In a country where queerness is criminalized and pursuing arts as a career are looked down upon, HoeMoe was born in spite of the oppression, colorful and bright – be it her looks or her personality. Her journey as a drag queen began two years ago, defying the cultural, religious and patriarchal ideals in Lebanon. But HoeMoe’s love for extravagant outfits, perfectly sculpted faces and avant-garde performances didn’t emerge out of the blue. Her mother is largely to credit.
Sitting down by her vanity, voluminous, long, blonde curls, her eyes an endearing ocean blue, large, radiating grace and splendor. Facing her large mirror, she grabs a smaller one, sets it closer to her face. The resemblance is uncanny, she was just an older version, a futuristic dream that was yet to be uncovered at the time.
By Kim Makhlouf
A young Moe glued to her side, gazing at her, entranced.
“I wanted to be her, my mother. I used to sit down as a child and watch her get ready. By the time I was hitting puberty, around 14, I used to steal makeup from her drawer and hide them.”
Enchanted by big dreams, coming from a small town, Moe never believed he would make it. And what’s a dream anyway, in a town so unforgiving. “Dreams are for the weak, I want to reach my goals. I had goals,” began Moe. “The most powerful thing you can do as a human being is become the image of your imagination. And so, I did just that.”
The vigorous aspirations of living an independent life, as a model, a makeup artist, hairdresser, fashion consultant, as a drag queen catapulted Moe into a successful career, one he never felt was attainable. More than two years after his first drag performance in 2020, Moe has cemented his place in the fashion and beauty industry, but so has HoeMoe, one of Lebanon’s many beloved drag queens.
“I knew my [drag] name was going to be HoeMoe, because all of my friends called me homo, as I am a homosexual. My real name is Moe, Mohammed. I am also a hoe. So, if you combine them all together: HoeMoe,” she explained playfully.
She’s a fashion doll from the 90’s. She loves looking gorgeous, being extra. HoeMoe exudes sensual feminine energy, but there is a hint of pizzazz to her. A simple girl, but the extravagant drag element never escapes her.
As a fashion enthusiast, Moe takes inspiration from old Hollywood. Marilyn Monroe, Julie London and Sophia Loren are just some of the household names that shaped his glamorously over-the-top aesthetic – as both himself and as HoeMoe. The sharp craftsmanship of Mugler and McQueen are evident when HoeMoe is synched in a tightly structured corset on stage.
Despite HoeMoe’s infatuation with Western icons and pioneers of beauty and allure that largely drive the looks she creates for social media and performances, it’s the rebellious nature of Arab icons like Haifa Wehbe that galvanize her persona.
Arab women in the entertainment industry are regularly demonized for taking total control over their sexuality, their body and their bold choices. The ideal mold marketed for a virtuous woman in the MENA would be that of piety and submission – namely to the patriarchy. When those norms are challenged and women dare to outgrow this box, at whatever capacity, war is waged.
“I do believe that Arab women are heavily sexualized, any woman really. Especially [that] the Arab world [is] based on religious beliefs, they see women and any part of a woman’s body as an object,” emphasizes Moe. “I remember [my mom telling] me about having to wear a niqab when she gave birth to me, because I was the first boy. And those were traditions. [When] she decided to switch the niqab to a hijab, the whole family and neighborhood [looked at] her with disgust.”
As an Arab man, Moe is also expected to occupy a certain box that dictates what form his masculinity should take, and that success manifests itself as a mundane day job and a family of his own. “The small town I was in, there are no drag queens, there are no makeup artists that are men, there are no models, there is no career for these things.”
He jokingly blames his mother for his obsession with beauty and fashion. Their similarities drew him to the femininity in her; two different bodies, and as dictated by societal norms and standards, two different genders, yet – to him – the same person.
“I used to play around with [my mom’s makeup]. I remember having that one red chrome lipstick, putting it on my eyes, cheeks, lips, everywhere. I knew I was different, and I wanted to do this.”
