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Drag diva Buckwheat is a joyous, welcoming presence who makes a splash at any occasion. What's Hot New Zealand met the man behind the makeup, Edward Cowley.
So, who is Edward Cowley? Edward really has changed over time, and now is very different from 30 years ago. A community person, I’m a friendly guy. My work is important to me. I’m not the party person I used to be, but I enjoy a good time.
And who is Buckwheat? The two characters have melded over time. There’s not much difference now, other than the costumes. Buckwheat looks to create mayhem, and welcome people, and give them a spectacle to look at. She used to be a party person, but now she’s really a workhorse. Part of Buckwheat’s character is she’s really joyous and really welcoming.
A lot of her audience is mothers and people like that, and Buckwheat gives them permission to let their hair down, which is something they often don’t get to do. Understanding the dynamics of the audience is something that has come with age and experience.
If you’d asked me that 25 years ago, it would have been a very different answer. My 50-year-old self is very different from my 35-year-old self. Once upon a time, when Buckwheat was in her prime, Edward was nowhere to be seen. I’ve learnt to be comfortable in my own skin. But then, I’ve been all over the world and got to do things Edward would never have got to do.
How did Buckwheat begin? I was working in a gay club and I needed someone front of house. We went through a few hostesses. I couldn’t find someone to carry the business, and I realised I had to do it myself. Buckwheat helps people fit in. They feel comfortable by her being so ‘out there’. People see Buckwheat and think: “Actually, I’m relatively normal.” It creates a safe space. That’s something I didn’t realise. You create an environment where people feel welcome.
The scene has changed post-Homosexual Law Reform, and then post-Priscilla. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert pushed us into the mainstream. It was a first foray. We helped people who came out, or who had a family member who was coming out. Looking back at it, what the character has been able to do in terms of creating safe spaces… a lot has changed. For young people it’s still a big thing, to come out. But they can look to us and understand things have got better.
I’m Samoan from a Christian family. It took a lot of energy to have that discussion with a family who found it foreign. I have a fantastic relationship with my family, but it wasn’t like that all the time. It took two groups of people in constant dialogue to show them I wasn’t living like some sort of crazy person.
Tell us about your family. I hear it’s a little unconventional? I have three children: a 32-year-old, a six-year-old and a four-year-old. We’re a family with two mums and two dads. I don’t know how two people do it. I see solo parents and I bow to them. I’m one of eight. I don’t know how my parents did it, two people. Time is one of the things everyone is lacking lots of. The time with children goes really quickly. They’re babies, then the next minute they’re walking, then they’re talking.
Does drag come with a certain amount of responsibility? [A drag performance] stays with people a long time. If they have a terrible time, they’ll remember that as well. The energy has to be high, and it has to be respectful.
It’s interesting that respect is very important for Buckwheat. She doesn’t seem to be the fierce or sometimes-offensive type of drag queen we often see in popular culture. Reading the room is really important. It’s a wide spectrum of performance. In order to make it in the corporate world, well, it only takes one offended person to say “That was terrible,” and then the work will stop. It’s part of having an intimate scene in New Zealand. It’s different in other countries where you see a different audience every time. And, you can be very different performing for a crew of drunk 25-year-olds.
Do you make your own costumes? I used to make costumes, and Mum made some. Now I’ve got three costume makers in New Zealand and Thailand. Drag becomes a visual art. New Zealand is so small, you’ve got to have a catalogue of stuff so people see something different. The visual spectacle, for me, is an important part of the character.
Do you have a favourite costume? I have lots of favourite costumes. I’ve donated to Auckland Museum for the Tāmaki Herenga Waka Stories of Auckland exhibition. I’ve donated three costumes to them, and they’re probably the three I love the most. One is hibiscus, it reminds me of my mum. I’ve probably got over 2000 costumes. I’ve got three storage units full of things I’ve gathered over the years.
You’ve competed in bodybuilding and boxing – is sport a big part of your life? Fitness is really important to me. I’ve had a personal trainer for the last 28 years. I wouldn’t be able to do the things I’ve done without fitness. Boxing is fantastic. I started for charity event, and I’ve kept up boxing. I’m always up by 4:30 and at the gym by 5. I’m scared if I stop it’ll all turn to custard.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about drag? Often people only see you in the character. People don’t understand there’s a person behind the character. I couldn’t imagine Buckwheat going to the supermarket. People think we live like that 24/7.
Since RuPaul’s Drag Race, our audience has really changed. Now it’s a lot of teenage girls with their parents, and there’s less gay audience. It’s young girls who love the makeup and the costumes. It’s good! Often those young girls wouldn’t do anything with their parents. I never thought that would have been the change. If you make people laugh and appreciate you, the world is your audience.
What’s the best shade of lippy? I love that deep purple matte. Then I use a glitter dust that goes on over the lips. You’ve got to take it off with Sellotape before you take your makeup off.
What have you been bingewatching? I’ve just started Ozark. I’ve heard about it for a long time. And I’m watching season 14 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and UK Versus the World.
What’s something people probably don’t know about you? I’ve got a full-body Samoan tattoo. It’s called a pe’a. It starts from below the knees and comes up to below the shoulders on the back. Nobody gets to see that when I’m costumed up.
Who’s your personal hero? Mum. I’ve got five sisters and two brothers. My parents worked really hard to ensure those children had a better life. They moved to New Zealand, where it’s cold. They learned a new language and a way of life.
What’s coming up for you in 2022? I was blessed in 2017 to be able to work with Black Grace dance company. They’re looking at going on tour again in 2022. I haven’t been officially offered, but I’m hoping to be part of that. And bookings are up in the air, so I’m making sure I spend time with family.