Mathu Andersen has had a long and accomplished career as a makeup artist. His star-studded, A-list clientele include the world’s most famous drag queen, RuPaul, with whom he collaborated on projects ranging from the music video “Supermodel” to Logo’s RuPaul’s Drag Race. A self-described perfectionist, Andersen is known for his creative edge and the meticulousness of his work, which has distinguished him in a highly competitive field.
But in January 2012, Andersen, feeling “a bit fed up” with the demands of “making other people’s dreams and visions happen,” took a moment to snap a selfie on his iPhone: a soulful self-portrait that showcased a blue backdrop and his Walt Whitman-worthy beard.
“Bewildered by instagram.I am dumber than my smart phone,” read the caption of his first post, adding in a twin photo that the medium was “much too social to be comforting.”
Nearly three years, 800 posts, and 81,000 followers later, the Australian-born artist is anything but bewildered by Instagram. If his upcoming exhibition at World of Wonder, Drag Race’s production company, is any indicator, Andersen has elevated the selfie to an art form. His photographs, primarily self-portraits that feature hundreds of wigs and makeup styles, not only provide insight into one of the creative minds behind RuPaul's success, they showcase an artist who can break gender barriers with the stroke of an eyeliner pen, the snap of an iPhone camera, and of course, that beard.
"Mathu's self-portraits take the selfie to new heights. They crash through the vanity of social media to create works that challenge our idea of beauty,” said Fenton Bailey, the cofounder of World of Wonder, in a statement for the upcoming show The Instagram Art of Mathu Andersen, which is being sponsored by Svedka vodka. “His bestiary of Gormenghast-like self portraits manage to combine dazzling spectacle of the most grandiose kind with incredible intimacy and vulnerability."
“I am just utterly fascinating,” Andersen writes on his Instagram profile page, and his bevy of followers world agree.
In the real world, Andersen is fascinating, though not just superficially. In a recent interview with The Advocate, he spoke in detail about the role of drag in a digital age. Referencing RuPaul’s famous quotation, “We’re all born naked, and the rest is just drag,” Anderson deepens this definition beyond physical dressing. Social media as a form of drag, he insists. Many of us live our lives and communicate online, and everything from what one chooses to share, to a profile picture, to the statuses one likes or comments on, forms an illusion presented to others.
“In waking up and dressing yourself in the morning, you’re choosing your costume — how you’re going to show the world who you are. And social media has become such an extension of drag,” Andersen says. “That’s what drag queens are, they’re just branded characters. Now, everyone can do it. Everyone can decide what characters they’re going to play.”
As Whitman wrote in his poetry classic Leaves of Grass, “I contain multitudes.” By scrolling through Andersen’s Instagram account, one can clearly see these multitudes of characters: skeletons, supermodels, aging beauties with blacked out teeth. Eschewing the label of a drag queen or performer, Andersen points out that his transformations do more than subvert gender; they also challenge the boundaries set by age, class, and even species.
“For years, I felt like I was playing at being a human,” he says. “I’m 50, and that’s interesting in the way I look and the way I can present myself transcends so many aspects... It’s really about completely breaking away from the labels.”
Stepping back, he now sees these figures as not self-portraits, but as “friends or people I know. They’re not me — they’re aspects of me,” which have taken on their own lives after being shared online. “You’re the origin, but it’s no longer just you,” he says.
Rather than other forms of social media like the text-heavy Twitter, Instagram offers Andersen an ideal medium for his visually based profession and mind. Followers and online fame aside, he has found value in Instagram as a “sketch pad” that offers a freedom to explore and grow that is sometimes not available when working for a client in the real world. In this online workshop, he can experiment with different makeup or styling techniques, and document the fascinating in-between stages of transformation.
Andersen also has a background as a photographer. In this capacity, he has shot many famous faces, including Dita Von Teese, Kelly Osbourne, Neil Patrick Harris, and Paula Abdul. He has also been the subject of the lens for artists like Annie Leibowitz and Francesco Scavullo. But, like the mini-challenges of Drag Race, he enjoys working with limited resources to create photographs that show drag in flux. A wig and a stick of eyeliner, for example, can produce an image with more character than a portrait that has been professionally shot and photographed.