But there wasn’t much acceptance of his identity or his passions growing up. It in fact earned him the titles of “the gay one” and “that prostitute” around his neighborhood. His struggle transcended his society and was also a conflict in his own home.
“My mom used to always catch me in dresses and makeup. And I used to get beaten the fuc* up,” he recalled. “The way I was raised as a kid had an impact on me, as a person with traumas, but it also shaped me into who I am. [My upbringing] never influenced my decisions or beliefs… I never tried to change who I am.”
Moe’s journey was far from spontaneously waking up in the morning, deciding to sport a wig and carve a cut crease. His first introduction to the flamboyant realm of beauty, fashion and entertainment before drag was through small jobs he could land as a makeup artist in his hometown.
“It’s funny. I was so young, around 16 or 17, my friends would book me for 30,000 liras at the time, and my cousins for 40. At 18, I wanted to work at this salon [owned] by another gay man in my town… He’d call me only when the salon was busy. I made a small amount of money.”
“I never came to the realization that I’m a good makeup artist, that I am good whatsoever. If I didn’t have social media, if I didn’t have contact with the outer world, I would have never known that I’m special,” explains Moe almost grudgingly. “I was always told that what I’m doing is wrong, that I would never go anywhere. Once I had contact with other people from other places of the world, or from Lebanon, I realized that I have something special.”
“We’re all people who need support, but at the end of the day, all it takes is one badass bitc*, that will grab themselves and say fuc* you to an entire society. I’m gonna show you what I am, I’m gonna be visible and I’m gonna kill it“
In regions like the Middle East and North Africa, religious, cultural, political and socio-economic factors have denied many the rights to exist peacefully, wholly, freely.
“I always knew [my parents] were homophobic… When they found out I was gay, they refused it and [threatened me with] abandonment, death threats…but when [that] didn’t work, they took a step back and gave in.“
To this day, Moe says that his mother hints at her disapproval of his queerness or him doing drag. There are some good days, however, where she is fine with it, even ‘sweet’ in her approach to it.
“It’s never a black or white situation, and that’s tiring.”
In July of 2020, Moe competed in what would be his first Grand Ball, his first drag performance. Hosted at Projekt, a gay friendly club that has welcomed a plethora of drag shows, Moe was pushed to join by his friend, Alma. She was also set to compete in the dance category and convinced him to try. He was 18 then, with absolutely no knowledge about drag and very little skills.
For days, he spent his time stitching black flowers, gluing gemstones and painting rainbows over a nude-colored bodysuit he had purchased at a lingerie shop.
“I was stitching for days. My mom would ask me what this is for, and I told her [it’s] my friend’s. I [kept] buying more flowers and stitching them. Until, without me knowing, I ended up having a huge outfit.”
Alma and her mother welcomed Moe the night of the ball, where he “used and abused” their makeup and rehearsed for the show.
Moe recalls fangirling over other drag queens who performed that night. He made it to the stage alongside other queens, wearing the nude bodysuit with the strategically hand painted rainbows over the boobs and crotch, a garden of the black flowers he stitched, topped with a long cape that boasted sharp horns, resembling that of a “dinosaur’s.”
“I created an [Instagram] account that night and gained 600 followers out of nowhere. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
After the ball, and for a year before he moved out, Moe would transform himself into HoeMoe within the walls of his bedroom. Both him and her sworn to absolute secrecy, risking their life, for her, for HoeMoe, for the freedom and happiness that accompanied her.
“I had a bunch of makeup. Most of it was fake. I wanted to create something, though. My plan was this: I used to tell my mom that I wanted to sleep. ‘Don’t knock! Give me two hours.’ And then I’d lock my doors. I was one of those kids that asked for a key, but after every fight with [my parents], they’d take it away – until I made my own copy. I’d then sit and do my makeup. Trying not to make any sounds, even if I was placing my brushes, because if she heard she would know. I used to have some makeup remover and wipes too. When I’d “wake up,” I’d [make the excuse] that I was sweaty and run to the shower.”
