Alex Casey talks to Medulla Oblongata following their shock elimination from House of Drag.
Medulla Oblongata is the name of the stem that connects the spinal cord to the brain. It’s also the part that controls the gag reflex. It’s also the name of the recently-eliminated contestant from House of Drag, a non-binary former refugee from the Maldives and one of the most fascinating characters on the competitive drag show. “Are you just saying that because I’m not white?” Medulla spikes back at my assessment, grinning before taking a small sip of hot chocolate.
I wasn’t. On a set visit to House of Drag, Medulla had bristled past us meek media types in full drag, wearing a fur bodysuit with googly eyes stuck to each boob. They had already finished the costume challenge as the other drag stars scampered around in their underwear, wildly gluing together cups and cellophane. In private interviews, Medulla shared poetic insights such as “drag is love, drag is life, drag is family,” without an inch of irony or pretense.
Then, they were gone.
“I got what I wanted out of the show. I just wanted more exposure, I didn’t go in to win or anything,” Medulla tells me. Seems an odd attitude for a reality TV competition. “I’m just not that competitive – I prefer elevating others. I’ll style wigs for people, I’ll do their makeup. To play any part in queer culture is indescribable for me.” Age and experience was also a factor, with Medulla being the oldest at 32. “When I walked in, I realised I was competing against children. I was happy to let them have it.”
Once I heard Medulla’s incredible origin story, it was hardly surprising that they had such a relaxed approach to the competition. “House of Drag is just a blip in the big grand scheme of my life. It’s a million miles away from where I grew up and what I’ve been through, so no shade and no mean comments from anyone else could ever shake me.” Born in the Maldives to a middle class family, Medulla was raised by nannies from Sri Lanka, India and Nepal, but remained sheltered to the realities of Maldivian life.
At the age of 13, Medulla was moved to Malaysia after surviving an attempted sexual assault from a group boys at their school. “It was a huge, horrible situation. I got the boys suspended and then my dad shipped me off to Malaysia because he didn’t want me anywhere near that school.” It was a case of out of sight, out of mind. “The further I was away from it, the less I had to think about it.” Three years later, their parents presented them with a choice of countries: Saudi Arabia, Yemen or New Zealand.
Medulla chose New Zealand because it was the farthest option. “I remember landing in Christchurch and stepping on the tarmac, feeling the cold breeze on my face, and immediately feeling like I was home,” they recall. “I am so fortunate to have been sent here. I came into my own here, I found out who I am what I want to do.” Although they had dabbled in wearing their step-sisters clothes as a child, the concept of drag and queer culture was still a great unknown, especially considering these ‘offences’ are punishable by death in the Maldives.
It was in Te Anau, of all places, where Medulla first dabbled in drag. “I met a man from Auckland who had travelled down to fundraise for a new medical centre. One of his ideas was to have a little drag pageant with all the locals. He told me I would look fabulous in drag, so I did it.” Stepping out for the first time in front of an audience in drag, Medulla remembers the pageant going went well. “It was great, but I didn’t do it again for two years. I didn’t have the resources and I was just stuck in this really small town.”
There was also the issue that, back home, Medulla’s family had no idea of their double life. “I couldn’t fully embrace drag even then because I was still in the closet. I felt like I was lying.” They came out to their parents, who responded as saying “we accept you as you are, but we cannot accept you as our son.” After winning the Miss Wellington drag show in 2014, the prize was sullied by the reaction back home. News of the drag win quickly reached the media in the Maldives, which led to hate mail and death threats.
Medulla says that negative media coverage is still around today. “After the comedy challenge in episode two of House of Drag, I posted some photos of my looks online. Almost immediately afterwards, all these articles came out in the Maldives saying that I had psychological issues and that I should be jailed if I ever came back.” They still get messages from people who they grew up with voicing their disgust. “These are people that I loved, it’s just like… what can you do? The only thing that I can do is be as visible and as queer and as authentic as I can.”
Now identifying as gender non-conforming, Medulla is thankful that House of Drag welcomed a spectrum of gender identities. “I’m just post gender, you know? I’m over it. I feel like I am none and all at the same time, and it’s very revolutionary that someone like me can be in a TV show.” Spending three hours to transform into ‘her’, there’s little difference between the drag persona and the everyday person. “In or out of drag, I’m still myself. But when I’m her, my mannerisms make more sense and I make more sense.”
Having travelled back to the Maldives to participate in human rights protests, and witnessing friends murdered and beaten for their beliefs, Medulla remains a fierce activist in New Zealand. After our interview, they were heading into the city to raise money for HIV awareness, and didn’t complete dismiss my suggestion that they should consider running for Parliament. “At the very least, I want New Zealand should raise their refugee quota. There are so many people who want to be given the chance to prove themselves.”
“New Zealand has given me the opportunity to be my true, authentic self, I’m just so grateful that I’ve been given the opportunity to shine.”
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