The idea behind this Meet the Locals feature is that the longer I live in São Paulo, the more regularly I’m seeing some of the city’s ‘characters’ and wondering what their stories are. So if you’re coming to the city and you want to know a bit more about the faces that you could be potentially bumping into during your trip here, this feature will give you the opportunity to do just this. Following on from my last two interviews with Bruno the bucket player and Dilu the candy-selling comedian; this month it is the turn of Renato Ricci…aka Penelopy Jean!
Renato is a big name in the city’s drag queen scene, and he often performs alongside two other drag queens; Henrique Oliveira and Rafael Baptistella (Amanda Sparks and Tiffany Bradshaw). Together they go under the name of Trio Milano.
With gay pride just around the corner I arranged to meet Renato for a coffee to talk all things drag and the gay nightlife in São Paulo. As you can probably imagine, this interview was a LOT of fun!
So let me take you right back to where it all started, how did you become a drag queen?
Well, around six years ago I was at a party in the city I grew up in (in the state of Minas Gerais) with some friends. Once a month there used to be a gay night and my friends and I decided to dress up in drag one night. It was the first time I’d done anything like it before and we went down really well! People were very complementary. After this I started experimenting with makeup and trying out new looks.
When I moved to São Paulo I was living with Henrique (Amanda Sparks of Trio Milano) and we started going out in drag. At the time drag was very underground and a lot more alternative, not like it is right now.
Then one night I was at Gloria (a former nightclub) with Henrique and I noticed Rafael (Tiffany Bradshaw) in drag. There was something about the way he did his hair and makeup that impressed me. Later, when pictures of this night were posted online I got in touch with Rafael and then the three of us started going out together. One night I went to The Society (another former nightclub) with Rafael and the owner of the club asked if the two of us would like to do a DJ set together. Of course, we said yes! I used to DJ so I knew what to do behind the decks!
The two of us went back the next week in drag, did our DJ set and we had a great time. We even performed to the songs during our set. Then Lais Pattak (a party organiser), asked me, Rafael and Henrique to play as three-piece at one of her parties. So we got together to DJ and perform…and that night Trio Milano was born. From that day on we’ve performed as a three piece in clubs all over Brazil.
What has been your personal highlight of your career in drag so far?
Well, I’ve been on the TV show Legendários, I’ve had solo spots at the club Blue Space here in São Paulo and also at Pipper in Rio. Then a graffiti artist used our images to create art both here and in Paris. I still can’t believe Trio Milano have been painted onto a wall in Paris!
As a foreigner living in São Paulo, I’m often asked the same questions. Like, where are you from? How long have you been here? Can you speak Portuguese? What questions do you find yourself being asked when you’re in drag?
I guess the most common questions I’m asked are ‘how do you tuck…(Renato then gestured towards his crotch area), you know? And also ‘how do you cover up your eyebrows?’”
An awkward silence fell over us both, until curiosity got the better of me and I knew that I had to ask.
“So, erm…how do you do…the tuck?”
Well some people like to tape their penis up and pull it under, you know?
(I actually sat back in shock when I heard this! I had no idea drag queens would suffer this much for their art).
But I prefer to push my balls up inside my body and wear three pairs of very tight pants. There are places you can buy these pants on Rua Augusta, they’re more for transsexuals. This took a little getting used to, but now I have no problem with this.
I sat and contemplated this for a while before continuing!
I’d love to be able to write an accurate account of how Renato styles his eyebrows before a show, and I need to apologise to anyone reading this who wanted to know. But the truth is I was so absorbed in the idea of taping your penis up and pulling it between your legs that I wasn’t really 100% focused on the eyebrow chat! But I do remember him saying that it involved a number of products and it took him about 15 minutes.
So, what is it like to be a drag queen in São Paulo in 2015?
Well, I’d say that the show Ru Paul’s Drag Race has really challenged preconceptions people had of drag queens. People who watch the show here in Brazil are now more appreciative of us as people and not just performers. Really, the show is responsible for inspiring the current drag queen boom.
