PHOTOGRAPHY BY TANNER ABEL & NICHOLAS NEEDHAM
Chiquitita, the artist formerly known as Juku, Juku for now and before that Harajuku, has been performing in the Brooklyn drag scene since she was 18 years old. Her recent rebirth as Chiquitita came about after co-starring in a transcendent performance of the Abba song of the same name with one of her favorite people, Charlene Incarnate. We asked one of our favorite people, drag performer Baby Love, to sit down with Chiquitita for a one-on-one conversation. The duo are good friends, and even host a podcast together, Shows BK. we had no doubt the conversation would get real deep, real quick.
So I’m here, reporting live for GAYLETTER from my living room. So formal.
I guess I don’t really know the full story about what’s going on with you and the magazine. They told me I had to do this or they would kill my family. I’m kidding. I’ll just say it. I love talking about myself. They asked if I was interested in doing a birth of Venus shoot, sort of in parallel to like the birth of me, because I just changed my drag name to Chiquitita after a year and a half of contemplating names. It is a rebirth in a way. I don’t know where it’s going to be in the issue, but I hope that it’s the cover because it’s really stunning.
Why did you change your name? I started doing drag when I was 14. I chose the name Harajuku when I was 14, 15.
After listening to the Gwen Stefani song? [Laughs] I had a friend in high school named Diamante whose Instagram handle was @harajukugirls and I was like what is that? And then I was like, wait, is she talking about the Gwen Stefani song? And then obviously I listened to it. This is when I was coming in contact with drag. So I was like, I think this is what I want my name to be. It was right there and it was accessible and it was available and nobody else had it. Fast forward to 19 or 20…
What are you talking about? 1920? [Laughs] Yeah. Four scores and seven whores ago.
So at age 14 you choose this name because your friend Diamante is like, “Hey — No, she actually didn’t like that I took it. She was like, “Oh, you stole your drag name off my Instagram handle? Like, how original.” And I was like, “Fuck you, you took it from the song.”
Are you still friends? No. But now Diamante has a baby named Salem which I’m like, okay, girl.
She’s really carrying with her names. She really is carrying about, but it’s a cute little baby.
Back on track. So 19 or 20 years old. Yeah, I was still going by Harajuku. Then I think when I was 20 or 21, I was very much like, Juku for now. But the Juku-for-now era was only a couple of months in 2019.
To me, it would seem that your name change corresponded with you coming out as trans? Yes, they go hand in hand.
And why is that? The actual reason that I chose my name was because of the feeling that I had when I performed “Chiquitita” by ABBA with Charlene at Bushwig in 2018. To let other people feel the same feeling that you’re feeling is very difficult to do. To grab people by the balls and be like, I am going to fucking take you there with me, and you take them. I’ve never experienced that before at a drag show, because, one, Bushwig is a million times better and different than a drag show, but, also two, that feeling is so hard to tap and you really need to know what you want from your own performance and you really need to know what you want to feel from it and what you’re taking away from it. And for me, I was taking away my recent coming out as trans back in August, which was only a month before I was on stage with someone that I idolize, and someone who means so much for my journey because they get it. Not a lot of people get it, you know? So that is why I think about the song being like, “Hey girl, what’s going on? Like, you’re good. Let’s dance.” It just makes sense for me.
You know what I felt watching it? Depressed? Disgusted? [Laughs]
Nauseous. No, I totally saw that because obviously we love Charlene and that’s no secret. Many people do — Many people don’t. [Laughs]
For me watching you and Charlene perform that, and her kind of ushering you into this transness, she was like, “I see your pain. I see you. You’re here. Now come with me. Let’s make it better,” and that translated to the audience. Yeah. I don’t even think I noticed how much of an impact that performance was going to have on me in my life until I finally decided, this is what I’m going to change my name to.
Chiquitita really stands for that acknowledgement of the pain and the suffering and that promise of a greater future. Yeah. Also not to mention, I’m kind of like Brooklyn’s Chiquitita anyways. I’m the young one that’s somehow managed from age fucking 17, 18 to stay here and keep afloat.
