Rosie Garland

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ABSTRACT: This article presents how a profound engagement with my own alternative and non-normative femininity has a determining role in the creation and development of performance persona Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen: Mistress of Ceremonies, poet, and twisted cabaret chanteuse. I examine how Rosie Lugosi embodies the monstrous-feminine through challenges to the image of the lesbian vampire, exploring issues of performance and poetry as an integrative tool and path to personhood. Rosie Lugosi’s variant and outlaw voice articulates the mis/representation of women, the performance of fem(me)ninity and queerness, whilst exploring personal darkness, celebrating woman-as-abject, and reclaiming space as an outsider artist.

Rosie Lugosi is “The Girl You Never Loved But Always Looked For.” In and through her I perform the monstrous-feminine.


She breathes on you; swear you don’t feel a thing
but the looking-glass is misting
damp with her condensation.
She writes: she 4 me, 4 eva, I love U, true
These are the ghosts she promises you.

Vinegar dreams that make you stand up
and suck your fingers.
She fills you with silk, sandpaper,
bites that tattoo your back and legs
with crescents of scarlet stars.

And she sings:
Baby baby, daddy shall have a new master
swinging your heart on the end of a ribbon.
Sleepy yet?
Thumbs your eyelids till they
sings in your ears until they
pins your butterflies until they
crouches on your ribs until they
Braids 7-year-itch bitterness
into the air that curls up from your tongue.

Writes: she 4 me, 4 eva, I love U, true
These are the ghosts she promises you.
She sings the blues—
purples you with a garden of rosy bruises.
She is teeth and tongue and
old enough to slip your window catches.
The girl you never loved

but always looked for.
She never comes when you call. You cannot warm her.
She writes: she 4 me, 4 eva, I love U, true
These are the ghosts she promises you.

She sings black and blue murder.
She is no accident that just keeps happening.
She’s the breath you gasp out,
your half-empty bed,
the bottles rolling on the floor,
why you hate the weekends,
why it’s just too hard to hold it all together
and why no other woman ever looks like her.
She 4 me, 4 eva, I love U, true
These are the ghosts she promised you. (Lugosi 2003, 23)

Rosie Lugosi is a Frankenstein creation, sewn together from worst nightmares and wildest dreams, and all the murky things we’re not supposed to think about. She asks questions we are not supposed to ask.

Quintessential Outsider

I’ll start with the question I get asked most often: why did you choose the image of the vampire to express yourself?

It’s nothing to do with the limp Twilight universe, where vampires are de-sexed and de-queered (Meyer 2005); nor angst-ridden Anne Rice (1976) creations; nor even the passive Hammer Horrors (Sangster 1971), who got staked by Peter Cushing in the final reel (after everyone had got a good gawp at their cleavages). As a child I was afraid of the dark, and wanted something effective to help me deal with it. Something that knew the geography of darkness and revelled in it. I wanted fearless invisible friends, and chose vampires. Vampires were the most powerful creatures in the world. Nothing scared them.

The vampire is the quintessential queer outsider: it exists outside society, challenging and outraging social mores. It is an abject being that “[d]oes not respect borders, positions, rules and disturbs identity, system, order” (Kristeva 1982, 4). It outrages the social order. Yet “normal” society is entranced, fascinated, obsessed. It wants to possess, but also to destroy.

This abjectness, this lack of respect for rules and borders, has traditionally been viewed negatively. Female vampires in particular have been viewed as “[a]n expression of women’s position as outsiders, women’s social and cultural alienation” (Jackson 1981, 71).

This misses an important point. I propose that the female vampire is an outsider through choice. She has not been thrown out of society: she defies it. She’s a woman in rebellion against the family and expectations of sexual passivity, not merely ejected. Rosie Lugosi is no leech on the patriarchal beast, which is drawn to her, yet tries to stake her. She gets her blood elsewhere. Therefore, she breaks the pattern of being hooked into patriarchy’s push-me-pull-you relationship with powerful, sexually active women.

