Photos and text by Harry James Hanson
Hari Nef is a student at Columbia University, a sister of Chez Deep, and the doyenne of Tumblr. Her effervescent style of dress and performance has captivated Art Basel Miami, PMC & Next Magazines, Michael Musto of The Village Voice, as well as anyone who has had the privilege of seeing her live on stage. Hari has been performing in New York nightlife for less than one year, but she has already asserted her aesthetic prowess within the queer underground. She was able to take time out of her busy schedule for this interview and photo shoot, but she never once took off her black pumps.
How did Harry Neff become Hari Nef?
When I moved to New York I was going out, I was dressing up, I was having a lot of fun and I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but I knew I was going down a different path from the one that I had been on living at home in Newton, Massachusetts. So it was a branding decision. I wanted to create an aesthetic world for myself, and I'd always fantasized about changing the spelling of my name. I thought it was kind of fun and exotic. So I just decided to do it on Facebook one day and it stuck.
The two reasons I chose it is because there were too many consonants in my name, with two R’s and two F’s it just wasn't good to look at, and ‘Hari’ was more androgynous. I started feeling less and less like I wanted to be a guy with a guy's name. It was all about branding myself in a new way, and in a kind of remote way, not to mislead, just to break away from, not my origins, but the place where I was coming from and the mindset. Not necessarily environmentally, but in myself.
Do you see it as your drag name?
No, absolutely not. I spell my name like that on school papers. I spell my name like that whenever it's not an official document where it could be confusing if I gave them that name. That's my name. In a way, that's the name I created when I started to create my own work and take pride in my own work.
Do you have a preferred pronoun?
I hate them all so I don't care. This sounds melodramatic, but I literally cringe when someone says 'he' or 'him' and I kind of just... ugh... it's weird, because I don't cringe when people say ‘she,’ I don't feel as uncomfortable when people use ‘she’ because I think I've expressly trained myself to jive out on my feminine side, but I know that's not the whole of who I am. It's not that I feel more like 'she' than like 'he,' it's just like, I've had to un-learn a lot of 'he' and I feel like 'he' is kind of the thing that's been beating me down all my life so I don't really like 'him.' [Hari laughs] 'She' is a little more comfortable and welcoming, not because she is 'she,' but because there's a lot of 'she' in me. Oh my god, this sounds like Dr. Seuss... but I think they're equally vulgar.
Do you have any mentors?
Gerry, my boss, She was the first person to put me on, period. I was performing with Gerry & The Twinks before I was performing with Chez Deep, but it was her thing and I took her direction and tried bring her aesthetic to life. But Gerry being a Columbia graduate-- like, double, triple? --and being this really independent, flamboyant, fun-loving personality in the nightlife/queer nightlife, she was actually really the one who precipitated that whole turning point where I was like 'oh, maybe I can do this kind of thing, maybe it's worth it to do this kind of thing, maybe I can do this kind of thing and maintain all of that upper-echelon competitive cache for which I've been working and for which I've been told to work my entire life.'
And then of course there's Alexis Blair Penney and Colin Self, they're the two women that invited me to perform solo for the first time. In short, they are my drag mothers. They didn't know this at the time, but I had never performed for anyone outside of a theatrical context, like Theater: capital T, before I performed for them. I also did speech & debate in high school, which was competitive acting in suits, but that’s it. I had always known that I wanted to create my own performative language but I was hesitant to. I met Colin backstage at Pussy Faggot, when I was performing with Gerry. I had seen Colin before online, and she showed me to Alexis on the internet, and then she asked me if I performed, and I didn't know if I did or not so I said 'yes!' That's how I started performing at Alexis' party, Normalize! Other mentors have come and gone, amazing professors and directors, but those are the three big ones.
So you started performing with Alexis and Colin and with the addition of Bailey Stiles and Sam Banks, Chez Deep was formed. What is the creative process like when working with them?
We're all so different but we all share in this aesthetic vocabulary.
Like the Spice Girls?
Kind of... actually, exactly like the Spice Girls. It's not so much that we all have the same taste, it's just that we've all spent so much time together that whenever an individual member puts something on the table, whether it's a group or solo number, we are instantly able to engage with it. The seed of Chez Deep was to have an edgy, sexy, dark-- yet glam and fun --girl group mixed in, whether explicitly or implicitly, with revisionistic drag. Drag with no rules. Because we all trust each other so much as performers, every now and then one of us will take the lead and curate when we're creating something together versus doing our individual numbers. But when someone takes the lead we all know how to follow and we all share that authority, for sure. It happens really organically, always. I mean, we all grew up in the same cultural moment and we just...know what's cool. And we know what's spectacular. And we know what's sexy. Of course, all of those words are subjective, but we value them all in a really similar way.
How do you balance your personal and professional life?
In a way my professional life is my personal life. All of my friends, my boyfriend Zak, they're all out there! What's great about my performance life is, it's nightlife! I perform in clubs, at parties...I mean, Chez Deep has their own show but there's a party after. My boyfriend is willing to come with me to every single Chez Deep show, not because he's a good boyfriend-- which he is --but because he's there snapping away with his camera, documenting the whole thing and that's part of his work. There definitely is more friction between my school life uptown and my performance life downtown.
Then perhaps a better way to phrase the question is: how do you balance your uptown and downtown lives?
