The art of drag has a longstanding history of helping trans women activate their transitions; the gender journeys of queens like Gia Gunn, Jiggly Caliente, and many before them, serve as proof. But trans men are rarely centered in conversations about drag, something makeup artist Kade Gottlieb, known to many as performer Gottmik, hopes to disrupt with his own experience as someone transmasculine who does high femme drag.
“It’s kind of confusing on paper when you just put it down,” he concedes. For so long, the Los Angeles-based artist who has worked with Heidi Klum, French Montana, and more, felt like the desire for his presentation to match his identity was at odds with his love of drag. He thought, “Maybe I can just live this girly life, and I would just be…suppressing it and just living my life the way I already was.” But one day—“probably at brunch,” he laughs — Gottlieb “looked around at all my friends who are drag queens—feminine, cisgender gay men. I thought, All of these guys around me are so feminine, and no one’s questioning their masculinity or anything…. It makes no sense that just because I happen to be assigned female at birth, I cannot also be a feminine man.”
“It was just a weird stereotype that I had to deconstruct in my brain and come out with, and realize with myself that that’s okay and totally valid,” he continues.
And it helped that he had trans friends to lean on, including client-turned BFF Gigi Gorgeous. Gorgeous “lives” to see Gottleib in drag, “pushing the boundaries. I respect that so much because a lot of people think trans men are supposed to be...super masculine,” she posits, adding that she loves to see her friend “putting on makeup and doing unconventional drag.” At the core of their relationship is an understanding of the real power of beauty—not just the ways it can physically transform you, but how it can unlock and enhance parts of yourself you didn’t even know were there, or weren’t ready to examine.
On Mik: Hat by Gladys Tamez Millinery, Earrings by Anne Sisteron, Jacket by Chanel, Gloves by Michael Schmidt Studios, Stockings by Honey Birdette, Shoes by Christian Louboutin. On Gigi: Hat by Gladys Tamez Millinery, Earrings by Anne Sisteron, Jacket by Chanel, Necklace by Chanel
This is something I know well. My own relationship to gender was initially playful. But the year before I started transitioning, I leaned the hardest into masculine presentation than I ever had. And yet, that felt more like a performance— more like drag—than the shoddily applied makeup and secondhand dresses I wore out to raves.
For some of us, performing a hyperrealized version of our assigned sex can highlight how at odds it is with your gender identity. But where does that desire to perform go once you’ve transitioned? For Gottlieb, it hasn’t gone anywhere.
Gottleib first began doing drag at 18, before his transition, in a small Republican Arizona town. With a degree in product development from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising under his belt, his work as a makeup artist — which ranges from highly conceptual to urbane—has been featured in Paper, Flaunt, and Nylon magazines. His clients have included mainstream celebrities as well as talents like RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Alaska Thunderfuck and Detox. Following his transformation of Canadian YouTube personality Gigi Gorgeous into her drag persona, Tesla, for her channel in 2018, the pair (along with Gorgeous’ now-wife Nats Getty) became fast friends.
Gorgeous has been a prominent social media figure since the early days of YouTube’s beauty community, sharing her love of makeup and eventually chronicling her transition on her channel (which boasts 2.8 million subscribers). Her personal story got the big screen treatment in the 2017 Barbara Kopple-directed documentary This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. That project went on to earn several accolades including a Streamy. Beauty helped inspire and empower Gorgeous’ transition. All of this made her the perfect companion to support Gottleib through his transition over the past year.
“I had been my friends’, and my peers’, and my family’s first relationship with the transgender community,” Gorgeous explains, having released her biography, He Said, She Said: Lessons, Stories, and Mistakes From My Transgender Journey, last year. “It was really nice to know that [Nats and I] were [Kade’s] support system, mainly because when I transitioned, I know that my biggest concern was being misgendered in public and just not feeling a hundred percent comfortable because you are in the beginning stages of it, which is a very uncertain time. It’s an insecure time for everybody.” Gorgeous knew how important it was to have the support of close friends around you in the early days of your transition, and she and her wife were thrilled to act as Gottelieb’s “gender bodyguards.”
But it wasn’t just Gorgeous’ role as a protector and the duo’s shared transness that connected them. The pair also bonded over an experience singular to trans folks who identified as queer before and after transitioning: having to come out multiple times. “The feeling is just gorgeous,” Gigi insists, eternally on-brand. “I love it because I feel like it’s me living my life to the most authentic level that I can.”
On Mik: Top by Vivienne Westwood from Pechuga Vintage, Belt by Chanel from Pechuga Vintage, Jewelry by Jennifery Fischer, Shoes by Christian Louboutin. On Gigi: Corset by Vivienne Westwood form Pechuga Vintage, Dress by Gaurav Gupta, Corset by Vivienne Westwood from Pechuga Vintage
But of course, there will always be haters: Gorgeous recalls the countless comments she received when she came out as a trans lesbian that questioned why she even transitioned in the first place. To be clear: gender identity and sexual orientation have nothing to do with one another in that way. “It really struck me and I’ll never forget those comments,” she admits.
