By Rhys Bailey

Her Reign is Only Just Beginning. The Queeired and the Wonderful.

In the last decade alone, the art form of drag has burst into the mainstream thanks to shows like RuPauls Drag Race and led to the birth of a new wave of drag performers. Rhys Bailey talks to one of these blossoming queens, Reign, on how they found their drag identity, forged a career for themselves, started a drag focused talent group and what it means to be a drag queen in the modern day.

Unlike everyone else in lockdown, Daniel Sykes is looking immaculate and well as he appears on camera from his West London flat, with neatly groomed hair and a bright smile. His enthusiasm is immediate and greets me as though I’m an old friend. Throughout our interview, he displays an articulate and sharp mind, and even sharper wit, and is generally charming and likeable.

What is initially shocking is how different Daniel looks compared to his drag persona, the self-titled Amorphous Angel; Reign, whose artistic makeup and high fashion looks are now even more striking a metamorphosis. Daniel has been performing as Reign for several years, since his days at university, but explains he has always had that creative and expressive side to him invested in dress-up, even as a child.

He says, “I started dabbling in drag before I even knew what drag was. I was inspired by female fictional characters in tv and film. I was somewhere between Madonna in the Me Against the Music video and Mulan, running around with a tea towel on my head.”

As he grew older, Daniel realised his fascination with the ideas of change and amorphousness could be brought to tangible reality through drag. He realised this when he first watched season four of RuPauls Drag Race. “It was like a lightning bolt of realisation. Everything became clear and came into focus” he says.

Daniel knew about drag beforehand, but it took seeing Drag Race for him to recognise that that’s what all of his creative ideas and desires of expression were. From here he started his exploration small. Buying a bit of concealer and eyeliner, nothing too conspicuous for a man, as at the time Daniel was still closeted.

When Daniel attended college he studied several creative subjects such as drama, media and English literature, with his interests becoming more gender-focused as he progressed. Originally from London, it was when he went to De Montfort University in Leicester and did a course in theatre studies where he first started to perform in drag while earning a masters. It’s from here he turned drag from a hobby into a profession. It’s where Reign drew her first breath.

Before settling on the name Reign, Daniel says he had several in mind before finding the right one. Eventually, he clicked with Reign which he felt a strong vibe with. “It’s kind of bougie, kind of arty and kind of regal too. I can be comedic but also stylish and arty too. I wanted a name that translated all of those different modes in my head.” He says.

It was in 2015 that Daniel first performed as Reign in a devised piece for his second year at university, called ‘the useless bundle of sticks in a sausage factory’. The name came from a piece of wordplay on the word used in agriculture for a bundle of sticks which was also a homophobic slur. With a surge of pride, he says “I thought the name was hilarious. It was the craziest live performance art you have ever seen in your life. It was f*cking iconic!”

While at university, Daniel also began to take Reign out and about the local Leicester nightlife. He details how he would wake up at 3pm from the previous night’s gig and then do about 3 hours of uni work. Then he’d get into drag, become Reign, and tour venues until they closed in the early hours of the morning. And then repeat. With no idea of how he survived university, now, thankfully, he’s more chilled out, but still carries the same ambition and strong work ethic for Reign.

“When I left uni I knew I needed to rebrand Reign and make her more commercial. I still love doing educational performance pieces but they are few and far between now. I’ve had to commercialise Reign out of the educational and into a more professional context. I took all the crazy whackoness and synthesised it into more kind of punk rock live shows and hosting.” Daniel says.”

This is when Daniel and his friend Aiden founded Queeired in 2019, a project that aimed to feature and showcase drag and burlesque talents. Daniel serves as creative director for the project, which has been used as the foundations for putting together shows such as Heartstrings and Reignbows, two events that allowed people to enjoy drag and burlesque acts as well as the Queeired volumes.

“I love creating performance opportunities for others because I myself had found it quite difficult finding and asking for gigs. Eventually, I just thought ‘f*ck this sh*t, I’m gonna make my own.’ So I made my own lane and did my own thing. I love giving people that start on stage and working with them to see what beautiful and crazy things in their head can be released.” he says with a flair of cool rebelliousness.

