Exorcisms, Instagram Strip Clubs, and Extraterrestrials: An Interview With Artist Gia Fagnelli

Gia Fagnelli is participating in the second round of Autostraddle’s Shelter In Our Place digital week! He will be performing on Saturday, May 30th at 10pm.

Supporting queer art and queer artist has been a point of practice of mine for at least the past five years. As a lesbian writer, I’ve sought community in the arms of other artists and creatives, one of these artists being Gia Fagnelli. Gia is Pittsburgh based but has traveled nationally to premiere their pole and video work, building a name for himself as an artist to watch out for. I sat down with Gia to talk about grief, movement, and the responsibility of the artist.


Gia Fagnelli (@GiaFagnelli) | Twitter
Photo by Karma Sangye Lama

Dani Janae: So the first question I have is a pretty simple one, tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Gia Fagnelli: To keep it simple I’m a queer artist with a true Sagitarrius rising.  I’m known for being a stripper, movement artist, a drag performer and also a video artist.  I also like to write and make collages. There are just so many different practices that go into any kind of creative person’s life.  I use whatever mediums I can get my hands on, art is really a way for me to understand my life better and also to try and make what I have felt and what I’ve experienced useful in some way.

DJ: Drag is often seen as sort of like a cis gay men’s game, what has your experience been as an a AFAB person in that community?

GF: I really think of myself much more as just a general drag performer playing across galaxies of genders, which gives me a lot more freedom. There’s a little something that sets me apart. Yeah and, as an Aquarius, I kind of appreciate anything that sets me apart, you know?

DJ: (Laughs) Yeah! What’s your relationship to like being this gender-fluid, gender-bending performer? How has that affected audiences in spaces that you’ve performed?

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GF: Well, I definitely have always had mixed emotions about the questions I get from audience members after I perform. The way I usually address it when they ask what’s going on with me is: If you’re confused, then we’re on the same page!

That’s my sort of way of allowing myself to live in the grey areas. Internally there’s something that feels right and true and validated when I’m in a room and most people don’t know my gender, because that just means that they are operating without all the assumptions. Then I get to operate without all the assumptions. From an artistic standpoint, I kind of embrace the confusion, but I also feel a lot of responsibility because I’m frequently people’s first encounter with that kind of gender diversity. And I’m an unusual one. So I don’t want to go around spreading an assumption that anybody’s experience is like mine. I just want to keep making room for everybody else’s experiences while I’m expressing my own, you know?

DJ: Speaking about never feeling directly within the binary. Is that something that you’ve also explored outside performing?

GF: Totally. I absolutely cut all of my hair off days before kindergarten started because I didn’t want to be forced into dresses for school, and I fully wanted to be Elvis when I was 7 (before I found out he was a narc and a cultural thief). In high school I didn’t have a gender, I had scenes: I was a punk rock raver freshman running with all the weirdest wildest seniors in the building. I got kicked out a few months into my sophomore year, literally for being too gay, isn’t that incredible?

In college I cut off all my hair again and started binding and first wondered if I was sometimes a man. I have a lot to say about the advantages it gave me on an 85% male campus. The way men talked to me was so different than the way they talked to the feminine straight women that were around. I could even check them when they said something sexist or racist or homophobic and they’d be like, “huh man, I never thought about it” and then pass me the fucking joint! If my hair was long, they would’ve told me to suck it.

After college I lived in the Bay and I thought it was a safe place to really explore femininity. I discovered that even in queer liberal place it was a “boys club” versus femmes dynamic. I’ve just kind of just dabbled a lot in the middle ever since. I only really felt like I came into a sense of empowered womanhood when I became a stripper and a drag queen at 25 years old. And the more I get to explore my femininity, the more I’m feeling connected with my masculinity and allowing myself more freedom to spread out. I really like the way that I’m aging. I’m getting really comfortable, in a way I never have before. In my art, I like the question: What does masculinity or femininity mean off of planet earth, outside of this galaxy even?

At Home With: Gia Fagnelli | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh ...
Photo by Fagnellii

DJ: I have this question about your extraterrestrial/alien persona. How did that come about? Was there, like, a particular alien figure in your life, whether that was through childhood or adulthood that made you want to be connected to that as an emotional spiritual entity?

GF: Yeah. My first word was star!

DJ: Yeah?

GF: I always was into space stuff. My brother, too. My brother was hella into Star Wars and I ended up watching a lot of that. I loved ET, and Mars attacks was the first DVD we had in the house.

I’m also an Aquarius. It comes kind of natural to identify with that alien figure. A lot of my work explores feelings of alienation and ideas of queers as celestial beings.

DJ: Yeah, definitely.

GF: Can’t fight the moonlight!

DJ: Do your worlds of being a stripper, a drag artist and performer, a video artist ever collide in unique or difficult ways?

