“I’m not going to look at you while we talk,” says Kelindah Schuster, settling down at a brightly backlit vanity, brush in hand. “I hope that’s not weird.” I sit a few feet behind the fully-equipped makeup station in Schuster’s small bedroom, in Bed-Stuy. Everywhere, amid the amber glass bottles of essential oils and the purple yoga mat on the floor, there are signs of the theatricality that bursts from this room on a near-nightly basis: mannequin heads in colorful wigs; jars of brushes, every size; bottles of cosmetics I can’t identify; a standing rack of platform heels at the foot of the bed. We talk through the mirror, our eyes meeting only occasionally. I watch, transfixed, as the makeup gets painted on in thick swaths: red brushstroke-brows, panels of gold on the lids, contoured cheekbones and matte black lips.
Schuster, who uses they/them pronouns, is an AFAB, or assigned female at birth, non-binary drag performer (the acronym AFAB is preferred over “born female,” which connotes a prior state of being as opposed to a forced designation). They do not identify as male or female. Their drag persona, Theydy Bedbug, also uses they/them pronouns; the character was originally named Lady Bedbug, but that changed when Schuster’s pronouns did, around two years ago. The drag world remains largely dominated by cis men performing femininity, although that, too, is changing, particularly in progressive enclaves like Brooklyn. Trans, AFAB, and non-binary performers are carving out spaces for themselves here.
When they opened the door for me on a chilly October evening, Schuster was barefoot, nearly bare-faced, and welcoming. I was given a house tour, a glass of water, and an introduction to the dog, Pumpkin, who is sweet, deaf, and also goes by they/them pronouns (“Pumpkin hasn’t had their dinner yet”). But now, the makeup is coming on, and the transformation is magic to watch. Theydy’s usual look is punk meets clown meets theater kid, which Schuster was in a former life. This is high-femme drag, shimmery exaggerated femininity, with the exception of Theydy’s trademark handlebar moustache. “I try to dress sultry-scary,” Schuster explains, as the moustache (a set of false eyelashes, deconstructed and repurposed) comes together in pieces. “If you’re a cis man on the street, I want you to be aroused and spooked. I want you to be, like, I’m attracted to this, and also very confused about what this says about me.
Schuster often gets misgendered: they are tiny and fine-boned, with traditionally feminine features. They admit that “it is a privilege to move in the world…as a pretty girl.” But they repeatedly emphasize that they are not a girl. “I am femme and love makeup and glitter and wigs and many stereotypically ‘girly’ things, but those things are separate from womanhood,” Schuster reiterated in writing, a week after our conversation. “I reject the assumption that being femme and AFAB makes me a woman.” There is a curt, cultivated toughness in these replies to my questions about their gender. At one point, over text message, they ended a line of inquiry by writing simply, “This is as much capacity as I have to answer more gender questions.”
If Schuster gets tired of clarifying, Theydy never does. Their gender crops up everywhere. It’s in the words they use onstage, all over their social media accounts (which are separate from Schuster’s), even stitched into their clothing– they often perform with “THEY” or “THEM” printed across their costumes, so no onlooker can be mistaken. Theydy unambiguously advocates for their gender, in a way Schuster can’t always manage in the real world. “If Kelindah doesn’t correct people, it’s sometimes like, ‘Oh well,’” Schuster told me at one point, about the barrage of assumptions, the misplaced “shes”. “That doesn’t happen for Theydy.” Theydy’s capacity for gender campaigning is, apparently, inexhaustible.
Onstage, Theydy is strikingly, explosively theatrical. Their pliant face seems to stretch to expressions beyond what you’d think it capable of: into canyon-wide grins and razor-edged scowls. Theydy seems to be experiencing emotions I’ve never had, emotions that have been clownishly overextended and distorted, as though in a funhouse mirror. Sometimes their performances are humorous, but often, their approach is more aggressive. Just weeks before I spoke with Schuster at home, Theydy performed a piece of original writing at Bushwig, the annual Brooklyn drag festival. It seemed aimed at those (mostly cis men) who misgender them both in and out of drag: “Didn’t they warn you that bedbugs bite?…Face the fury of a once-woman, turned creature, turned stone!” Then they tore into an eggplant with their teeth.
Although the number of AFAB drag performers on the scene is growing, Schuster doesn’t have much company. Their high-femme, sparkly drag that, as they put it, is not “a king thing,” (meaning the exaggerated masculine performance art that has long been the sole small province of AFAB artists in the drag scene), is still a rarity. “At some point,” they tell me evenly, without self-congratulation or understatement, “I had to just be the thing that I was looking for.”
Schuster, who is 25 years old, was surrounded by theater from a young age: both parents acted in community productions. Although Schuster grew up the child of American ex-pats in Indonesia and Singapore, they eventually came to the U.S. for college, where they studied drama and gender studies, and moved to Brooklyn after graduating in 2015. That year, they became immersed in the drag scene, experimenting briefly with a character named Miss Cuntstrude before Lady Bedbug was born. “Changing my drag name taught me I was allowed to have agency over what people called me,” Schuster recalls. Their gender identity was also cementing at that time; although they felt mostly comfortable in “girl spaces” as a child and young adult, femaleness wasn’t a perfect fit. It was drag—and the exploration of gender the art form requires—that helped Schuster finally understand themselves as non-binary. With drag, they can perform gender extremes, toggle between expressive impulses, continue investigating themselves. They can wash away femininity at the end of the night, toss the microphone aside, and throw on “baseball boy clothes.” As Schuster puts it: “If it weren’t for Theydy, Kelindah would not be.”
They often speak of their drag and non-drag selves as two wholly separate beings. Theydy is “a bratty sibling…who, like, fucks up my room and makes a huge mess that Kelindah has to clean,” Schuster says, in the glow of the vanity. “When I’m in this part of the process,” they add, meaning during the ritual of makeup, “I’m like halfway between.” Schuster gradually disappears and Theydy emerges, in process that has just occurred before my eyes. They stand back from the mirror to assess the full look: a fitted floor-length black romper, with back cutouts that reveal a wing-like tattoo reaching across thin shoulder blades. A bright red wig with loose buggy eyeballs nestled in it (tonight’s nod to insects), and some sparkly silver boots. The final element is a red corset velcroed over the romper, and embellished with their signature “THEY.” An un-apology.
A little before 11, an Uber arrives to take us to tonight’s gig, which they’re hosting: a charity drag show at Macri Park in Williamsburg, to raise money for a homeless youth center. Schuster chats the whole way across Brooklyn, but as we step into the dim bar, I quickly lose them in the crowd—there are other performers to court, sound systems to check, details to tend to. When they step onto the stage, they expand to fill the space—kicking high and spreading their arms wide—each time revealing the gold glitter sprayed into their underarm hair (“This is biodegradable!”).
While I watch Theydy do their thing, I don’t feel the two personas are as separate as Schuster sometimes says. Theydy is more like an extension, an expansion. A huge, unflagging pledge to what Schuster holds most dear, without any compromise. Once, as we talked, Schuster referred to Theydy as their ego; another time, they called Theydy the Superman to their Clark Kent. These metaphors seem right – Theydy may make clear, grand entrances and exits, but they’re still entirely of Kelindah Schuster. They express Schuster’s desires, frustrations, triumphs, concerns, but they’re able to do it thunderously, with superhuman force, under the sweltering glare of the stage lights.