You are on page 1of 18

The Lady Ms.

Vagina Jenkins

Nia: How did you become The Lady Ms. Vagina Jenkins?

Vag: Okay. Everybody, I feel like, that has a chosen name has multiple stories about their
chosen name that they will share depending on the audience. What I feel like talking about today
is that it’s definitely a chosen name that started out as a performance name, but is definitely now
[sighs] more aspirational in quality. But, my full chosen name is The Lady Ms. Vagina Jenkins.
Today, you saw me introduce myself to people as V, just because, I mean, I’m already at a place
of being super overwhelmed and I’m just trying to reach…To that end I just wanna say out loud,
that, because anxiety is what it looks like, I am crying. But, again, I already told you I don’t need
taking care of about it and, if you just make the space for me to be here as I am [whispers] it gets
better. [Laughter]

Musical Interlude

Nia: So, when you say “it’s aspirational,” what does that mean?

Vag: It means that—for me—one quality of my name is that, when I have the capacity and
courage to say my full name, I know that I’m pretty much showing up as my authentic self. It
also—my name also has the quality of—because I am curious about what people’s relationship
to me is, I let them call me what they call me and it’s interesting to see what variants of, “Vag!
Auntie Vag! Lady V! Ms. Jaankings,” all of these things that show up from different people. So,
it’s also an indicator of my relationship to folks.

Nia: Like a litmus test…almost.

Vag: Yeah. Something like that.

Nia: So, you said it started out as a performance name. I’ve seen you perform stand up and I’ve
seen you perform burlesque. Both were amazing.

Vag: Thank you.

Nia: But, I’m curious. I feel like you probably do more types of art than I even know about. Can
you…? Can we run down…? [laughter]

Vag: Yeah!

Nia: All the different types of artist you are?

Vag: I was thinking—Thank you for asking! I was thinking about this this morning because it’s
a point of pride to me that I do many artistic things, but I haven’t often thought about them as a
full-on grocery list of things. But, in terms of being a burlesque performer, that also mean that I
need to know how to do makeup and hair, my own costuming, my own—what do you call it?
Sound editing. In terms of being a stand-up performer, for that moment, that talks about my
writing skill. Also my marketing skill, which I think is within the artistic realm, though it’s been
art that’s capital—art that’s been harnessed for the good of capitalism. I feel like, what else is
there? There’s millinery arts, which is hat making.

Nia: Okay.

Vag: I’m also a film maker. I make films with my creative collaborator, Luna Merbruja and they
are an amazing Latinx filmmaker based in the Bay area and we are VandL Films—V A N D L—
Films on Insta. Check us out. What else? Today I was posting about new taxidermy work that I
am doing.

Nia: Okay.

Vag: I am currently working on a Red-Shouldered Hawk. There are pictures on my Insta: Vagina
Jenkins. Check me out.

Nia: How did you get into taxidermy?

Vag: ‘Cause I’m country.

Nia: [Laughter] Okay. Well, I definitely wanna ask about where you’re from, but you mentioned
something earlier that I want to go back to, which is harnessing the power of art for capitalism.
Could you talk a little bit more about what that means?

Vag: Oh, Lord Jesus. We’re going there so early. Can we circle back around?

Nia: Sure! Yeah.

Vag: Let’s have a little foreplay and then get into it.

Nia: [Laughter] Okay. So, where did you grow up?

Vag: Oh, So I’m definitely a child of the Southeast; a Southerner. I was born in Fayetteville,
North Carolina, on Fort Bragg, which is because both of my parents were in the army at the time.
I feel like I came of age as an adult in Atlanta. Shout out ATL.

Nia: How old were you when you moved to Atlanta?

Vag: I feel like that was the ages of twenty-one to…I didn’t finish that sentence [laughter], but
twenty-one.

Nia: I’m curious how Fort Bragg and Fayetteville shaped you.

Vag: I feel like it had to have, but because I ran away from home as an adult I don’t often think
about the ways in which I am tied to it, but I know they live in my body. For example, being a
taxidermist. That ain’t nothing but Fayetteville, Cumberland County, back woods-ass shit. I
mean, it is and it is part of who I am and part of what I’m proud of, but never tie it to that
particular geographical location.

Nia: What drew you to Atlanta?

Vag: So, Atlanta after graduating college…because it was the Black Mecca of its time. I feel like
it still is. It just felt… Blackness has always been very important to me and it feels weird to say
that out loud, but folks be folks. So, moving to Atlanta was an expression of growing up and
being an adult in a Black town. And I took for granted—I took for granted that level of
Blackness. So, in a way Atlanta raised me and made me the artist that I am and formed a lot of
my nascent political and just ethic—ethical and moral standings about things. And also, I feel
there wasn’t enough artistic opportunity for there—for me there and I feel like so many artists
that are from the South and from smaller towns/rural areas… I came to the Bay Area to pursue
what I perceived was the ultimate in egalitarian, queer art-making. I know, don’t look at me like
that with that face.

