by Clare Shearer
Interviews between Corinna Kern
and female masker Christian (Chrissie Seams)
“Female masking is rooted in the idea that every person
contains parts of both genders. It’s an outlet
for those desiring to slip into a female role or to experience
their female sides in an anonymous way.”
Corinna Kern is a German photojournalist and social documentarian based in Israel. Kern’s work most often documents subjects at the fringes of society, capturing the humanity behind nonconformism and challenging pre-conceived notions. Her photos have exhibited at festivals worldwide, and Kern has gained recognition through her participation in major photography contests as well as publications such as TIME, Marie Claire and Esquire. The winner of Finland’s Backlight Photo Festival’s portfolio review in 2014, Kern’s newest series, Female Maskers, will be featured at the festival this fall as part of the Portfolio Awards exhibition.
The alter ego of Christian, a heterosexual male, Chrissie Seams has been part of the female masking scene for more than 20 years. She describes herself as a fun-loving and naughty young girl who loves latex fashion. Chrissie is one of the more well-known figures in the female masking scene. While the majority of female maskers practice in private, Chrissie appears frequently in public and has developed a social media following as an inspirational personality.
German photojournalist Corinna Kern is interested in the fringe groups of society, those outside the Westernized norm. Her subjects are often marginalized in view of their faith, lifestyle, skin color or sexual orientation, and Kern tells their stories through portraits rich with personal elements and environment. The photographs are as deeply affecting as they are remarkable—conveying the trust and friendship between Kern and her subjects and her unique understanding of their precarious place in society. Take, for example, her past work ranging from South Africa, where she profiled traditional healers, racial groups, rastafarians and LGBTQ youth, to London, where she lived with hoarders and squatters, to her current home of Israel, where she delves into religious sects as well as the state military.
In her newest portrait series, Kern reveals the primarily underground world of female maskers in her native Germany. According to Kern, the scene is rooted “in the idea that every person contains parts of both genders” and allows men (and women) to explore their female side by wearing a latex mask and dressing up as an alter-ego. This performance often happens in private, but Corinna’s subject Chrissie Seams now operates in public, on Facebook and on the street. Chrissie is the alter-ego of Christian, a heterosexual who has been part of the female masking scene for over 20 years and appears in Kern’s portrait series. Christian talks to Corinna about her latest photo series, and she interviews him about his history with latex and how he’s incorporated Chrissie into his life.
CHRISTIAN TO CORINNA
Christian: Where are you from?
Corinna Kern: I was born in Cologne, Germany, but I’ve lived out of the country for the last five years.
“Once my subject was wearing the mask,
it felt like there was a
different person standing in front of me.”
— Corinna Kern
C: When did you start taking photographs?
CK: My first experience with professional photography was as a 19-year-old student. It became my primary personal interest when I began engaging with portrait photography, while I was a video editor at a major TV station in my hometown. In 2012, I studied photojournalism at the University of Westminster in London, and I’ve pursued it ever since. My projects motivate me to gain access to unique and unusual corners of life. Experiencing these first-hand allows me, in turn, to capture intimate and extraordinary shots. These two aspects—immersing myself in a lifestyle or culture and at the same time documenting it—cohere and reinforce each other.
C: How would you describe your photographic style?
CK: Candid, intimate, bold.
C: Tell me a bit about your subjects in this body of work.
CK: Female masking is rooted in the idea that every person contains parts of both genders. It’s an outlet for those desiring to slip into a female role or to experience their female side in an anonymous way. It’s also an opportunity to counter the roles imposed by society, for example not having to be the strong and tough man. Others desire to be as sexy as a woman and want to experience the recognition and attention a woman receives when wearing a beautiful dress and interacting with her girlfriends.
For transgender women the motivations are similar: female masking allows them to live out a deeper part of their identity and can bring them closer to their ideal of femininity or create an illusion of who they aspire to be.
For some maskers it’s very important to look as realistic as possible, whereas others prefer a more bizarre, doll-like appearance. For example, transgender woman Katrina loves to go out on the streets as a “rubber doll” to show people that there is something other than what they know.
For the minority of cisgender women who take part in the scene, it’s an opportunity to slip into another role and is very rooted in the artistic motivation to create an alter ego. As one female masker told me, it enables her to simply let go.
The realization of this project was interesting in its breadth. I’ve been in contact with maskers from all backgrounds and ages, those in their 20s up to 60s. For the majority, what brought them to female masking was rooted in their childhood. Many live quite manly lives. Some are married, some single, some are supported by their partners and others have to keep their second lives secret. Hobbies and occupations range from engineers or IT specialists to metal band players or mountain tour guides.
C: What draws you to photograph counter-cultural movements or groups who exist on the fringes of society?
CK: I’m fascinated by my subjects because they do not adhere to the norm. It is eye-opening and refreshing to discover these facets of human nature, showing how versatile and beautiful life is. Even though I do not associate myself directly with their lifestyles, I relate to them in a way because of their pursuit of something different or their extraordinary characters.