You’re thriving. You’re not just floating. No, I’m treading water is what I’m doing girl. [Laughs]
Aren’t we all just treading water here in Brooklyn? But I am hopeful for the future. I’m excited and it’s going to be fucking better than ever. I’m going to lick every microphone. I’m gonna lick every floor. I’m gonna suck every dick. You know?
I feel that out of everybody, you have been so optimistic through this and also realistic. I feel like you’ve acknowledged Covid and also been like, “This is what we have to do. Let’s be safe and let’s protect each other, but also let’s not put too much pressure on ourselves and bend ourselves into unnatural positions, into digital media, and stuff that doesn’t make sense. Let’s focus on staying alive and getting into the next year so that it can be bigger and better.” Exactly. I’ve already lost two family members to Covid and whenever I hear people being like, “You know, we’ll just not wear masks or whatever.” I’m just like, “Girl, the other stuff’s not affecting you right now.” The very least we can do while everyone is suffering — because we have lost jobs, lost money, lost family, lost days, hours, weeks, and months of job opportunities and life. The very least you can do is put on a mask so that we can get there a little quicker. You know what I mean? I’ve had it. This year I’ve obviously fucking had it.
Well, speaking of you having it. One thing that people are curious to know — the name Chiquitita is signifying an acknowledgement of pain and a promise for a brighter future. What did early life look like for you and how did drag sort of fit into that? I would be lying if I said that I had a difficult childhood. I was lucky enough to have a roof over my head, to eat every day, and to have a family that made sure that I was going to school and doing what I had to do up until a point, you know? And then after a while that just, you know, crumbled. It was difficult in the sense of feeling like at school and in public settings, I am an outcast. I am looked at funny. I am treated differently. And that’s always been a feeling that I’ve been familiar with and I know it when it’s happening, even if it’s just minor things. I know the feeling because it’s so guttural, it’s just a part of my DNA now to acknowledge that.
So even as a kid, you always felt different. Oh my god, yeah. Obviously, I never knew it was like the trans thing.
You were just artistic. I was always the artistic kid, but growing up I didn’t know that I was trans. I did know that I was gay though, because I had crushes on boys and my brothers reassured me very often that I was a faggot. And so did the kids in my class.
CHIQUITITA WEARS A VINTAGE DRESS BY VIVIENNE WESTWOOD, COURTESY OF JAMES VELORIA.
The writing was on the wall. [Laughs] Even in just watching Veneno, this feeling and this experience is so universal. It is disgusting that we have to go through it, but we do. In the end it really brings us home almost, you know, in a way, like all that pain and all that trauma really takes you home. And you find a place for yourself, even though it takes so long. You finally do.
Is there a moment that you remember feeling like “I’m different and people know it?” So I used to have a classmate named Jose, when I was in kindergarten, who I hooked up with pretty frequently and in school. But he would only show me affection when we were in private. He knew what he was doing was wrong and I didn’t know what we were doing was wrong. I thought that we had a connection or whatever. And then when we’re in class, it’s silence. It’s like, “I don’t even know who you are.” Like we’re not even friends. Like I don’t know who this kid is.
How old were you? Probably six.
That’s the kind of stuff that happens when these young, innocent kids have nothing but love in their heart, right? They go out in the world to share that with somebody, not thinking that what they’re doing is wrong and they’re conditioned to feel like something is wrong with them. Yeah. I mean, he grew up to be pretty ugly though. So I don’t feel too bad. I totally dodged a fucking bullet.
But he was a cute five-year-old. He was. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else. I remember growing up I always wanted to play with my cousin’s Barbies and her Bratz dolls. I would love playing with her toys.
You’d be like, “Get out of the way!” I’d be like, “This is mine now, bitch!” [Laughs]
I remember I always wanted to play with her toys and I remember always feeling that my aunt and uncle thought I was being perverted with my cousins. But I’m like, no, the only reason that I’m weird around you is because I didn’t want you to know that I was playing with their toys. Anytime they would walk into the room I would act as if I wasn’t doing anything.
