When I first saw Vander Von Odd perform at The Ritz in Hell’s Kitchen, I didn’t know he was the winner of Dragula Season 1. I didn’t even know what the Boulet Brothers’ Dragula was. All I saw before me was a drag queen who commanded a presence onstage — more than any other queen I’d ever seen live. Looking like a cross between Dracula, a witch and a femme fatale, Vander wore a crown on his head that read “FAG.” During his performance, he took off the crown in a way that embraced his identity as queer person while simultaneously fighting against bigots who try to demean the humanity of LGBTQ individuals.
His performance is one I’ll never forget. His look was polished. The message of his high-concept performance shone through clearly. And when he opened his mouth wide — revealing pearly white fangs — you couldn’t help but feel frightened yet slightly aroused.
There was a horrific beauty in both his look and his performance.
“I love opposing forces and the juxtaposition of something that is visually stunning and beautiful but is simultaneously disturbing or horrifying in nature,” Vander Von Odd tells me later. “It’s like something you feel you shouldn’t be admiring, but you can’t look away. It’s that clashing of raw emotions that really fuels my art.”
Like many drag queens, Vander’s artistry has evolved over the years. He was born in Imperial Valley, California, which is right on the Mexican border of SoCal. On weekends he would visit both his grandmothers in Mexicali, Baja California, where the rest of his family lives.
“Growing up queer in Imperial Valley just sucked,” he says. “It was emotionally and psychologically abusive and exhausting.”
But even stuck in his conservative hometown, Vander Von Odd always found ways to express himself. At 4 years old he would belt a comforter around his waist, tie a bedsheet around his neck and wear a cheap, battered witch hat with a pair of his mom’s black heels. He’d parade around the house performing scenes as the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz. “The melting scene was my favorite,” he says.
“I have photos as far back as age 3,” he tells me, “in daycare, pushing a toy shopping cart with a god-awful mom wig on, and you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t the fiercest bitch in the supermarket.”
While he wasn’t sure what to call it, Vander knew — like so many queer kids — that he was different. He had over a dozen cousins who were boys, and the differences between Vander and them were “Just incredibly obvious, and I was always very conscious of that. I always felt like the weird one out, but it wasn’t until I was about 12 — when I discovered James St. James, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Marilyn Manson — that it just clicked. I didn’t even have the proper word for it yet, I just understood that these people — gay, bi, straight or whatever they may be — were like me. We shared a similar path and we dealt with similar demons, and they felt like family.”
Vander’s love of horror was his gateway to drag. He was a goth kid throughout his teenage years, and up until he was 20, he worked extensively in haunted houses, dabbling in all sorts of horror makeup and wig styling.
“Drag was always a part of my life, because unlike the people around me I didn’t want to take life so seriously,” he says. “I always felt like my clothes, my hair and anything I put on my body was just an extension of how I felt inside, and so in many ways it was a costume, but it was my costume. What fueled it further was being surrounded by narrow minds with equally narrow ideas of gender and how that related to clothing. That’s not to say I went unscathed by the pressure of social norms. I was definitely convinced into believing many ‘rules’ about gender, and that’s something that doing drag as Vander helped me unlearn.”
The drag that led to Vander came to life towards the end of 2014. “It was very empowering to unlearn a lot of the shame I had accumulated over the years and get back to that headspace, where I wasn’t in the least bit concerned about how others may perceive me,” he says.
Like many queens, Vander Von Odd fell in love with drag instantaneously and transitioned into a full-time queen in 2015. While his initial drag aesthetic was that of a very dark, mysterious, femme fatale from a late-night horror feature, he departed from characters entirely built up of horror elements, simply because he felt his art had been centered around horror for many years.
Nevertheless, the darkness was always very much there and present, but the opportunity to dabble in ultra-glam high fashion was definitely a breath of fresh air. Over time, his love for horror naturally crept closer to the center of his aesthetic, and that’s when he felt he really found himself in Vander.
Then Vander got cast in the first season of the Boulet Brothers’ Dragula, and everything changed. Prior to being on the show, Vander had never had a paid gig. Not one. Now he’s been flown all over the world, working with incredible artists and building the Dragula brand as their production designer for Season 2.
Watch Vander Von Odd get interviewed at the Dragula Season 2 premiere:
Vander didn’t go into Dragula thinking he was going to win. He kept telling himself that as long as he made it to Episode 2, he’d be happy. “I was pit against the likes of Ursula Major and Melissa Befierce, and I’d only been doing drag for a little under two years,” he told me. “It wasn’t until I was taking off my makeup in the desert after filming Episode 3 that I thought I might even have a chance at making it to the finale.”
Vander describes his Dragula experience as “terrifying, exhausting, transformative and one of the best experiences I’ve ever lived through.” It lit a major fire under his ass to push his drag as far as he could … and then some. “When you survive Dragula,” he says, “you feel like you can take on the world.”
His biggest transformation as a performer, however, actually occurred post-Dragula, once he saw himself on the show and determined the direction his drag would take him moving forward.
“I found that my best drag was always born from a strong, emotive concept before anything else. Aesthetics and stunts were great but they were only ever as good as the emotional connection I could create between the audience and the character,” Vander says. Since Dragula, his focus has always been to reach the audience on a personal, provoking level and then build the look and the performance from that.
It’s safe to say he has succeeded. Vander Von Odd successfully casts spells on his audience when he performs, forcing them to feel dark and powerful emotions.
While he’s incredibly grateful that he can now travel the world and get paid to don drag, Vander is even more grateful to now have a voice in the queer community. “My voice has weight to it, and it’s given me the opportunity to inspire the outsiders and the weirdos of the world,” he says. “In many ways I became for other people what James St. James was for me. We become beacons of hope, and that encourages other queer people to push forward and beyond their circumstances.”
When asked if he has any tips for queens just starting out, Vander Von Odd tells me, “Care for your community and your fellow queens. When you put on drag and step out into the world, you inadvertently become a role model for the queerdos and weirdos. Love them and honor them. We’re all cut from the same sparkly cloth.”
Watch Season 2 of The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula right now on YouTube and on Amazon Prime.
Zachary Zane is a Brooklyn-based writer, speaker and activist whose work focuses on (bi)sexuality, gender, identity politics, relationships and culture. He’s written for a number of publications, including the Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Slate and more. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @
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