Vampires are contradictory. They embody yet challenge the breach between enforced and over-simplistic dualities (human and non-human, male and female, straight and queer). They exist within the contradiction of needing to “pass as human,” so as to avoid getting staked every five minutes—a neat metaphor for the queer subject who, historically as well as currently, needed to “pass” as straight to avoid persecution. They invite questions about what we accept unquestioningly.

Vampires don’t fit. Neither did nor do I. They don’t strive for the heteronormative imperative of marriage plus children plus mortgage. They build alternative family groupings, creating new members of their community in a way that doesn’t involve childbirth. They have families of choice, not families of origin. Oh, and they are sexy. I was attracted to their unconventional sexuality. As an isolated queer femme teenager it seemed radical to propose a form of sexual expression not focused entirely on male genitalia (it still does).

The archetypal image of the vampire possesses great personal resonance. It links to my adolescent searching for a sense of self in a deeply conservative, rural home. Rosie Lugosi is “[n]ot an icon but an inroad” (Young 1988) into self-awareness and what it means to be a performer who is a queer femme. I am looked at, still. But now I possess knowledge. I am able to look back.

Drag, Dis-ease, and the Body Politic

Another frequent question is: are you a man or a woman?

I have no time for restrictive gender binaries. Rosie Lugosi blurs gender boundaries because, as I am told, no real woman would ever act like you. What is meant is that no authentic woman could be so loud, sexually assertive, wear such exaggerated makeup, make such exaggerated gestures, be so confident, so fearless, and thereby so terrifying. Rosie Lugosi is so extreme a representation of the feminine that she can’t be a woman. She must be a man in drag. However, Rosie Lugosi is no domesticated Mrs. Doubtfire, whose drag neatly reinforces heteronormativity. She leaves it punch-drunk and reeling from lightning comebacks, honed on years of playground and workplace bullying.

Just as drag is about being an imposter, I use drag to “[i]nsist on the extension of legitimacy to bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal and unintelligible” (Butler 1990, xxv). In addition to perverting notions of what makes a woman a real woman, Rosie Lugosi’s false and deceptive dress is analogous to the nature of vampires–they pass as human, but they too are impostors. Of course, this links to the stigma that queers bear, that they are not fully part of the human race. Like vampires, they too are marginal and therefore not to be trusted.

I am not a faux queen, a woman dressed as a woman, “[n]ot…celebrat[ing] drag as the expression of a true and model gender” (Butler 1990, xxiv). I am doing something far more disruptive. Rosie Lugosi is a perverse deployment of femininity. A caricature. Six foot tall in six-inch stilettos, wielding a riding crop, clad in latex catsuit, towering wig, fangs and hoisted cleavage, she transforms previous notions of what constitutes both gothic and queer performance. Just as Rosie Lugosi parodies songs, she parodies femininity, interrogating the theme of forbidden female fruit. I dress the part and portray Rosie Lugosi as the Radical Lesbian Separatist Dominatrix Bitch Goddess Top Femme Vampire Queen. I am performing the “feminine” and performing it all wrong.

It’s a fine line. Try to name voluptuous, overtly sexual comediennes and you run out of steam pretty quickly. Mae West is one of the few examples that springs to mind. This reflects women’s ongoing, deeply troubled relationship with their bodies. Female comics struggle with making their bodies sexual, in case it distracts (it will), or they are dismissed as eye-candy (they are). Rosie Lugosi is a spectacle, but not a passive spectacle to be consumed. She bites back. Cracking the whip, baring fangs, and flaunting flesh, I make my body part of the act. It is an extreme body that both personifies and encapsulates the whole ambivalence still felt about sexually active and confident women. Rosie Lugosi embodies the defiant and transgressive power of unconventional female sexuality–the predatory vampiric villainess who never gets staked.

Through Rosie Lugosi, I perform the tensions that women feel about how “real” women are represented in society and the media. Women are still under pressure to conform to a narrow range of acceptable presentations of woman. The “acceptables” often relate to invisibility. We are told being invisible will make us safe. However, my experience of living through the Yorkshire Ripper experience taught me this is not true (for an overview of the murder of 13 women in 1980s Yorkshire UK and the shamefully botched police investigation, see Louise Wattis 2017). The lie that only sex workers in short skirts are attacked persists. Anyone who has lived with domestic violence will tell you that no clothing or behaviour can make you “safe.” So why bother? If neither clothing nor behaviour ensure safety, why waste creative energy trying? Rosie Lugosi is my response to that question. I have no desire to be assimilated into normative society, no desire to be abstinent. To paraphrase Peter Tatchell, “I don’t want equality, I want liberation” (Tatchell 2009).

