“From the time I was little, I would develop characters. Around five years ago my brother and I created Darlene and Mildred, Southern sisters in their forties. Growing up gay in Syracuse was difficult as it is a sports town and all my friends were straight jock bros. It was really hard to find my place so I escaped to my bedroom where I could be whoever I wanted to be, which was often times, a female pop singer. I recently thought about my childhood and from there Darlene transformed into a pop star very much rooted in the fantasy.”
The following are excerpts of a conversation between Laura Parnes and Nick Alciati.
LP: Did I understand correctly, that the interior monolog that went on in your head, as a kid, was a forty-year-old woman?
NA: No, well, it was more like seventy. But about five years ago my brother and I developed these middle-aged women, Darlene and Mildred and they were obsessed with Jesus, Diet Pepsi and Wal-Mart. And Darlene always had auburn hair. So when I began graduate school I bought a wig and started to visualize her. At first I thought I could do makeup to look forty but then I thought why not just be a hot 1990s pop star. For me it was finally about being comfortable.
LP: Do you think your character Darlene exists in 2016?
NA: I’m kind of struggling at times because I’m very much present in 2016 and being comfortable with my own gender but I wanted to bring it back to those moments when I was growing up. The songs I’m referencing in the videos I’m making are from the late 1990s. That’s the time when I was developing as a young person.
LP: You have a very personal relationship to your characters. How important is that to your process?
NA: Over the past two years of developing Darlene, we’ve developed a relationship with each other. Sometimes, as Nick, I’ll even think as Darlene. My project came from a place where I was questioning my gender and sexuality so I felt the best person to play that role was myself. Also the empowerment of wearing a wig and heels is a high. And I’m much more confident being Darlene than being Nick. Since becoming Darlene I think Nick is becoming more comfortable with himself. It’s been a weird journey. At this point I’m kind of sick of Darlene and I think we might be breaking up after school. But it’s been really fun having that control as a performer.
LP: Some performance artists act out specific characters over and over again. Michael Smith’s Baby or Kalup Lindsay with his soap opera personalities. This is the case with Darlene, but once the audience becomes familiar with a specific character they feel like they can embody it too.
NA: I recently brought people into the studio to give me their best Darlene while I was playing 90s pop music. It was fun to see how people posed. Some of the males were really into it. I saw that feeling I get “this is different and fun.” And at other times some people were really freaked out.
LP: Have you performed as other characters besides Darlene?
NA: I bought a blonde wig and became a new character. Nicki’s the badass high school version of Darlene. Darlene’s the angel on my shoulder and Nicki’s the devil.
LP: How do you approach making work? Do you have a preconceived idea and then you set it up in a shoot or are you experimenting while you’re shooting?
NA: A lot is experimenting; I don't write anything out. It starts with songs; trying to recall memories I had at home alone in my room singing in front of a mirror. From there I’d research a certain female star and I think about the clothes and the location. I go through the whole song and lip sync and have someone helping me film. As I’m thinking of the music videos I'm thinking of the aesthetic and how they were originally made. The process ends up being this really repetitive thing until I have an Ashanti song stuck in my head forever.
LP: You just shot something in LA. Is that how you did it?
NA: Yeah. I really love performing on location in public–seeing people around me–and then watching myself on the screen. It’s definitely a little narcissistic. But if I was going to be reflecting back on the music videos of the time then it had to be multiple scenes to have a narrative. Lip-syncing is really difficult when you’re cutting between shots having to go back and redo it multiple times. There’s always a love/hate relationship at every stage of the process.
LP: Your work seems really connected to your own adolescence but also plays off of images and stereotypes of teenage girls as they are represented in popular culture. Your choices seem very specific in terms of what you reveal
NA: When I started visualizing Darlene I imagined her being completely female and as close to these singers as I could get. But growing up very much male–born and raised playing football–there are parts I can’t get rid of. So Darlene went from being this fun humorous pop star to me delving into ideas of gender. Suddenly I found myself wearing mid-drifts and letting my belly hair show. And, I’m not that great in heals. But I let those moments–those slippages–enter because I think it’s important to blur the binary. I think it’s important to tell that aspect of the story. Even as I’ve developed this character, I’ve developed my own gender identity. Darlene has allowed me to be more comfortable with myself.
LP: Do you think she’d ever play football?
NA: That would be fun.
LP: I’m curious about the blending or slippages you describe in relation to gender.
NA: I’m building a bedroom installation [for an exhibition] and I’m blending all those things together, [starting with my early years as a boy obsessed with Barbies, to me trying to blend in by playing football, to Darlene being a fantasy and eventually making her a reality…I’m blending both of us as characters but also as valid identities.] The next video I’m making is going to be Nick and Darlene going back and forth. That was informed through me shooting and realizing I can’t dance that well in heels, I do have traditional male body hair and I don’t tuck away any of my anatomy. I keep all that just there because it’s just me bring into question the constructs of identity and subverting that.
LP: It’s important for people to be aware that it’s not full drag.
NA: I don’t want to be passable as a female. I’m not trying to impersonate the stereotypes fully. I thought that was what I wanted at the beginning because it was fun. It was like I get to play dress-up at 27 and I could never dress up as a female when I was growing up. So it started with the baseline of “it’s fun to wear a wig, do my makeup, wear heals.” Then it moved more into delving into ideas of gender. That’s why I don’t call her a drag queen but an alter ego.
LP: There can be a power in that and an importance to it.
NA: In my experience of “high fishy drag,” as they call it, it’s more like the Hell’s Kitchen queens are lip-syncing to Britney Spears or Kesha or Madonna. They’re trying their best to be really feminine. Verses a lot of my friends in Brooklyn are sort of subverting that and not so much being the archetype of female but exploring more of an identity in a character through their performance.
LP: It’s interesting to hear you speak about an alter ego as opposed to drag.
NA: Traditionally it could be called drag but it’s much more than a performance at a bar or club. And a lot of queens have more than that as their personas.
LP: Well there’s a personal element in this character that distinguishes Darlene from just lip-syncing. Although lip-syncing to Keisha!
NA: There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s fun.
LP: It can be important too.
NA: Absolutely, it’s important. It’s important for drag to allow people to feel empowered, not to just be what they were raised to be. And escapism–having this fantasy world to escape to and seeing people do that. When I became friends with a bunch of queens I thought, “I could do this.” They’d help me with my makeup and it turned me into feeling really empowered.
But Darlene is very rooted in me being myself. To some people Darlene might be vapid. She’s more than that to me. I struggle with getting beyond the humor and these fantasy videos. I want to delve deeper into where she’s rooted.