Elena Olivera is a drag king: she is a male impersonator. The San Bernadino based artist performs under the ominous pseudonym Phantom and is known for creating elaborate, fantastical looks, ranging from Hellraiser’s Pinhead to Batman Returns’ Penguin. Her drag is a unique fusion of film fandom and activated cosplay—and there’s no one else quite like her. To get an idea of how she constructs her personas and to learn more about the drag king family, we caught up with Phantom at a show in Long Beach.
How did you get into drag?
Ironically, RuPaul was an influence on me as a child. Because of things like Too Wong Foo, I wanted to be a career girl or boy. I didn’t think it was possible because I only saw drag queens. When I saw my first drag show, I was hooked. I wanted to do it. The host, who was Raven—
From Drag Race?!
Yes! I’ve known Raven since I started in 2008. She was one of the judges for the first performance I did, which I won. This was before RuPaul’s Drag Race. Anyway, Too Wong Foo and Priscilla Queen Of The Desert were movies my mom showed me [as a child] that gave me this desire to do something artistic, which I did with painting and drawing. Eventually, when I had the chance to do drag, I took it. I wanted to be fabulous!
So nineties RuPaul and the like were a big inspiration...but how did you relay that into drag with Raven?
It really started with my sister coming out and leaving her husband. I was there to support her. I went to the clubs with her! I was the only one she could talk to about it. One day, we went to the club for a show and I met this drag queen named Glen Alen. He’s an Emmy award winning makeup artist for Days Of Our Lives. He was in the competition and I told him he was amazing because he did full, head-to-toe characters. He had wings! He was just so theatrical and I loved it—and I wanted to try it.
It’s funny you mention theatrics since your drag is very theatrical. Do you have a theatre background?
No. I didn’t talk much for most of my childhood: I was really timid. Drag helped me come out and talk to people. Drag made me a better person.
Where did the name Phantom come from? It seems very specific.
Phantom specifically came from my love of Phantom Of The Opera. I love the original—I just love it. You can’t argue with Phantom! It’s Andrew Lloyd Webber. His daughter’s named Isabella, my daughter’s named Isabella. I’m a fan. The Phantom, specifically, can be anything. He’s a ghost—and I could do that. I could use that to my advantage, being one different thing after the other.
What were the first characters you did when you started? Were they similar to what you’re doing now or did it take time to develop a voice?
My aesthetic isn’t too different than it was back then. It’s easier now because I know all the steps to make a mix, to put an outfit together, how to budget, how to come up with an idea. I had to learn by myself. I didn’t have a drag family. I didn’t have queens helping me. I would see what they were doing and ask questions and be respectful and I earned my respect and other queens started to be my friend.
At what point did you start meeting and connecting with other drag kings?
I was alone for a long time until I won a competition at Club 340 and Landon Cider invited me to perform with him. That same night, I met Nicole Miyahara.
Nicole’s the director of The Making Of A KING, right?
Yeah, we’ve been working on the film for four years. We’ve all created this giant family. It’s gotten so big! We’re trying to make kings step out, into the spotlight.
How have things changed since working on the documentary?
It’s really helped us because it’s gotten us more gigs. If we wanted to practice our makeup, Nicole’s gotten us makeup jobs. Whatever is in our interests, she’s tried to push us towards it. I think that movie brought us [drag kings] together and made our careers better. I wouldn’t have done something like a video with Buzzfeed if wasn’t for Nicole. I wouldn’t have had the chance!
She seems like a fairy godmother.
Yeah! And she just walked into a show one day and was like “Why have I never heard of this?” and that’s what she did her masters thesis on.
Have you seen the feature version of the movie yet?
I’ve seen clips. She hasn’t shown us too much since they’re still putting it together. There’s so much footage. We’ve only seen Nicole’s half an hour thesis film and a redone trailer. I’m a little nervous but, again, I trust Nicole. I trust her so much.
Do you have any hopes for the movie and, subsequently, yourself?
A lot of things will come to light when the movie comes out—and it will be positive for drag kings. There might be some backlash but that comes with the territory. I think that, over time, kings might get their own show. Kings and queens together! There’s so many types of drag.
The drag queen community feels a bit like a boys club. Do you feel there is a divide?
Yes. There’s a bit of male privilege that goes on in drag. Queens have been doing it for a long time but, if you look back in the early 1900s, there’s kings too. There was one named Hetty King, who was a big part of drag—and not a lot of people know about that.
There’s always been a parallel timeline for women that is just as important.
Drag kings are about women’s rights and performer’s rights and human rights. Trans rights, too!
How does your sexuality influence your drag? Or does it?
I’ve become more open. I’m more comfortable being a woman and a person. It gave me confidence! It gave me a tool: it was my therapy, which has helped every part of me as an artist and a human being.
How do you identify within the LGBTQ community? You have a male partner, correct?
I’m pansexual. If I love you, I love you. I don’t see gender.
How long does it take you to make your characters? Edward Scissorhands, for example.
I sewed every single belt. A couple of them were originally belts but I wanted it to look authentic. We went to home Depot and got a jumpsuit and stitched it all together. The scissorhands? My partner made them. He’s really handy—and we’re a team. He’s been there since the beginning, too.
Sounds like you have quite a network. Do you have a drag family? What is that like?
I have a drag son named Chris Mandingo who is a trans drag king. I have a couple of drag sisters like Lola Honey who loves cosplay and is all about that. In general, drag family is there to help you and give you advice, to show you where to go to perform, giving you possible gigs. All families are for is elevating each other. I’m not a diva: I want to help.
Do you have a drag father?
No, I never had one. I had to learn on my own.
Do you do drag full time or do you have a day job?
I have a job that’s full time. Drag is my night job, my weekend job.
I feel that. That’s what we do with this magazine!
Exactly. Have patience! We’ve waited this long—I can wait some more.
Clearly you have a lot going on with the movie coming out soon and performing and having a family. What are you hoping to see in the future for yourself and drag kings?
I want to make kings more confident going out and trying new things. I had such a hard time. Nobody helps kings! We need more headliner performances. People don’t know about us unless we’re given a chance. I hope to see that.