At first glance, Christian Swacker is not a tragic, aging, cabaret chanteuse with a jaded demeanor and a failing liver. But when he slips into sequined gown and black feather boa he’s more at home on the Kit Kat Klub stage than behind the bar at a coffee shop. Such is the magic of drag, especially when practiced by a trained theater actor and musician like Christian.
But drag wasn’t what Christian envisioned for his future when he was first starting out.
“I went to school for theater and film,” he tells me. “When I first started college I was really gung-ho about film, and I had theater experience from doing it in school, high school and junior high. I always loved the performing arts, but I never really had access to any sort of film program. When I started college it sort of was more that way than I anticipated, but I got plugged into a really great theater program and just totally fell in love with it.”
It’s a natural fit for him, too. He has that uncanny ability, shared with other gifted actors, of transforming from his normally quiet demeanor into whatever bawdy character he may be portraying.
“I started acting when I was a kid,” he admits, “and I really liked it. I loved performing, but I always was hesitant to go into it as a full-time career.”
“I’ve been in some shitty, well, don’t say shitty…” he starts.
“I’ve been in some films,” he continues. “One of the best and most difficult experiences I’ve ever had is I was cast as the principal role in a full feature indie film by this company that made movies. Most of their movies were not very good, but they were really doing it. It was some trashy rom-com, but it was actually fun, and the script was decent.”
He knew that it probably wasn’t going to make him any money, but he recognized that it would be good experience.
“How often do you get to star in a movie,” he asks, “even a shitty one? And, also, I was optimistic about it. And, then, at the premier, someone close to me was very honest about the quality of the film. Even though I knew, going into it, I knew that I was not gonna make any money, I knew the movie was not gonna be great, but I wanted the experience. I still feel that way, but I think that was kind of discouraging.”
There’s always the possibility, of course, that a bad film is so bad that it becomes a cult hit, like The Room.
“That’s true,” he agrees. “I don’t think it was that bad, but I think it was also boring. You can make a bad movie and entertain people, but you can’t bore them.”
I remember, one time, hearing a story of someone’s parents playing praise and worship music when they had sex. I couldn’t handle that. I was, like, 12, when I found that out. Stayed with me ever since.”
The Texas native moved to Seattle three years ago, looking for a change from Austin, Texas, where he’d been living.
“There’s a lot going on in Austin, and I was writing a lot, and working on things, mainly film related. But I wanted a change of pace, and I didn’t want to do L.A. or New York yet, because I felt like my resume wasn’t strong enough, and I didn’t want to get swallowed up like so many people do.”
Seattle turned to out to be more of change then he’d initially thought it would be, though. When he moved here, Christian was still in the closet.
“I didn’t come out until I was living in Seattle,” he admits.
In fact, he’d moved up here with his long time girlfriend.
“We’d dated for five and half years,” he explains, “from 19 to 25, basically. Although I don’t date women now, I am sometimes attracted to women, and have been.”
“So it wasn’t like: ‘Why can’t Christian make love to me?’” he adds, laughing.
Christian’s girlfriends weren’t just beards, then, and they did whatever men and women normally do together, then. Bongo drums…
“Yeah,” he jokes. “Bongo drums, candle wax, praise and worship music…”
“Evangelical christians are so obsessed with sex,” he confirms. “I raised in a charismatic christian environment. A lot of the of the people I knew in church, and are my parents friends, came from a lot of trauma and weird stuff, and were either raised strict Catholic or some other kind of more dogmatic religion. They’re really interested in actually living a good life but, at the same time, are right-wing christians. Watching them try to negotiate that… There were so many classes given for couples like ‘Sex, and God, and You.’ I remember, one time, hearing a story of someone’s parents playing praise and worship music when they had sex. I couldn’t handle that. I was, like, 12, when I found that out. Stayed with me ever since.”
That’s enough to turn anyone gay. That must mean that Christian probably plays show tunes when he has sex now.
“Yes!” he exclaims, laughing. “Hello Dolly, My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls…”
Moving here gave Christian the opportunity to branch out from his relationship with his partner, and from the way of life he was used to. It was a catalyst, then, that pushed him into the realization of who he truly was.