“I’ve had people come up to me drunk at the club and say, ‘It’s so funny how you and Gigi are friends, because you’re both gay and trans which is so weird,’” adds Gottleib. “People just don’t get it. People seeing us together think it’s so different and weird, but then being able to just talk to her and see how much she loves Nats, it validates everything in my brain that I’m on the right track, that I know what I’m doing. It isn’t some crazy thing that I’m just trying to be punk about. No, it’s a real gorgeous thing that Gigi found love, and it’s possible, and it’s amazing that I have such an amazing role model next to me in this lifetime.”
It’s important for their stories to be visible, Gorgeous believes, “because trans people can be gay, trans people can be nonbinary; there’s no limit.” And though she does want to be a spot of representation for those along this spectrum, she shies away from taking on some titles. In particular, the idea of being a role model to young trans kids, which “is a little bit stressful,” she admits. “The words ‘role model’ had always freaked me out for a long time, but it feels really, really good. I know my intentions are good with what I put out there. I know I’m a good person and all of that. So I think that as long as I can speak my truth and it helps people, that’s what I’ve always said from the beginning, that is the most important thing to me.”
The experience of being trans and queer isn’t new, of course, but with trans visibility still in its infancy, there’s still so much missing in media when it comes to the full spectrum of trans identity. That’s why Gottleib and Gorgeous are both so committed to sharing their experiences and what they’ve learned not only about the place of trans folks in mainstream culture but within queer culture as well. Gottleib’s transition has given him perspective on the “deep-rooted misogyny within the [cisgender] gay [male] community” after being on both sides of it.
“Nats and Gigi, when they go to the club... there’s not really that much room for women within the gay community for the most part,” he says. Being on the other side of that before his transition, Gottelieb gained a new perspective of the misogyny inherent in the cis gay male community, and society at large. “It’s just so [wild] how different men get treated,” he acknowledges. “That’s why my drag character is also really special to me,” he says. As Gottmik, he gets to share a unique experience of gender, having identified and performed both binary aspects of it while also performing a heightened version that mocks, deconstructs, and transgresses it.
On Mik: Jacket and Pants by Michael Cinco. On Gigi: Dress, Necklace, and Earrings by Michael Schmidt Studios, Gloves by Lael Osness, Shoes by Christian Louboutin.
As Netflix’s Disclosure so perfectly articulated, visibility and representation are what push acceptance forward. For Gottleib, that means beating celebrity faces by day and performing his feminine fantasy by night. For Gorgeous, that’s continuing to share her life and knowledge of beauty on Instagram and her new Facebook Watch series Glam Where I Am, shot during her time in quarantine. “Basically what we wanted to do is [share] simple hacks and fun recipes with ingredients you can find at home for skincare, haircare.” Episodes will touch on tricks like how to get a beach glow at home, because “obviously nobody’s going to a beach and if you are then stay away from the Facebook Watch series because you need to be quarantining, please.”
In the midst of a global pandemic and a social uprising, many of us are looking for ways to practice self-care. Beauty isn’t only transformative for queer people, it can be cathartic and empowering as well. Gorgeous and Gottleib both agree that they feel most powerful when they’re each in their own form of drag—fully glam and unabashedly femme. “I feel like I can conquer the world,” Gottleib gushes. “You can’t tell me anything.”
While I’m certainly never looking for ways to appear masculine, I’ve also come far enough in my transition that being a little butch doesn’t make me feel unsafe the way it did in the early days. Being misgendered hurts, but I also accept that I may never experience what being truly unclockable is like, and that’s fine—that’s part of what being trans is. And the androgynous or masculine parts of me aren’t evil, they’re part of my lived experience and ultimately, part of what helped unlock my womanhood.
Likewise, drag was the alchemical process that helped Gottlieb become Kade, while never having to leave Gottmik behind. “The person I am outside of drag has gone through so much,” he confesses.
Drag can be so many things — Gottleib’s femme alter ego, Gorgeous’ blown-out fantasy, the exaggerated exploration of masculinity that helped me find my womanhood. But like a stacked eyelash or a bold red lip, drag comes off—and for some of us, there’s something even more fabulous underneath.
“I fought so hard with the world, with myself, with my family, just to become the person that I’ve always wanted to be,” says Gottleib. “That person out of drag is probably more powerful than what I am in drag.”
Photos: Franz Szony @franzszony
Styling: Erik Ziemba @erikziemba
Hair by Preston Wada @prestonwada
Makeup by Gottmik @gottmik
Nails by Jennifer Dolnick @queencustomclaws
This is Out's July 2020 digital cover. A version of this story will also appear in the print edition of Out Magazine that will debut in mid-August.