Daniel Hellmann Soya The Cow Dear Human Animal
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Daniel Hellmann
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February 20, 2023
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Dairy-Free Drag In The Name Of Soya The Cow

Sitting comfortably in our bubble, sometimes we forget that being a drag artist in itself is already a dissident, provocative act as it involves going against all the gendered norms of society. Soya the Cow is here to shake us, flexi-vegetarian queer folks, up.

Dany Niederhauser: What are the elements of your background that led you to imagine Soya The Cow?

Daniel Hellmann: There are several steps. I studied opera singing and after a while, I found it boring (laughs). I grew up in a very political home, my father was born in Namibia and he was very active in the anti-apartheid movement. So I had this political side at a very young age. And I always liked to dress up with my sister, we put tights on our heads as wigs (laughs). That drag side was part of my life from a very young age. The love I have for animals was then added to that. It all came together and I feel lucky to be able to put so much creativity and passion into something that makes sense to me and it's not only about myself. I love being the center of attention though, I'm a drag queen after all (laughs).

Dany: How important is it for you to use drag, which is already an activist art form, and to combine it with the fight for anti-speciesism?

Daniel: Drag is there to provoke, to stir up things that are anchored and that do not move. I was very inspired by drag artists in San Francisco at the beginning of the Trump regime, the performances were often mixed with fights for anti-racism, trans rights, and body positivity. The militant and playful aspect of drag inspired me a lot. I had been vegan for a year and a half and had a hard time interacting with a world where the norm is to participate in the slaughter of animals, without even considering it as a problem. I started to see the world differently, I thought "oh this sandwich here, this pair of leather shoes" and I realized that violence was everywhere. I had a problem positioning myself because no one wanted to hear those reflections. At first the idea of a drag cow was just a joke, and now she rules my life (laughs).

Dany: Most of the people at your show in Théâtre Saint-Gervais during Antigel Festival were omnivores, flexitarians, or vegetarians. You gave yourself an hour to convince them of veganism. Rarely in activism, do we give ourselves an hour to be convinced of something.

Daniel: People hate those conversations. But I can understand because if for you it's just about food, something you like to eat, the discussion is off base. It should be a discussion about how we treat these sentient beings. Because before being food, they're individuals. The visual side is very important in my drag and once people are fascinated by it, they will start to listen differently. It's a work of seduction in a way.

Dany: You said that when you were in San Francisco, you had been vegan for a year and a half. How did your transition to veganism go?

Daniel: Basically, I had been an on/off vegetarian since I was 14. I had to do this homework at school on genetically modified food on farms and went to a pig farm. I was shocked to see how these mammals were treated. That's what made me stop eating meat. But it wasn't constant, sometimes I went back and forth. And in 2016, I was preparing a show about meat and our relationship with death. We're surrounded by dead animals non-stop. Their skin and their meat constitute our daily life. And it's during the creation of this project that I understood the degree of violence that we put animals through. It's total exploitation, controlling every aspect of their lives, their birth, genetics, and death. The more I learned, the more shocked I was. I wanted to be the nonviolent, caring, peace-loving person I thought I was, but I realized that my ingrained habits of eating cheese and wearing leather jackets were contributing to the violence. So I decided to align my behavior with my values and became vegan.

The connection to the queer side is super important as well. My queerness is not only my romantic and sexual side. It's also a gift to get out of the pre-made path of society and to think differently, outside of the Walt Disney and capitalism indoctrination, that we have been fed with since childhood. Because of my queerness, I see some things differently and so I use that sensitivity to see the harm done to animals. I try to put myself in the shoes of this chicken that is locked up with thousands of other chickens, who are all killed after 30 days... I can't handle it.

Dany: That's what's so interesting about your show. A drag queen who explains these things fascinates and touches the audience.

Daniel: Some people don't like to see such an assertive opinion, not only with queerness but also with a position as a vegan activist who can't stand to see animals violently exploited. It's quite provocative to show this ethical stand as the new normal.

Dany: The drag movement is there to stir people up. But it's been a long time since I've been shaken up by drag... the last time I was 20 years old, it was when I came to New York at the Barracuda Club and saw my first drag show. It’s nice that it moves people.

Daniel: I had resistance to drag when I was younger because I just wanted to be accepted. I wondered why people dressed like that, why they couldn't be "normal", like everyone else. I also had these internalized homophobic voices inside of me, but deep down I was just jealous because I dreamed of being as free as these people. It's great to hear that my show is a challenge. I like challenges. So to see a theater full of omnivorous people, I love that (laughs).

Dany: It's crazy that the audience pays for a show where you give yourself an hour to convince people to go vegan. I found the drag activist that was there in the first place. I thought I was coming to a fun show and at the end, I was a little destroyed (laughs). This art form in your show touched me, even though I wasn't expecting it.

Daniel: At the beginning of my shows, I try to give people a fun and playful atmosphere, and then confront and touch them. Some people cry because they realize the violence we do to others or even to ourselves. There is a drag queen from Drag Race, Jackie Cox, who said "drag queens are clowns and healers" and I found that inspiring for Soya. The point is not to be confrontational and say that people who eat meat are evil. Soya is not there to divide but to raise awareness. But it's important to know that there is an emergency, animals are slaughtered, abused, and violated. It's not abstract, it's concrete and it happens every day and everywhere. Unfortunately, all the glitters in the world are not enough to bring attention to it.

Dany: Any final words?

I'm happy to have had many opportunities at Antigel. The show, the exhibition, the Valentine's Day meal, it was amazing. I love it because with Soya I can create something organic, that lasts in time. So thanks to Antigel, and especially thanks to the Saint-Gervais theater, they are fantastic, it's like my second home now (laughs).


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