San Francisco-based singer-songwriter Bebe Huxley (real name Brittany Berg) got her start at the legendary gay club Aunt Charlie’s, where drag queens between the ages of 21 and 81 perform gender-bending routines almost every night of the week. Huxley, who’s a cis-gendered woman, makes frequent appearances on stage at the weekly party High Fantasy, where you are as likely to see kitschy lip-syncing as you are to witness avant-garde performance art and original live music. A disciple of veteran drag queens, the experimental pop performer recently emerged from this eclectic, underground scene.
Drag queens have played an important role in expanding America’s collective understanding of gender, but the art form has recently gotten backlash from some LGBT activists. More people have pointed out that drag queens’ language and humor is disrespectful toward trans women. The internet was abuzz when former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Carmen Carrera called out RuPaul for the show’s offensive word choice, and the Twitterverse seemed to agree. Society’s views of gender have become more nuanced since drag emerged, and man-in-women’s-clothes jokes have started to feel dated.
Drag performance and gender identity, however, are not as clearly defined as some would like to believe. Entertainers as diverse as the aforementioned Carrera (who now simply refers to herself as a model, not a drag queen) and the late drag legend Vicki Marlane have identified as trans women in their lives offstage. In San Francisco, the drag scene contains an exciting mix of musical genres, aesthetics, gender identities and generations.
Huxley’s onstage persona is as in-your-face as one might expect from a drag queen: Latex catsuits, fishnet stockings, hair extensions and heavy makeup drive her feminine presentation to nearly farcical heights. But in contrast to her sexualized and often campy antics on stage, her debut EP, Hypnotik, is a sophisticated record with a darker, more challenging take on ’90s-inspired, electronic dance pop. The album is a collaboration with producer Poison Arena, who previously worked with rapper Kreayshawn. Music videos for each track directed by Teddy Nguyen will come out in the coming months.
On Hypnotik, Huxley’s ethereal, high-pitched vocals (think Grimes, Kate Bush and Cyndi Lauper) soar over moody, synth-driven beats. A trained actress with a theater degree from UC Berkeley, she considers her artistic persona to be an exaggerated version of herself. She pushes female stereotypes to their extremes, using pop culture’s own devices to take jabs at the contradictory pressures women face, especially when it comes to sexuality.
The tracks on Hypnotik deal with issues like Huxley’s relationship with her mother, jealousy between long-term partners and the changing nature of friendship. Heard alone, it’s cathartic. Yet her visuals add a layer of irony and humor that makes her art thought-provoking and complex. In the “Hypnotik” music video, she asserts her power in a way that would be vicious were it not so tongue-in-cheek. A maniacal seductress, she cruises around in a sleek convertible by night while her hunky date lies hog-tied in the trunk. Her French-manicured, bleached-blond character is a deranged Barbie girl who has snapped under the pressure to be perfect.
I sat down with Huxley in her Oakland loft, where multitudes of spandex jumpsuits, fur coats and props exploded out of various corners of the room. She spoke candidly about the intention behind her latest creative output, being a cis girl in the drag world, and her views of gender presentation in pop music.
You’ve previously performed in the band Hussy Club under the stage name Glitterus and solo under your real name, Brittany B. Can you tell me about the evolution of Bebe Huxley?
Bebe Huxley is a name that I’ve taken on, but the distinction between that and Brittany B is not too great. I see everything I did after Hussy Club was a new era of me [performing as] myself. I guess my performances at [weekly drag night] High Fantasy were the first Bebe Huxley shows. I wanted to evoke a sexy, superhero genius mastermind. Huxley is a dystopian, psychedelic figure.
Like the author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley?
Yes, like the author. I love mixing social commentary with trippiness and sensitivity. That’s the idea with the name. And Bebe, everyone has been calling me Bebe for a long time and I started embracing it. Brittany B was kind of a default name because everyone has always called me that. It was like my third-grade nickname. The character evolved as I decided, I think I want to own a little more of my womanliness, my powerfulness, and have a distinct persona.
