Steve Hnilicka | Interview
Wearing a T-shirt proudly announcing TODAY IS THE DAY, Steve Hnilicka chatted me up over a Presidents’ Day breakfast while we sat on pillows at Kopi, A Travelers’ Cafe. In contrast to some recent performances as D’Juana Cyber, every bite made it into Hnilicka’s mouth and stayed there.
D’Juana, often said with an exaggerated first syllable, “DJOOO-wah-na,” is one of the most exciting things to happen to Chicago drag in years. Her next appearance is March 10 at the Pisces episode of free monthly party ASTROLOGY, which D’Juana cohosts with DJ John Twatters (Ethan A. White of Chances Dances) at Parlour on Clark.
Hnilicka, 28, comes closest to conventional drag—ignore the beard and chest hair—when lip-synching to R&B classics, as during a marathon tribute to Whitney Houston on the night of her death, which coincided with ASTROLOGY’s Aquarius party. But at the the other end of the Cyber spectrum are more performance-arty numbers. One costars a toasted steak-and-pepperjack Subway sandwich with extra mayo, extra pickles, lettuce, tomato and black olives. D’Juana scarfs the sandwich, pours Hidden Valley ranch dressing into her mouth and shoves a Hostess Twinkie up her ass to R. Kelly’s remix of “Anytime, Anyplace” by Janet Jackson.
Another asks audience members to write their flaws with Sharpie and paint pens on Hnilicka’s jockstrapped body, after which D’Juana performs, then tours the room making eye contact while telling witnesses, “I validate your beauty.” At the most recent Shits & Giggles party, “Sizzle!” at Beauty Bar’s weekly SALONATHON, D’Juana performed with neither wig nor makeup to “Caramel” by Suzanne Vega. As the song progressed, D’Juana stripped from trench coat to black lace robe to her birthday suit.
Here’s our breakfast talk, minus the emphatic “sure” (pronounced “shoo-er”) that preceded nearly all of Hnilicka’s answers.
You’ve said in conversation that D’Juana has gone from more an outside-of-you character to one that questions or explores directly who Steve Hnilicka is.
Right. When I initially brought D’Juana out, she seemed more separate, like a character. But now I feel like they’re one and the same, for the most part.
A lot of it has to do with how I’ve come to identify. Performing in drag has made me reevaluate my identity.
In terms of gender?
Yeah, well I just came out as gender queer. So [D’Juana] is now more about fully realizing how I want to express myself to feel more complete.
What does “gender queer” mean?
It means I have the biological makings of a male but I identify on a broader scope. I don’t feel 100 percent male or 100 percent female. I don’t hate my genitals. I’m not looking for reconstructive surgery at this point. But to call myself “male” feels limiting, feels awkward.
How important is it to you that people name that appropriately? Do you request a certain pronoun or are you unaffected by whether or not others acknowledge your gender-queerness?
I tend toward the latter. At this point, I do identify with both gender binaries and points between. You can use any pronoun you want. It’s not going to change how I feel about myself. My performance isn’t about creating an illusion, it’s just about heightening and creating my truest self.
What about if you have to check a “male” or a “female” box on a form? Does that annoy you?
On a personal level, not much, but on a social level—most of the time that you have to check that box, whatever else you’re filling out next doesn’t relate. It doesn’t affect how the person who then files it is gonna file it. It probably has nothing to do with any of the other questions that are on that form. So that’s why I get upset and, most of the time, I check “female” just because I want to be fucking queer about it. [Laughs]
If I frame it as a chicken-and-egg thing, would you say that D’Juana came into being as a vehicle for you to explore that sort of stuff, or was it doing drag performance that prompted you to experiment with your gender identity?
It was definitely a vehicle for me to explore those things. I’m very Midwestern and Italian Catholic and come from more primitive kinds of expression around—I mean, I didn’t grow a beard until I was in my early twenties, you know? It took me a second to get into it.
Besides these things for which she’s a vehicle, what’s come out of performing D’Juana that maybe you didn’t expect or weren’t looking for?
I honestly didn’t think it was going to be so community-based. People have really responded to what I’m doing, both negatively and positively, but as far as the community-building, I feel way more connected to Chicago than I did before I started doing this character.
What kind of negative responses?
So, I went to go see Sharon Needles, right? At Spin, and you know how Spin is with drag, very polished, very Halsted Girl. And so I’m there, in a dress but no wig, with a full eye.
Which I’ve seen and, just as an aside: In those instances, are you D’Juana?
No. That night, I guess I was out as D’Juana, but I don’t need a dress or makeup or a wig to perform or express any femininity. That’s where it gets a little muddled for me as far as what I’m expressing. But so anyway, this girl walks by and she goes, “Best drag ever.” And walks off.
Totally. Oh yeah.
She only approached you to insult you.
And then walked away? Yeah. I could probably have said something or started something but, man, that involves a conversation that, at a bar, is just—I’m not going to win anything. Nothing is going to get accomplished there. As far as other responses, well, we live in this digital age and I get a lot of positive and negative through that.
