I met Ian Gill at the Urban Farmhouse in Shockoe. Short, cropped black hair– black jeans– a black shirt with skulls on the sleeves. The only hint at his other life was under his eyes: the smear of purple mascara from the night before. He gave me a hug when he saw me– we were friends long ago, in elementary school– and offered to buy me a smoothie.
“No thanks,” I said. “I just had a Black and a cider.”
And it’s a good thing I did, too. I might not have been otherwise mentally prepared for the journey Ian had in store for me.
Ian is a 22-year-old Virginia Commonwealth graduate, originally from Liverpool, home of the Beatles. He evokes both a British sensibility and the down-to-earth demeanor of a 14-year Richmonder. He studied film, works for VCU, and he’s got a deep, pleasant, masculine voice.
By night, he is transformed into a glitzy drag queen named London Lestrange.
DHR: You’re a drag queen— but you’re still Ian, you still use him/his. I understand you are not trans, correct?
LL: Nope, not even a little. But when I had my hair long, it wasn’t asked— it was assumed [that I was]. It was something that I thought about for a little bit, but once the world had assumed I was [trans], I realized that this is how I was born, and I’m comfortable with that. I don’t feel the need to change anything.
I am gay— mostly. [Laughs]. I am attracted to women on occasion.
DHR: How did you get into the drag scene, and what drew you there?
LL: It was entirely accidental. I had always wanted to grow my hair out, and when I started college, I did it, I committed. When I was in public, people would call me ma’am, even if I had been talking to them for a while.
My first boyfriend freshman year was into drag and watched the Drag Race show. I watched it with him and was like, “Well, why don’t we try this?” That’s how I started modeling—just messing around in my bedroom with makeup.
I figured if people were going to assume I was a woman, I might as well make money off of it. It’s fun, too. It doesn’t pay the bills, but it’s an adequate side hustle.
DHR: How often do you perform?
LL: Right now it’s a couple times a month. It used to be once every two months. August 24th was my first anniversary— my first birthday— so hopefully by next year it will be up to a couple times a week. The professional standard is five to six times a week.
DHR: You design clothes as well— do your design your own costumes for drag?
LL: I do. I like the narrative of doing my work— my blood, my sweat, my tears. A recent costume I did took five seasons of Downton Abbey to make. [Laughs]. Another took every episode of Orange Is the New Black.
It’s challenging, but it’s very Zen— very therapeutic.
DHR: What’s it like to perform drag onstage?
LL: Every time, there’s an element of blacking out.
Fortunately, the first time I performed, I had planned all of the choreography, because I don’t remember any of it. I was on complete autopilot. But the more you do it, the less you start to care about the haters.
It’s definitely scary. If you get a standing ovation or cheers, it’s exhilarating—you get goosebumps. It causes a sort of high, and it makes you want to do it again.
But yeah, it’s scary. It’s not easy.
DHR: So when you say blackout—that’s not referring to alcohol or drugs, just from—
LL: Complete panic and sheer terror.
It’s breaching that threshold of fear, and when you get in the spotlight, it’s literally like being a deer in the headlights. Everything is black, and all you can see is the light, and you’ve got to portray something— a character, an emotion. You can’t be up there looking like you’re petrified.
DHR: How much of your performance is an act and how much do you get to be yourself through the character?
LL: I’d say that only about 10 percent of the things that I’ve planned have actually happened onstage. By the time I get onstage, I forget everything, and just kind of wing it. So most of it is me, just being my natural onstage self.
I’m noticing that as I do it more, I’m getting more comfortable, and I’m committing more to what I planned beforehand.
DHR: You’re billed as London Lestrange. Who’s London Lestrange— and what’s she like?
LL: London Lestrange is my stage name. London comes from my English background, and Lestrange comes from my favorite Harry Potter character, Bellatrix.
London is a lot like me, or what my boy self would aspire to me— she spends more money on clothes, on friends, and on socializing than I would on my house, my savings, things that matter. [Laughs].
All of my costumes have very expensive rhinestones on them. I could buy cheap stones, but I don’t. London is very much into the nightlife, getting to know people, making genuine connections with people.
DHR: Has London affected other parts of who you are?
LL: I would say yes.
Before I did drag, I was extremely scared— in all facets of life. My anxiety was way worse than it is now. Going to work, I’d be nervous about messing this up or messing that up. Any job interview—even going on dates—I’d be petrified. Now, I’m way more chill. I’m not scared of many things now. It’s hard to be scared of many things when you’ve done something so terrifying.
It’s a kind of an ego death. You have to kill the part of yourself that’s holding you back.
DHR: I understand that you aren’t a solo act. Can you tell me about the other people you perform with?
LL: Well, I started with a drag sister named Sutton. Together, we were the RVA Girls, and we modeled women’s clothing for RVA Fashion Week and VCU Fashion.
Modeling was pro bono. When we started doing drag, a bit of money started coming in. After five or six months, we added a third member, named Amber. Now we’re P3—the P stands for Pisces, because we’re all Pisces.
Sutton and I still have our RVA Girls thing in the modeling realm, but we perform as P3. We’ll be performing together next month at PRIDE on Brown’s Island on September 22. And we still do all our solo stuff as well.
DHR: What’s the reaction been among family and friends?
LL: Mom has been cool from the start. Dad has gotten cool with it. He’s very conservative, and for a while, he wouldn’t be in the room when it was happening, but now I can do my makeup in the kitchen, and he’ll walk through and have a conversation. It’s mellowed out, which is awesome.