How Queer is Queer?


But you don’t look like a lesbian…
I am the double-take
The queerest of the queer,
so secure in my sexuality
That tonight I’ll wear a dress
that hugs my waist and hips.

But you don’t look like a real lesbian…
So you tell me what’s real
while I shake out my hair
kick off my heels
peel off your shirt
and push you into the pillows.

But you don’t look like a normal lesbian…
You’re damn right; I’m not normal
I’m a subverter of society
and all its expectations.
So perverted, I love women
and that includes myself. (Lugosi 2000, 12)

Rosie Lugosi transgresses notions and perceptions of how femmes and lesbians perform and present “femme” and “lesbianism” to straight and queer communities. There is still a tension that flamboyance is politically suspect, that “dressing up” is letting the side down (an attitude that plagued eighties lesbian feminism). I am in agreement with Emma Goldman who said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution” (The history of this misquotation is to be found in Goldman (1934, 56) and Shulman (1991)).

Dressing-up continues to be profoundly subversive. It plays with notions of what we can be and what we are told we can’t be. Clothing is an instrument of power, and I appropriate it. Occupy it. Rosie Lugosi is a direct descendant of butch-femme bar culture of the 1950s and 60s, teamed with the political drive of the Suffragettes (whose lesbian history is, thankfully, being reclaimed), who fought for the right to look and dress as they saw fit, wearing red lipstick as an act of defiance (Marsh 2014, 35).

However, I wear no makeup when offstage: a challenge to restrictive notions of how femmes should present “real femme.” It also draws a distinction between femme as an identity category (of non-normative sexuality), and the (drag) performance of the femme that exposes the cultural construction of femininity through parody.

Growing Old Disgracefully

Increasingly, I’m asked: should you be doing this at your age?

I’m growing older, and am doing it disgracefully. I have every intention of continuing to perform, and do not regard performance as an exclusively youthful experience. Why should we stop? Rosie Lugosi throws out that challenge. She physically embodies the monstrous-feminine through the outward trappings of the dominatrix-vampire-crone. She transgresses age boundaries by challenging notions of how women are supposed to act at a particular age, not to mention the diktat that women must keep young and beautiful. In my late fifties, I flaunt my age onstage. Rosie Lugosi is a memento mori. She stands in contrast to sanitised mainstream depictions of eternally-youthful female vampires, not to mention human females. Step close, I whisper. Approach this horror. Count the wrinkles, the cracked veins:  these proudly displayed intimations of mortality.

There’s an intake of breath, a knee-jerk recoil. But you don’t look that old is the reflex response; hurriedly reassuring me that I need not worry. However, my age is a fact, not an option. Therefore, I look precisely the age that I am. Denial is always an indicator that one has struck the nail on the head. The injunction against displaying an ageing female body is potent–even amongst queers and feminists. There continues to be a horror of older sexually active women. Of crones. Of witches. Rosie Lugosi is a radical subversion of that perception. She will not hold her tongue. I use comedy to subvert notions of normative sexuality, gender-specific behaviours, and what constitutes appropriate female behaviour. Rather than polemic and preaching, I believe in the power of laughter to make people think.

I’m proud to call myself a feminist. Rosie Lugosi undermines the slander that feminists have no sense of humour, that political activism is boring or unfashionable. Rosie Lugosi tells jokes, and is a joke personified. She articulates the “[h]owl of laughter that would ridicule and demolish any notion of the feminine that takes itself seriously” (Duggan & McHugh 2002). And, considering the current resurgence of the ultra-right, this is no time to hang up her fangs.