Honestly, I work really hard. Ya know, the truth is I don't cast my roots down too deeply on either side of town. At school I have my classes and I have to do really well in those, which takes priority over everything. And I have my handful of really really great friends. Do I want to go around making a bunch more? Hell no. Are there a lot of really great people there, yes of course, but I can't get too caught up in either place. It's the same when I'm downtown. If somebody asked me to perform at their party and it's a really great opportunity but I have class the next day at 10 AM, am I going to do it? No, probably not. There's no special secret, it's just a matter of discipline and knowing when to say yes and when to say no. There are certain opportunities that present themselves where I have to ask: is this really important, or is this supplementary? I have to keep that critical eye out for what is an important thing for me to do and what is just confection or distraction. I have to be really objective. It's good; I'm a Libra, I can handle it.
I know that you're an avid user of social media. What are some of your favorite platforms?
My favorite social media platforms are: Facebook, Tumblr, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and VFILES! Definitely VFILES, the social aspect of which is growing. Oh and I don't use it anymore but I really loved The Sims Online.
Tell me more about your Tumblr.
Right now, my Tumblr is just a dumpster for everything I'm ever feeling or wanting to talk about or wanting to share. Wanting to share, mostly. I'm not really conscious of this as I'm doing it, but it's also this crazy/meticulous self-documentation. All these thoughts and pictures, my taste in art and music, is all going to be documented for me or whoever to look back on. And as I've acquired more of a following, it's also turned into an advice blog in a lot of ways.
Does it ever feel like performance?
Absolutely. I don't really censor what I want to say, but I definitely censor myself in how I want to say it. At the same time, there's always this line I never cross with affecting too much of an online persona. I make these aesthetic choices really deliberately, and I don't think that's disingenuous. I think it's more just because I want to share so much with so many people that I need to craft an aesthetic experience worthy of their attention.
How does your academic background in theater influence your more personal work?
Training in theater, and training in speech and debate as I did in high school, it just empowers me. I am at the point where, not that I've arrived anywhere final, but I have kind of a safety cushion of training underneath me where I feel like I can just go up there on a stage in front of people and figure it out and it will be good. I'm still learning to trust my instincts, as someone who is a very rational Libra and always in her head. Academic work allows me to determine my aesthetic values... that's a really shallow point, but, ya know if I had never read Judith Butler I might have never felt comfortable putting on a dress.
Yeah, right? Thanks! Being an artist, or just being a someone who makes stuff happen in some kind of creative way--that requires curation and a critical eye and a sturdy sense of judgment. And I feel like academia not only empowers me to figure out what I want but also allows me to articulate what I want, to others and to myself.
Who/What inspires you?
I'm really into this whole idea of things that work within conventions to subvert conventions. I really like something that adheres to form in a lot of ways and then also fucks with it in a few ways. I think that's a lot more effective than just, ya know, being an anarchist. And there are a lot of people/places/things that do that.
So, what looks are you feeling this season?
Clearly, I'm feeling corporate casual. I'm feeling french mani this season. I'm feeling art gallery owner this season. I'm feeling American sportswear this season. I'm feeling denim this season. I'm feeling latex this season. I'm feeling one pieces. Just one piece. Just one. Just one crazy thing. I'm feeling womenswear on unadorned male bodies. I'm feeling the Japanese masters. I'm feeling sterile opulence. I'm definitely done with meager opulence.
What do you want from an audience?
Tips! [Hari laughs] That's a really good question... this hits home right now because I just auditioned for a theater production at school in a black skirt, doing Clytemnestra from Elektra. These past three semesters I'd usually audition in a pair of jeans or something, but whether I'm in drag or in just a feminine day look... like I know this sounds really cliché but I just want people to have an open mind and an acute attentiveness to what they're feeling and ask themselves why they're feeling it, and what are the consequences of their feelings and their thoughts. I really feel like my work demands that kind of engagement, and at the risk of sounding self-important, deserves that kind of engagement, because that's what I'm doing in my process. That's what I've done. And once you've looked inside of your aesthetic vocabulary and preferences, you find sublime humor and sublime terror, too. It is easy to be passive, which is why I think you need to get people's attention, and be a little violent, and be a little out of control. But as I said, always in control. I'm known as this kind of crazy wild child when I'm performing, but I'm trying to hone that in and focus it more.
I believe the word "feral" has been thrown around.
Yeah, or I make out with audience members with blood on my face. That's pretty in-your-face, but my next step is to see if I can produce the same effect in someone by doing 500% less. Because I know how to grab attention and go crazy on stage and fuck myself up and break myself open and make myself cry or whatever, but now I really like the idea that I can inspire just as much horror in someone if I do my makeup a little wrong, or if I wear a dress that's a little too sheer, or lip sync a lyric in a certain way.
It sounds like you're trying to learn how to be subtle.
I am trying to learn subtlety. It's hard!
Finally, what can we expect in 2013?
Chez Deep is performing on February 6th at Santos Party House, with House of Ladosha and lots of other really fun people. And that's going to be our most comprehensive, full drag show yet. Coming up after that we've got a little bit of a movie-musical project in the works... I'm also really excited about my drag mother Colin Self's residency at American Medium and her new project: CLUMPTV. There's another potential project with which I'm trying to get on some Heidi Montag/Kim Cattrall... and I'm going to be assisting casting director Preston Chaunsumlit at the Fall/Winter 2013 New York shows. I want to keep performing, but casting is something I'm really eager to explore. And I'm going to Europe! So who knows what will happen there. Honestly, you can follow it all on harinef.tumblr.com!