“There’s no pressure for it to be anything for anyone but me. I could enjoy it, and I could surprise myself,” Andersen says, adding an additional benefit: “It took me years to realize that making mistakes was actually a really good thing — that failing was a fantastic way of growing.”
Although Andersen initially dreaded curating his debut exhibition at World of Wonder’s Storefront Gallery, he has grown excited about the prospect of bringing his digital works into the real world.
“It’s not an event that you can just click on. It’s something that you have to experience,” Andersen says, noting that travelling to a real-life space adds an additional “depth” and “gravitas” to the viewing experience. He also says he is excited about the prospect of his images being “printed and actual, and something I can pick up and hold rather than just tap and swipe. It’s pretty to see them all framed.”
The art opening is a well-deserved moment of recognition for someone behind some of the world’s brightest talents. In his role as creative producer of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Andersen has helped shape much of the artistic direction of the drag queen competition. He has even appeared on the show a number of times to direct the music videos that feature RuPaul’s songs and performances by the final contestants, many of which also appear on his Instagram feed. Wigs also feature prominently in this visual space, and he admits proudly to his skills in styling RuPaul’s headpieces to perfection.
“I am the wig whisperer,” he confides, attesting to his ability to "break in a wig" and mold it to his will. Andersen says RuPaul prefers synthetic wigs to natural, since "they don't react to the environment." His favorite brand at the moment is Wigs by Vanity, a company cofounded by past contestant Courtney Act, since their wigs have a "bigger cap" more suitable to a man's head and extra hair at the crown.
Surprisingly, Andersen dislikes reality television. “It feels so forced. There’s two modes of being: humiliation and crying… But I do like Drag Race, because there’s a level of involvement beyond most shows,” he says. “I wouldn’t watch The Kardashians… But I love watching people with passion doing what they do.”
Andersen cites two of his favorite Drag Race alumni as Raven and Raja. “Raven reminded me about makeup,” he says in admiration of the season 2 runner up’s maquillage skills. And Raja, the winner of season 3, is “one of the most stylish queens out there… I’ve always been an admirer from the moment I met her as a baby queen. She’s a star.”
But for Andersen, the secret behind the Drag Race’s success has been the power of its star, which he calls “the heart of the show,” someone that he also counts on as a friend for advice.
“The thing that makes RuPaul’s Drag Race work is RuPaul. While he is a lot of fun and glamour and all that, he’s such an incredibly authentic human… and to me, it reads,” Andersen says. “I’ve seen him melt people by turning his focus on them and saying, ‘I can hear you.’”
Although the attention brought by his Instagram account has positioned Andersen more in the spotlight (though he has been an “it kid” since debuting in New York’s club scene in the 80s), he says he would never want to achieve a level of fame that might hinder his artistic expression.
“I want attention as much as it allows me to move forward. When I look at people that I really admire, they’re not mega stars. They’re great working artists, and that’s all I want from myself: the opportunity and the platform to be able to work… without the pressure to come up with hits or to be the top just to be able to keep moving,” he says.
Growing up feeling like an outsider in the suburbs of Australia, Andersen never dreamed that he would “escape something that seemed rather inevitable” and achieve this level of freedom. But he is more than happy that his story and accomplishments might open doors of possibilities for others who feel like “the Other.”
“I’ve lived my life in a way where I’ve done pretty much everything in the way I wanted to do it,” he says. “I’ve never had a 9 to 5 job. I’ve never been caught in a situation where I was unhappy. I’ve always been able to keep moving in the direction which inspires me. The happy part is that people witnessing that usually encourages. It gives them permission to go free.”
“We can live this life thinking oh it’s suffering, and it’s horrible, and it’s difficult. Of course, there is that aspect to it,” he concludes. “But there’s a lot of good stuff that goes on. With a bit of self-examination and being honest with yourself, you can actually accomplish amazing things.”
"The Instagram Art of Mathu Andersen" opens Thursday, November 13 at the World of Wonder Storefront Gallery in Los Angeles. For more information, visit WorldofWonder.net.
See more of Mathu Andersen's Instagram art on the following pages.