Nia: I’m sorry, I don’t know how else—I don’t know how to verbally convey the facial
expression that I just made. I mean…because a lot of us move here wanting it to be that.

Vag: I know.

Nia: And then got our hearts broken. [laughter]

Vag: and you know there’s always some cranky old bitch that pulls you to the side and is like,
“Look out for this person and watch out for that institution and blah, blah, blah,” and you’re just
like, “Oh god, they’re such a hater.”

Nia: If you’re lucky you have that person.

Vag: And now I am that person.

Nia: [Laughter]What did you study in school? Was it art related?

Vag: No. I did African-American Studies and English. I was for the three years a Biology major,
which science—and the life sciences in particular—are my jam. I actually was trying to go and
build my own pre-med track in a college that didn’t have a pre-med track, but I was doing
Biology. Anyway, I could not pass Organic Chemistry and I’d already taken so many Triple A.S.
and English courses for fun that I just had to switch my major three years in.

And it bugs me, because it’s really just that one class and I remember many people talking about
how that class in particular is a “weed out” class in that particular milieu. It’s a “weed out” class
and it’s just—now with the ways that I feel politically about things, I just interrogate language a
lot and this idea that it’s defacto—that this one class should weed out a large number of potential
scholars in the field…that feels unacceptable to me. Why would you—why would you just
casually say that that’s okay? Why wasn’t there support? Why wasn’t there specifically support
for a Black woman trying to do this in the country? I get angry about that, but also what if I—
what if I was a scientist? What if I was not an artist? I don’t know, I don’t know what that life
would be. I feel like I would be around a lot more neuro-divergent people, which would be
exciting. But I also feel like I wouldn’t have my queerness and my Blackness. I don’t know why
I think that.

Nia: What was your first creative outlet? Were you making art back in…before you moved to
Atlanta or did that really start when you moved to the big city?

Vag: I feel like early creative outlets was doing that thing where you have talent shows amongst
your friends…

Nia: So, you’ve always been a performer?

Vag: Yeah. Early costume design, early makeup with your Barbies. Always liking shiny, glitzy,
glammy things and wanting more of it.

Nia: I’m curious how—you know you’ve mentioned anxiety already and you’re also someone
who is drawn to stages. How does that work? [laughter]

Vag: Oh. I mean…

Nia: Do you feel less anxious on stage?

Vag: Yeah! I often, I—I wonder about how people think about that, but it just feels so obvious to
me. The world is shitty, but when I carve out my own space and I say what the lighting, what the
music, what the costume, what the scene, what the narrative will be… of course I would feel
comfortable there.

Nia: You think it’s because you have control over the environment?

Vag: I mean, a bit and also there’s that place where…when you’re really doing it right and you
relax. It’s like a feeling of being—this is what you’re supposed to do. And there’s something
just—ultimately just really still about that.

Nia: It totally makes sense. I’m trying to understand your creative and political trajectory from
where you started out to now.

Vag: I feel like, general working-class, country, Black environment as a child. College. I was
definitely a smart kid. Definitely on my Talented Tenth, light-skinned foolishness bullshittery. I
feel like after college is when I realized the reality of what Black life means in America. In terms
of being immediately boxed in. To go from feeling brilliant to immediately not valued.

Nia: And you feel like that happened when you moved to Atlanta?
Vag: No, I feel like that was post-academy; post-college, when I was released into the real world
to have somehow made a career for myself, but with no…I was the first person in my family to
go to college. No network. Great grades, but no real person that was invested in my success in
any kind of way.

I think the interesting thing about my life is…having gone through this period of being so
intensely cerebral, to have graduated college and have no support, and then realized the reality of
my Black life was gonna be about making a living from my body. Post-college is when I was a
sex worker. I feel like that makes me incredibly angry. Incredibly angry to be told that the way
out of working-class Blackness is education and that that’s not the case at all. What you really
should be talking about is: this is a white supremacist and capitalist system. Now, how can I
prepare you for that reality? It is not egalitarian out in these streets. This is not a meritocracy. It’s
just not and I feel like I somehow missed that conversation and feel foolish about it, but also
these things are the things that make you you; who you are.

So, I feel like moving to Atlanta was my real...I guess maybe, I dunno. Not my lowest point, but
it as a point. But it was ten years of sex work, food service, putting together a living on five jobs,
getting evicted, living in rat-infested apartments, and all at the same time having this burlesque—
queer burlesque art career where I felt like white folks were gassing me up. Like, “Ooh, you
could make a living being an artist. You really could!” and I feel like while that is somewhat true,
you also have to acknowledge the reality of living at intersectional oppressions and I just feel
like a lot of the times angry and duped. So, Atlanta then deciding to move out to the Bay Area to
pursue the life of an artist ‘cause I've received so much more queer art opportunity [here] and it
seemed open and welcoming. If that made any sense.

