In six-inch platform stiletto boots, corset and Elizabethan collar, a tall and thin figure towered over the crowd like an alien monarch.
The music began — Röyksopp and Robyn’s dark synth ballad “Monument” — and the figure began to move long sleeves of pink fabric, folded into teardrop-shaped cavities, as if puppeteered, her gestures alternating between robotic and languid. As she raised her head, her face revealed pure black eyes, twice the size of a normal human’s, that extended down her cheeks and pointed toward a buglike mouth.
It was 2 a.m. in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. The beat dropped — “Make a cast of my body, pull back out so that I can see” — and she pulled away the mask that was her face. Beneath the mask? Identically inhuman features. Some gasped, others cheered.
The performance bore no sign of drag’s defining camp. It was somber, with no touch of melodrama. But it was undeniably drag: weird and apocalyptic, drag as seen through a cracked mirror.
The performer, who goes by the stage name Hungry (and who prefers female pronouns when referring to her drag persona), is the creation of a 24-year-old Berliner, Johannes Jaruraak. Over the past year, Hungry’s fame has grown, from a modest social media presence and devoted local followings in Berlin and London to international performances, high-profile editorial makeup assignments and 171,000 Instagram followers.
She is known for looks that showcase a manipulated anatomy: dropped eyes, foreshortened noses, lips airbrushed to appear ephemeral. A designer with couture experience, Mr. Jaruraak sews each constricting costume himself. On the October Saturday that she performed in Gowanus, Hungry wore two looks. She arrived in a sea-punk blue construction complete with moth-shaped fabric nose piece and fitted cap, and changed into a pale peach shell for her performance.
Hungry wasn’t the only attendee whose look invoked the post-human. Be Cute, a monthly drag night hosted by the Brooklyn-based queen Matty Mendoza, known as Horrorchata, bills itself as “a Dance Party for Homos and Aliens from Outer Space that like to shake it on the dance floor.” Amid the crowd, a lethal-looking goth kept company with a queen wearing angular makeup who defined her look as “darkness in a dream that you don’t want to leave.” Others wore arachnid-looking headpieces or unnaturally hued contact lenses.
Horrorchata, who is a founder of Bushwig, an annual alternative drag festival, said: “I would say in the last three years, a lot of people are going toward the creative side of drag. It used to be all about glamour and pageant and stuff like that, and now it’s like, it’s cool to be punk rock.”
Ryan Burke, a New York-based photographer and “look queen” (he doesn’t perform, and defines himself as a self-portrait artist rather than a drag performer), spearheaded the style in the United States around 2010, when he began to experiment with paper cutouts to exaggerate his eyebrows and lips. He’d document his own looks, and those put together by his friends, religiously. “Instagram wasn’t anything,” Mr. Burke said. “But I started putting them on Facebook first, and it became a whole thing.”
“After a year or two, people had been trying different things that I had been doing,” Mr. Burke said. “All of these new club kids started popping up as all kinds of different alien-looking things.” Though Mr. Burke grew up watching “Star Wars” and liking sci-fi, he arrived at his unique manner of distortion because he had little reference for drag. “I had no background in what I was doing. I didn’t know makeup, so I had to glue stuff on a lot,” he said.
He has since learned makeup. He has 130,000 Instagram followers and a second career as an editorial makeup artist. Since 2010, he has garnered fans and imitators, especially in Europe, where his science-fictional stripe of drag is particularly popular.
Other influential drag artists who work in parallel styles include Sad Salvia, a Britain-based artist with 102,000 Instagram followers, whose minimalist looks feature an extended lip and subtle horns, and Davide Zingarelli, known as DShock, whose faces are highly bejeweled and pierced (28,000 followers.) The Parisian D.I.Y. design duo Fecal Matter, while not explicitly drag performers, work in an analogous style.
What unites these artists is not only the shock value of their look, or their sizable roles as social media influencers in the drag scene, but that they represent a new moment in alternative drag, and express a gravely beautiful vision of what it means to be queer. The look that Hungry had termed “distorted drag” is outside any number of binaries: gender, culture and human as opposed to machine, animal or alien. The looks are somber but not sober. They invoke a sense of elegantly constrained chaos, a descent into dream logic. Their style is suited to the end of the world, or else the beginning of a new one.
Joe E. Jeffries, a drag historian and videographer who teaches a course on drag performance history at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, traces the look’s history straight to Leigh Bowery and the club kids of the 1980s, and to East Village drag performers like Flloyd. Performers including Hungry have taken that thread and “elevated it, burnished it,” he said.
“I think society is coming around to the idea that it’s not a gender binary, that it is not one or the other, that it can be anything in between,” Mr. Jeffries said. “It doesn’t even necessarily have to be all human, and that technology isn’t necessarily the other alternative — that it can be species and creatures that we haven’t even fantasized before.”
Hungry said, “With the gender aspect of it, it’s not as bound to anything anymore. It is very free. It is now just about the expression of gender without needing to specify what you identify as.”
In performance, Hungry didn’t connote man or woman, or even human. “I don’t see many boundaries anymore,” Hungry said. “I have a lot of friends, especially in London, who are female identifying and who do drag. They do it well, they perform well. It has the same value.”
As she moved, she appeared to exiting an invisible cocoon. Her “reveal” — still a trope in drag — was less a revelation than an admission that whoever Hungry is, and whatever the myth of Hungry means, she is not skin deep. Her look isn’t meant to imitate something foisted on her by the indecencies of society. Hungry’s distorted drag is interested in the deep wells of the self, a dream sequence that expresses the alien within.