This conversation is with Medulla Oblongata. She is a drag Queen performer, who competed in the first season of House of Drag. Medulla is a non-binary former refugee from the Maldives who lived in Malaysia, before finding their home in Aotearoa New Zealand. We talk about queer culture, living your truth, behind the scenes of NZ drag, and discrimination. Fasten your seat belts, get your cuppa and read on (or listed in).
Elina: There is so much online about you, your advocacy, drag and your journey from Maldives. When we think about all of these things, what do you reckon shaped you into the person you are today?
Medulla: Pure selfishness [laughs]. Truly pure selfishness because I just want to live the best life that I can. I suppose growing up I was one of those people that was always set aside. I was sent away from the Maldives when I was 12-13 and moved to Malaysia: this young boy gambling and smoking, you know? Eventually I moved to New Zealand and fully discovered who I was and my sexuality. So ultimately, it does come down to selfishness because how can I continue to live the life that I want and not hurt other people. Because it's all too rampant, that people who can't truly be themselves sexually or whatever, you know, these men marry women, and they live in loveless marriages, producing children, just so they can keep their families happy. Like, what the fuck? Why can we ever be like, true to ourselves?
Elina: Oh, isn't that the question? I mean, selfishness in terms of living without harm and judgement and being true to ourselves, then maybe we should all be selfish. And in terms of, you know, rebelling against the system that you lived in. Did you have any role models or people alongside you that you looked up to?
Medulla: No… I was only a kid. I was too worried about, I guess, trying to get high. I started smoking weed when I was 16. And only in my 20s when things flipped, like turning on a switch.
In 2009, when I was with my one and only ever boyfriend in the past, I've been single for 13 years now. When I was with them, we basically discussed how I can stay in New Zealand. But then I also wanted to do it under my own merit. We had decided that maybe we should get married so that we could, you know, find a way to keep me here and we had a joint bank account and all those things to prove that we were in a relationship. Back then, I started an online community and a website called the Rainbow Maldivian. It's got such huge views, still to this day, I haven't uploaded anything onto that website since 2015. But basically that website was an English translation of all the activities that happened in Maldives, from homosexuals being accused of things, to paedophilia, to women being raped, to religious issues. I covered basically all those stories.
In 2010, I had broken up with my boyfriend and my visas were expiring. I was not functioning well. And basically, I came out to my dad at that point. He said: “Oh, you need to be with your family, come over, and we'll take care of you and I'll send you back in six months.” Liar. Biggest liar in the whole world... So I went back, because I felt like, you know, I needed the family, because I'd never really had that.
When I came there, I didn't waste any time to organise a protest calling for religious tolerance. It was just a silent protest. We organised it online. Around 30 people showed up and it was all anonymous, we didn't know who any of these people were. That was an amazing feeling to know that there were other people, gay or not, to stand with us.
And then half of us went and had tea afterwards and stuff like that [laughs]. So I guess the whole political thing and my work and engagement really does come from me wanting to be free.
I was in Maldives for two years but managed to come back to New Zealand with the help of a couple of friends. I had one person sponsor my visa to New Zealand and I had another person buy me flight tickets, and I had another person pay for my actual visa itself. And then I had someone else offer me a place to stay and give me a job under the table.
Elina: The power of the community that you got, that's pretty special… What about drag? Tell me more about your drag.
Medulla: Look, I've always been a little queer boy [laughs]. I’ve always worn my sister's heels or my stepmom’s heals so drag always kind of been there. But you don't find drag, you don't like look for it; drag finds you. My first proper full on like makeup-heels-hair-outfit show was in New Zealand and it found me.
There was a person who came down from Auckland when I was living in Te Anau, two hours away from Invercargill. This person had come up from Auckland to try help organise a fundraiser for, can you believe it, a new medical centre?
Dare I say, the people who are confident in their sexuality can see other people like them, right? I guess that's how they approached me.
And I was like, oh, no, I couldn’t because I was already having a hard time with the kids at the high school. They already assumed that I was gay, and I was very much in denial. But then I did it the show. And then I guess that was that. I didn't do it again for around two years because it took two more years for me to get to like Wellington.
