When I meet Adam Golub, under the elevated tracks of the M train on one of the hottest days of the summer, he’s wearing a sleeveless top, shorts, sandals (the Teva-esque type that all Israelis seem to own) and slightly chipped metallic blue nail polish.
Golub chuckles wryly about the electrifying effect the varnish often has on those around him. Who knows how these delicate passersby might react to his drag identity, Shalmuta (“slut” in Hebrew)—a Bayiou-born Southern belle with a hankering for fried chicken and a love of suspenders and tartan.
“How much freer can you be than subverting the most basic conventions of what is expected of you?” Golub asks. “Drag is like the quintessence of freedom.” Much as the general reaction to this subversion baffles him, he also relished the chance to challenge people’s pre-conceptions via drag’s “rejection of heteronormative bullshit.” He and a cousin frequently get dolled up to hit parts of town where one mightn’t expect to see a pair of drag queens: the Wythe Hotel, say, or Popeye’s Chicken (Shalmuta, it seems, is incorrigible).
Golub’s unfettered delight in his drag identity belies the fact that the journey to become Shalmuta was a long one—and it’s a process that is documented, along with Bushwick’s drag renaissance, in the feature-length documentary he is currently working on: Sisters of the Wicked Wig. Having begun the project as Columbia journalism students, Golub and his co-producer Gayatri Kaul have now turned to crowdfunding to raise enough money to complete post-production.
Growing up gay in Tel Aviv to an Israeli father and a Rhodesian-American mother, Golub recalls always being conscious of gender and of the problematic nature of received ideas of masculinity. This was heightened further once he moved to Chicago for High School. “Being between two cultures for most of my life, I saw how random it was,” he says, “that this is considered masculine and that’s considered feminine.”
He studied undergrad at UC Berkeley—near the queer mecca of San Francisco—and always harbored a secret desire to do drag. One of his partners made him feel ashamed of this wish. The pair broke up, and Golub moved to Bed-Stuy, New York. The barista at his local café told him about a drag festival called Bushwig that she was organizing, and told the young journalist to come along.
“So I did,” Golub recalls. “I took my camera, I looked around, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, something is fucking going on here.’ Because it was like 60 grungy, crazy drag-esque performers.” This was in 2012—the first annual Bushwig festival—and Golub was hooked. The next year—having filmed incessantly in the interim—he performed himself, as Shalmuta.
Golub describes the decision to move from a purely observatory role to being a member of the community as a natural one. Kaul had joined the project a year into the filming, and brought attention to the fact that her co-producer was already a de facto member of the group. Golub, too, felt that his role had shifted. He took the first steps towards becoming Shalmuta, and filmed himself doing so. “I documented that process as much as I documented the progress of the festival,” he says.
When he first arrived in Brooklyn, Golub was taken aback by the size and diversity of Bushwick’s drag scene. In 1985, Wigstock—an outdoor drag festival—was co-hosted by Lady Bunny in Tompkins Square Park: a freaky fringe drag extravaganza in the heart of a community that had been decimated by the AIDS crisis. But recently, Manhattan’s shows have become somewhat whitewashed and the grunge queer culture of lower Manhattan had all but disappeared. In the city’s most populous borough, however, something interesting was happening.
“Anything in Brooklyn has to be a little more exciting, right?” Golub rationalizes. “Because people pay cheaper rent, so the stakes are different. When everything you’re doing is for the highest bidder, like in Manhattan, it’s crowd-pleasing work. It’s not art. Not to say that that’s bad, but it’s just very different.” In other words, drag culture was part of the general creative drift to Brooklyn.
Sister’s colorful cast of characters includes Penny Arcade—a Warhol Superstar and veteran of John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous—as well as Merrie Cherry, the performer who started Dragnet (the forerunner to Bushwig) as a means to get new queens on the scene. Horrorchata (Golub’s friendly barista and introduction into this family) and Elle Emenopé are also central characters. If the documentary gods smile, says Golub, he may even have a chance to include Lady Bunny—she of the original Wigstock.
At some point in our conversation, Golub breaks off to wave to a friend. Lady Simon—a member of the Bushwig community—strolls over briefly for a chat, in bespoke sneaker-sandal hybrids, before going on her way.
“I think it’s kind of cool that there’s this juxtaposition of seedy queer culture with these lower middle class immigrant communities,” Golub says, of Bushwig’s existence within the historically Latino-dominated neighborhood. “And I would say that I have not heard of many incidences of violence…this kind of coexistence makes exposure.” The outer boroughs seemingly do retain a much greater level of integration than Manhattan (at least racially and socio-economically)—but both of these Bushwick communities are now threatened by the continuing march of gentrification.
“If you think about the history of New York City, all places that are now run and owned by straight people were pioneered by Queer people,” Golub points out—citing the once seedy Meatpacking district as an example.
Regardless, he believes that fringe drag culture will survive and transform, no matter what far reaches of the city it might be pushed to. “As long as there is a normal, there will always be an edge,” he says. “What people are good at is creating expectations. And as long as there are expectations, they can be broken.”
The filming—shot over the last two years—is now mostly over, leaving the two producers with 200 hours of footage. An editor, set to come on board in October, will be instrumental in getting the material down to a 70-90 minute feature-length documentary. They hope to have an off-line edit (a first draft equivalent—before color correction, scoring and sound editing) by February, and then Golub would ideally love to take Sisters to Sundance, HotDocs, or Cannes, before maybe finding a distributor.
One of the biggest production decisions for Golub and Kaul is determining who their audience is: the normal or the edge. The tricky question, Golub says, is “how can we put a human face on it and also make it relevant for LGBTQ people, and have it be a legacy film?” The documentary makers hope to solve the dilemma by having Golub provide a voice-over.
“Gayatri is really about making this community accessible to the straight world: debunking myths and misconceptions and humanizing [the participants],” he explains. “I’m like, I do not want to make a movie for the breeders.”