Nia: When did you get here?

Vag: Maybe ten—2010ish. I feel like I’ve been here anywhere from seven to ten years.

Nia: And so you were down to the bay because you felt like there’d be more opportunities to
create here?

Vag: Yeah. And in a lot of ways there have been, but also a lot of ways that it has felt like
having the veil lifted.

Nia: Can we talk about that?

Vag: Yeah. Talk about it. I mean I'm sure you have this kind of—how many times have you had
the same exact conversation on your show, though?

Nia: The moving to the Bay and getting your heart broken?

Vag: Yeah! Is it not a theme?


Nia: Well OK. There are people that have definitely said, “There are possibilities for me here
that didn't exist back home,” particularly around accessing transition-related health care.

I mean...I want to say not everyone hates the Bay, but the bay is heartbreaking. [laughter

Vag: Well, I meant to say this toward sort of the… sort of towards the beginning is that one of
the many things about who I am in the world is…I should have done an intro. I’m gonna do an
intro now.

Nia: [Laughter] Okay.

Vag: Hi! My name is The Lady Ms. Vagina Jenkins. My pronouns are she and her. In terms of
primary identities in which I find myself located: I am Black—as in Black with two Black
parents—I am from a working-class background, but I am scrambling towards the middle class. I
am crazy, also known as neuro divergent, in that I am chronically depressed and autistic and
anxious. Other things about me that you should know is that I am a Pisces sun, Leo moon,
Sagittarius rising and my love language is gifts. Okay, that's it.

Nia: [laughter] Great, now I know how to start the show!

Vag: Yes. What did you ask me, though, I forgot.

Nia: We were talking about the veil being lifted, I think.

Vag: Oh, the veil being lifted. Yes, yes, yes, yes.

Nia: But, I feel like maybe that's skipping ahead a little bit. Was burlesque your—It seems like,
maybe, that was your main creative outlet for a long time?

Vag: Yea. I feel like, though, it was what I was primarily known as… is a burlesque performer
and I like that about myself in terms of portraying real Empress tarot card energy. That's who I
am in the world, but it's just a little bit frustrating because I feel like it doesn't—a lot of the
burlesque critique or feedback that I've gotten it's been, “Oh my God, that was beautiful!
Touching! Beautiful! Gorgeous! Beautiful,” and that doesn't feel very—It doesn't feel like a
sincere compliment or a well thought out compliment. It doesn't feel like my work is valued in
any kind of real way that elicits real emotional feedback or response or even technical feedback
or response.

Nia: What would you like to hear?

Vag: Oh! I would love to see the things that I do be noticed like, “Oh, I liked that reference,” and,
“Oh my goodness, that song choice with this evoked of applause, but I guess pretty is nice too.
Nia: I mean so I think I've only seen you perform burlesque once. I think it was at Mangos with
Chili's last show and you performed to Knuck If You Buck by Crime Mob, which I just thought
was an amazing music choice and it was an amazing performance,

Vag: Thanks.

Nia: I don't know what else to say.

Vag: Thanks. So pretty…

Nia: I didn't say pretty!

Vag: “It's nice.”

Nia: You're extremely talented in a way that I think can be hard to describe with words. You just
experience the art and you're like, “Holy shit. What just happened?” [laughter]

Vag: Thanks. Thanks.

Nia: But it sounds like you feel like being known as a burlesque performer is somewhat limiting
and I'm curious how you’d like to be known. I feel like the word I want to use as multimedia
artist, but I also feel like that's so vague it doesn't really tell you anything.

Vag: Yeah. It's not that—I feel like that's where my mind immediately went to and then I was
like multidisciplinary performing artist and that's not what I feel. I don't know why this comes to
mind, but I feel like back home, there was always a girl in your neighborhood that had all of the
side hustles and she would sell penny candy and also braid hair and always the third or fourth
thing was, “…and she do her.” And I feel like that's who I am. “Bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, and
she do her.” Can that be an artist statement?

Nia: Sure!

Vag: OK. [laughter]

Nia: You moved here to pursue burlesque opportunity specifically?

Vag: No. I saw the ways in which Mangos was using burlesque to talk about really important
stuff…to—

Nia: Is Mangos is what made you move here?

