Popularity is relative, and especially in the digital age. You could have hundreds of thousands of followers online, but be completely unknown in the streets — massively famous on Instagram, YouTube or Twitter, but lack any kind of real, authentic cool in person. For our new series, Coolest Person in the Room, New York-based photographer Megan Walschlager pinpoints all the people whose energy is contagious regardless of their following count or celebrity. Meet the NYC-based Christian Ellermann — a drag queen-turned-writer and self-identified extra-cist.
Do you have a day job?
I do, I'm like the queen of day jobs.
Tell me about all your gigs.
Well, I'm kind of a houseboy — I house sit, take care of the pets, clean, all the things. If you need to deliver a gift to your mistress downtown, then no one is faster than me to get it done [Laughs]. So a lot of odd things like that.
I've also done copywriting and advertising strategy a little bit in my day. And I still will turn what I call like a "deep state" branding gig. It's weird, you talk to the consumer to figure out what the next thing is and then share that with the client and the creatives. I always feel like a reality show producer and an anthropologist at the same time. Or the reality show producer version of an anthropologist.
Love. What other projects are you working on?
I've been hacking at a book forever. And there's a few of them, because some are just diversionary and to get the wheels turning, and that's what I would share on Instagram or whatever. But the sort of high literature that I spend a lot of time on is this confessional tabloid fiction, where –
Photo by Megan Walschlager
Say no more!
Thanks. I'm just obsessed. I grew up watching the E! Channel, like instead of watching cartoons. I'd be eating Honey Bunches of Oats before school and watching Mysteries and Scandals with AJ Benza.
Where are you from?
I'm from Jersey, but my mom lived in Puerto Rico. Long distance parents.
But that TV deeply [left an impression on] me. I feel like after doing so much — well, I moved to New York to do drag and write — and after doing so much drag, I felt like writing was the ultimate drag because you just disappear more into it like a character. I feel like the way a look is a confession of your soul, that can also be the case with a character or a theme. So, I've just been obsessing over these specific tabloid news cycles and creating narratives out of that.
So are you writing fiction?
Yeah, I'm obsessed with fiction. But I don't put something I haven't felt or been through into a character. I want the book to feel like you're reading Vanity Fair or something.
That's amazing. I've always written for work in some capacity, but I feel like fiction is so hard — what is your process for writing these stories?
You have to be very comfortable sitting for a long time. And that sounds like, "Ugh I wish I could sit all day!" But no, it's like sitting on nails. It's torturous. You just have to sit down and focus, focus, focus. Especially if you want to be good years later. Everything sounds good when it first comes out because there was nothing there and you knew it was hard, but for it to really get there it takes a lot of time, so I try to give myself as wide a breadth as possible.
I feel like reading 30 pages, writing 300 words, reading 30 pages, writing 300 words as long as you can will keep the wheels turning. Then you need to give yourself time to edit. So I say anywhere from 4 to 12 hours.
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Where are you at in your process? How far along are you and how much more do you have to go?
There's one core narrative that's inspired by L'Wren Scott. I'm obsessed with her. I think she is the most elegant woman in the world and I think she was such a game changer too. Like the celebrity stylist we know today did not exist until she came around. And the story just ended up being so ghoulish. So I wrote this weird, prose-poem — like Real Housewives horror. And I've been working on one about Britney [Spears] which is taking me forever –
Is this pre-Free Britney?
Oh my god, yeah, this has been years in the making. I'm bipolar like Britney, so it's been kind of a confessional. But, yeah, Free Britney, first of all.
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Thoughts on that situation?
I think mental illness first of all, is an instrument of white supremacy — as much as race and gender and class and everything else. And we're only beginning to unbuckle that, but we're like not even in the suitcase yet, we're just hacking at the lock. And I think Free Britney is sort of the first move with that. You always hear people say, "Oh, well they're crazy." I feel like it's like using the word ghetto — like people use that a little too freely and it's just not right.
I think when you go back and look at Britney's breakdown and you read the actual articles on TMZ, the sources are paparazzi saying she's unreliable and erratic. And those just aren't really reliable sources. People who are literally stalking her! And how is a stalked woman supposed to act? Like of course she's going to hit a car with an umbrella. I think that's a valid human reaction given what was going on with her. So, for her to end up with an involuntary hospitalization, and her whole life is now affected by that. Same thing that happened with Amanda Bynes. I feel for her.
