Revealing Portraits

Published November 11, 2014

ABOVE: PHOTO COURTESY OF CHARLES ATLAS

In 2006, Antony and the Johnsons toured Europe with a production that singer Antony Hegarty and video artist Charles Atlas had debuted at the 2004 Whitney Biennial. The shows featured 13 women who challenged the heteronormative ideal of beauty—each would stand on a slowly rotating platform in front of close-up video projections of themselves as the band played. The effect was a moving exploration of identity and empowerment. Today, Secretly Canadian is releasing Turning, a live album and tour documentary directed by Atlas. Although eight years have passed, the Turning experience is as relevant now as ever.

EMMA BROWN: You have a beautiful singing voice and you’ve received a lot of praise as a professional musician. When did people start to take notice of your voice?

ANTONY HEGARTY: I was about 17 or 18 when I first started performing in public. I had a teacher when I was a freshman in college and she came up to me afterwards and said she had been crying while I had been singing, and it really shocked me. Why would she start crying? When I was a junior in college I moved to New York and went to this performance school the Experimental Theatre Wing. We had singing class and again, some of the other students would cry when I was singing, and I really didn’t know why. I started to realize that there was something in the tone of my voice that was evocative for them.

BROWN: Do you remember your first public performance as a singer?

HEGARTY: The one I really remember is my sophomore year of college at UC Santa Cruz. Every year I used to write a musical inspired by John Waters, and I would get all my friends together and put on this perverse, emotional, tragic musical. I did one where I was a nun and I was singing to Jesus on the cross, and I was crying my eyes out. I had just started listening to Ray Charles and had heard his cover of “Yesterday,” which had shaken me to the core. I did an imitation, and it was one of those a-ha moments where you’re combining some of the most ironic elements with some of the most sincere elements, and it made a feeling that was insanely loaded.

BROWN: In Turning, Honey Dijon talks about walking into a club and never being the same again. Have you ever had a moment like that in your life?

HEGARTY: I think it was also a moment when I walked into a club. I walked into the Pyramid Club—I think I was 19 years old —on Avenue A and I saw Page [Reynolds] and Trash [Lucifer Jones] go-go dancing on the bar. They were two stars from that era, it was 1990. And I just knew I was home in that moment. It was the place I had always dreamed of. It was a real hole in the ground, but it was glittering with subversive life. It was everything I wanted at that age.

BROWN: Is there a place you can go to today where you feel that similar sense of “I’m home”? 

HEGARTY: It’s really different for me now. That was when I was just coming out of my teens. Now, I have that feeling more in nature—if I’m sitting in a stream or in the hills.

BROWN: The tour documented in Turning took place in 2006. Watching the documentary now, does it feel like it was a long time ago?

HEGARTY: For me it feels really pertinent. We did Turning for the first time in 2004 at the Whitney Biennial. In 2006 I had this opportunity to bring it around Europe, almost like an ambassadorial project. All of the subjects were my close friends, and the piece was about witnessing each other in a very public way and in an incredibly intimate way. The curation of the models was about this intersection between transfeminism and what was later called future feminism. When we did Turning in Paris, Riccardo Tisci was in the audience. Two years later he started premiering transgender models like Lea T and inspired a whole new resurgence of interest and support for a notion of trans beauty. Now we have this sort of trans-revolution happening in the U.S., with Laverne Cox and Janet Mock and these people who are really giving voice to the trans experience for the first time in the general media. Turning planted some of the seeds for that.

TURNING DOCUMENTARY AND CONCERT IS OUT TODAY, NOVEMBER 11, VIA SECRETLY CANADIAN.