Mark Castle — Pop Star Illusionist Extraordinaire
It only takes a glance to see that Mark Castle isn’t your average drag queen. Sure, he’s got the heels (always), but you’ll only occasionally see him in a wig, or in a dress – or, for that matter, clean shaven.
Instead, what Castle puts forth – on Facebook and Instagram, and in a growing archive of videos that accompany his grimy dance music – is a confusingly beautiful face, masculine but artfully made up and glossy. That face might sport a hallucinatory set of double eyebrows and deep velour lipstick framed by George Michael five o’ clock shadow, or it might be lined with disturbing blue veins, or alien sigils, or an inverted burgundy triangle.
Or, equally often, he might be wearing no makeup, a black t-shirt, and a deadpan stare that’s a kind of art in itself.
“I’m not trying to look like a woman,” Castle says. “My thing isn’t female illusion.”
“I’m a pop star illusionist.”
I first met Mark at the Venture Compound, an edgy underground art-warehouse where he regularly used his illusion from about 2013 to 2015. He was rarely in any kind of costume in those days, focusing everyone’s attention on the great original music he was performing. With its clashing drums and buzzing electronics, Mark’s work fit right in with the noisy Venture scene. Then as now, he used his own unmistakably male-coded name and male pronouns — though his diva persona was already peeking through.
“The people who have always embraced me were noise kids or punk kids or queer kids. It wasn’t always mainstream gay culture, because mainstream gay culture has always just been white guys with abs.”
In St. Pete, where gay men a generation or two older than Mark hold major sway, those could be fighting words. But Castle does have a lot of supporters in Tampa Bay’s more traditional drag community. In 2013, for instance, he was invited to take the stage at St. Pete Pride – an event that can safely be described as ‘mainstream’ compared to some of his haunts.
“The queen who got me that was Kori Stevens,” Mark says, “And I was very touched by that. There are a number of traditional queens who get what I do.”
What Mark “does” was born when he witnessed an unnamed female pop singer dedicate a floss-thin dance number to abused women.
“I thought, I’m going to turn this into an entire act,” he laughs. “These pop stars, everyone acts like they’re a musical martyr.” The stage persona that has emerged is “delusional,” in the thrall of a kind of self-obsession that can’t be satisfied by sticking with a single gender.
“Justin Bieber? I feel like he’s a drag of masculinity.” And sure enough, there’s Mark in a very Bieber-ish white see-through raincoat ensemble.
Reflexivity and self-awareness was always part of drag, and gay culture more broadly. There lie, after all, the modern origins of camp itself, the sly love-hate that made icons of John Waters and Kathy Griffin (may she rest in peace).
“I’m fascinated by what’s current and what’s big,” Mark says. “Not necessarily because it’s right, but because I want to see what influences billions of people at once.”
And of course, if you’re playing with questions of influence, the place to be right now is online. Mark constantly updates his Instagram and Facebook feeds with new looks, and nuggets of snarky wisdom that would make any cruel-hearted queen proud. “I love performing, but everything I do was born in a digital era,” he says. “To keep up the act of delusion I think it’s easier to stick to social media.”
Mark is also trying to crank out music videos for some of his existing work. “At this moment I’m trying to focus on visuals, and get bigger as a drag artist, not just a musician,” he says. “I didn’t go to college, because I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I want to be an actor. I want to do drag and makeup, I’d like to get into film, all of that stuff.”
‘All that stuff,’ of course, is still just a little harder to get access to in Tampa Bay than it might be elsewhere, but Mark is committed to central Florida.
“I used to try very hard to downplay anything Florida,” he says. “I spent so much time trying to make myself New York or L.A., but eventually I learned how to embrace it. Florida is all about the simple life, and that’s always been a thing in my aesthetic and my visuals – I know a lot of drag is about putting as much [stuff] on yourself as possible, but I always thought it was about your attitude.”
Besides, he says, “If you’re a good artist, it doesn’t matter where you are. I saw people go to New York or Portland. And you know what? They still sucked.”
Ouch. Some things, it seems, never change.