Vag: No. I mean, not entirely, but that organizations like that existed. That organizations like
that existed and were funded and they were specifically naming an end to white supremacy. I
was like, “Whoa! The Bay Area's woke, that’s where I’m trying to go!” And that's true but also
not, so don't move here on the strength of that, please. Auntie Vag says no. What was it—Oh!
Moving here for burlesque only. No! Just all the art. It’s because I felt like there was a lot of…it
didn't feel as…it felt more permeable this way in which in other places the art world is its own
academic thing and the queer nightlife situation is its own thing. And the voguers and the drag
queens and the burlesque people and the performing artists from Stanford and—they don't
interact. These are separate things, but here I feel like there's a little bit more permeability. Kind
of weird, though, because I felt like that permeability exposed me to some serious fuckery, i.e.,
the veil being bit lifted. Moving here and just thinking that because folks were using the label
queer, that meant that they were on the same page as me politically. And, so, running into shared
spaces with drag k—drag queens that were mostly white and living in San Francisco and from a
more affluent background that had no consciousness about why I needed to actually be paid
when I showed up at the venue. Or how I felt uncomfortable about a blackface performance or
just so many instances of like harm and trauma and then you're…I—I… this is my experience: I
feel like I was casting around in so many communities just trying to find that… raft of safety and
I just realized that your girl might live at too many intersections for there to be a safe space. I
hate to say—I don't hate to say that out loud. I mean, that's what my little depressed brain map is
like. It’s hard.

Nia: I might be reading this wrong, but I feel like we're sort of—when you're talking about the
veil being lifted, I feel like we're sort of talking around anti-Blackness. Is that—

Vag: Oh. I mean, around everything, though. Yes. I feel like anti-Blackness is the biggest,
maybe, but also the rampant ableism while folks telling you about how they care about your
access needs, the ways in which…social capital works here are just tiring. It's hard to keep up
with who is important and who is not and who has manipulated the written word in such a way to
make themselves look smart and you stupid. And I just…it, it hurts. It hurts too much to just—
and it's funny, because when I was younger I felt like a critique that I had of my queer elders
was: where they at? Why aren't they here? Why aren’t they here? They're not here cause y’all are
on some clown shit. Y’all are on some harmful traumatic shit and don’t nobody wanna deal with
that. And so, I think the idea is that you were supposed to get booed up and then you just have
your own little family in your tight little community or whatever. But, I just…I kept thinking that
queerness was going to—it was gonna to turn itself and everything was gonna be okay.

Nia: Awww. [laughter]

Vag: Yeah. She's slow.

Nia: Okay. So, I'm curious about a couple things. One is when you started to branch out from
burlesque, ‘cause I know that you're also a filmmaker and I feel like there's other things to m—I
don't know if we even covered all of them when you were listing them. I think I got distracted by
taxidermy and we kind of went off on a tangent. When you started to branch out from there,
because it seems like that was your main thing for a while.

Vag: Mm hmm.
Nia: And then also about how you became politicized: where and when that happened and
around what issues. It definitely sounds like graduating and having to enter the real world and
not finding jobs that had anything to do with what you studied was a big part of that?

Vag: Yeah. I feel like in terms of being politicized: Yes, that experience of having the veil lifted
or, in this case, ripped away between academic life and real Black girl life politicized me. I also
feel like that community of folks that was encouraging me to do burlesque performance—
because half of them were graduates from the little local women's college, they were exposing
me to all of this… just feminist theory that I had never experienced before. I don't know. It
just—I feel like it started with that…and I'd feel like—in Atlanta—while I was surrounded in
Blackness and living a Black life, most of my art life was tied up in white queer life, if that
makes any sense…put together—helped put together arts and cultural festival DIY punk style for
five years down there called, Mondo Homo, which was an amazing experience, but also when I
look back at those pictures—those group pictures of all of us…your girl was definitely being
tokenized and that's hard to reconcile as an adult. But definitely early experiences that definitely
politicized me and then I feel like the Bay Area—in the way that people are very intentional
about their language helps.

Nia: Can you say more about that?

Vag: I was thinking about it this morning. I have some friends that are not from here that will
kind of shit on what they call “Bay Area Speak.” “Oh, you're using that Bay Area Speak. Blah,
blah, blah,” and I'm like, “Why—why is that a problem? Why does it matter that you want to try
and be intentional about your language to really, really name the specificity of things? Why is
that a problem?

Nia: For people that might not know, could you give an example of what they might mean by
“Bay Area Speak”?

Vag: Ooh! Okay, for an example…all right…My gender is femme. My general sexual
orientation is queer. My specific sexual orientation is pan-romantic asexual. So…on one hand of
the—on one hand somebody might hear that and say, “Wow. That's ridiculous. Why is it so
specific? Why is that so important? Why these labels?” But, on the other hand, somebody else
would hear that and be like, “Oh! Yes, to that specificity! I know exactly who they are in the
world and I know how to approach them,” and, “Wow! Look at us. We're similar in these ways,
but we're different these ways and now I know so much about you based on just specificity of
language.” What if that's an access need? What if it's not a white people thing and it's an access
need? How about we reframe it? How about that?