GF: Definitely! I think that right now everything’s colliding because, for one, everything is streamlining to the internet. Before I felt I kind of pressured to keep my SW life separate from my drag, but I’m starting to merge those worlds. There’s really been some fun moments where I have just embraced my drag training while I’ve been on stage in the strip club. I’ve let my stripping experience inform my performances in drag. I’m trying to allow myself to have all of my complexities all in one space. I don’t have to sterilize myself. I can let myself be all the things I am and I think more people will get it, because it’s authentic to who I am. I think most people are complex. They want to see that reflected in art that they want to look at, too.

DJ: Definitely. Do you see that even in cis straight dudes that go to strip clubs?

GF: What about them?

DJ: Do you see them wanting more complex art as well?

GF: I have noticed that some straight men will find my OnlyFans or see me perform in a strip club and follow me because of that, then end up interacting with and liking a lot of my queer content and being really chill customers. And if they’re one more person who buys a ticket to an online show or spends more money on my OnlyFans or sends a tip or even just gives me another like on a post, like, sure, as long as you’re not causing any trouble, you can kick it.

DJ: Do you find that like the drag world and the stripper world ever borrow from each other?

GF: Oh God. Constantly. Our dressing rooms are so similar. Like we’re all identifying each other’s wig hairs tangled in our piles of money or somehow stuck in our buttcracks.

My house mom at my original club actually ran a store downtown (in Pittsburgh) that primarily strippers and drag queens shopped at. There’s an ongoing conversation about drag queens wearing pleaser heels (which are the main stripper heel brand). And you know, I have some mixed feelings about it. I understand that they are a sturdy heel. They’re sexy, they’re meant for performing, and they come in a wide variety of sizes and styles. That’s in part because they’ve always had trans women customers. Trans women account for an important part of the sex work community and culture. These heels are a symbol of sex work, and Cardi B meant something real when she said “these is bloody shoes”.

Queens love telling a hooker joke while wearing their “hooker heels”. I mean, RuPaul has always had sex worker characters, her songs are often about “pussy for sale” and “texting the escort agency”. And the big issue for me is the awareness of the impact of these behaviors on the lives and safety of real people in our community. So you’ll know FKA Twigs, learning to pole dance without saying something, anything, in support of strippers, you know what I mean? If you’re going to be on a mic and a drag show, cracking jokes about SW, then also say “anybody know what SESTA/FOSTA is?” It’s important.

From Art Installation to Dance, the 5th Annual Pittsburgh ...
Photo by Karma Sangye Lama

DJ: Your work is very, but not entirely, body-focused. I’m wondering what effect that also has on you spiritual work? You talk a lot about grief and how that, those things like movement and processing through the body has had an effect on your like, spiritual growth.

GF: Oh, that’s such a good question. I’ve had CPTSD since childhood. So that affects the body in a number of ways. It affects adrenal glands and cortisol levels. The body memorizes trauma. Physically processing is a really important way for me to literally move through my experiences. I’m a Leo moon, I take things to heart, also my Venus is in Capricorn, I think in many ways I’m committed to the work of feeling.

I live in a very physical, tangible realm and that’s a way for me to ground myself as well. When I am floating away or dissociating, movement is so important. I’m not formally trained in any form of dance or movement really. but it’s always just been there as a way to instantly reclaim myself at any time.

Long, before I started performing, I’d notice that my movement would have an impact on somebody; it would make somebody laugh or make somebody feel freer to dance on their own. It brought me the relieving feeling that I exist. It’s also another way to communicate when you don’t have the words.

DJ: So I’ve been to a workshop sort of that you led that was on movement and dancing and freedom through the body. When you do things like that, do you find that there is this exchange of energy that is both beneficial to you and also to the person that’s taking that class?

GF: Majorly! Movement workshops charge me up in a special way. When you’re just in a flow state and moving, you’re not analyzing, you are just empty. That’s also when the most incredible discoveries will come to you. You look at your knee caps in it as if you’ve never seen a leg before in your whole life. Suddenly I am the roots of a tree and I can feel that I’m just a quivering cluster of cells. That can be startling. It can be freeing but that’s kind of the goal of the movement meditation. We’re all having our own personal experience of it, while we’re sharing space. Yeah, I get a lot out of that.

DJ: That’s awesome. So in your Vice profile, you described yourself as a lesbian stripper. Do you still identify with those terms? Can you talk about what they mean for you?

GF: I’m the first google result for “lesbian stripper” and I’m so fucking proud of that! When I first came out, even though I knew I was a hundred percent queer, I still came out as bisexual cause I knew it was more complicated than being strictly a lesbian. My lesbian friends hated that. But I also love the word lesbian. Identify so hard with the lesbian community. I would say that I’ve had a lesbian experience in many ways, I’m just also a lot of other stuff. But I just think that my identity is all around greedy (laughs). I am, I am. I’m goddamn greedy with my freedom.

