Ólafur Helgi Ólafsson has been performing as Starina in Iceland’s drag scene for years. He won the Drag Queen of Iceland award in 2003, making waves as the first drag queen with a physical disability to win the award and instantly becoming one of the most visible drag performers in the country.
After a few years’ hiatus, he has become more active in the scene since he began performing with Drag-Súgur in 2015. Ólafur, who will be taking part in this years Pride as Starina, speaks with GayIceland about drag and what it feels like to live in Iceland as a gay man with a disability.
“She’s a star, let’s just start with that,” Ólafur says when asked to describe his drag persona. “She expresses her opinion and of course she’s more glamorous than I am in daily life. She’s a little bit like comic relief in my life too. She wants to be seen, she wants to be heard.”
Although Starina won Iceland’s drag competition in 2003, Ólafur says he first started doing drag nearly a decade earlier. “It was my first year in high school, but I didn’t know it was called drag,” he says.
“I just thought it was funny. I saw Icelandic comedians doing it all the time, getting into drag, making jokes, often playing some kind of politician.
And then somewhere around that time I saw The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and that’s when I knew the word drag and I started to learn it was a profession.”
“… I started feeling like in a world of being gay and glamorous and high fashion with a perfect body and perfect shape, that the little crooked boy wasn’t welcome.”
‘I always blamed my disability’
One of the challenges that Ólafur has had to navigate both living as a gay man in Iceland and performing as a drag queen is doing so with a physical disability. Although he’s lived with his disability for his entire life, he says he’s only recently learned more about his disability and discovered what it’s called: Hereditary motor sensory neuropathy (also known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease). “I’m still a little bit confused with what it is and how it works,” he says. “All my life when people have asked what I have I’ve just answered that I’m disabled. And they ask me, doesn’t it have a name? And I’m like, I don’t know.
It’s an inherited progressive disease of the nerves with weakness and numbness more pronounced in the legs and arms. Parts of the nerve cells deteriorate,” Ólafur says about his disability. “It does affect my legs, it does affect my hands, it gives me a lack of balance, it gives me deformities, and it gives me scoliosis — my back is not straight.”
He says it hasn’t always been easy to live with a disability in the queer community. “My first years in the queer community I always blamed my disability for not meeting anyone,” he says. “I felt like sometimes I wanted to be more disabled or I just wanted to be really healthy. I felt sometimes stuck in the between. Because I am abled enough to take care of myself, but I am also a little bit disabled so I get criticized for it. But of course I would say I realize now it’s all in my head.”
‘I started feeling this barrier around me’
Things got worse for Ólafur when he moved to Milan in 2006 to study fashion and textile design. “I started feeling much more like a disabled person than I ever had in my life. Because the cultural differences are so much and I started feeling like in a world of being gay and glamorous and high fashion with a perfect body and perfect shape, that the little crooked boy wasn’t welcome,” he says. “I got really shy back in Milan, more shy than I ever was before.”
It was also in Milan where Ólafur experienced one of the worst traumas of his life. He was raped, and he developed post-traumatic stress disorder and became even more isolated. “Of course that affected my life in a whole other different way. I started feeling this barrier around me. I was more aware of people staring, I was more aware of people pointing,” he says. “I always thought it was Milan. I always said to everyone: it’s Milan, it’s different.”
But he says that when he returned to Iceland he realized he was still feeling the same way. “I got scared, I saw people watching, I saw people making fun of me,” he says. “And the queer community has always had this beautiful reputation of being glamorous and everyone having perfect bodies. If you don’t fit that mold it can be a challenge.”
‘Make your weaknesses beautiful’
Over time Ólafur says he learned to embrace his disability in his drag. “I would use my movements to make fun of a dance routine. Maybe I would get some choreographer to help me, and then we will combine it with my movements so it can be funny but also in a glamorous way,” he says. “Often I try to put the emphasis on my weakness. I have a crooked back, and on the other side it’s like I have a hump. At some time I just stopped hiding it.
I just felt at some point in my life I decided I’m just going to be who I am on stage and then even make it bigger than it is, and let the people see that this is who I am. It’s a hard challenge because sometimes I still want to hide it,” he says. “I think the challenge is to make your weaknesses beautiful, and I think if you conquer that then you will achieve something amazing. Or I’m hoping so, because I’m working on it.”
“I sent RuPaul an email and I asked her, what would you say to a queen who is disabled and can’t walk in heels?”
One of the major inspirations for Ólafur’s philosophy of embracing his weaknesses comes from one of the most well-known figures in drag: the supermodel of the world, RuPaul herself. “Back when RuPaul was doing the first season I got really, really depressed that I wasn’t as fabulous as the queens in the show,” Ólafur says. “I sent RuPaul an email and I asked her, what would you say to a queen who is disabled and can’t walk in heels?”
To Ólafur’s surprise, RuPaul responded. She told him: “Sometimes people say that there’s nothing you can’t do. I say that’s a fantasy. Sometimes we literally can’t do things. Embrace what you can’t do, be fabulous at what you can do, and everything in between you should try over and over again until you leave your mark on it!
That’s basically the email that told me I should not stop doing drag, even though people will think I’m not as fabulous as everyone else,” Ólafur says. “As long as it makes me happy. And I think I’m making people happy! I think I make them laugh.”
Note: There will be a drag queen story hour with Starina at the Library of Kópavogur this Saturday, as a part of the Reykjavík Pride program. Starina will read from the book Fjölskyldan mín by Ásta Rún Valgerðardóttir and Lára Garðarsdóttir. Families come in all shapes and sizes and this wonderful children’s book introduces kids to many different types of families. The event is in Icelandic. Free entrance.
Photos: Lovísa Sigurjónsdóttir