The sentimentality is obvious when he describes Queeired as his baby and passion project, and as a turning point for what Reign represented. The name Queeired is a blend of queer and weird. It takes back the power of the word queer, which was so long used as a term of prejudice against the LGBTQIA+ community.

Two people involved in Queeired that Daniel mentions as being a massive help in the project are his drag daughter Poppy and fellow performer Pure. Poppy has been involved since the very beginning and gives her all to helping Queeired progress.

“She’s such a workhorse. She’s an incredible performer and brilliant at marketing and creating our digital media. She turns it out on stage and then does all the post-show admin. She’s amazing. I adore her so much.” He says, sounding like a proud parent, also mentioning that Poppy has even started a podcast called Safe Haus as part of her drag career.

And, despite being in bouts of poor health, Daniel also credits fellow performer Pure for helping Queeired to be the success it is. He says, “I met her at the Everyone is Talking About Jamie shoot. She’s been involved in nearly every single Queeired project so far. She’s pretty much my left hand. She’s an absolute savage and I love her for it.”

Daniel says that that has been one of the most wonderful things about starting Queeired, the networking and connecting it has let him do with fellow performers and the opportunities it has opened up professionally. This included getting to appear in a party scene for the upcoming film adaptation of the Everyone’s Talking About Jamie musical. 

He laughs as he recalls the absurdity of arriving to film the scene and seeing so many other drag performers in a full face of makeup, full tracksuits and no wigs, standing outside Kings Cross station at four in the morning.

“It was so much fun to do and I got to make so many new friends from that event as well as new contacts to collaborate with. I felt like that was my arrival moment into professional drag.” He says with that now-familiar air of giddy excitement.

Another favourite moment is also his favourite performance. The launch show of Queeired volume one in 2019. Daniel spent months meeting up with his friend Aiden to plan this show, work out the design aspects, book and organise the acts and the venue with four more months of tireless promotion. The ball was finally rolling.

The event took place at Brewdog in Leicester, where his drag roots were firmly nestled. Nervous on the actual night, the show was to be three hours long and have eight acts performing, the venue would hold up to 150 people. Daniel expected between 50 and 100 at most. At one point in the night, there were around 350 people, which was just as much of a shock to the frantic bar staff as well as Reign. She was amazed at the outpour of support and love.

The success of the night meant so much.“I had so many testimonials of people saying they had been looking for something like this. I was so proud of how successful it was. Seeing so many people I care about under one roof supporting me and the project. It was one of the best nights of my life.” He says.

It was the start of something incredible and ignited the Queeired fire. Until the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020. Queeired two, which was meant to be a bigger bolder version of the first one, had to be cancelled. Instead Queeired the movie came about and showcased talent through digital platforms instead.

Speaking of the pandemic feels inevitable as the UK’s creative industries have been some of the most deeply impacted by the financial and social fallout. Daniel is aware of how lucky he is to have had alternative work for income but that not all of his peers have been so fortunate.

On his own personal journey through the year-long lockdown, Daniel says he was able to use the first few months to develop and refine Reign before taking a break. It wasn’t until 10 months later that the time felt right for her to return.

“I missed Reign. After taking what time I needed to focus on myself, I felt inspired to return to drag with a fresh perspective. I took the first bit of lockdown to create some new looks for Reign and develop her, and then took a break. But now, I’m coming back with a vengeance.”

Daniel says with a mischievous grin.

Daniel states he and Poppy are already planning new projects to dabble in, including Queeired volume three. He jokes about the idea of Poppy being Reigns’ drag daughter but also like an older sister and reenacting the iconic ‘You’re not my mother. Yes, I am.” moment between Zoe and Kat Slater from Eastenders, for the volume. 

While speaking of what the future holds for Reign, the question that feels like it’s been looming the whole interview springs forth. ‘Would you ever consider doing RuPauls Drag Race?’

RuPauls Drag Race is undeniable and unavoidable when talking about drag, as it’s the entertainment goliath that has brought drag to the mainstream. It has become inescapable. You don’t need to watch it to know what it is or that it exists.