Moe’s relationship with his parents, as he describes it, has always been ‘gray.’ There was often some support towards his jobs as a makeup artist growing up, but that was also not always guaranteed. They were not fond of him basing his entire career on makeup and art.
Beyond the walls of his bedroom, Moe used to seek refuge at his friends’ house when transforming into HoeMoe prior to her shows. He’d leave the house providing his parents with little information about his plans and whereabouts – just enough to barely satisfy their suspicious curiosity.
“I [didn’t] care if I was accepted by my parents or my society. I would love it, but I don’t give a shit about acceptance. At the end of the day, they respect me, and they don’t interfere. But then again, comes the criminalization [of my existence]…I was being fought by my friends, by my school, by my colleagues at work, by my parents, my own parents, and my Muslim community. Others have acceptance, I was watching other people being accepted by their parents. I used to have a lot of envy, not in [a] negative [way]. I just used to, I still sometimes do, fantasize about having accepting parents. Now they do, but there’s always a certain point where this acceptance stops.”
Queerness is not a newly emerging social phenomenon in the Middle East. Studies and archives have long documented the existence of the LGBTQ+ community in the region. Over the years, acknowledgment of the powerful Arab queer presence has dwindled, for many reasons pertaining to recently aggravated conservatism, religion, and many others.
Often, with the criminalization of the LGBTQ+ community, Arabs have weaponized colonial influence to blame the “others,” the “liberals,” the West, for alleged the abnormality, the sin of queerness, neglecting the rich Arab history that clearly details their ancestral presence.
This has brought the discourse of normalizing Arab queerness versus perpetuating the stereotype of its newness to the surface. Do common and seemingly harmless praises like I am so proud of you! further set apart the LGBTQ+ community from the rest of the population, perpetuating the narrative of otherness?
“I have never thought of this, actually, but yes, it kind of sets us apart, like we do not exist, when we have existed for a long time. It’s like [insinuating] that being gay is not common…I understand where it’s coming from, a place of appreciation. I don’t get the pride, but I see where it’s coming from. [People] don’t understand how it’s perceived.”
Support within the LGBTQ+ community and the drag business has been essential to the livelihood of many. Moe credits drag queens like Glamzy and Hoedy for offering endless encouragement, advice and shelter when needed.
“[Glamzy] has been with me since day one. I love her a lot. She used to offer me her apartment and her space. We’ve always had a connection. She reminds me that I am amazing and that I can do it…Hoedy is like my mom or dad, also an entire zoo. Have you seen his looks? Whenever I’m [faced with] an issue or doubting myself, he guides me.
“We’re all broke. We’re all busted and dusted. We’re all people who need support, but at the end of the day, all it takes is one badass bitch, that will grab themselves and say fuc* you to an entire society. I’m gonna show you what I am, I’m gonna be visible and I’m gonna kill it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have drag, we wouldn’t have the visibility to be gay. All it took was iconic people throughout history who were not afraid of being visible, who were not afraid to be themselves.”
HoeMoe is dubbed an iconic queen in the Lebanese drag scene by the thousands of social media followers that she’s garnered over the years, the hundreds of people who watch her performances and many emerging queens who look up to her for guidance.
But more than just that, she has pushed Moe to get out of his comfort zone. It also consequently helped Moe believe in HoeMoe’s talent and support her too, allowing her the space and the freedom to grow and prosper, for their sake, both of them. Their relationship is one of fun, adventure and learning, where love and trust are reciprocated and mistakes are bound to happen.
With a modeling career taking off and a newly launched business as a makeup artist, Moe continues to thrive, defiantly, in the face of oppression and Lebanon’s boundless depression. HoeMoe, she’s lip-syncing for her life, of course, when COVID-19 permits, struggling to breathe in tiny dresses and well-secured bodices, wig laid, face slayed.
“Have determination and believe in yourself. I know it’s hard. It’s so easy to say, but there is no other way. Keep pushing yourself and believe that if anyone can do it, if HoeMoe can do it, so can I,” he expressed vigorously.
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