Nia: I feel like having…you have a really strong class consciousness, that's a very integral part
of your politics and I'm curious if that's something that you grew up with or that came with
moving to the city?
Vag: Mmmm. I feel like a lot of my various consciousnesses—consciousnessni—[gargling
sounds]

Nia: My transcriber is gonna have so much fun with that.

Vag: [Laughter]but I feel like a lot of it is, sadly, borne of trauma: that place when you realize
that you don't fit and that place that you realize why you don't fit. So, in terms of class, I feel like
going to college and thinking that my experience was gonna be like A Different World and it
was the first time that I realized all Black people aren’t the same and all Black folks didn’t have
the same experience. And maybe ramen noodles was not a snack that you should bring out into
the street [laughter] and not expect to get joked on. Just many different experiences that let you
know this is a point of tension in the world and I'm on the wrong side of this. Let's interrogate it.

Nia: Interesting. At what point in your life did you—you said that you identified as crazy and I
feel like it takes a lot of courage to call yourself that in the open [laughter].

Vag: Yes. Yes.

Nia: And I'm curious how that became a part of your identity and when you start feeling
comfortable saying that out loud.

Vag: I feel like a couple of years ago officially as a part of an art project. I run an Instagram
account called Crazy Black Lady and it's dedicated to mental health support for Black femmes—
Black queer femmes. I feel like part of that was reading work from, I want to say, the doctor's
name is Dr. Joyce DeGruy. And she's this Black psychotherapist and psychologist who talks
about post-traumatic slave syndrome and what it's like to have generations of Black folks at the
bottom of the social ladder. And what kind of trauma that breeds and what kind of untreated
generational trauma that causes. And I feel like realizing that sort of put me in the frame of, I
don't know, it was one of the first times that I thought I have a right to be sad. That back in the
day—and one of my comedic colleagues has written about this—Cassandra Thalby—was talking
about how, back in the day, slaves trying to escape from their masters were accused of being
crazy with the diagnosis of Drapetomania. So, what if my diagnosis of chronic depression is a
modern-day version of that? I think it's ok to be sad when anti-Blackness is ubiquitous. The way
that misogyny works in accordance with that is wild. So, it's ok to be, maybe, a little sad and
frustrated about that. So, I feel both politicized about that in the way of like… my craziness
reflects directly back to my Blackness and I feel like when you are Black and femme and
standing up for yourself in the world, one of the first things that's gonna be hurled against you is
“crazy”. So, I definitely feel like it's the same way that I reclaim queer. I'm getting in front of it.
I'm reclaiming it before it's hurled against me. It no longer has power against me.

Nia: That's a great answer. From burlesque did you go straight into filmmaking or…?
Vag: No. Burlesque, moving to the Bay Area for more artistic opportunities. So, it was like,
“Ooh, what is the calls for artists for the National Queer Arts Festival?” basically.

Yeah. Yeah, but answering those calls for artists, trying to be in consistent artist community with
people that were [sigh] privileged in terms of their resources. And so, whenever I saw an
opportunity to learn a new craft or participate in a different kind of way I answered the call. And
I, surprisingly enough, realize this way after the fact, have a talent for writing—and language
manipulation is what I mostly think of it as—but, I can write a proposal that says what I’m about
to do artistically whether I'm going to do that or not.

[Laughter]

Nia: Well, that's an incredibly valuable t—I feel like I'm really bad at that [laughter]. I can do
the thing, I can't write the proposal, though.

Vag: I’m gonna get funded to do the thing in terms of the gifts of being in different
marginalized populations, it’s definitely one of my crazy gifts, ‘cause I'm just like, “None of this
shit matters anyway. None of this shit.” Yes, I'm a multidisciplinary performing artist of fifteen
plus years with a resumé, but blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Here you go. It doesn't fucking
matter. It doesn’t fucking matter and they're calling for visual artists that have a, an experience
with home. That's me! Why can't it be me? Why can't it be me? Welders that know how to tap
dance. Sure. Why not? Why the fuck not? [Laughter]

Nia: Do you weld? Do you tap dance?

Vag: Nah, but I could learn. I could learn! Give me a chance.

Nia: No. That's such an awesome attitude to have. I mean, I think…when I think about anxiety I
think about fear—I think about fear holding you back, but you're describing it as, sort of,
liberating in a way where it's like, “Well, if none of this matters, then why not?” [Laughter]

Vag: But when we're talking about my specific experience of living at the intersection of anxiety
and depression, so, it's like they're battling it out. It’s like, “You’re going to die if you do this but,
nothing fucking matters!” [laughter]

Nia: [Laughter] I don’t know where to go from there.

Vag: Sorry.

Nia: It’s ok, so you started writing. It sounds like we're talking about grant-writing, but you're
also a creative writer.

Vag: Mmmm. Not so much a creative writer.

Nia: Joke writer?