When you go back and look at it, everything was kind of not that crazy. We've seen way crazier things happen.
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Totally! I remember being turned off by the situation when I was a kid, but looking back on it now the actions surrounding her "breakdown" don't seem that unprompted.
Right. She doesn't seem erratic. And so many people in the industry are erratic. That whole industry runs on being fast, and erratic and ahead of everything. It's just about being in the right culture and environment where that energy is okay. It's not necessarily a sickness. It becomes a sickness when you're involuntarily held captive and drugged. And all prescription drugs work until they don't and then you need more, and more, and more, and you need to switch and back and forth. And you're in this weird rolodex of drugs that you can't get out of.
I grew up on mood stabilizers and antipsychotics, so I feel super passionate about it. And they definitely made me crazier, so maybe I'm projecting too much on the situation, but I feel like something horrible is happening to Britney. But at the same time she's kind of compliant almost? And she has kids. And the world has never really given her a fair chance.
And speaking of confessionals, I love that every single one of her videos and songs she had a clear say and direction in. And each single is a proclamation like, "This is what I'm going through, this is where I'm at." There's a person in her that I don't think we ever consider. We just sort of see her as this weird Disney Muppet.
For sure. Do you have a personal favorite tabloid story that you feel like doesn't get enough attention or one that really intrigues you?
I used to love Katie Price and she never really took off here. She was British. She was kind of in line with Pamela Anderson and Jessica Simpson. Pre-Snookie, but very kind of JWOWW at the same time. But like the English version.
I live for her reality show Katie and Peter Down Under. She was like, "I'm a celebrity get me out of here." And fell in love with this ex-boybander. She has this disabled son and then like a million other kids and it's just like the most interesting characters that you will ever see on a reality show.
Oh! And I miss Pete Burns. I wish he was still around with all those crazy stories. I live for the Daily Mail. I think the Daily Mail actually covers everything.
Photo by Megan Walschlager
They really do keep it to the facts because sometimes when they just have photos, they articles will just be descriptions of the photos and bullet points.
What is your relationship with nightlife now? Are you still doing drag?
I used to go out like 3-4 nights a week and perform in full geisha mode for at least 2 nights a week. But I always had gigs, and I had an internship during the day, but I started to get more gigs so I had to become a creature of the day. I think there's a 4 year point of living in New York and going out all the time where you have to pivot. Like really, you will experience everything that it is. And it's like, "What is going out? What does it mean? Why do I keep doing this? Why is it so glam? Why do I see everything 5 years before it ends up in the feeds and stuff? But then you have to do something else and figure out a discipline. When you're turning looks, it's so momentary. And I guess I'm... old for a club kid.
Right, somehow they're all like 16.
Yes, they're always 16 and coming in from Connecticut and painting.
But a look you wipe it off. And I was doing it before Instagram, so — well, Instagram was around, but there weren't stories. And sponsored wasn't a thing yet. Like there was no flat tummy teas. Everyone was bloated. It was the dark ages of Instagram. And it actually was kind of dark because of all the filters made to look like this photo was from 1963 and found under the wheel of a Volkswagen.
So a lot of looks just didn't say. And writing always stays.
What do you think are some of the coolest places in New York?
I love a Fifth Avenue church. It's a quiet and nice place with good art and it's free and you can get a lot of work done there.
You work there?
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Like in a pew?
Totally! Sometimes they're like tuning an organ and you're like, "What the fuck?" You've never heard a sound like that. Coming on the next Kanye album for sure. And if you're writing on paper, you can get a lot of work done in there because you feel weird being on your phone. Or at least I do. And no one bothers you and you don't have to keep buying a coffee.
What's next for you?
It's kind of like a short novel — the L'Wren Scott one. The Britney one I've been locked on. Because each sentence has at least three narrators and is addressing three different people, so it's really grammatically tricky if nothing else. There's Michael one, a Bethenny Frankel one, a Nicole Kidman one, and one on Casey Johnson. But the L'Wren Scott one is kind of like a novel and the other ones are shorter.
I've been shopping that around for a couple years because it's mostly finished. The second time around it was completely rejected by every publisher and agent that I sent it to. But publishing a book — and this is going to sound totally delusional — but it's always just another step up the ladder. Like the first time I sent it out absolutely no one read it. Even people I knew — and people that put me in contact with these people. Nothing came back. So I did a ton of rewrites and everyone I sent it to rejected it, but that means everyone at least read the proposal. So I'm at least a good copywriter. These are the things I tell myself anyway. But I'm doing another round of rewrites and getting the other ones in place and then I'll send it around.