I usually come across my subjects naturally. Especially living in a new country, you become sensitive to what is going on around you, and I think I have a good feel for unconventional lifestyles and interesting personalities. Ultimately, it comes down to my curiosity about life and what drives different people. I want to learn more about these realms, especially subjects with social stigma attached to them. I’m interested in unveiling what lies behind the often-repeated stereotypes society imposes.
C: What do you want to accomplish with your projects?
CK: My aim is to show the humanity in my protagonists’ lives while conveying feelings and emotions, with the intent of helping people relate to them. If my work makes people think or acquire new insights, I’ve accomplished my goal. Even if my photos cause ambiguous or negative reactions, I can appreciate that they still have an affect. I’m not looking to dictate what people think, but I do like to show a side of things that is different than what one might be used to.
C: How did you discover the masking community, and why did you decide to focus on photographing us?
CK: I came across female masking by chance about five years ago, when I saw a female masker walking in Germany. I later learned about the female masking scene and wanted to document it. The scene exists all over the world, yet is still unknown and hidden.
“It was important for me to capture the maskers
in their personal environment in order
to convey the contrast between their regular
lives and their alter egos.”
— Corinna Kern
C: What was it like photographing female maskers? How did you reach out to them? Were they comfortable being photographed right away or did they have to ease into it?
CK: I established first connections via social media and other online platforms where the scene is very connected. Their responses to my project were different: some were open-minded and ready to participate, and with others I first had to build trust. I think many maskers have the urge to reveal more of their alter ego but fear how they are perceived or judged. Others turned me down because they had been portrayed badly in television reports before and were concerned they would be misrepresented again.
The maskers I ended up meeting in person felt comfortable being photographed, and I think that has a lot to do with my approach. I’m genuinely interested in showing the humanity in their choices and in challenging preconceived notions.
Once my subject wore the mask, it felt like there was a different person in front of me. Then, of course, going out in public with them and observing people’s reactions and their interactions was really intriguing and a delightful experience. They received a lot of positive reactions and compliments, which surprised me.
C: What was your overall impression? Are female maskers happy people, or are they sad?
CK: I encountered both kinds of maskers. It all comes down to each person’s experience and background. Not everyone has an accepting and supportive family or partner. Living out the female masking lifestyle secretly, while in constant fear someone could find out and reject them, can be a very limiting, frustrating experience. Nevertheless, while photographing these maskers, it seemed that slipping into their alter ego rendered them happy for the time being. I think female masking adds ambiguity to their lives that, on the one hand, fulfills them. On the other hand, it can hinder their being fully in tune with themselves. I met many maskers like you, however, who completely immerse themselves in the masking world and are supported by people close to them. This enriches their life, like any other fulfilling hobby or passion.
C: What did you want to say with this project? Do you feel like you succeeded?
CK: I intend to give intimate insight into the lives of female maskers and the motivations behind their choices. I was specifically interested in capturing my protagonists in daily situations, which is why I looked for maskers who take their alter ego into public spaces—very rare in this scene. It was important to capture the maskers in their personal environment in order to convey the contrast between their regular lives and their alter egos. With this project, as with my other work, I aim to challenge stereotypes while making this topic accessible to those unfamiliar with it.
CORINNA TO CHRISTIAN
Corinna Kern: What is the difference between female masking and cross-dressing?
Christian Cross-dressing typically describes wearing the clothes of another gender but doesn’t necessarily include a mask. A woman wearing men’s clothes is cross-dressing. Female masking is based on wearing a mask. According to my knowledge, it was always linked to wearing latex in the past, but nowadays cross-dressers have discovered female masks and sometimes adopt them in roleplay.
CK: How did you come to be a female masker?
C: When I was 17, I was reading a Playboy magazine with a picture of a model in lingerie. I don’t know why, but I suddenly imagined slipping into her body like a latex skin. This was the first time I wanted to look like a latex girl.
From then on, I constantly looked for female masks. You can imagine how difficult that was before the internet. My early masks were pretty ugly: made of 1-2mm thick latex, non-elastic, with horrible aesthetic appeal. Even using the internet, good quality masks have only been available for a couple of years.
CK: It seems like you made a name for yourself, not only in the scene, but also outside. Tell me about your progress as a female masker and the development of your alter ego.
“I was reading a Playboy magazine
with a picture of a model in lingerie.
I don’t know why, but I
suddenly imagined slipping into
her body like a latex skin.”
C: I started the Chrissie adventure by taking selfies. I loved to see my outfits from different perspectives, and I could post the pictures to Facebook and see people’s reactions. People liked my pictures and commented on them, and my following grew pretty fast. It was overwhelming.
One of the fans asked me if I was the well-known female masking model Mia M Wallace. I said I wasn’t. He said his impression is that Mia M Wallace is the “celebrity” account and Chrissie is the “everyday” account. I liked that: the idea of a neighbourhood girlie addicted by latex. To live next door to such a girl is a dream for almost all latex fetishists, and my dream as well.