Elina: Oh wow, okay. And now, do you organise your own performances? How does it work? For someone who knows very little about drag behind the scenes.
Medulla: Ha, I'm literally not the person for that. My climb up the drag ladder has been tumultuous. I get the feedback quite often that I am reliable, and I do a good job. But at the same time, I am never the first person called for the gig. I've never wanted to speak about this before, but like, I don't care anymore, because no one is literally hiring me.
I think maybe it’s a little bit of xenophobia. And I've been called difficult to work with. One of the employers in the past has literally said to my face “Stop acting like Medulla”. What does that mean? That’s me! I think people don't necessarily like that I am super blunt, and super honest. And I don't want to say that it's a very New Zealand thing because ultimately no one is fucking special. I think it just does come down to people not liking to being confronted. People don't like their opinions challenged. But also at the same time I wasn't doing any of those things. I was wanting to clarify what was being said so I got the gist or understanding of what was truly being asked of me, but apparently that's too much?
Elina: How did you find your way around that?
You just keep going, you just keep going. I've made a career out of being the last girl standing. Literally, that's been my entire career, where like, if a girl hasn't been available, I've stepped in. Or sometimes there needs to be seven girls not available before I step in.
Elina: It's fascinating to hear from me, because from where I am, I can see all the amazing work you’ve done. When I think about Auckland and drag, I think of Medulla. When you think about your identities, Medulla, like gender, ethnicity, you know, all the intersections? Do you have any particular parts of your identity that are more important to you?
Medulla: My identity is very strongly queer culture. That's the only kind of constant I’ve had. Even if it's not necessarily from whatever country that I was in, that was the only constant that I could reach out to.
Elina: Do you have any attachment to any of the countries you lived in as a kid?
Medulla: Not really but I still love Malaysia. I would be happy to go back to Malaysia but obviously, you know, for political reasons I can't necessarily go back to Maldives. But, you know, I wasn't really allowed to do anything when I was there when I was younger. There is no attachment there.
Elina: Yeah I can see, it would be much harder to form an attachment to a place where you couldn't be yourself truly and as you said, queer culture being the constant in your life. What about drag scene? What does diversity and representation look like within New Zealand Drag scene?
Medulla: That's a hard one to kind of answer without really implicating myself. But you know, fuck it! Nah, there isn't necessarily a lot of representation. Because like you'd see material used for advertising and currently with Ivana being the exception. Ivana is Indian-Fijian person who is currently is on the ad, in and out of drag. But usually a lot of what you see in NZ drag is white people. I don't know, I think it's subconscious? And obviously, it's not like it is any of the Queen's fault or anything like that. But the people that are in charge of putting together a project, you know? I don't know. I'm just forever grateful that anyone is organising and booking people especially during a pandemic. Though I may have felt certain things about that prior to the pandemic, I don't feel the same anymore. Because we are lucky to just get a gig now so…
Elina: Oh, dang, yes. The art world has really struggled through these times. What has helped you during the pandemic to feel that sense of belonging?
Still queer culture and, what I wrote down in my notes: home is friends. It's it's the people that I've made emotional connections with. Home isn't necessarily a place, it's a concept or a feeling.
Elina: Now, we’ve been talking about belonging, home, ethnicity stuff. When I got my NZ citizenship, I remember thinking “now I’m a kiwi” and then questioning myself on what it actually means. I know you’ve also gotten your passport recently, do you have any thoughts on what it means to be a kiwi?
Medulla: Girl, it means nothing. Literally, it means nothing but a means to an end. Being Kiwi isn't special, being from Maldives isn’t special, being from Kazakhstan isn’t special. I'm sorry. It’s just countries with arbitrary borders. I'm grateful that New Zealand has accepted me as a citizen. But again, it just means that I can continue to live my life the way that I want.
Elina: Yeah, I see - you do often talk about that idea of imaginary borders and lines on the maps. I guess when it comes to migration in general, I've seen you do fundraising events and talk about refugee rights and migrant rights, can you tell me a little bit more about it?
Medulla: I can't say I've done enough.
I can't claim to be an outright activist when I haven't done much. But I guess what's really happening is the fact that I am so painfully visible, that in itself is an act of revolution.