It’s something that helped Daniel recognise his own passion for drag, and he confesses that he had indeed applied for the recently concluded second season of Drag Race UK, but ultimately he decided to pull out from his application. He chose to start a job related to his dream career. Something that was guaranteed, instead of the uncertainty of making the final cut.

“I made it fairly far, I made it into the top 50 applicants I think. But I withdrew my application because I got a start date for my career. Also, I just absolutely wasn’t ready. I didn’t know enough of who Reign was. I wasn’t financially secure enough. I’m glad I didn’t make it in hindsight.” he says.

Wether he would apply again in future, he seems uncertain. It’s something he has thought about a lot. Daniel reasons that the experience and exposure would be great. He loves the idea of going on the show and being able to give people the experience he got when he first watched Drag Race, giving people the confidence to be themselves and be creative. But he also reasons that he’d only go on if he knew Reign could be a contender for the crown and make the top three. However, it also has its downsides and it just doesn’t seem to be the right time for Reign.

Drag Race is a great platform for showcasing the possibilities of drag talent and serving as a launch platform for the careers of many talented queens. Daniel says the show is to thank for helping people to realise the power of drag and cause new creative talents to flourish. But it is also very glamorized and dramatized for television. At times this has led to some intense toxicity from the Drag Race fandom for certain contestants. Having done drag for a number of years now, Daniel offers his insight on this and the effort it takes to be a drag artist in today’s world.

“We need to remind ourselves that the existence of drag emanates from the stage rather than on screen. Drag has its origins in Shakespearean and even Greek theatre. It is performance art and I feel a lot of people become screen ready as opposed to stage ready in the context of contemporary drag.” Daniel says, “People tend to watch Drag Race and think that’s what drag is. But it’s not the same. There’s so much more graft to it. There’s so much set up. It’s very much about the sheer effort and hustle in the real world.” Daniel says, almost with a tone of weariness.

Instead, Daniel wants to focus on nurturing and growing Queeired into something even bigger and better while still staying true to the humble beginnings it came from.

“My ultimate dream for Queeired would be to take the volume on tour for a month, once every year or two. There’s so much work to do before any of that though. I’d love to have a massive tour across the UK and spread that message of inclusivity, love and fun and just become one of those famous troupes.” He says with an endearing excitement.

If anything has been made clear, it’s how much Daniel loves drag. How much it has shaped his life and how much he wants his craft to impact the world for the better. Drag saved him. He describes drag as the good clashing with the demons inside his mind and has now become a space of love and happiness. Drag was a chance for Daniel to explore outside of the identity he was pretending to become his true self. The irony of this statement is not lost on him.

He says, “I found a beautiful synergy between masculine and feminine. I’ve ridden the wave since. For me drag was necessary, it saved me, it gave me an education, a personal and emotional education. It gave me my A levels, my Degree, My masters. I left a PHD to do drag professionally. The calling I feel to do it is so strong.”

When asked what he hopes audiences will gain from their experiences with Reign and seeing her perform, Daniel takes a breath and a moment to think before simply replying, “Freedom”. Growing up he found that watching and listening to music videos and film performances could change a person’s day and lift them up.

“I perform for that reason. I love to see people entertained and see stories reflected on stage. I like using drag to explore political and social issues and make a positive change. We’re so pressured into being miserable. I just want to give people that time to exhale and laugh.” He says. And you can’t help but believe him.

With this passion, wit, charm and creative energy, Daniel and Reign seem set to take the nation by storm. In spite of the barriers put in place by the covid-19 pandemic, Reign and Queeired are ready to smash through them all with love and positivity, not just uplifting other drag artists but everyone fortunate enough to be part of the experience.

Before the interview concludes Daniel gives a final declaration of love for his craft. “I adore Drag because it is everything and nothing. You can be anything you want to. You have something you can call drag and call it your own. And no one can tell you that it isn’t correct, because art and drag are so subjective. Drag is everything from the chest of costumes I had as a kid that I first used to explore, to where I am now. It has saved me and helped me become a confident man, a confident woman and a professional. It’s my greatest passion in life and the greatest thing about life for me, I love it.”

You can find out more about Reign, Queeired and associated acts by following their Instagram accounts: @Reignperfomanceartist @Queeired_ and @thepxppy