Today we are privileged to have Zenja Collins talking openly with us. For those of you who do not know, Zenja is a very well known and highly regarded drag queen, beauty queen, blogger and activist in South Africa. I hope you will all enjoy getting to know Zenja a little better in the course of this interview.
Daniella (DA): Hi Zenja thanks for making the time to meet with me.
Zenja (ZC): Hi Daniella ,Thank you so much for forwarding me this opportunity to share my story and views .I have been following you for a while and love the way you express your opinions and thank you for supporting the LGBTI community through your platform
DA: Thank you for those very kind words. It is absolutely my pleasure to be interviewing you, Zenja. You have been a part of the SA scene for a number of years now. For those of my readers who are new to the scene could you please tell us how it all started for you?
ZC: Wow, that question takes me back years, to when the scene was so different in many aspects of the word. I started going to gay venues just before and after I matriculated (DA: that is at the end of grade 12, or high school for those of you outside of South Africa). The first time was quite by chance at the end of my matric year just after final exams, back in 1997.
I was a part time model, working for a company called Model Makers. I got into modelling after winning a small modelling competition at a school event we had as part of our fund-raising for the matric farewell (DA: essentially the South African version of a ‘prom’). Part of the prize was a 3 month contract and photo-shoot with Model Makers.
A girl friend of mine (who also modeled for Model Makers) who went to the same school as me (but one year behind me) invited me to go clubbing. I went with her and her openly gay father to a club called Pandora’s in Rosebank. I had an amazing time. Seeing these people, who were so different from the norm and what I was used to, expressing themselves the freely was a liberating experience for me.
The next year I met a friend, who was gay and also a drag queen, at one of my gym classes and she started exposing me more to the scene by taking me to other clubs, such as Champions, Birdcage and Moon Café. The club bug bit: I was hooked to this new life of freedom. I felt at home and comfortable in my skin. I realise that I was very naive and shy but I loved every moment.
The rest is, as they say, history. I started doing drag soon after, taking part in beauty pageants and even had the opportunity to be employed at one of the best gay venues in club history. I was the Hostess and Dance Manager for Purple Fly one of the venues which was part of Heartland. And there after went over as public relations officer at the well known venue in Randburg called Club Bitch and Club @ shortly after for a while on a part time basis.
Heartland was the reason behind me making my name as Zenja as I saw a door opening and took the opportunity immediately.
DA: Phew, that is quite a story. It sounds like a very interesting life you lead. What were some of your highs and lows over the years,
ZC: Well the highs was accomplishing everything I set out to achieve like my pageant titles, being on magazine covers (I was on the cover of Exit twice in just one year). Other highlights were making a few television appearances and being employed at one off the best and well known Gay clubs in history. I set myself certain goals and I achieved them all.
The lows I would say included exposing myself to drugs. I battled with this demon for a number of years. Unfortunately drugs are very much part of the night club scene.
I have no sob story to tell regarding this. I was exposed to drugs by working in the club scene. They were freely available to me. I wanted to try them and I did. No-one forced me into the drug habit. I wanted them, I tried them and I did it for and by myself.
It took me over 13 years to kick this habit. I have survived, but I am one of the lucky ones: Drugs are like a real demon. They are the Devil’s way of collecting souls.
I am one of the most open-minded people that you will come across even if it does not seem that way at first glance to most as I have heard that I come across as bitch at times. But this is so untrue, it is not (laughing) the real me…
By open minded I mean I accept everyone for the person they are the way they are and the path they are on at that particular moment when meeting them. I feel this is important as we all have our personal demons we have to face. Drugs have destroyed many lives and it seems that drug use and the harm that comes with it is increasing.
I started using drugs many moons ago at the age of 19. One of my best friends offered me half an Ecstasy pill. I said yes, took it and so the party started. I started of by easily getting high most of the time with only one pill taken in two halves, one before we started the evening and another at around 12 or so. At Stardust in Johannesburg you would never see me leave the dance floor before 4 am (laughs).
You see I am Afrikaans “boytjie”* living a tunnel vision life style. I have always believed that life has more to offer than what I am surrounded with, so when I see a unique opportunity, I grab it. When I believe in and want something, I go all out for it.
I believe in trying everything at least once: how can you judge if you have not tried it? Addiction, for me, is a bit like drag. Drag is not for all gay men, but honey don’t knock it until you walked in our heels!
At the time I was offered my first drug at Stardust I was not used to the Stardust clubbing lifestyle. I was relatively well experienced as I had been going to other well known clubs, but I was mostly the queen dancing with her sash to a sing along or sokkie (laughs). Eish!**
I remember that whilst I was still Miss Blues, I did not attend that club’s events as I had now found my real home: Stardust! Drugs were, at the time, away for me to express my self and I felt such a sense of freedom. I felt at home and it took me years to release that it was not home.
I was never addicted in my clubbing days. I always made sure that I was in control.