Vag: Maybe joke writer. Yeah, I would like to do more of that. Oh yeah! Actually, shout out to
people putting together comedic film and video projects, ‘cause I want to write for you. I want to
give you this Black, femme perspective. Hit me up. What were we talking about?

[laughter]

Vag: Sorry.

Nia: It’s okay.

Vag: Oh, the writing. No…writing. Not so much, not creative writing, but, yes, recently I have
become a grant writer. I'm a grant writer of…wow, almost five years now actually—sorry. I said
recently my timeline is…I said that already. My timeline is weird.

I will say, in terms of marginalized folks and what they have to share with the world, again, I feel
like my skills a grant writer is directly related to hoe life. Learning how to translate, learning
how to understand what is actually being asked underneath the layers, learning how to talk like
people want to hear. So, I have your back and you need a hoe in your life to help you write these
grants and I’m that one. I got you.

Vag: So, yes, I am a great writer for queer and trans artists which is amazing.

Nia: And that's your day job?

Vag: My day job.

Nia: And that's—that supports you.

Vag: Yeah.

Nia: And then you do…I hate to say art-on-the-side, because it's on the trivializing, but that's
your bread and butter and then you also have this artistic practice.

Vag: Yeah. Yeah and my art is—my artistic practice is really important to me and two opposite
things are true about it at the same time. One is that I feel like a failed artist who can't get
foundation government grant support and so I'm grateful to have a day job to fall back on. And
the other part about me is that I wouldn't want my art to be involved in the nonprofit industrial
complex and I feel very… protective of my art and my artistic vision and what I want to share it.
That's the context that I want to share it and not based on capitalism and the dollar. These are
two very different viewpoints that exist at the same time in my body and…

Nia: I mean, it totally makes sense to me. First of all, I feel like this podcast is not explicitly
about it, but it's really important to me: destigmatizing having a day job. It's ridiculous to feel
like having a day job doesn't make you a real artist because who are the artists who can survive
without day jobs?
Vag: Well, they were already affluent, probably to begin with. We're already talking about
generational wealth.

Nia: Right

Vag: And that’s boring. Boring.

Nia: [Laughter] Did stand-up come before filmmaking?

Vag: Yes. Stand-up before filmmaking.

Nia: I want to ask you about that, but I feel like I don't know if really, you can answer because I
was your stand-up teacher. [laughter] One of them.

Vag: [Whispering] It was horrible. I hated it.

[Laughter]

Nia: What attracted you? What made you want to do stand up?

Vag: The thing that still makes me want to do standup, but I don't have a safe place…I want—a
thing that is true about me is that it's hard for me to tell the truth, and I want to be a person that
tells the truth more often and…I have always been what people—sometimes people will say that
I'm funny. So, I think that I, I think that I am. I think I'm funny. I may you laugh…I think that
I'm funny and I feel like a way of telling the truth is that you can be entertaining and I feel like
that's what I've done in most of my friendships and social gatherings is said hard things, but
helped people laugh through it. And it seems like that's the acceptable way that you can tell the
truth. So, I thought I would be really good at this. And I was I was definitely pretty good at it.

Nia: You are.

Vag: Thank you. But then, the reality of the situation is if I wanted to continue it I would need to
be an open mic situations in which people don't have the same political mores, queerness. I don’t
want to hear jokes that make me sad, ‘cause that would make my performance sad and I also
don’t want to be heckled. I don’t think that that is a valuable tool, but I understand that that’s part
of comedy life. I don’t know. So, I’m still thinking on it. But, I feel like there’s some way in
which I can sho—that I can get my comedic voice out there that doesn’t involve that.

Nia: Well, I think that’s a great transition to talking about film. I think the only one of your films
I’ve had the opportunity to see is the short documentary you did with Juba, but the great thing
about film is that, no one can heckle you. [laughter]

Vag: Yeah, well, that’s what I did. I—my biggest film that I’m known for is a—I guess it’s
technically an experimental film short—but what it was is my stand-up audio on top of video
footage of me practicing my pole dancing. Which is another thing that I do that I forgot to
mention. And the stand-up material is all about…living beyond your diagnosis and your
pathology as a crazy person. I feel like…I can't remember exactly. Don't do drugs kids.
[laughter] But I feel like the last lines are like, “Instead of being depressed, why can't I be de-
precious,” or, “Instead of ‘suffering from PTSD’, why can't I be a PTSDivaaa!” Stuff like that.
And I think it was really well-received. It got a couple of awards at various queer, queer film
festivals across the world including one in France.

Nia: Oh wow.

Vag: Yeah!

Nia: Congratulations!

Vag: I'm like a big deal! [laughter]

Nia: How did you—What made you wanna combine the stand-up audio with a pole dancing
visual? How did you come up with that idea?

Vag: It just…

Nia: Also does this film have a name?

