In the (woman) face of it all: In conversation with Barbi Ghanoush

“In terms of Drag itself, the only thing it's really made me do is become even more determined to piss people off.”

Barbi Ghanoush is the alter ego of a self-proclaimed “staunch dyke” and theatre kid. Featured on the cover of the Mardi Gras edition of Honi Soit, her drag is big, stunning, and provocative (if you want to see its effect, read the Catholic Society’s review). 

The Auckland stop of UK transphobe Posie Parker was met with a strong counter protest where protesters sprayed the speaker with tomato soup. Barbi went viral for parodying the speech dressed in what she called “Posie Parker drag” — a large, neatly coiffed blonde wig with a bejewelled shirt that read “ADULT HUMAN DRAG QUEEN” — and had viewers spray her with ketchup. 

I sat down with Barbi to chat about drag, politics, and the night when she went viral.

[The following conversation has been edited for clarity.]

Why did you decide to do drag?

My introduction to drag actually happened when I was really quite young. The first time I saw drag was at my grandfather’s 75th birthday, so I’m incredibly blessed to have had a grandfather who came out as openly gay in the eighties. He’s an incredible man. There’s a bit of sadness to that story, because unfortunately he did pass away before I had the opportunity to come out to him.

We’re in the local community hall, and my grandfather’s the campest man alive. His birthday theme was getting his closest friends and family to stage individual performances for him.

It was forties themed, so we all dressed up and did a little boogie woogie bugle boy number, my  mum and all my aunts did a little flapper dance. And then, into the middle of the hall, comes the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen in my life.

She was tall and straight out of the forties; glamour, the beautiful hair, the sequins — everything— and she performs this insanely glamorous number where she’s just kind of crooning, and there’s feathers and there’s a fan  at some point. 

I didn’t know what the fuck drag was. And it literally wasn’t until my parents recounted this story later and said that halfway through this performance, my younger brother had gone “Mom, I don’t think that’s a girl, cause she has hairy legs.” And my mum said, “Well, that’s because it’s a drag queen.” And I just went, oh, what? This is a thing. 

So I guess drag has been in my blood ever since I was a little kid. Barbi herself only came to life…it will be one year ago on the 6th of May this year. I’m 11 months old. 

It does sound like performance was a big part of your childhood. Was your upbringing surrounded in doing performances for your loved ones, doing dance classes, things like that?

I was gonna say don’t tell anyone, but this is literally an interview. I was a theatre kid in high school. I was in all of those stupid, bloody community pantomimes and I did drama and basically whatever I could do to get eyes on me. But drag itself, as a form of my personal expression, is just the latest iteration.

Why be a drag queen as opposed to being a drag king? Was it this idea of glamour? 

Drag kings intimidate me. They’re so good at what they do. I dunno. Being a queen felt like a very natural path for me. In terms of when I’m out of drag, what my gender is…hmm, that’s a big question mark. I don’t really know her, but as anyone who had the experience of being assigned a woman as a child and the socialisation that you go through for a long time, I really, as a part of my gender identity and as a part of my queer identity as well, rejected a lot of traditional femininity.

I thought, all those ridiculous entry level messages you get as a kid, you know, like you can’t be smart and pretty. This is a roundabout way of me saying I was a huge pick-me for many, many, many years.

So I’ve found that Barbi is a really fun way for me to explore these aspects, to explore makeup artistry, and being a big bimbo, and the colour pink, and calling myself Barbi for God’s sake. It’s a really fun outlet for me to just fuck around with gender and fuck around with womanhood. 

Also, before we move on, I wanna clarify. It’s definitely because I’m not good enough at painting to be a drag king. 

You are quite politically and socially involved, so how would you see your drag identity interacting with your activism?

For me there are a lot of places where the person, me as Jasmine, and the character Barbi separate, like there is a clear distinct difference between me when I’m in human mode and the character of Miss Barbi.

But one thing that I don’t like to compromise on is my politics. So whatever my politics are as a human person, that’s what the politics of Barbi also are. So for me, you know, like I mentioned a big gender question mark, but staunchly, staunchly queer and a staunch dyke. As a unionist, as a Lebanese person, as a, you know, child of immigrants living on stolen Aboriginal land, I’m not gonna separate out between the person and the character.

So a lot of that does come up in things I’m talking about, but it can also pop up in performances, which is something I’ve always admired in performers that I’ve watched.

So how did the Posie Parker performance come about as an extension of activism and your community as a queer person? 

Quite honestly, it’s been really hard to avoid news about Posie Parker. Particularly for queer people, it’s very present, it’s very much on the mind. It does pose a really serious threat to our lives and to our safety. But the way that the performance unfurled was very much just a few different pieces falling into place.

I, for quite a while, had been thinking that someone should do an imitation of Parker in drag because she is like…whatever she’s doing is just drag, right? The hair, the power suits, everything about it is just ripe for parody.

And then that very night I got a message from the gorgeous drag artist, Baby Doll, who runs the night with Michelle Mayhem pop at Ching-a-Lings where I ended up performing this, she messaged me and said, “Hey, we’ve got a slot open on Thursday, do you wanna come and perform?” And I just went, well, this is perfect. Ran to Kmart to get some rhinestones and a pink turtleneck and the rest is history!

What were then the next steps of going viral?

It was genuinely, completely unexpected. I think the best moment of the whole fiasco…I was best summed up by a comment from a terf under the video that said “she probably performed this in front of a room of four weirdos.” And I read that and I was like, well, kind of.

It’s really hard to get crowds on Oxford Street right now, cost of living and everything, so I was like, this is gonna be such a funny, like, thing for me to do at my favourite bar with my friends watching full stop. That’s the end of it, but one of them recorded it.

The next thing I know, a journalist in New Zealand picked it up, and then Posie Parker herself has retweeted it, with the caption “Misogyny can be such a drag.” Like I had a little giggle, I’m not gonna lie to you. She clearly worked quite hard on that one for quite some time.

I’ve never had an experience like that before, virality to whatever degree, I suppose. The amount of commentary, the amount of contact I was getting from total strangers was incredible, especially when it got into like fashy, transphobic circles. I will say that, emotionally, I managed to remain relatively unaffected just because not one of these dumb, dumb dummies could figure out what the fuck my gender was.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve now been accused of woman-face; the man in the dress allegation will never be defeated apparently. So there was a nice level of distance in a sense. 

It was very intense, but that’s why we have the mute, and block, and notifications off buttons. 

Has much changed about what you’re doing now or how you’re managing your platforms in light of that? 

I mean, modern day drag characters always come with social media on the side. There’s definitely been quite a rapid change in the way that that’s handled, just in terms of ensuring that your identity is safeguarded.

You know, making sure that people who might be pissed off at my drag, don’t let that get in the way with work or anything like that ‘cause I also work full-time. So that was a bit of a rude awakening, but it’s always good to double check your internet security, right?

In terms of drag itself, the only thing it’s really made me do is become even more determined to piss people off.