By: Meg Fair
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
Gia Fagnelli is a performance artist who defies categorization. Part drag performer, part stripper, part alien, part dancer, part visual artist, Fagnelli is unafraid to push the boundaries of what art looks like.
On October 17, Fagnelli won “Most Innovative” at the Erotic City Awards in Portland, Oregon. They had never been in a competition before, but because the Erotic City Awards is women-run and produced by sex workers for sex workers, Fagnelli threw their hat in the ring and was selected as one of 10 performers. For their performance, Fagnelli was painted entirely green with glowing neon orange hair.
“I had so much fun doing my weird alien stripper thing,” says Fagnelli with a huge smile. “I’m now an official titleholder, and I’m going to milk it. It’s a great certification because I was judged by my peers, and I got to bring my weird gender-bendiness, my queerness, my Pittsburgh to it.”
Fagnelli grew up in Pittsburgh, went to school in Orlando and lived in Oakland, California before moving back to Pittsburgh. When they returned to the city, they started hanging out at Blue Moon in Lawrenceville.
“I started going to the Blue Moon to find my community and feel like I was in Pittsburgh again, and I was like “These Wednesdays are so cute!” says Fagnelli, speaking about Blue Moon’s open stage on Wednesday nights. “I just started throwing my hat in the ring, popping up to do something fun, it was like art therapy for me to pop up on open stage. I won a couple times and I was like, ‘Oh, you like me!’ It fed my Leo moon.
“I’m seen, there’s three minutes where there’s a contractual agreement where everybody’s looking at me and acknowledging I exist and it doesn’t make me a bitch? Give me more!”
Around this time, Fagnelli began performing as a stripper as well. Fagnelli didn’t have a drag parent, a veteran of the drag scene to show them how to do makeup and develop a character and guide them on their drag journey. Instead, they learned how to do makeup at the club they were dancing in, using the club’s communal makeup.
“I was getting all this release and feedback and energy, and I was overlapping the two in both places. I’m in the strip club lip-syncing on the pole, and I’m doing my stripper moves at open stage in a full face,” they say.
For Fagnelli, the world of strip clubs and drag stages are both forms of drag, and both spaces have plenty of room to play and explore.
“I consider both [stripping and drag performances] drag, to be honest. I have my stripper drag versus my Blue Moon drag or queer world drag,” says Fagnelli. “I was always breaking the law by not wearing nails, not doing padding, sometimes I’ll have my tits out and I’ll be packing, and that’s sort of breaking the law.
“I would do it at the strip club, and people love when you throw some masculine dance moves in, or get a little butch with one of the men who is hitting on you, sometimes they get wonderfully flustered in the way they love it.”
Fagnelli says that gender-bending and playing with gender norms is something that can be exciting to people who don’t identify as queer or exist in a queer community.
“People want more than what they’re willing to admit,” says Fagnelli. “If you slap a big ‘this is queer art’ label on it, these dudes are like ‘wait, what?’ But if you just do the thing, they love it.”
Queerness and sex work have always gone hand in hand–a lot of important figures in the early queer liberation movement were sex workers. When LGBTQ activism shifts towards assimilation rather than liberation, the needs of queer sex workers are often one of the first things to go on the back burner.
“A little secret is that anybody who says they care about queer people of color and ignore sex workers is lying,” says Fagnelli. “Anyone who says they care so much about trans queer people and ignore sex workers are either lying or misinformed profoundly, and most of the time they’re lying. Come on, you’ve watched Pose, you know that that is a huge part of how we survive as a community.”
Fagnelli uses their job as a stripper to get out and perform all around the country. “Being a stripper is so liberating–if I have a g-string and a pair of heels, I can go anywhere and get myself a meal and a bus ticket to the next place,” says Fagnelli.
This has allowed them to plan longer trips to different cities in which they are both stripping and doing drag and other performance art. Those worlds can intersect in more progressive clubs in other cities.
“It’s been such an interesting creative journey, and I’m interested in pushing the boundaries of what I’m able to do within the strip club space and push that audience,” says Fagnelli.
Whenever Fagnelli isn’t jet setting across the country for gigs, they spend time creating and collaborating here at home.
“I really love collaborations because it’s always someone I have a friendship or connection with,” says Fagnelli. “It’s this amalgam of what I see in the world and what they see in the world and how that overlaps.”
One frequent collaborator of Fagnelli’s is Karma Sangye Lama, a makeup artist and photographer. “He wakes me up to possibilities,” says Fagnelli. “It’s thrilling being excited by each other’s ideas.”
Fagnelli also spends a lot of time workshopping on their own. When the sun goes does, Fagnelli sets up a projector in their apartment and turns on the camera to capture whatever comes to their mind. That experimentation can yield happy accidents and interesting art. It’s all a process of engaging with the universe and its energy.
“I have trust in that back and forth–I will show up, I will throw some stuff down, and we’ll see where it lands and see what the universe throws back.”
The next chance to see Gia Fagnelli perform is at Steel City Kitty’s ninth anniversary part on the Gateway Clipper, where they’ll be performing a duet with a long-time friend who has since moved to Austin.
“I’ll be doing a really amazing duet with Jordan Harris, who is incredible,” says Fagnelli. “We’re ready to fuck shit up, confuse everybody and turn everybody on.”
The beauty of Fagnelli’s art is that it’s guaranteed to keep you on your toes, make you feel feelings and explore something new and challenging. It’s also incredibly fun, and it’s not quite like anything else you’ve probably encountered before. For Fagnelli, that’s a good thing.
“I know who I am, and I know that it’s a gift to allow myself to invest and go all in on being different,” says Fagnelli. “Keeping it safe is the most dangerous thing you can do in an industry like this.”