Vag: Oh! It is called, Climb, c-l-i-m-b, climb by The Lady Miss Vagina Jenkins and I think that
you can see it for free on my YouTube account: Vagina Jenkins. But, it just seemed to me
areas—an area of life that really embodied what kind of struggle I was talking about, if that
makes any sense. It's not beautiful pole dancing. It's definitely straight-up rehearsal with me
falling and hurting myself and bruising myself and that's what it feels like. And, also, it’s
hilarious.

Nia: Is it suppo—I mean, that’s what I was gonna say. Is it supposed to be funny?

Vag: It's poignant.

Nia: Okay.

Vag: It’s poignant. I'm a Pisces, so I know how to do feelings.

Nia: And then, ok. So, I know about VandL Films a little bit—that this is your main, current
project? Fil—film project? Was there anything between Climb and VandL?

Vag: No. We went straight into moving—working—moving in together. Lesbians roots are
showing!

[Laughter]

Vag: No, So, Luna and I met in November 2016 at that…


Nia: At the film-making class.

Vag: At the film-making class and so, then we started to—we made our films together in that
class and then kept doing it and we had some real concrete goals, did calendaring about it.
There's something about the way that we work together organizationally and in terms of…
emotional support is what I want to say, but, also I just wanna say, kindred emotional needs and
communication needs. Just really good. I've not had a creative partner before. This is my first
real creative partner, so it's a very unique and fulfilling experience. Surprise! I mean, not
surprised. I know that technically speaking that's supposed to be the case, but I just never
experienced it.

To people out in listener land, VandL, our first project—our main project—that we're known for
is a series of documentary short it's called, Scenes: Portraits of Queer and Trans Artist of Color,
which is directly influenced by Nia King's work, the two books, Queer & Trans Artists of Color:
Volumes One and Two. So, we were directly influenced by that work in terms of a body of
literature that captured the now of what's happening in queer and trans art and how folks feel
about the industry. And then we thought that we would be the film companion to that. Our work
ended up being a little bit more narrowed in that we wanted to focus on folks that hadn't gotten
shine before because the film is such a visual medium. We wanted to make sure that folks that
hadn't gotten shine could use this as an actual resource for their promotional purposes or
whatever. We initially wanted to do twelve documentaries over the course of a year, one per
month.

Nia: That’s so much work!

Vag: I know! It is, but we were kind and gentle to ourselves because we are emotionally…
compatible in that way. I don't know. And so, we started to do—we decided to do six and then
we showed them all in January, but I can’t remember when. We just showed them recently.

Nia: How did it go? How was the screening?

Vag: The screening was dope. I feel like there was about thirty folks there at Qulture Collective
in downtown Oakland and I felt like folks were really, really into it. Actual filmmakers were in
the building and they had technical questions. I was like, “Woah, woah. Wait. Don't look behind
the curtain, friends.”

[Laughter]

Vag: I felt really supported. I felt a real sense of community there.

Nia: That's awesome. But, the films are—they’re all available online?

Vag: They are not because capitalism and we want to try and monetize them and somehow
scarcity means more money. I don't know why. So, we have—If you follow us on Instagram at
V-and-L Films, V-a-n-d-L films, sometimes we will post a link to one of those in the bio and
then show it for a limited time and then close it down to private viewership. But they are all
online.

Nia: And who are the—so Juba Kalamka is one of the artists, who are the others?

Vag: Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo. Juba Kalamka, Abeni Jones, Cinnamon Maxxine, Roxana


Dhada, The Lady Ms. Vagina Jenkins, and Luna Merbruja.

Nia: Oh nice. I am…I'm so bummed that I missed the screening and that I haven't even seen your
episode and Luna’s episode. I am curious how you chose who you chose and also—such a cliché
question, but—what you learned. [laughter] Sorry. Did you share the interviewing or did one
person come up with and ask most of the questions?

Vag: No. We shared the interviewing. We did it, sort of, based on who we thought the person
would be most comfortable with. In terms of this artistic process, I'm really proud of it because
we can—we tried very hard to consider access at every point. So, we made sure to pay folks and
not ask them to do free labor. And then the person that interviewed them was the person that was
the most comfortable with them like, “Oh yeah. This is my friend from the burlesque scene so
wanna talk to them,” and then we did two takes. So, you could say—we would ask the same
questions twice to get, maybe a fresher answer or, “Oh, I wish I hadn't said it that way or blah,
blah, blah” I feel like we did a lot to make folks comfortable and it did breaks and snacks and
things like that.

Nia: Each film is five minutes?

Vag: Between three and six.

Nia: Okay and how long do the actual shoots take?

Vag: The shoots take…probably an hour and a half.

Nia: Was there anything that surprised you?

Vag: Everybody's crazy… and basically, it's just a matter of making space for people and being
gentle with people, because you don't know what kind.

