hide captionBeyonce as her onstage alter ego Sasha Fierce at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009.

Christopher Polk / Getty Images
Beyonce onstage ; credit: Christopher Polk / Getty Images

Beyonce as her onstage alter ego Sasha Fierce at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009.

Christopher Polk / Getty Images

There are some pop stars right now who look a lot like drag queens — Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, Katy Perry, even Ke$ha. I went to an apartment full of pillows and animal prints to ask an expert why this is so. It's the home of Bebe Zahara Benet, winner of the first season of the glitter-drenched reality show Ru Paul's Drag Race. Is there anything in particular about these pop stars that reminds Bebe of her colleagues? She opens her eyes wide and stares at me.

"You mean everything they wear?!" she says, laughing. "That's my answer. Everything they wear — everything they wear on that stage is drag." It's the wigs. It's the coats. It's the dresses that look like lampshades made of lollipops. It's the velvet stilettos that somehow resemble Slinkys.

"When you do the art form of drag, you can be whatever or whoever you want to be, and you can say whatever you want to say," explains Benet. "I think a lot of these female artists have noticed that it's powerful. They can use it as a platform to express themselves, even if that's not who they are in their daily lives. They found that secret."

Beyonce becomes Sasha Fierce when she performs. Katy Perry puts on a bright blue wig to walk the red carpet. And Stephanie Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga, wears sunglasses made of cigarettes and sells out stadiums.

  • Beyonce Knowles, as her Sasha Fierce persona on the "I Am  . . . Sasha Fierce" album tour at Madison Square Garden June 21, 2009.
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    Beyonce Knowles, as her Sasha Fierce persona on the "I Am . . . Sasha Fierce" album tour at Madison Square Garden June 21, 2009.
    Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
  • Knowles being Beyonce backstage at Coachella April 16, 2010.
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    Knowles being Beyonce backstage at Coachella April 16, 2010.
    Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images
  • Lady Gaga in one of many wigs and sunglasses she'd wear onstage at Lollapalooza August 6, 2010.
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    Lady Gaga in one of many wigs and sunglasses she'd wear onstage at Lollapalooza August 6, 2010.
    Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
  • Lady Gaga toned down, but still not wearing her real hair.
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    Lady Gaga toned down, but still not wearing her real hair.
    Photo by Kristian Dowling/Getty Images
  • Kesha as her dirty, glittered spattered dumpster-diving outsized persona onstage in New York City on August 2, 2010.
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    Kesha as her dirty, glittered spattered dumpster-diving outsized persona onstage in New York City on August 2, 2010.
    Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images
  • Kesha Rose Sebert, sans glitter, backstage in New York City on August 2, 2010.
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    Kesha Rose Sebert, sans glitter, backstage in New York City on August 2, 2010.
    Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images
  • Nicki the Harajuku Barbie onstage during the 2010 BET Awards June 27, 2010.
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    Nicki the Harajuku Barbie onstage during the 2010 BET Awards June 27, 2010.
    Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
  • Nicki in a Lil Kim wig at BET Studios on March 31, 2010 in New York City. She's cited the rapper as a role model.
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    Nicki in a Lil Kim wig at BET Studios on March 31, 2010 in New York City. She's cited the rapper as a role model.
    Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
  • Katy Perry in her California Dream dress performing in Times Square on June 15, 2010 in New York City.
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    Katy Perry in her California Dream dress performing in Times Square on June 15, 2010 in New York City.
    Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

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Gaga does a lot of interviews (though she declined NPR's request for one) — and in every one, she says some version of this:

"I want to create a space for my fans where they can feel free and they can celebrate because I didn't fit in in high school, and I felt like a freak.  So I like to create this atmosphere for my fans where they feel like they have a freak in me to hang out with, and they don't feel alone!"

That was on Ellen last May. And this year she said the same thing to journalist Toure, on his web show On the Record with Fuse. Her fans are indeed flying their freak flags — by the millions.

"I definitely relate to her because I don't fit in at school either," says Katharine Weiss, from outside "The Monster Ball", as Lady Gaga's current tour is called, in St. Louis, Missouri. "But, her, as a person, just helps me get through." Weiss is wearing an "I Heart Lady GayGay" T-shirt. Her friend, Sam Mandry, is wearing an outfit that he describes as "an homage to her outfit at the V Festival in England," and he's carrying a "disco stick, as always." Mandry says Lady Gaga is "creating this space so that people can feel free and dress how they want and be how they want, and it's like, we're all crazy because of her." Seeing the hairbows and leotards on parade outside the venue, I have to agree with that assessment.

Gaga has started calling her fans "monsters." 18-year-old Darnell Purt is one of those them. He just graduated high school in Brooklyn.

"We're all monsters," he says. "Like, if they think that I'm a monster because I'm bi, or I'm a hermaphrodite, or I dress funny, or I'm gay-friendly, then we're all monsters. We're all crazy monsters."