I realized Chrissie was more than just a visual object. The neighbourhood girlie idea developed certain characteristics: cute, naughty, friendly, curious, interested in fashion, elegant, sexy, frivolous… All characteristics I personally like. I tried to reflect those characteristics in my conversation and my pictures, and it worked. That was the birth of Chrissie’s personality. And from that point on, it was much more fulfilling to me. She became almost like a real person, and this kind of completion is what people like. It´s not only picture watching. They can talk to Chrissie, follow her life, get an authentic story.
CK: Many maskers restrict their experience of female masking to their home. It seems that you have a different, almost fearless approach to living out your alter ego. Why do you think this is?
C: I experienced the same developing curve. Hiding, exclusion, fetishist, freak—many years of hiding. The reason I changed my behaviour is because of Chrissie´s development, 100 percent. Chrissie always gets nice feedback—and not only in the fetish scene. I introduced Chrissie to my family, to my work, to my non-fetish friends. They all like it, support it and even envy me. The first time I went in public the reaction was positive again. I did it again and again, and the reaction was always positive. This helped me to develop a natural understanding of my fetish. Maybe I was lucky, but the constant positive feedback helped me create this self-evidence: Chrissie is normal. Even the stranger aspects—wearing masks, slipping into a woman’s shape, latex—were totally normal to me in the meantime.
CK: How would you describe Christian? How would you describe Chrissie?
C: Both are extraordinary, active persons. They are sociable and love to meet people.
They want to experience as much as possible—people, cultures, art, music—and they want to live a life without limits. The only difference between Chrissie and Christian is that Chrissie is sexy and naughty.
CK: You generally lead a conventional, manly life. What is your experience living with two identities? How much space does Chrissie take up in your identity and life?
C: Living a life with two identities is extremely fulfilling. If you believe in the psychological theory that every personality contains parts of both genders, you can imagine how limiting it is to live according to one biological gender. The other part must be restrained. Of course, the wish to unlock a second identity pretty much depends on the weight of the second identity in your personality. Not everybody feels the same pressure. Others have that wish but aren’t brave enough, or their social environment doesn’t allow it.
My personal assumption is that every human’s personality is a mix of genders and characteristics. In our generation, it´s normal for people to live out the personality and character that is strongest in their mix. They may sometimes show other pieces of the restrained parts, like at a carnival or fetish parties, but our society is not used to dealing with the different faces and personalities of a single person. They call it freakishness or schizophrenia, but even in psychology this is called an alter ego. Why is it not possible to talk about a mix of characteristics? I understand it is difficult to grasp because the perception is of two people, but the heart, spirit and soul are one person!
You can call this person Christian, or you can call it Chrissie. It’s not important. Both are me. I’ve learned that it is not exactly a second identity or an alter ego because Chrissie is Christian. I climbed the peak. Since I accepted that Chrissie is a part of Christian, and vice versa, I have a totally different understanding of what I’m doing. I don´t slip into a second role—I just show another part of Christian.
On average, Chrissie takes up 30 percent of my spare time, sometimes 80 percent during festivals or while I’m creating masks. Some days zero percent because of office workload.
“You can call this person Christian,
or you can call it Chrissie.
This is not important. Both of them are me.”
CK: Do you meet others in the masking community, or is it difficult?
C: Very seldom. I go to many parties, but there are only a few female maskers who go to parties, although there are many maskers on platforms and social media online. It seems only a few go out and realize their passion like I do.
CK: The masking community is usually very hidden and secretive. How did you feel when you were first approached to be part of my project?
C: The reason for the secretive female masking community is that we do something unusual, relatively unknown and, in many cases, undesired. I felt proud and happy that you selected me as a representative of the community. To me, it was a kind of compliment. But after you asked me I wondered, “If I tell you all the details and ‘secrets’ about Chrissie, I might hurt her.” It’s not because of my privacy—I was worried about Chrissie. But you and I talked a lot, and we decided to draw the curtain carefully: not showing all the details, only a few.
This is still my concern when I’m asked to support similar projects. I always worry about Chrissie. I’m pretty aware of the fact that the most interesting facet for onlookers is to see behind the curtain, but even if I (Christian) could become popular by unveiling my face, I would never do it because it would destroy Chrissie.
CK: How was your experience working together on this project? Did it live up to your expectations? Were there any surprises?
C: It was very valuable for me. We had to define the frame, but after long talks it was clear how much information we would show. Chrissie’s fans are curious to see how a latex-addicted girlie lives her life. It inspires their fantasy. Each piece of information about her background hurts Chrissie and the fantasy of the reader. My biggest surprise was that Chrissie is more precious to me than the wish to inspire other people.
CK: How do you think the masking community will develop in the future? Do you think it will become more popular and commonly accepted?
C: It will remain niche. The outfits are too expensive, and masks are even not obtainable. The entire community is small, so there’s no business potential for mask creation companies. A high-quality mask is expensive. Creating masks is very difficult—knowledge, experience and money are needed. These hurdles will remain the same.
The only difference will be that more people will go out in public. Not many, but more than today. This will create a new perception in society. People who don’t associate with the masking community but are lucky enough to meet a good looking girlie will like it and be inspired.