“Because of my experience, I started getting a few stage management jobs,” he says. “I actually started doing ok, making some money, getting on some nice productions. And I’m really having a life apart from my partner. I’m in a new city, I’m meeting lots of people, and for the first time in four or five years I’m not doing a lot of things with them. And it kind of just gave me clarity that, in a lot ways, I was being dishonest with myself.”
It was difficult for Christian to end things with someone he’d been with, and lived with, for so long.
“I just kind of started over,” he confirms, “which I didn’t expect to do at 25.”
Starting over was just what the doctor ordered for this young ingenue, as he was getting new, gay legs under him in Seattle. For one thing, it led to the creation of the beguiling Princess Charming, a character that Christian started to “scratch the performative itch,” since he was spending most of his time backstage.
“I wanted to perform,” he admits. “Drag can be an all-in-one show. I enjoy singing, so I do sing. I like to tell stories, so I work in storytelling. I like comedy, and all these different things. It’s hair, makeup, costume, and it’s all sort of contained. I don’t think about this consciously, but, every time I perform it’s like a mini-production.”
Spending time as Princess Charming hits all of Christian’s theater buttons that way, but the best part about his drag character, for him, is that she is an actual character he plays. What’s surprising, though, is where some of his inspiration for her comes from.
“Some of my biggest drag influences are cartoon characters. Like Jessica Rabbit, or Betty Boop, or Ursula from The Little Mermaid. I don’t necessarily mean that, when I work I think of them specifically, but those characters, those female, strong characters, many of which are villains, had such a huge impact on me as a kid.”
Part of not fitting in as a male identifying person in the south, but still trying to find a place for myself as I am that is welcome that and is confident, is going out on stage with all of that, sometimes almost naked, is empowering to me. And I think it helps the character.”
In addition to a host of cartoon characters and Disney villainesses, Princess Charming was also inspired by such flesh and blood influences as Nina Simone, Justin Vivian Bond, and even RuPaul. What’s surprising, though, is who Christian doesn’t immediately list as influences for Charming – like Judy and Liza, or Bette Davis, or Marlene Dietrich – as she’s ever the Golden Age movie diva who’s a barely contained train wreck, held together by a corset and a fist full of quaaludes, tumbling in a tasteful, stylish handbasket to hell.
Although that impression comes partly from how she looks, with her aesthetics heavily inspired by 1930’s movie glamour and art deco, it’s mostly because of how she acts. Princess Charming is the party host that everyone wants to befriend, if only to avoid being her enemy. Her tongue is both silvered and sharp, with a smooth wit that can still cut glass. She’s damaged goods, but not so down that she won’t slip into a sequined cocktail dress and work a room like a master, martini in one hand and cigarette in another.
Her Highness is unique among drag characters, which is no small feat. Not that anything Princess Charming does is particularly unique, although her fabulous singing voice does stand out in a world filled with lip syncing. But the way that Christian packages his talents, his singing and acting, in a character that deftly crosses the line between two genders, is all his own.
“For me,” he explains, “it’s more interesting and more inspiring to embody this character who has these specific feminine qualities that are highlighted, but it is a masculine body. I don’t pad. I don’t tuck. I would corset to get a particular look, but not to look feminine. Under what I aspire to be a pretty face, and really nice hair, I think that there’s something nicely honest and personal about seeing what is perceived as a male body in a feminine environment, but where it isn’t a joke about ‘look how funny this man is in a dress.’”
While appearing in full makeup and a sequined dress while rocking a hairy chest isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, for Christian, it’s less about the statement and more about personal satisfaction. As a child growing up in Texas, with clearly defined characteristics for when it meant to be male, Christian frequently suffered from having a poor body image, and struggled with finding his own place on a more fluid gender spectrum.
“Part of not fitting in as a male identifying person in the south,” he says, “but still trying to find a place for myself as I am that is welcome that and is confident, is going out on stage with all of that, sometimes almost naked, is empowering to me. And I think it helps the character.”
By exploring his feminine side, then, he is also coming to terms with what his masculinity means. And his femininity.
There’s no denying, though, that Christian, and Princess Charming have a bright, smokey, martini-fueled future ahead of them, wherever that may be.