Nia: I think there's something really… So, you talked about access a lot. We haven't talked about
what it means or what it looks like. I mean, you've given a couple examples of ways that you
incorporated access into every step of the process. But I feel like… I don't know, I guess I feel
like I want to be a little bit more specific about what you mean when you say everyone's crazy
and then, also, I feel like…Okay, I'll put it in terms of myself. I did not have any kind of
disability justice analysis or politics when I moved to the bay. I feel like it's something that I've
been developing since I've been here and it's still not…I'm not an expert by any means and so, I
guess I'm interested in—I feel like a lot of conversations around access that I have been part of
have been about mobility and physical or economic access, not so much around what it means
to… ‘cause everyone's mental health needs are different and I feel like sometimes access needs
can also conflict with each other especially if you're dealing with a group of more than one
people. I guess I'm curious to hear from you what access looks like when you're talking about
mental health.

Vag: I mean, I'm not an expert either and, also, thank you for naming the part about moving here
and learning about disability justice, because I feel definitely a similar trajectory… and I feel like
folks—where I've learned the most has been: one, honoring my own unique experience and two,
paying attention to the folks that are living it and doing it. And sometimes they're talking about it,
but they're also talking about all kinds of different ways based on their capacity. When I'm
talking about mental health access it's just straight-up. It might be difficult to do all of the things
on a given list, but we can always ask, “What's going on with you? What's… what's gonna make
it easiest for you to be here?”

Nia: That's a really great question and way of putting it, because I feel like…I dunno. I feel like
I've been asked, “What do you need?” which feels much harder to answer. [laughter]

Vag: People of color are not talking about what they need. We don't do that. We don't do that,
but, “Can I make you a plate?” is comfortable and I feel like that's what that version of that is.
What can I do to make it comfortable as your host in some kind of way? As a facilitator,
theoretically, of your safety? And that's a directly anti-capitalist value, though, to make the time
to do that. Everybody is always rushing around trying to be on time. “The time! We've only got
so much time,” but also there's time to ask after each other otherwise, what the fuck are we
doing? But also, I'm depressed and none of this matters.

[Laughter]

Nia: Just gonna keep coming back to that. I mean, it does matter.

Vag: Yeah.

Nia: Clearly making people comfortable is important to you.

Vag: It is, ‘cause I’ve wanted to feel that way.

Nia: Of course! Are you still actively doing burlesque or is filmmaking your main focus right
now?

Vag: No. Mmmm. I have to shift my—and that's why I need to know so many different artistic
techniques and genres is because I… opportunities to share my work is rare and few and far
between, especially when we're talking about living at the intersection of now Blackness,
queerness, and age. It's just too much. It's too much. So, she is unbooked and super bothered
about it… but it's okay. That's what life be like. That's why I have many different artistic—one
of the reasons why I have many different artistic outlets, because, no matter what, I still need to
create. Whether there is an opportunity to share or be paid for that is immaterial to me. I still
gotta do stuff.

Nia: Do you do you feel like that's tied to mental health?

Vag: Yes, definitely. For sure; one-hundred percent.

Nia: Could you say a little more about?

Vag: It just is thera—. I mean, it's not therapy, because therapy is therapy. I hate when people
are like, “This is such therapy,” therapy is therapy. That's why we have words.

[Laughter]

Vag: I feel like it's definitely healing or therapeutic, my artistic practice. It's definitely…skill
building is self-esteem—directly tied to self-esteem building. The cherry on the cake would be to
share with folks, but still to see my skills grow over time in any particular thing is amazing; to
challenge myself to learn something and churn out…for me, an above average attempt at it feels
really important to me and that definitely tickles my gifted student brain bone.

Nia: [Laughter] Do you—I guess we haven't really talked about how your politics manifest in
your art and I would love to talk about that a bit, maybe starting with burlesque.

Vag: Mmhmm.

Nia: Do you feel like your burlesque is political and, if so, at what point did it become that way?

Vag: I feel like my burlesque is not overtly political. It is actually more based in historical
accuracy, but I feel like the political nature of it—of my burlesque—is that I'm interested in
historical accuracy as it pertains to replicating the bodily vocabulary of working-class women.
Because what you're looking at—what I'm looking at in burlesque is the history of strippers that
were basically trying to use sex work to class-jump and I feel like that's absolutely my lived
experience. And so, I wanted to replicate that. So, in terms of how my politics showed up there,
it was the research to understand what so-and-so's moves look like, what her costume looked like,
what her song choice was, what—why it was based, why she made all those choices. So, again,
to hear, “This was pretty,” feels just so insulting and so—feels insulting to me and my ancestors.
And then, the reverence for ancestors. I feel like that's definitely a Black, a Black convention. I
feel like my politics show up in my art because that's just the foundation of who I am. It's not a
put-on—it’s not a…I'm working actively to understand and learn and keep learning, but my
foundation is curiosity.

Transcribed by Natashia Marshall