When it comes to creating outsized personas, there's someone going toe to toe with Gaga's monster brand. Here's how she introduced herself on one of her songs on a recent mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty:

"I'm Nicki Minaj; Nicki Lewinski; Nicki the Ninja; Nicki the Boss; Nicki the Harajuku Barbie."

Nicki Minaj the Rapper hasn't even released her first album. But if you listen to pop radio you can't escape her. It sounds as though she's guesting on every song this summer. What makes Minaj stand out — besides her supply of Lil Kim wigs and burlesque outfits — is her bottomless closet of characters. In one song alone, she's Jamaican, she's Queens, she's British. Not to mention childlike, gangster, valley girl. Recently she introduced a new character to the mix, whom she named "Roman Zolanski." 22-year old Britney Ross really connects with Roman.

“Have you ever noticed," Britney asked me on the phone from her car in Chicago, "when Nicki puts on an English accent in interviews? That's Roman.  When Roman comes out, that's when all the voices and all the crazy styles start to come out."

Ross loves Nicki's alter egos so much, she's been going to a club just outside the city, Secrets, and performing as Nicki Minaj for over a year.

"Sometimes I'm shy," Britney says. "But when Roman — or Nicki — comes on, that just goes out the window. I don't think about it anymore, I just do it.  That's why I like Roman. That's why I like being Roman." Minaj's almost cartoonish shape-shifting grabs her fans and hooks them. They get involved and start to tell stories.

Take 20-year old Naquasha Baker — a self-appointed expert on Nicki Minaj.  She's been closely following the rapper's career since her first mix tape — which was years ago, even though Minaj is just blowing up on the radio now.  Baker is a friend of Darnell Purt's, the Lady Gaga fan in Brooklyn.

"Her father was mad abusive," Baker tells me. "He would drink all the time.  And then to get away from her life, she would pretend that she was somebody else. So that she didn't have to deal with the issues and the problems that her family were having. I think that's where she gets that Harajuku Barbie thing from. In real life, that's what people do [to get out of a bad situation], they pretend they are somebody else."

This story is backed up by an interview Minaj gave to The Fader magazine (though she, too, declined NPR's request for one). Baker read it because she reads everything about Minaj.

Just like Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj has named her followers. She calls them her "Barbies" and she has an army of them on Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook, Nicki Minaj imitator Britney Ross goes by "Britney Lil'Bee Zolanski".

This generation really gets alter egos. They also have a personal stash of identities for different situations — they're constantly deploying different versions of themselves online: one for Facebook, one for Twitter, one for going out at night. Darnell Purt's alter ego is called Lord Glam.

"When I’m Lord Glam," says Purt, "dancing in the club or performing in front of people, it's a different kind of rush, it's a different feeling. I have more confidence. It's like Beyonce with Sasha Fierce. I kind of relate to her because I know there's two sides. When I walk down the street, people are like, 'Oh, Lady Gaga!' Which is cool." Because of Lady Gaga's ubiquity, Lord Glam has a place in the world he maybe didn't have before.

This is a modern phenomenon, but that doesn't mean it's new, says Judith Halberstam, who teaches media studies at the University of Southern California.

"Look back at the 19th century at people like Oscar Wilde," she suggests. "Oscar Wilde may well be one of the early people who created a public persona for himself and then was happy, when called upon, to perform this role of the glib dandy who was full of one-liners."

Instead of spinning around helplessly in a media cycle devoted to his outlandish behavior, Wilde grabbed the steering wheel. Halberstam says the British punk band The Sex Pistols did much the same thing in 1976, when they upended a live television show by lobbing expletives at the host. Halberstam sees this as a seminal moment, where a band used a created persona to manipulate their media coverage.

"It marked a new era in the way that performers were going to interact with the supposedly neutral machine that was just there to capture them," she says.

The artists found the controls for the machine, and started feeding it images of their own creation. David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust, an extra-terrestrial version of his glam rocker self. In the '80s, cross-dressing disco queen Grace Jones satirized popular images of black women whenever she stepped in front of a camera. Rapper Lil Kim showed up on MTV in the '90s wearing a pink wig and matching stilettos as if to say, "You want sexy? I'll give you a very explicit sexy, and see if you can handle it."

Is this empowering or exploitative? For women, it can be a fine line. These musicians frequently have all-male management teams, who often push a female singer to be provocative to get exposure quickly. And the women's images, for better or worse, directly affect the fans who follow them.

These days, that power is almost immediate. There are so many platforms for exposure, an artist's team needs to be pretty savvy to navigate all of them consistently, in a way that will make fans catch on and stay with them. The window to make an impression is short. One video is watched by millions, all over the world, in a matter of minutes.  As current pop star Ke$ha puts it, "I have three and a half minutes to change somebody's mood, and if I can make them in a better mood, that's like magic. That's like magic mind control."

So are these stars controlling their fans, controlling their media coverage, or just enabling everyone's inner drag queen to come out?

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