What I’ve lived, I want to own all of it at once. Yeah, I am a lesbian stripper, non-binary drag performer, I’m using he/him pronouns these days, they/them on other days, I used to be she/her, I might be she/her again one day. I’m working on accepting that it’s okay to be fluid and temporary.

DJ: One thing that you’ve been doing recently that I find really cool is your online Instagram live pole shows.

GF: Yeah, Pole Request Live!

DJ: Yeah. Can you talk to me about those and like how you came up with that idea?

GF: Pole Request Live (PRL) is inspired by my creative hustles at the strip club. So I’m working at the club and a dude says “will you dance to ___?” and I’m like “cough it up.” You want to give me an extra 30+ bucks right now, I will tip half of that to the DJ and keep half of it to dance to your little fucking Kid Rock song.

I knew I wanted to do some sort of Instagram live pole situation, which is something that I want to be accessible for people who don’t feel comfortable going into a strip club. I really wanted to just make a space that people could just dip in and see some safe for work stripper art, and I’m having a blast with it.

My main issue right now is dealing with copyright. Somebody will request something popular and then my butt will get booted the fuck off live. It’s been a major obstacle, so I’m moving my PRL primarily to OnlyFans because I can go live on OnlyFans without the hassle of the IG cops. The final Instagram PRL will be hosted on Autostraddle’s IG this Saturday night at 10 PCT, 1am EST! I’m mainly featuring independent queer artists to help battle the copyright cops, so keep your eye out for the playlist, and get your requests in early!

I also want to plug other people’s stuff! There are really cool SW spaces like Thicc Strip which is a collective of thick strippers, bless. If you don’t have a favorite queer stripper, find one (i can recommend a few!) and many of them are making custom content, support that shit! I’m really excited by the different ways people are doing online erotic entertainment.

Photo by The Childlike Empress

DJ: Yeah, for sure. So when this quarantine stuff has lifted, what’s next for you? What are you doing after this?

GF: I’m kind of trying to stay in the present because I think that this is going to be going on for a while. In regards to stripping, I’m hoping for the resurgence of the Peep Show.

Right now is a really incredible time for anybody who does video art. Doing visuals for dance parties is something that’s been so fucking cool for me the past few years. I love creating visuals for live dance parties, in the meantime quarantimes, I’ve been doing visuals for DJ nights on Twitch, like the Brooklyn based queer party series XOXA. And that I think is going to be more important than ever while quarantine is a factor.

Right now I really want to focus on releasing all this digital content that I have. I’m preparing to release “The Exorcism Exhibition” which has been in the works for a minute (two years). It was built for a live immersive theatre experience but it’s so video heavy, it’s perfect for a digital platform. Just needs a little more revamping now that I sort of have more possibility than ever. I’ve given myself a deadline of July to get the finishing touches on the first three 30 minute episodes.

DJ: How would you sum up or describe the Exorcism Exhibition?

GF: The Exorcism Exhibition started as a collection of works I created while experiencing the death of my father. My father’s family is Catholic, I was raised both Catholic and Protestant, and I left both churches in early adolescence. Catholicism is as much a culture as it is a religion, and it shaped my understandings of spiritual rituals. This art is a practice in self-exorcism, in understanding grief, undoing intergenerational curses, and seeking justice for others as a way to heal our own hearts.

Some of it is numbers that have been seen in different contexts. For instance, you have seen my Fear the Reaper/Getting Scared number. That’s the one with the eggshells that I did at the PJ (PJ refers to drag performer, video artist, and creative Princess Jafar) thing like 3ish years ago. A lot of it is also stuff that has never been seen or never been published anywhere. Yeah.

DJ: Okay. I’m excited for that!

GF: Yeah, me too. Thank you! I’m finally making moves on formal training in death doula services and feeling ready to make use of these experiences and transform my relationship to them.

DJ: I don’t have any more questions, but is there anything that you want to say anything that you’d want people to know more about you?

GF: Let’s see, I should plug CineFagnelli a little bit. That’s another fun series that I’m doing: looks and digital drag numbers based on films I love. There are samples on my IG, but all the best exclusives are on onlyfans.

I wanna encourage everybody to be engaged with any and all of the local queer independent creators making anything that they feel connected to. If you want to see somebody’s art, it’s important to go to their page and like their posts so that they show up in your feed and show up in your algorithm! I learned that from PJ. Don’t just rely on who has the most views or the most traction, or the biggest name already. Look for someone to root for and watch their glow up! Tell digital show producers who you want to see! This is a great way to boost QPOC and Trans artists. Audiences have more power than they realize in choosing what art they see and support.

Because you really should choose your art for yourself. But you know, you should find people who are reflecting you or reflecting the world that you want to be living in.

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Dani Janae is a poet and writer based out of Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not writing love poems for unavailable women, she's watching horror movies, hanging with her tarantula, and eating figs. Follow Dani Janae on Twitter and on Instagram.

Dani has written 21 articles for us.

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