I didn’t want anyone to find out that I was obsessed with these toys and the way they would look at me still burns my soul a little bit, like, it still kind of hurts, it still stings because it’s family.
You said that you felt like you were okay growing up, you were fed and had a roof over your head and went to school, but then that all sort of crashed down. Why was that? My parents went through a divorce when I was in third grade. I missed out on a lot of school, because of court cases and all that stuff. After that, I just didn’t want to go anymore. I kind of was like, what’s the point? That was one of the first times in life where I was like, nothing really matters. An eight-year-old shouldn’t be thinking none of this actually matters, right? Even though you’re telling me it does, it doesn’t because I’ve already missed out on weeks of school, so none of it fucking matters. And that sucks because I’d always been excited to go to school. That was my life. I had friends there. I had so much fun there even though there were people that, you know, hated me. I just loved learning.
I was gonna say that about you. It’s one of the reasons I really appreciate you and I connect with you. We both love learning. I love learning. Yeah, you cannot learn enough, like learning is the best.
You said that you noticed that you were different from a young age, then you have this disillusionment about life. Where does that lead you? It led me to drugs. In middle school I started smoking weed, but I didn’t worry too much about that. In high school I started doing acid, mushrooms, coke, and Xanax. Xanax made me realize that I had a drug problem. I remember the last time I did it. I like hooked up with this 30-something-year-old dude, back when I was 15.
Why do we all have this story? I don’t know, it’s awful. It was me and my friend at the time and we had a three-way with this dude at his hotel. He was like, “What are you guys on?” And we were like, “Xanax.” And he was like, “Oh cool, I have Henny. Can we get your dealer to, like, deliver some?” And we were like, “Oh my god, totally, let’s do it.” Then we just did like three bars each and just fucking drank. I didn’t even know how I survived that. I could have fucking died. I stayed at the hotel for like three days and then I ran away from my house, because I was so depressed from the Xanax. I was so down and I was like, I don’t like my life, and I ran away.
Where did you run away to? I went to my friend’s place in Queens, but I wasn’t telling anyone where I was. Then they found me, and I had to go to court, because there was a missing persons case for me. I had been gone for three days, ignoring my phone, just like having sex with this dude and then on top of that, I ran away.
Who called in the missing persons report? I think it was my dad. Then at the court I remember I had my nails painted black, actually just like now. My dad was like, “Oh mira que se pinta las uñas,” which means like, “Oh, looks like he paints his nails.” And I was like, “Yeah, because I’m gay.”
Fierce! I was sitting with both of my parents signing papers, and my dad was like, “You’re gay?” And I was like, “Yes, you didn’t know?” I was like, “Claro que si.” And mom was like “¿Que?” I was like, “Are we actually doing this right now? You did not know? I’m having sex with dudes in fucking random hotel rooms and coming home drugged out every fucking day. Like, what do you think is going on? I’ve been gay my entire life. I’m trying to cope! I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to live the rest of my life!”
I hate that whole thing where it’s like, “Yeah, I had no idea.” And it’s like, “No, you are choosing not to see it.” Also, maybe encouraging you to suppress it as well. Exactly! There was no empathy for that and the fact that my entire life I had just been closeted in a way until I got into high school. What led me into drag was me getting sober.
When did you start getting sober? 16.
So was this post missing person? Yes, it was actually right after.
Did your parents say anything to you that made you feel like, “Okay, like I can survive in the world,” or were you left to your own devices again to figure it out? More like left to my own devices. Though my mom did say at the time, which I found extremely silly, “I want to go get your levels tested for estrogen and testosterone to see if you are actually trans, to see if you’re a girl.” I was like, “I’m not a girl. Like I’m just gay.” I had just come out like an hour ago. I physically and mentally had no capacity to think about that. I was like, no, no, no, no, no, no. I’m gay. I’m gay. I’m gay. I’m gay. Just stop it. Um, it turns out she was right. [Laughs] My mom clocked me. That is the epitome and definition of a clock. I remember the conversation. We were on our block, walking home from the court.