Well that was the beginning of my well known Zenja path. Mostly high, leaving the club when the lights came on, or drunk or both high and drunk and on my way to next party which was normally a house party with the well known figures from the club scene.
As the clubs closed the lights stopped flashing and people moved on.I was not used to this new life. After working as Zenja for three years I started using more drugs out of pure boredom. It was the only way of coping with this new ‘boring”lifestyle (laughs). I went into depression and I stopped going out. It was just me in my little flat with the drugs
I needed to find myself, grow and reinvent my drag persona, so I did! And it was for the best. I was no angel back then and from being “The Club Queen”to now standing in lines at entrances, paying for drinks etc was a much needed reality check.
I am now a totally different person from back then. At times cant believe how naive and self-centred I was. The fame and the drugs had made me lose sight of who I was, but I am still a fighter. The difference now is that now I am using the negative and turning it into a positive.
I went through a huge reality check. One day I decided that I needed to stop before I ended up on the streets, or worse. So I said enough is enough and attended five AA meetings, I discovered it was not my scene but then I found body building and that gave me the sense of purpose I needed and I was able to stop the drugs. The drugs were no longer giving me pleasure so I saw no reason to continue taking them. The drugs changed me as a person. I was told that a few times in the past and I can see it now. I was in a dark and lonely place but it is what made me the Zenja I am today.
I see everything in life as a mindset: if you want to stop you can.You should never start anything you can’t stop. If you have to ask for help then do so. Otherwise you are the reason for the downfall not the drugs.
DA: Thank you for sharing that very difficult story. Do you have any regrets?
ZC: Absolutely none! I am loved by many people. I am also hated by some and I am often misunderstood. But I have no regrets. The path I have followed is the path that has led me to this interview. Life is simply too short and full of new and exciting opportunities to have regrets. I never regret anything as that is what ultimately defines me as a person from within in future years to come. I just need to stress that at the same time you need to learn through your experiences. Regret only comes when you don’t learn from that experience.
DA: You have been a powerful activist for gay rights, can you tell us something about that?
ZC: I have always been an outspoken, flamboyant, ‘what you see is what you get’ type of person hence the fact that at times I am misunderstood. This was especially true in my younger days when I would sometimes speak without thinking. Luckily I have that under control now… Well, mostly.
When something like discrimination, abuse (especially animal abuse) or just plain negative energies comes my way I speak my mind.
You don’t only have to walk the streets with banners, there are many different ways of being an activist and fighting for equality. I use my blog, my Facebook page and all my social interactions to promote and stand for gay rights.
I just can’t stand unfair, negative, discriminating and yes slandering behaviour not just in the LGBTI community, but across the board. And please don’t get me started on politics! Let’s just say I hope you all registered to vote!
I think our rights and freedoms are sometimes taken for granted . The youth need to be educated on where it all started and how easy they have it because of their elders, and some within our community have no respect or acceptance or positive people skills and because of that we will always feel the need to fight for acceptance from within and outside the community at times. This is a sad but very true statement of the situation!
With life experience everyone learns that acceptance comes from within. Then the security of not giving a damn what others think of you kicks in, in good time.
DA: What are you most proud of?
ZC: Most definitely achieving the goals I set for myself. For example making the Exit cover twice in one year. My pageant titles and being employed at Heartland also stand out for me. I will cherish these memories forever. Of course I cannot forget to mention Zen Entertainment, my baby.
DA: What to your mind is the biggest difference between drag queens and other members of the transgender community?
ZC: The most prominent difference between trans women and drag queens is that drag is a style of performance while a trans life is person living life as a women. Being a women is who they are from within.
DA: Do you believe drag queens are part of that community (given that being transgender is about gender identity and most drag queens do not see themselves as having gender identity ‘issues’)?
ZC: Part of the transgender process is to dress up in women’s clothing on a daily basis and to live as a woman. This is a life changing and difficult decision. Before we even consider the costs involved in transitioning. This is where the misconception starts, as people from the outside see transwomen as part of the drag community just because they both wear dresses.
DA: Can you please tell us a little more about how you experience drag vs transwoman?
ZC: I do know few people on a personal level and follow the transgender community as you would see through my interviews I respect them I do however feel at times that a handful withdraw from us once after they have transitioned. This is very hurtful. Who you are as a person comes from within so why withdraw from those who supported the process just because the shell is different now? Truthfully, this it is rare that this happens but even one time is one too many.
DA: Do transwomen and drag queens have similar challenges, needs etc?
ZC: I can’t speak for trans people as I am not one myself I also cannot speak for others but I can share my thoughts from my own personal experiences. I can’t see how we face the same challenges. Transwomen have so much more to overcome. Gaining acceptance as a drag artist or just being gay can be hard. I imagine being Transgender is much harder. I do however think some must be very sure about who they are before putting themselves in a box: if you, at a young age, feel the need to experiment do so in whatever way or form you like, but never classify yourself as transgender until you know for sure.