Here's the thing though, it used to be — like in the '60s, '70s, '80s, forever — that fashion magazines, like the craziest fiction would be in Harper's Bazaar.
Photo by Megan Walschlager
They don't run those stories anymore?
No! There's no fiction anywhere. You can't find it! Unless it's in The New Yorker, but even then it's the tiniest little thing. Or it's super commercial like James Patterson or Gillian Flynn sort of thing, I think fiction is very niche and very academic. And there's not like another Dennis Cooper or another Joyce Carol Oates coming around. So it feels like there's kind of this emptiness there. Where is Tennessee Williams? I don't know!
I think actually Azealia Banks actually encompasses all. She's the linguist of our time, so it's fine. Like no one from Sappho to Sondheimto Shakespeare — no one has the same control over the English language as Azealia Banks. It's her fucking bitch. T.S. Elliot is spinning in his grave and weeping every time she releases new work.
But back through all those rabbit holes, I would like to serialize my writing. Like a reality show. But the thing is, I spent years erasing my digital footprint. And these editors want their writers to have a digital footprint. And I've been trying to have a literal ink on paper presence. It's a lot easier to share something online, but it's harder to make something work — and I mean this figuratively and literally — but on paper. And I still want to prioritize that, but I'm young I'll figure it out. Right now I'm trying to build my footprint again.
I wanna hear more about your time off the grid. What inspired you? How long were you off?
Well, I always feel skeptical anytime we all jump into something completely new. And the human species developed — or for the most part advanced like out of the Dark Ages from reading books and looking at things on paper. I had a job blogging, so I was on the computer all the time. And I started to feel sick all the time, I always had a headache and I didn't know why. And then I started to analyze, like, when you look at your phone or a screen, it's a strobe light. And it's omitting something to you via radio signal. Like you're not actually looking at anything that's actually there. And that's kind of damaging to our brains and our whole experience with the world. And we don't really remember anything and we don't really know anything because we can just pull everything up on our phone. Like this is what studies have shown. And we just keep putting more and more and more of our identities into the machine, which is letting other forces have agency over our identities and how we experience the world.
And I think that's just a little bit scary. And the fact that we've just gone willingly with it. Like it could go so wrong.
So you had no phone? What were the restrictions?
I had a phone that I would use for notes or something. It was like an old Android. Like an Android 5 or something. And I had Confessions by Madonna and Come by Prince downloaded for the train and that was it. And it would die in like 30 minutes, so then I would be without it. To get places, I had to know where I was going, who I was meeting — and I had to stress that if we are meeting at 1:30, it's at 1:30 because I don't have a phone, bitch! And you're not gonna see me if you're not there and I'm not waiting more than 30 mins.
I started to learn how much I didn't need to check the time every 30 seconds. I didn't need to check notifications every second. And I lived a much fuller life.
Photo by Megan Walschlager
What was your relationship with the internet then? You said you would check the news? This sounds like a lot of self-control.
This was a lot of self-control. I'm addicted to self-control. Self-control is my ultimate drug. Everything I do, at the end of the day, gets me to 1000 words of writing. Even if I'm not actively writing, everything I do will be used when I get it to the pen and paper. So, it's all going to that and all of that was going towards helping me look at a still piece of paper.
I feel like when I read something on paper — when I have to recall something — I can remember the page, the sentence, the thing. And if I read it online, I don't.
They say that about the difference between writing and typing too. Like writing yields greater recall.
Yes! Again it's not there. If I have to read something on the computer I prefer a PDF because it's an actual file that's there and it's not coming to you via radio signal. I know I sound like the Unabomber but [Laughs]. I guess it just all helped the look I was going for with all this.
How long were you off the grid?
Like at least 2 years. And I really completely alienated everyone I knew. And I was like, "Guys! It's just a text message, who cares if I didn't answer?" To me it was like, if I were to ask you to sit down and write a letter, you wouldn't know what to do. And that's how I felt texting. Like how could I respond? And I kind of lost that. And so I've been trying to evolve lately and get back into it and not be such a weird contrarian. But I needed it. And I'll probably go back into the mists again.
Follow Christian Ellermann on Instagram (@bipolarexcellence).