Performing Rosie Lugosi is about finding a variant voice and using it, loudly. Through her I give expression to the unexpressed underside of myself and experiences. The Rosie Lugosi material I write and perform is a mixture of humour and “dark materials.” I am interested in outsiders; people who won’t (or can’t) squeeze into the one-size-fits-all templates they’ve been provided, and the friction that occurs when they try. I know that comes from always having been a cuckoo in the nest.

As Rosie Lugosi I utilise and reclaim the image of the predatory female. This is not about looking or acting “feminine” (the social construct of the disempowered and passive female). I’m reclaiming the power of being a show-off, that sign of ego and expression so much frowned upon in female children. Yes, I’m too big for my thigh-high PVC boots, and it’s wonderful.

By utilising the classic image of the dominatrix as emcee and performer, I play with concepts of power: where and in whom it is situated, and how women use it. Rosie Lugosi cannot be dismissed as a tart in high heels and a wig. She is a challenge. She breaks down stereotypes of what queer femmes look like, sound like, can be, and can achieve. What it means to be different and proud. Rosie Lugosi embodies the power of a defiant and avenging angel. She says what she wants, wears what she wants, and does it for herself, not to please anyone.

In my novels The Palace of Curiosities (Garland 2012), Vixen (Garland 2014), and The Night Brother (Garland 2017), those marked by difference are not mute freaks robbed of agency, nor are they refracted through the eye of a normalising interviewer (Rice 1976). In the same vein, Rosie Lugosi speaks for herself, too. She challenges heteronormativity, not merely through performance but by the sheer force of her existence, which is both protean and Promethean. She proposes bright alternatives to a husband-and-marriage, nine-to-five existence, asserting that there is more than one book in the library, one song in the jukebox, more colours than beige.

Traditionally, vampires are supposed to be the living dead. The paradox is that as a suppressed, passive, unintegrated, underconfident voiceless individual I was never nearer death. As Rosie Lugosi the Lesbian Vampire Queen, one who has survived stalkers, cancer, and anything else the world has thrown at me, I have never been more alive.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Duggan, Lisa and Kathleen McHugh. “A Fem(me)nist Manifesto.” In Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity, edited by Chloë Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri, 165-70. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002.

Garland, Rosie. The Night Brother. London, UK: Borough Press, 2017.

Garland, Rosie. Vixen. London, UK: Borough Press, 2014.

Garland, Rosie. The Palace of Curiosities. London, UK: HarperCollins, 2012.

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. New York: Knopf, 1934.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London, UK: Methuen, 1981.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Lugosi, Rosie. Creatures of the Night. Manchester, UK: purpleprosepress, 2003.

Lugosi, Rosie. Coming Out At Night. Manchester, UK: purpleprosepress, 2000.

Lugosi, Rosie. “Coming Out at Night–Performing as the Lesbian Vampire.” In Acts of Passion: Sexuality, Gender and Performance, edited by Nina Rapi and Maya Chowdry, 201-8. New York: Haworth Press, 1998.

Marsh, Medeleine. Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day. London, UK: Pen and Sword, 2014.

Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. New York: Little Brown, 2005.

Rice, Anne. Interview with the Vampire. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Sangster, Jimmy, dir. Lust for a Vampire. London, UK: Hammer Films, 1971.

Shulman, Alix Kates. “Dances with Feminists.” Women’s Review of Books 9, no. 3 (1991): 13.

Tatchell, Peter. “Our Lost Gay Radicalism.” Guardian (London), June 29, 2009. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jun/26/gay-lgbt-victimhood-stonewall

Wattis, Louise. “Revisiting the Yorkshire Ripper Murders: Interrogating Gender Violence, Sex Work, and Justice.” Feminist Criminology 12, no. 1 (2017): 3-21.

Young, Shelagh. “Feminism and the Politics of Power.” In The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture, edited by Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment, 173-88. London, UK: Women’s Press, 1988.



Rosie Garland // Tagged “literary hero” by The Skinny, Rosie is a UK-based novelist, poet, and singer with post-punk band The March Violets. She performs twisted cabaret as Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen. Her third novel The Night Brother (Borough Press) and poetry collection As in Judy (Flapjack Press) are available now. She is half of The Time-Travelling Suffragettes. http://www.rosiegarland.com/

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