The Artist’s Way: James Whiteside, Ballet Dancer

In this special feature, T photographed and interviewed 34 artists from various disciplines about 24 hours in their creative lives.

Article by Coco Romack

James WhitesideWhiteside at his home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on November 1, 2021. Photography by Melody Melamed.

My office desk does double duty as a vanity. It sits under a window that looks out onto a street with lots of brownstones — I’ve been here in Park Slope, Brooklyn, since August 2020, when the apartment was passed on to me by a friend of a friend who was moving to the countryside. The natural light is amazing, perfect for getting into drag.

I use one of those purple glue sticks from elementary school to cover my eyebrows, and Kryolan foundation, which is the thickest ever. I love glitter, heavy lashes, an aggressively arched eyebrow. Big lips, always. Whenever I’m in drag, it’s pretty severe. I have an extreme face: it’s very long and slender, with a lot of bones. It’s not a fleshy, round face that you can cut lines into — it’s lines only.

I’ve been doing stage makeup since I was 12, but I began doing drag around 2006, when I was with Boston Ballet. My friends and I would throw living-room parties where we performed for each other. Eventually, I formed a group called the Dairy Queens with my ex-boyfriend Dan Donigan, who performs as Milk, that included artists in Boston and New York, where I’m now a principal dancer and a choreographer with American Ballet Theatre.

My drag name is Ühu Betch. Ühu is an irreverent nonsense queen. She’s not overly polished. She’s fun and frankly kind of stupid — a drag queen with dad jokes. All the performances I do are dance-heavy because that’s what comes naturally to me, but they’re never too sexy, or maybe they’re sexy by accident. One of my favourites was at a club in Philadelphia in 2015. I sewed a silk pope costume, with a mitre and everything, and added Velcro in the back so I could tear it off. The audience would stick out their tongues and I’d place rice crackers on them. I was stripping, giving people the Eucharist, doing drop splits and just going mad.

Ballet is truly my life’s work, so if I feel like I’m not achieving what I need to, I’m disappointed. I invented this character to express myself in a different way — drag is a chance to play, but it’s not something I aspire to be the best at; it’s all room for failure. It helps me rediscover that childhood sense of freedom that people tend to lose as they get older, and it’s taught me to be fearless in everything I do. I’m not terribly shy, so if there’s something I want to try, I go for it, whether it’s writing, photography or dance. If it’s not working, I move on — you don’t give up on being creative, but you do learn to move on from a failed concept. I think it’s important that you have space to explore. Some of the best stuff is born of that.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 76 of T Australia with the headline: “The Artist’s Way”