My British grandparents never had a problem with it. My American grandparents are very religious. They had a problem with it at the start, but I had a kind of brazen moment where I said, “You can like it, or you can accept it, but this is me, and this is what I’m doing.”
They’ve been cool with it ever since. My first show was August 24, 2017, and they came to the second show a week later. They’re active in the competitions and the shows, always asking about it, and my grandma’s always commenting on my Facebook pictures.
DHR: You say conservative— have you heard a lot of political talk in the past year? And is it increasing?
LL: Yes, I have, and it’s increasing. I’m even getting into it myself— I’m currently in a competition to be Virginia’s Next Drag Superstar, and I recently did a bit impersonating Hillary Clinton and had a dance-off against a cardboard Donald Trump.
But as an American culture, I think we’re headed in the right direction. I’m an optimist, so I can only speak for my fellow optimists. I don’t reflect the masses. But I think our world is headed in the right direction as far as visibility and inclusion. I’ve felt a lot of open-mindedness doing my drag stuff. I’ve probably met over a 1000 people, and only two of them have had a problem with it.
Even ten years ago, that would have been very different. Anyone I’ve told is like, “Hell yeah, do that, keep going, don’t stop.”
DHR: Changing gears a little bit— what have been some of the highlights of your drag career?
LL: Well, I started on my own, and then got a drag mother named Michelle Livigne— or Brandon— and he’s been very instrumental in pushing my boundaries. I was petrified to push my boundaries.
Rather than performing something for my sake, I want to perform something that everyone who’s watching can enjoy. He’s been a key component of that, and joining his family was an important moment.
Most recently, I did the VCU Fashion Show at the Main Street Train Station. It was the most incredible production. Everyone was so sweet, and it was the most official-looking thing I’ve ever seen. I walked down the most incredible runway. I even got a picture in Style Weekly. It was something on my bucket list that I got checked off. If I make it to ninety and look back, that’s just a cool moment— I was a guy modeling women’s clothes in 2018. Back when it was still controversial! [Laughs].
Another highlight is being booked for PRIDE. Being booked for PRIDE is a big deal. It’s scary, but we’re excited.
DHR: What’s the toughest part about drag?
LL: Definitely the physical aspect. Putting on the makeup gets really old. It takes about an hour. The second I sit down, this tiredness just comes over me.
Another thing is the corseting. As I’m sure anybody could imagine, it’s not exactly comfortable.
Tucking— taping your genitals back— is also extremely uncomfortable. So you’re tucked, with a corset and makeup, high heels on and a wig on your head— for five or six hours.
It’s physically exhausting. All around my midsection, I’ve got cuts from the steel bones that dig into you. I’ll usually have wig glue residue around my hair and mascara on my face the next day.
It’s kind of a sport. It’s competitive, and it’s very physical. There are some people who do proper acrobatics. I can just do this sort of jump-somersault thing. The first time I did it, I twinged my back, and every time I do it, it gets aggravated.
So I’m 22 going on 84. But I can only imagine how the people who do the splits feel— probably 1000 years old.
DHR: You mentioned that you have a drag mother– do you have a drag daughter?
LL: Technically I do, in the sense that I’ve put two people in drag and they call me their mom, but to be a drag mother, I feel you have to be a professional. I still say that I’m an amateur, and will be for many years to come, so logistically they’re more like my drag nieces. Five or six years from now, I might feel more comfortable being a proper drag mother.
DHR: Have you ever had a night where you were just on— where everything went right?
LL: Actually, yes. My drag mom had a birthday show at Babe’s in August, and I was prepared. A show will go well if you show up with all of your costumes and your makeup on. I wasn’t rushed— I knew all of my words— the crowd enjoyed everything that I did.
I did a sort-of S&M/psychedelic drug mix, which are two things I enjoy performing about. The other was a camp/kitsch/comedy thing where I started as Miranda Priestly and did a strip-tease. If I told myself a year ago that I would be doing that, I never would have believed it.
DHR: You mention psychedelics— is psychedelic culture something that’s influenced your performance?
LL: Absolutely. The song from that performance, Wonderland, is based on LSD— it’s about experiencing things of a sexual nature, while tripping, with however many people— and that’s a theme I’m attracted to. I perform about that a lot. I haven’t had an experience quite like that myself, though. [Laughs].
DHR: Good Lord. We’re going to go down a rabbit hole there if we don’t focus here. [Laughs].
Do the RVA Girls travel?
LL: Yes, but we’ve never been booked out-of-state— I think that’s sort of the next milestone.
DHR: Where do you see drag and fashion design taking you?
LL: I’m hoping to do my drag and fashion design gig until I’m thirty. My dream job is to work in international film—interpreting and subtitling and such— but even if I move abroad for a film job, I still want to do drag and fashion on the side. I expect to do both of them for as long as my body can do it.
DHR: Where can we see you next?
LL: There are two more episodes of Drag Race. Our final challenge will be on September 7th at Babe’s in Carytown. Our grand finale episode will be on September 21st, which will be a pageant, with different gowns. Then the next day, September 22nd, we’ll have PRIDE on Brown’s Island.
DHR: Alright—last question.
What’s your favorite venue in Richmond?
LL: I have a few. One is Babe’s because that’s where I got my start. I love Godfrey’s, because I used to work there, and everyone there is family. And one more— Fallout for Extra Cheese is a show done by a drag queen called Chicki Parm, and that’s my favorite show to go to and perform in.
I’ll spare you the snappy conclusion today. As Ian would say: London speaks for herself!