And the best thing that I can do is keep providing that visibility. Because ultimately, I feel that there aren’t many people that can be themselves. So when they look at me, they see the possibility of what could be and to get a little bit of a spark going in them. So ultimately, maybe it'll inspire them to climb out of their little dark hole too.
Just existing, for me, is political. Me drawing a breath every day is political.
Elina: I'm thinking about all the people who are being political just by celebrating themselves, right? Yet it's can be such a hard task for some people in our society. And you know, we're talking about mental health here, death threats that people get, where do you get the strength for that?
Medulla: You just ignore them [laughs]. Because ultimately, at the end of the day, you have to continue to live your life. I also do get a lot of death threats. But fortunately for me, these death threats are from overseas and the police in New Zealand are well aware of this. But I do constantly worry advertising where I am going to be and what I’m doing.
In New Zealand too, here's been haters when I was like in high school in Te Anau, you know, like, I've been in a couple of fist fights. But that's because people don’t understand my sexuality. And nothing beyond that, you know, they don't really know me. I am living my life, but that's where the hatefulness comes in. Right? I'm so selfish and don't give a fuck about anyone else. But of course, you know, as long as you're not really hurting anyone else, right?
Elina: And earlier, Medulla, when I was saying that this podcast is about “ethnic people” in New Zealand, you rolled your eyes [laughs]. You don’t like that term?
Medulla: Aren't we all like ethnic? What does that even mean? How would you define that? I like to use the term “not white” instead. I like to be quite confrontational [laughs]. And literally calling anyone not white, not white. And white people can't stand that. But what does it mean to be ethnic?
I don't like the term people of colour because that is very close to coloured people, which is offensive. But also I’ve never really been aware of race as such.. Because in the Maldives, they're all brown right, they were the majority?
Also when it comes people being racist here, like someone says go back home, I'll be like, go back to Britain. I mean, it's stupid. Like that's the point right? To also show them the absurdity of what they're trying to say. You call it out when you see it, or when you experience it, you call it out immediately. Do not let it fester. I've started doing a lot of that.
I know people are learning, I get that. But even if they accidentally make a mistake, I will still point it out. Because that is how we're going to better ourselves. Yeah, I have friends who get angry when I point these things out, but then… try harder [laughs]. It's an unconscious effort on the non-white people's side to keep constantly having to fight this battle. And why? We didn’t ask for it. So you as a white person, why are you so offended that I've just corrected you? Chill out, chill out.
Elina: This has been such a great conversation, Medulla, I can ask you a million more questions. But I'll round us up with quickfire questions. The first one is about food: what is your favourite dish from maybe Maldives or Malaysia?
Medulla: Nasi Lamak, obviously, a staple breakfast food! I remember every morning going down the road and having it, it’s great!
Elina: If you could be the main character in a movie or TV show, what would it be?
Medulla: It'd be really boring [laughs]. These days, I'm definitely not doing a lot, so it would be a lot of napping and eating so I don't think I would make a really good movie. Because there's no conflict. There's no resolution.
Elina: If you could propose a policy change to New Zealand Parliament? What would it be?
Medulla: Hmmm it's just too much power that I cannot think of what to do. I mean, I also did want to become a Member of Parliament in the past? But, I don't know, I think I've discovered that I'm quite lazy. Proposing a policy is too powerful, so I’ll leave this question out.
Elina: And to close us off, Medulla, what makes you feel like a bad-ass?
Medulla: The fact that I leave the house every day. It's quite empowering whether I'm in or out of drag. Like the confidence to go and interact with people and just be out there. Even if it's down the road, like where your house is, just being out is empowering.
Thank you so much for listening, folks. We've recorded this conversations from the comfort of our homes, you know, the global pandemic at all. So we really hope you felt that cosy listening to your friends over the phone kind of vibe. If you haven't already, check out our remaining series with 14 other incredible conversations. Share, Subscribe, send to someone who might benefit from either feeling seen or you know or learning more about ethnic voices in Aotearoa. This wonderful podcast has been brought to you by collaboration of Belong Aotearoa, Storyo, Planet FM and Sport Waitakere. With thanks to our funder, the Auckland Council Regional Development Fund. Follow us on Instagram @passthemic.aotearoa and @story.co And until next time.