A sharp-tongued man and diva about town, on stage, on screen, in print and in person, Michael V Smith is someone with whom you may be all too familiar.
If you haven’t caught his work or met his alter egos, you may have at least noticed her on the street, with equal parts energy and bravery, flaunting one outrageous outfit or another.
I’ve lured Smith and photographer David Ellingsen to talk about The Tickle Trunk Project. It’s a series of 29 fabulous genderfucking photographs of the outrageous Smith by the keen-eyed Ellingsen. As well as attracting interest from far and wide, these captivating images are set for exhibition at Vancouver’s Jeffrey Boone Gallery, Jan 28-Feb17.
Ellingsen, who is dressed in an understated black shirt “to look the part,” smiles and chats quietly.
Smith arrives fashionably late; he was held up at brunch. From his various fringe shows, parties, and the well-documented sexploits of Miss Cookie LaWhore, I am conspicuously aware of Smith’s penis, even though he’s fully dressed.
Ellingsen and Smith compliment each other as they settle down for our interview. Their banter is free and flirty.
“I’m wildly vain and have wanted someone to take pictures of me in my outfits for a long time,” quips Smith.
“As a portrait photographer, in his gender performance, in his stage performances, visually, he’s completely arresting,” gushes Ellingsen. “You can’t help but look at him.”
“I think being an exhibitionist comes from a place of extreme discomfort and fear,” replies Smith. “I am much more interested in overcoming those things than I am in being a slave to them.”
Ellingsen and Smith have been friends for five years. As Smith’s gender performance repertoire and wardrobe have expanded, Ellingsen has increasingly felt the pull to capture him on film. “Every once in a while I offer to take some portraits of him and his outfits,” says Ellingsen. “He finally took me up on it.
“I come across people all the time in my daily life and I suggest we do a shoot together if they’re interested,” he continues. “I don’t push on it. Some people are ready for it, and there are some people who just think you’re some kind of weird photographer trying to get them into the studio. I give them my card and let them know that I have a professional body of work behind me.”
Ellingsen says the process with Smith was “very organic.” They collected what seemed like a bottomless cache of Smith’s favourite outfits from his apartment, took it to Ellingsen’s studio and spent four hours giggling and playing dressup.
“Because we know each other as friends, he knew he was preaching to the converted,” says Ellingsen. “It was more of a fun event than a shoot. There was a lot of laughter.”
“I was a little self-conscious going into it; well, very much so,” admits Smith. “I very much wanted him to give me permission to do things. Is nudity okay? Is raunchy okay?
It was all okay with Ellingsen. And it wasn’t Smith’s look alone that captured his imagination.
“You can’t take your eyes off him because he’s created a visual spectacle,” says Ellingsen. “He’s always got something to say about what he’s doing. There are personal politics behind it, which greatly appeal to me as a photographer, too.”
“When I look at the photos, I read myself as being very masculine in a lot of those outfits even though they are women’s clothes,” says Smith. “That’s a very exciting tension for me. One of my biggest fears is that people will look at this and think of it as a narcissistic project, but I’m very interested in community and in building dialogue. This project and a lot of the work that I do is about diversity; making space in the world for plural existences.
“People have a real phobia of bodies,” continues Smith. “People are terrified of nudity and many people are deeply, deeply invested in two genders. They don’t understand anything beyond it. They don’t want to.
“I was very critical of the gay community for not allowing itself the privilege of femininity,” he says. “So many gay men appear so close to masculinity because of the privilege that it affords in our culture.
“We fool ourselves if we don’t recognize the relativity and mutability of gender and the ever-changing nature of it,” Smith continues. “We’ve become more mainstream and we are allowing the mainstream to define our community. We lost the diversity that came when we were defining ourselves. It was self-definition because you didn’t see any versions of yourself in the broader world.
“It’s all about permission and creating permissive environments that are constructive and supportive and that encourage people to be whoever they want to be,” concludes Smith. “It sounds really cheesy but I think that’s something we all aspire to.”