Beauty industry

Alok Vaid-Menon on the power and joy of queer beauty

Writer, performer, activist and designer Alok Vaid-Menon reflects on gender, self-expression and the need to reinvent beauty. As told to Sam Escobar.

When I wake up in the morning, I ask myself a question: How do I feel today? It’s less about a physical place, or where I’m going, than an emotional place. And, from there, I get dressed.

I live in New York – the place where my daughter Loop the Loop, a sex worker from the early 1900s, always walked around in full glamour. People knew that gender non-conforming people were an integral part of cities like ours. And now they have the audacity to say that I am new to the media? (What media do you consume, honey?) If we look at the history of this country – every outfit, every aesthetic, every idea and way of being came from our shows and then got pushed to Hollywood and mainstream fashion. I am not new, nor are others like me; I am part of a historical tradition that has been systematically and intentionally suppressed.

I love people watching in my town. I like to see different people every day and people don’t bat an eyelid. It gives me permission to wear whatever I want and not be afraid of being seen as some kind of freak. Or rather, in New York, we’re comfortable with monsters – and that’s a good thing. I like to be part of a mass of people. It makes me feel less alone (an emotion I try to keep others from feeling too). I like things to be open late; these nightly food runs are essential for me. There really is nowhere else in the world I could live – a theory that was reaffirmed once again during the first restrictive periods of lockdown.

I grew up in Texas, home to countless amazing communities, cultures, subcultures, artists and activists – and, right now, some of the most restrictive legislation towards LGBQTIA+ people, especially transgender and non-conforming youth. . Growing up, beauty was something I never felt like I could have. I think I had a deeper, more intimate relationship with ugliness. [Beauty would] feel like a failed project. No matter what haircut I had or what I wore, I had no control over the indelible fact of my upbringing. I was brown and hairy and queer and gender nonconforming and all the things that were wrong. I didn’t know anyone who looked like me, or felt or thought like me, so I was made to be like the remains of other people’s beauty: In order to them to be beautiful, I had to not be.