This is where the debate starts: ‘you said you are trans, but you only do drag shows on weekends. You don’t live the transgender lifestyle’ this was said to a drag friend of mine years ago by a club customer. This is when people get confused .
Before coming out of your cocoon make sure you are the butterfly you claim to be whether you are straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, lesbian or intersex. Knowing yourself brings security and happiness and it shows from the outside.If you are unsure, stay wrapped up and just enjoy life till you are sure there is no rush.
Personally, I love being a man and I always have. Zenja is my creative outlet the lady that gets away with more than Henning ever could.
DA: Do trans people and drag queens experience similar discrimination, should they be allies?
ZC: Across the LGBTI community, we all experience discrimination. People, we are one community of brothers and sisters we, the drag community and transgender community, should be allies to the whole LGBTI community. We are a family. We should stick together. Again I can’t speak for everyone, but I hate people putting themselves in a box because of social pressure. Who cares what you are? As long as you stay yourself and treat people with kindness. If you are comfortable in your skin or change yourself to be so, then that will show and negative comments and discrimination will be either less or it will not register anymore.If you are happy with yourself or your process own it and show.
DA: There has been some debate about whether transgender people are really members of the LGBT community and whether or not the ‘T’ should even be there. What are your thoughts and opinions regarding this?
ZC: This in my eyes should not even be debated and it upsets me greatly. The transgender community like the rest of us form part of the LGBTI community as this as a whole is the only community who accepts us for who we are.
The LGBTI community is a community that stands for equality and acceptance for all and therefore I do see them as my fellow sisters. I know a few transgender people on a personal level that have completed their transgender process but still support us in every way as we supported them.
Candice Cayne, who I look up to tremendously, completed her transgender process many years ago but she still a true gay activist. Trans people are part of the LGBTI community and this should not even be debated. I feel the same about Christina Engela and Stef Burke who I also look up to. I have a great deal of respect and see them as part of our community. True LGBTI activists and sisters.
DA: What are the biggest challenges facing the community at the moment?
ZC: We can be our own worst enemy. We march for acceptance and respect but yet we slander and criticize our own.
DA: How can this be addressed?
ZC: The only way to address this is to stop reacting to it. Social media is a great tool but is often abused . We can use the social media platform by helping and guiding others as I am trying to do with my blog but at times we use it to slander and criticize our own for the world to see but yet we want acceptance and respect.
Your life starts at home .Stop the slandering, stop the hate and let’s unite and build the image we know we are.
DA: On a lighter not you have had considerable (and if I may say, well deserved) success in the world of beauty pageants. Please tell us about some of your experiences?
ZC: Well I have entered over 22 pageants and took first prize in 16 of them. To be honest they all hold wonderful memories of their own. In those days we had no social media so in order to build your drag persona to a household name you had to start off with titles unless you were part of a well-known group (like the Cookie Cups).
It was because of my titles that Heartland employed me as Hostess to attract a crowd. It is now, I think, so much easier with social media.
DA: You look amazing and it is hardly surprising that you have done so well in these pageants. Please share some of your beauty secrets with us.
ZC: (Laughing) Thank you. I see life as a mindset: a positive attitude leads to positive results and the positivity shines through, so sorry, no secrets.
DA: You also run a blog… Please tell us about that?
ZC: My blog (currently on hold) is about the community bringing out the positivity and giving credit where credit is due. We have so much negativity going on that we tend to forget about all the positivity out there. Through my blog I shine light on people doing their part but who also has a story to tell.
DA: You have interviewed some amazing people for your blog. Who stands out as the best interviews (no, I won’t ask you about the worst… Unless you WANT to share)?
ZC: (Laughing) To be honest they all stand out to me as they all had their own unique story to and views to share.Yes, I have interviewed some well known people but I love interviewing those from the LGBTI community itself. Their views and stories are always so interesting that most can relate to.
DA: What made you get into blogging?
ZC: Well my blog started off as a group many years ago. And last year I went over to blogging itself and now currently working on making Zen Entertainment an online magazine.
I have few people working on this and but once up and running the sky will be the limit. More to be revealed once everything is set in stone
DA: All work and no play makes us all a bit sad. Please tell us what you do to relax and have some fun?
ZC: I love nothing more than walking my three furry children. Watching movies or surfing the net for some stand-up comedy as I like to laugh.
DA: Thank you so much for this. I was particularly struck by your comments regarding the LGBTI community. I agree that we are absolutely all one family and that we are far stronger together than we could ever be apart. I have seen a few friends battle drug addiction and I salute your bravery in confronting this demon as you so wonderfully describe it. Let’s do a follow up once that magazine is up and running so we can see where life is taking you.
*’Boytjie’ (pronounced boyky) is a diminutive and affectionate version of ‘boy’.
** Eish (pronounced AIsh) is an expression of bewilderment.
You can catch an online radio interview with Zenja and Casper de Vries here.