Do you see it as an extension of yourself and your own personality? What aspects of yourself do you think you’re amplifying?
The mania in my face, the expressiveness. I want to show how much I love people every day. I want to show people how much I hate that they’re belittling me and how much they reduce me in little ways. On stage, I get to show these extremes.
You have a theater background from UC Berkeley, so that must play into it.
It’s definitely the meat of it. I approach things from an actor’s perspective. I discovered music right after college. It’s been about four years of music making and 10 to 15 years of theater. So everything I do musically, I have a narrative intention. I put that into each of my acts at High Fantasy, I do that for all my videos. I try to make a narrative arc in all the songs, too.
How has your experience performing at High Fantasy and being part of the drag world impacted you as an artist?
It’s such a cool format. It’s a little different than music. Drag queens require a spotlight. I see drag as such an acting opportunity. That’s why I do the lip-sync numbers. I wouldn’t quite claim myself as a drag queen and I don’t really identify as a faux queen, either. I just see myself as an artist and I like to explore lip-sync as almost like pop-star training. Through lip-sync, I’ve gotten to explore Missy Elliot, Gwen Stefani, Kate Bush and Barbra Streisand in depth. I’ve had to memorize their work, deconstruct it and reproduce it with my own spin, so it’s made me understand my idols in a deep and demystifying way.
The drag community is magical, expressive, loving and very inclusive. I always thought that, as a woman, it might be alienating. But if you give it, they love it. When I was [performing as] Glitterus in my early performances with Hussy Club, I really thought I had to sell sex. As in, [I thought] the reason you’re paying attention to me right now is sex! I’m gonna grind and talk about sex, everything is gonna be about sex. But the drag is like, you get to explore every avenue of femininity and I think maybe that’s the evolution. It’s leading me more into the intellectual feminine. [Drag is about] how strong and powerful you can be without having to make jokes about sex exactly.
Do you think being part of the drag world has influenced your view of gender and how you express your gender identity?
Yeah, absolutely. I love thinking about the spectrum of the masculine and the feminine. I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from my friends in the queer community. They’re like, “You can own your masculinity.” Everyone is always like, “I know you’ve got this feminine thing on lock, but there’s another end to your power.”
As a human being in the world, I think I present as straight. I have a lot of straight privilege. I’m in a heterosexual partnership. But then I get to occupy queer spaces and it’s complicated. I’m in constant awe and learning about the boldness and bravery of breaking the bounds of gender and I’m always excited to take the invitation. I’ve done boy characters at the club, which has pushed it so deliciously far.
As Bebe Huxley, I dress and act like the Barbie who is actually as insane as a Barbie would be in real life. The face is pushed to the limit, the hair is blond, the outfit is all boobs and ass and all that stuff, but pushed to the brink because anyone else who is pushed to all those standards is probably feeling pain inside.
That’s something that has come up in pop culture recently. Female celebrities are criticized for aging or looking flawed but if they take pains to change themselves or get plastic surgery, they get criticized for trying to live up to those same norms.
Exactly, like the outrage surrounding Renee Zellweger’s face. It’s so evil, the whole thing. It’s a total battleground.
Do you think you’re making fun of those pressures to be feminine and fulfill a certain role? It seems like part of you is embracing them, as well.
Exactly. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve assimilated to those standards. It’s weird, drag queens are emulating those ideals, but ultimately they’re drag queens. But me as a cis woman emulating these ideals, I’m almost coming nearer to them that I thought [I would]. I’m a Jewish girl and I was always so unpopular. I had bad teeth and hair that was always curly. I just hated popular girls and never identified with getting close with WASP-y cheerleader, sorority types at UC Berkeley. I was always like, fuck everybody, I’m a chubby Jewish girl! Now I’m dying my hair blond and doing fake eyelashes and I’m kind of embodying that. I’m interested in when you can take that power. Knowing when to exploit it is empowering.
You’re kind of becoming that popular girl archetype in your act.
I love it. There is so much opportunity for humor and sexuality. I’ll always have the perspective of the outcast Jewish person who never feels like they’ll fit in.