Right. We’re connected on Facebook and I’ve noticed some heated conversations spill out below things that you post.
Yeah. Which is great. I appreciate those. I’m all for creating a dialogue. Facebook’s become the medium for that, which is great for people talking about issues that aren’t really new at all. Drag for a long time has been right in the middle of that swing between political act and something that slides into harmless entertainment.
How much of what D’Juana does specifically counters that taming of drag?
A lot of it. Well, all of it. The basis of my true performance education has been in improv [comedy]. So I’m definitely in that mindset to begin with, with any project that I’m encountering, no matter what form it takes. [More aggressive] drag personalities were something I didn’t see in Chicago as much. It all was very pretty and well-packaged. Which is great. That’s a commitment to a lifestyle, right there. I love RuPaul’s Drag Race and, at the same time, I totally fucking hate it.… I definitely feel a connection to the Cockettes, to Dina Martina, to Divine, to—
Oh! Yeah. Totally. Oh, my God, Justin Bond is a hero. A hero. I hope I can be like that someday.
How far back does drag go for you?
Very early. When I was, like, five or six, my grandpa took me and my two older brothers out and asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My oldest brother said a baseball player. My other brother said, “I wanna be a doctor!” I said, “I wanna be a lip-syncher!” I had no idea what that meant, I just really liked sitting in my room and listening to music and moving my mouth, y’know what I mean?
Would you dress up back then?
Not really. Anytime I did do anything costumey, it was not received well. I couldn’t really explore that. I do have two gay uncles and, every Halloween, we would go over and stay at their house and watch Hairspray. Every single Halloween. They gave me my true education.
Would you say that your vision of D’Juana Cyber is something clearly defined that you’re working toward, or something more exploratory?
Definitely the latter, which is why I really appreciate Chicago, because I feel like in other larger cities and on the coasts, it’s more like you have to have a product, in any sort of creative endeavor, to be fully formed. I’ve done certain performances where that’s the reality, where it really gets to feeling done, but the Chicago process, the freedom to explore different ideas and ways of performing—I’m incredibly grateful for that.
I’ve noticed that about Shits & Giggles and Northern Lights and the performance-focused SALONATHONs, too. For a loosely knit network of free cabaret nights at bars, it’s very supportive and non-judgmental.
I chalk that up to the importance of a safe space. People are coming out to support that and keep it going. A.J. [Durand, host of Shits & Giggles] is all about bringing whatever sort of performance you want to bring. I think all of us have a lower base of burlesque, that that’s where we all connect. That can be a really scary thing, to take your clothes off in front of a bunch of other people. That vulnerability becomes a connection.
Is drag for you like a striptease of identity, like you’re peeling away something that covers up another person inside?
But instead of taking it off, I’m putting it on? Making a mask of it? That’s interesting.
Let’s talk D’Juana’s dancing and movement for a second.
Oh, she’s so fluid! [Laughs] Thank you, whiskey!
It’s natural and spontaneous but very particular as well, like it comes from specific music videos or people you’ve watched a lot onstage.
Yeah, yeah. I don’t choreograph. That’s not something that I’m doing. I’m not trained in dance. But I definitely do rehearse in my apartment and through that process I find things to do. I’m a product of my generation. A lot of it is from music videos. A lot of [D’Juana’s dancing] goes back to every Janet Jackson video that I’ve ever seen. [Laughs] I love vogueing. I’m not good at it but I’m trying to get some of those moves down. Willi Ninja is amazing. I fake drop but I try to use my hands like [a voguer]. Frame my face, make expressive lines, do fun shapes.
Do you have a drag mother?
I don’t! It would be great to be a part of a true house. That would be fantastic. I guess the closest that I have to that are these two queens, Misty and Sissy, who I know from the Pegasus party at a space in Minneapolis called Madame. Monthly party with an hour of performance beforehand, dance party afterwards. Also, watching [Northern Lights party cofounder] Nicole Garneau take a space, socialize, mingle, bring something really fantastic, step out of the crowd, perform and go right back in.
So there are multiple people people and places that, collectively, have guided you.
Mm-hm. Which makes me think of my high-school lunchroom experience. I never sat at one table. I had my fingers in a lot of different social contexts and circles.
Where was that?
[In a thick Wisconsin accent] Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Wauwatosa West, the only school in a 200-mile radius with a planetarium in it!
A planetarium? Really?
Oh, yah! Astronomy: That class was great. You’d go blaze during lunch and then go sit in the dark. The teacher would literally play The Dark Side of the Moon.
What do you want D’Juana Cyber to accomplish?
Well, I gave myself the title “Chicago’s Bearded Lady” from the very start. The only real goal I’ve had is to become “America’s Bearded Lady.”
A circus reference. That feels appropriate.
Totally. I love that title because it sets the right tone for what I do. It’s not showgirl. It’s clown.
And what does her Bearded Lady have to say to America?
Be comfortable in the body that you operate in. That doesn’t mean loving it all of the time. It just means not hating it.