From the courthouse? This was the same day? Yeah. It was the same day. Then that week, I saw Willam on Tumblr, and I was like, I can do that.
Willam Belli? From RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 fame? Yes, the rumors are true. She was the reason that I got into it.
So, you have the crisis. You start thinking, “What am I going to do with my life?” You start detoxing off the drugs. You’re on Tumblr. You see Willam and you get into Drag Race. You’re like, “Oh, this bitch is just like me.” Then you’re like, “Huh, I could be one of these bitches. Why not?” You work on your mug. Drop out of school. How did you discover the local scene? It must’ve been Instagram, because I befriended this girl at the time named Sunday Lush. We’re not friends anymore and I think she changed her drag name. She was not that good, but she helped me meet a lot of girls in Brooklyn at like TNT and Don Julio’s. I just met so many girls.
I want you to talk more about your transition and where it came from for you and what that process was like for you in Brooklyn. I didn’t even think about transitioning until I befriended Charlene and she made me realize that we were kind of the same, you know, in that way. It took a while to realize how or why, but the reason that I took the leap, I remember I was out with some of the girls who in the day are boys, the drag queens. I was out with them one night and I realized that people were a little more familiar with them, even though I had been around the scene longer than a lot of these boys, you know? And I was like, why isn’t anyone coming up to me to talk to me?
I remember this night. I was like, what’s wrong with me? Let me try to interject myself in conversations. Let me just try to do something so that I’m not just awkward and sitting in the corner. I had felt like this for a while where I was just lost and I’d be like, yeah, we’ll go out and that’ll be fun, but the reality was I was having so much more fun in drag when people liked me in my femininity, and in my womanhood. People liked that, because it was all genuine. And me putting up a facade and trying to be the cute boy, even though I’m doing a little beat, like, it wasn’t me. I decided to call a car because I just wanted to go home. I didn’t feel welcome in a way, even though nobody said anything. I went home and started crying because I looked at myself in the mirror and I was like, you’re trans. I just started crying because it was true, and I took a shower, and I fell asleep, crying. I woke up the next day happy about it. I was happy when I said it, you know? I guess I was crying in relief that it made sense and that I didn’t have to worry about that question anymore, because for all of 2019 I was asking myself, am I trans? And telling myself, no, you’re not. Then I just looked at myself in the mirror and was just honest, and I said, yes, you are. And I just cried like a bitch. [Laughs] I had never been more honest with myself. That night it felt as if I was born. It felt like I had been asleep for 21 years. This was all a dream and I just woke up. It still feels like that sometimes because I’m walking. I’m strutting!
Just to set the record straight, you and I were having these small, intimate conversations about how you were feeling. Then I go to The Vault to see the girls, and this bitch gets on the mic… I go to the microphone and I’m like, “Hey everyone. So, I just want to let you know that I’m going to be on hormones soon.” Then everyone’s like, “Wooo!” Like everyone knew in a way. It’s as if everyone in the room was waiting for me to say something that mattered.
I was hysterically laughing. Not that it’s funny, but I was just like, “This bitch is so funny.” You were like, “You wanna see some shows? Well I’m gonna be on hormones!” But the room erupted. Yes! For like a minute straight.
Like something changed in the air. Yeah, I farted.
I remember when I met you at Casa Diva, for real, for real met you. I could sense that heaviness you were holding and I’m familiar with it. And I feel like when you came out, that rock was lifted. Sculpted!
Yeah. It was sculpted into a new body. Yeah, exactly.
“You ain’t fuck me, you fucked the old body.” We felt that weight being lifted seeing you transform as a person in such an incredible way by being brave and kind of embracing this part of yourself. I think you’re somebody that everybody in Brooklyn is growing up with, do you know what I mean? And they’re like, “Oh, I used to be there when she was —” “— a man.” [Laughs]
“I was there when she was a boy.” A boy. A little ladyboy.
“Now I’ve seen her transform and she’s becoming this woman and she’s evolving so much.” A girl.
Okay. You’re still a girl. Not yet a woman. Yeah, you’ve got to be a chica before you can be a chicken.