American society has a lot of discomfort with female sexuality. In pop, people want women to be sexy but they get criticized for taking it to far and being too sexy. Do you think you’re responding to that contradiction?
I hope so. What my producer Poison Arena and I were excited about with Hypnotik was that my previous work was kind of camp-sexual, but we wanted make something that was actually sexy, but almost in a noir way where you are taking something so seriously it becomes funny. For the title track’s video, we were inspired by Cronenberg’s film Crash, which is so sexy but no one smiles. It’s so hilarious and so noir. So I’m doing the sexy-girl-dancing-on-the-car thing, but there’s a guy in the trunk. So there’s motivation for having such a fuckin’ episode on the car. The sexuality is for her own satisfaction and not to come on to the male gaze.
It’s the sexuality the male gaze wants to see, but it’s going so full force that it’s scaring it away. Let’s go more into your songwriting process. You write all the lyrics.
And I do all the melodic arrangements of the songs. The process with me and Poison Arena in making this album was he would sketch up some loops, drafts of instrumentals. He’s really into ’90s [sounds] — New Jack City, Britney Spears, *NSYNC — and he uses the same programs and analog [processes] those producers used. So he would just give me a loop and I would get hella stoned and freestyle on it. I would play a couple little chords to help me draw it out. When I’m really into one song, it takes me a couple days of thinking and coming back to it.
Lyrically, the songs in the album seem dramatic and almost cinematic. Would you say any of them are autobiographical?
In my other music projects, I had never been in love before. So I was always thinking about sex or thinking about love. It was more of my analysis of it. This album was created two years into my relationship. “Agonize” is about jealousy and thinking about polyamory. It’s so Bay Area, because here being poly seems to always be an option and I think I’m too neurotic to be OK with that. “Hypnotik” is about talking to straight dudes and saying, “Your cock is not all that.” I wanted to make real classic-sounding, Britney [Spears] pop.
They’re all autobiographical. “Elaine” is about unconditional love with my best friend and seeing her go through a terrible breakup and saying “Fuck all them — we’re going to be best friends forever!” The fourth song, “Daughter Adonis,” is about my mother. She’s also the star of that music video. We’re twins throughout it. It’s very Lynch. First we’re Grecian goddesses, then we’re debutante Hilary Clintons walking around San Francisco’s Civic Center. When we filmed it there, people thought we were getting married! We descended the stairs in matching gowns and everybody clapped.
Is Bebe Huxley a character and project you want to develop long-term?
Yeah, I’m working on new music with a few producers and rounding out my set. This is the moniker for me for a while.
You’ve talked about how you have so many idols who are pop stars. Yet your act seems to be taking common pop tropes and really pushing them to the extreme in satirical ways. Can you comment on that?
I think it comes back to how much I care about narrative, theater and cinema and the technical aspects of what makes a great performance. I idealize pop as a structural aesthetic, so there’s that. But I really care about creating motivation for the character that is creating that dramatic arc, expressing it to the fullest, and telling a story about breaking through societal confines. I think any time a woman is expressing herself to the fullest, society is telling her, “Please be small, please show less, please satisfy somebody else, please take care of somebody else.” I think every time [I perform], I get to fully show my rage — rage is a huge emotion that doesn’t get showcased in pop. I see [female artists] commenting on how their boyfriends break their hearts, but they don’t express rage at why they have to care about these guys so much and why the sole purpose of their worth on this planet is about a male’s approval. So that’s what “Hypnotik” is all about. I’m not mystified by you, I’m going to put you in a trunk and have a joyride. I’ve got you.
So that hunky guy represents the patriarchy.
When I heard the first version of the beat that Poison Arena did, I had this vision of bodybuilders on the beach just flexing. Like they think their dick is so amazing. Then my director Ted Nguyen had this vision of a nighttime drive, Cronenberg. So we put it all together. Let’s take the muscle meat and punish him. But men are also oppressed. They don’t get to show feelings. They don’t get to get close like women. I want to support men for their liberation as well. The whole system fucks us all.