Tell me about your wardrobe….what percentage of your wardrobe space is for you and what percentage is for your female clothes?
About 70% is drag and the other 30% for my everyday clothes.
How many pairs of high heels do you own?
Oh Andrew, a lot! I’d say I own about twenty pairs.
Jesus! And wigs?
Where do you buy your female clothes? Like, do you ever go into Renner, find something you like, try it on in the fitting rooms and then buy it?
I know my body shape, my size and what looks good, so I don’t need to try stuff on. I’m not sure how comfortable I’d feel trying women’s clothes on in the shops either. But I guess Forever 21 is a good place to shop. I also have items tailor made.
Do you know what? After my first time in heels I just felt comfortable in them. You just need to remember to walk on your toes in a feminine way. Actually, no. Drag queens walk in a more exaggerated way than your average woman…it’s more runway than it is walking!
Have you told your family about what you do?
Well, I needed to tell them all a week before going on the TV show Legendários. Some of them knew before this. I’ve been really lucky because they have been really accepting. Recently I had a beautiful moment when I was at home, about to perform in drag in a club in my city. I was sitting with my Mum and Aunt and showing them how I apply my make up.
How long does it take for you to choreograph a show?
We have a choreographer, a guy who has worked with the likes of Wanessa and Nicky Valentine. Whenever we have a new show we’ll get together with him and some dancers and hire a dance studio. During our final practice I’ll wear my heels and my wig.
I gave a knowing nod of the head when I heard this, a nod that suggested that I completely understood why.
So you can see if you’ll fall over in your heels, right?
Erm…no Andrew, it’s so I can get a feel for the performance in my costume. I don’t have a big problem dancing in heels!
Have you ever encountered any negativity when you’ve been in drag?
Never. Do you know what, I’d go as far as to say I feel more respected in drag than I do in my regular clothes. What I mean by this is people want pictures whenever they see me in my female clothes and they’re full of complements. I don’t get this when I’m in my regular clothes as Renato!
Do your neighbours know what you do?
I don’t think they’ve ever seen me in drag. But of course, the door men in my building know! They’re very complementary about my look whenever they see me leaving for a club.
How long does it take you to get ready?
About two hours, and I usually work in drag twice a week. It will be more during the gay pride week though, I’ll be doing this five times that week.
Tell me your schedule for the week of gay pride.
So, on Thursday I’ll be at Liquid Love, a party in Santos, where I’ll be performing as Gaga. Thursday and Friday i’ll be at Blue Space with Trio Milano, Saturday with Trio Milano again, but this time at an open bar party called Hangover at Sambarylove. Then on Sunday we’ll be on the Priscilla float for the gay pride parade.
What advice would you give to someone coming over to São Paulo for the pride week?
I’d say be careful with your belongings….and wear condoms!
As well as the clubs you’ve mentioned, where would you recommend people go to party?
Well I’m a big fan of the party Gambiarra and the Saturday afternoon flea market in Benedito Calixto. The bar Igrejinha is pretty cool too. I love the parties at Pari Bar and I also like bars on Rua Augusta. I also like Javalli. I’m not sure if they’ll have this party during pride week, but I imagine they will.
Where would you recommend people visit when they’re in São Paulo?
I really enjoy going to Ibirapuera park to ride a bike, then there’s Praça Por de Sol and also Rua 25 De Março. I know that last one I’ve mentioned is tacky, but 25 Março is a great place for people to buy costumes for the pride event on Sunday.
What would you say to someone coming over to Brazil who isn’t planning to visit São Paulo?
I’d say ‘WHAT THE HELL?’ If they’re not coming to São Paulo they’re not going to enjoy the BEST gay nightlife the world has to offer. Yes, I really said the WORLD! There are so many options here and so many genres of gay parties in the city that you’re always going to find somewhere you’ll feel at home!