Gen Fowler is the man.
The Wellingtonian is the city's most famous Drag King, Hugo Grrrl, and also works full time as a producer under the same name. When we met, she was working nights at Goldings Freedive and I was hating my job as a lawyer. We connected over slam poetry (which she is also incredibly skilled at) and not long after I started blogging agreed that we needed to have her on The Residents. Finally, two years on, the dream became reality as Gen and I sat down for soda at Crumpet Bar and happily chatted about her influencers, the struggles she faces and why Hugo is so popular through Wellington.
Where Did Gen Grow Up and Why Did She Come To Wellington?
Gen was born in Christchurch to two English teacher parents. "I was a busy kid" Gen says. "I did a lot. When I was young, I tried so many things. Writing, dancing, acting. Nowadays, it's the same because I am a performer and a producer."
Gen told her family she wanted to move to Wellington to study law and theatre, but really moved to Wellington "for the gay bars." "I came out when I was 19 or 20 but probably knew when I was about 10," says Gen when I ask her. Wellington was drawn to Wellington's open-minded scene and how you can do "almost anything" on stage from when she arrived in Wellington. "There are no gatekeepers," says Gen. While she naturally identifies as an introvert, Gen was drawn to the bright lights of the stage, and left studying law to focus on theatre.
How did Hugo Grrrl Begin?
After completing her studies, Gen struggled to create anything creatively so took a job at Goldings Freedive "the best place to work". While she enjoyed the job, she also found it difficult and was unhappy that she wasn't doing what she truly wanted to be doing - creating art. The catalyst for change was the creation of Hugo Grrrl, a male drag creation who performs in a caberet line-up. "It's a genuine alter-ego. He just fell out of me. I just started fooling around in front of my mirror, with this strange, clown figure" she explains. "He came to life."
Top Twins Ken and Ken, Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx are the mashup which arguably informs her look. "If you watch the number 'Make em Laugh' from Singin' in the Rain," Gen says "that is one of my biggest inspirations." Now Hugo is part burlesque, part comedian and all showman, with a fabulous moustache that any ringmaster would envy.
In addition, Gen has a portfolio as an event producer under 'Hugo Grrrl'. She'd already worked producing events at university so had some skills when she quit her bar work to go full time. She moved into a caravan in a backyard in Aro Valley. "The caravan was utterly un-roadworthy and shouldn't have had someone living in it. I was travelling lots, and so my expenses had to be super low so I could eat. I crashed on couches after that." There, of course, were the odd fails in the early days. "I forgot to hire a tech for one show" she groans remembering. But ultimately she has moved up in the world three years on. "Now I live in a little dive of a place, covered in costumes. But you have gotta make it work - I don't want to do anything else. I'm producing big shows, and pulling them off" Gen says, passionately.
What Challenges Does She Face?
When Gen started, there were few, if any drag kings in Wellington. Today, there are around thirty active drag kings in Wellington, something Gen and Hugo have been primarily responsible for. A small but meaningful movement started, bringing all in the LBGTQI community together, and encouraging acceptance and tolerance of all drag. "When I started, people would presume I didn't know what the hell I was up to because I look the way I do. I've proved them wrong" she says "It's no secret that there's misogyny in the drag community. Now sometimes those doubters are asking to be in the next show."
She admits Hugo is her 'safe space'. Even so, she sometimes worries he isn't outrageous enough and struggles for money and time to make ends meet. "I spend 50 hours a week on my laptop. I do the creative shows often in a rush. I crash on, in a dirty costume. I would love more time to focus on my stage show."
Nudity was a challenge for Gen starting out in the cabaret game. "Burlesque does wonders for your body," she says. "At first, the most I would get down to is an open shirt and mid-thigh shorts. Now, for example, I walked around at the Pride after party with my arse hanging out. It's pretty liberating." She also admits you need many and varied skills to be a drag king. "When you start, every component of your makeup is a skill," she says. "Hair, face, taping your tits under your armpits. It's a crazy skillset. Now I can do a face for Hugo really fast."
How does she take care of herself?
"I'm learning to prepare more. I try and have my gear perfect in the morning. I hide vials of spirit gum which I use to attach my hair everywhere. I have a bag of emergency prep stuff. I try and eat more" Gen explains. "I haven't had a solid night off in three years. The best thing I can do to have a good nights sleep." Quiet time also charges her up creatively, and relaxing with those she loves.
"Wellington is ready and yearning for daring, different, inclusive diverse shows" says Gen. "I was lucky enough to win best producer in the Wellington comedy awards last year. I think that's because I am trying to do something different."
Follow Gen @hugogrrrl. See her in drag at Kareokie Dokie, a late-night karaoke fiasco is on ever Friday of the NZ Fringe Festival (March 2nd, 9th, 16th and 23rd), featuring the talent plucked fresh from the hottest festival shows. MC'd and produced by Hugo Grrrl. Naked Boys Reading is on April 6th at The Fringe Bar and is exactly what it sounds like - completely naked men reading literature aloud.