When you reimagine Britney Spears’ 2003 track “Breathe on Me” as a piano-led ode to watersports, the only suitable place to debut it is in the toilet room of a Berlin nightclub. That’s the rationale artist and performer Fábio M Silva applied over a year ago when he unleashed “Piss on Me” to the crowd gathered among the stalls at Shwuz.
Dressed in a cardboard recreation of Duchamp's urinal and topped with a crazed, tangled blonde wig and toilet scrubber hair accessory, Silva sang of piss play while in character as Collapsella, the post-gender creature born in 1873 in San Marino. To say that Collapsella is a legend would be putting it lightly, given its travels throughout it’s long life. As Silva explained one very late night earlier this month at his flat in Neukolln, “Collapsella is the most successful, completely unknown supermodel of all time.” At the ripe age of 20, “it moved away to Russia to become a mail-order bride, lived in Weimar Berlin, was a supermodel for Balenciaga in Paris, lived in New York in the club kid era, and after being a club kid, it moved back to Berlin.” The rest, as they say, is history — very, very strange history.
Done with the life of modeling and living in New York’s golden age of Club Kids, Silva’s warped brainchild became a fixture of Berlin’s queer community over the past few years as a member of the post-drag collective The Real Housewives of Neukolln and as a DJ and performer at clubs across the city, including the aforementioned toilet of the queer club Schwuz where he turned “Breathe on Me” into “Piss on Me.”
Over a year after debuting that particular track, Silva has repurposed it as “Yellow” and included it on HANKY, the first full-length album he’s created under the Collapsella moniker. Taking inspiration from the Handkerchief Code that paired colors with fetishes throughout gay history, HANKY is a ten-track piano-led ode to piss, shit, and anal with a post-gender spin.
Ahead of today’s exclusive premiere of the album, we talked to Silva about why he doesn’t try to sing well, bringing a femme spirit to Berlin’s hypermasculine gay scene, and why RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t ready for Collapsella.
OUT: What sparked the idea for the album?
Fábio M Silva: The idea started when I did a performance over a year ago that was in a toilet. I wrote a song called “Piss on Me,” which is an adaptation of “Breathe on Me” by Britney Spears. I turned it into a very dramatic piano ballad about watersports and that song is now in the album as a song called “Yellow,” and that’s where the idea for an album about fetishes began. Now it’s become a concept album about the handkerchief code.
When did you first learn about the handkerchief code?
I have no idea I think I always knew. No, as a teenager I lived in the countryside and did a lot of research about queer culture and came across the hanky code. I discovered that it started in the Gold Rush. There were square dances between men and men would wear handkerchiefs on either the right or left side to show who was leading. The first clear handkerchief code was in the 70s in something called the Leatherman Handbook. That’s where the first ten colors came from, which are the ten I used in the album.
Historically, every handkerchief color is paired with a corresponding fetish in the hanky code. Do you feel that fetishes are widely accepted nowadays in the queer community?
Some of them, yeah. Some fetishes that are usually accepted are being obsessed with oral and things like that. That’s okay but if you’re into fisting or into poop, nobody will accept you.
Do you feel that the hanky code has been watered down and commodified at all?
I’m not sure but I feel that it’s not really relevant anymore. Though, I discovered recently that homosexuals still use color codes and I found out about it at Berghain. A friend was telling me that he knew the fetish of someone who passed next to us based on the shoelace color on his boots. I think it was the same color as the hanky code so it’s still used but just in different ways.
How do you approach your different musical projects?
I’m not a trained singer and don’t sing well or aim to sing well, so it’s always about the concept and story associated with what I’m doing. I think all of the music projects I’ve released have been quite conceptual but what sets this one apart is that I usually work with electronic music and this album is all piano ballads.
You’re quite well known in Berlin’s queer community. How has the environment here shaped your art?
In Berlin, I found a way to accept my work a lot more than I used to. I had space to experiment and try different things so I shaped my artistic identity a lot more clearly than I could’ve in other cities. In other places, there was too much pressure to not fail at what you were doing, which doesn’t necessarily exist in Berlin.
Have you noticed an evolution in the city’s queer culture in the four years you’ve lived here?
It is. Berlin suffers from the fact that, at a first impression, it’s a very masculine city. The perception people have outside of the city is that it’s an extremely queer city but it isn’t actually. I get the feeling that people are becoming more femme and experimenting more though and I’d like to believe that my post-drag collective, The Real Housewives Of Neukolln, helped influence that.
Speaking of the Housewives, your persona in that group is Collapsella and you’re releasing the album as it. Tell me about this character.
Collapsella is the most successful, completely unknown supermodel of all time. It was born in 1873 in San Marino, moved away when it was 20 to Russia to become a mail-order bride, lived in Weimar Berlin, was a supermodel for Balenciaga in Paris, lived in New York in the club kid era, and after being a club kid, it moved back to Berlin.
Do you feel that your whole personality as Collapsella could exist outside of Berlin or is the city integral to it?
It could have started but I don’t think it would be what it is. As I said, Berlin allows you to experiment, and Collapsella is a very odd character that would never be accepted in drag worlds in other places.
You wouldn’t see Collapsella on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
No. (Laughs) Collapsella went to Lisbon recently and performed with Fanny in the only drag club there and nobody knew what to do with us. It was a night for newcomers and everyone performing was trying to do feminine drag emulating a woman and lipsyncing. We were the only ones singing live and we did a techno song called “Penis” with our beards and almost no makeup.
Collapsella by Matthew Thorne.
Do you feel that the drag scene in America will eventually move away from this very hyperfeminine model?
It exists already and there are a lot of drag queens who don’t follow that model, but show’s like RuPaul’s Drag Race create this image of what a drag queen should be. People outside of the queer scene or in the more mainstream gay scene perceive a drag queen as someone who has to be a female impersonator who is gorgeous and all of that.
Do you think that’s because it’s easier to mentally digest?
Yeah, probably. The mainstream always takes things in baby steps but it’s incredible already that a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race is as mainstream as it is now. It’ll take a lot of steps until something like what we do will be mainstream.
It's interesting to see Collapsella, a post-gender character, reappropriating the hanky code, which has been traditionally quite masculine.
You’ve got to think about the fact that, in the 70s, the idea of being nonbinary or even transgender was a foreign concept for many people — it still is for a lot of people nowadays. Theoretically, it’s a very masculine, gay thing but I don’t think that it necessarily has to be. On most of the tracks, I don’t take an active or passive role. In the song about anal sex, I change between active and passive roles so it removes the idea of masculinity being dominant.
Do you have a favorite hankie color?
Are you asking me if I have a fetish? (Laughs) Light blue maybe. It’s oral. Both blues I like — oral and anal.
Feature image by Eliot Gardepe.
"Green" music video by Fábio M Silva & Anthony de Bono.