Who is Beirut’s ‘one and only’ diva?

She is the newest face on the Lebanese drag scene.

In just two short years, she has mesmerized audiences that you’d never have imagined would embrace the world of drag. All credit goes to her captivating persona as a witty, comical, oriental diva who adores adding her twist.

Tonight, at UFO*, she is set to debut her inaugural show titled “Beyond Drag.”

Below, L’Orient-Le Jour introduces you to this trailblazing artist, Serge Vahe Koukezian, or Diva Beirut.

Who is Beirut’s ‘one and only’ diva?

Diva Beirut — a funny, teasing, hilarious and gentle creature. (Credit: Kifah Balani)

She arrives dressed in a form-fitting, bubble gum-colored t-shirt dress — a creation of her own, just like everything else she wears. Hanging from her wrist is a petite handbag and her nails were styled into pointed leopard prints.

Her three-day-old beard and radiant smile add to her striking appearance, making her a captivating sight. An apparition of sorts.

As she passes by the window, the hotel clerks across the street pause their conversation, and their eyes trace her from head to toe with a blend of bewilderment and inquisitiveness, perhaps even a tinge of disapproval.

Diva Beirut doesn’t blink or even turn around.

As she arrives, one can catch a whiff of her sweet perfume. But let us be more precise, she makes an entrance befitting the diva she truly is. She seems almost unaffected by the unsettling glances.

“I didn’t even notice them,” she tells L’Orient-Le Jour. “I don’t see that sort of thing anymore, the stares and insults; they just slide off my skin.”

“Not long ago, I went out in drag before a party and a guy on a moped gave me murderous looks and said, ‘If only I had my gun with me...’ When you experience that, you become barricaded.”

She endures such abjections on an almost daily basis, solely because she chooses to express herself through art by creating a female alter-ego.

However, what truly warrants attention is that Diva Beirut has never surrendered to these countless acts of cruelty. Instead, she has managed to brush off this endless barbarity with the tips of her eternally shimmering fingernails, using glitter, humor, and sheer vitality that define her (double) drag persona.

Despite being the latest addition to the Lebanese drag scene, Diva Beirut has swiftly earned a well-deserved spotlight.

A Lady Gaga drag in a village parish

To understand the origins of this vibrant and larger-than-life personality, we must delve into Serge Koukezian’s childhood, spent in Bikfaya, in the Metn region.

“It’s very simple: from the age of five, everyone knew I was gay,” he says. “It’s something that I unconsciously ascertained, even within a rather conservative Christian family."

Sabah reincarnated. (Credit: Mo Abdouni)

During his early years, he knew he preferred boys and enjoyed dressing like a girl, but lacked the vocabulary and comprehension to fully grasp the significance of his feelings.

Driven by his own past experiences, he has dedicated himself to advocacy for more progressive education systems in schools.

“To ensure that no one else has to endure what I and many of Lebanon’s homosexuals have gone through,” he explains.

Koukezian faced it all with an unwavering determination to challenge homophobic attitudes. From a very young age, he endured the scornful fingers pointed at him, relentless harassment, crude homophobia, and mocking whispers from both his schoolmates and those around him.

“It’s very strange, as I reflect on my past. On one hand, I went through a period of profound angst and insecurities. Being gay, feminine, overweight, and having a passion for drag in such a rigid environment was undeniably challenging,” he says. “But, on the other hand, I somehow managed to be outspoken and unapologetically proud of who I was.”

From a young age, Koukezian unwittingly bridged two seemingly disparate worlds. He embraced a certain duality, blurring the lines between the two facets of his personality — he exists somewhere between Serge and Diva.

He actively participated in religious activities, joining the “Knights of the Lord” in his village parish, officiating mass and singing in the choir. He also had the audacity, or perhaps madness, to push the boundaries by performing Lady Gaga's “Bad Romance” at a religious festival in Bikfaya.

This boldness exudes a power that surpasses all the toxic traditional notions of masculinity prevalent in the country.

“Despite everything I had to endure, my determination was unwavering and everyone eventually accepted this reality. I quickly came to the realization that I couldn’t care less about conventional gender labels,” he recounts.

“Whether I was he, she, or they, held little significance for me. From that moment on, I made the decision to embrace the diva within and live life as one,” says Koukezian.

For him, drag transcends the stereotype of a transvestite adorned with rhinestones and mascara in high heels. Instead, drag as a delightful form of artistic expression: the ability to create, from scratch, an inverted female alter-ego.

“As a teenager, I started making my own clothes and wigs, adjusting my voice, movements, choreography, state of mind, and philosophy to match the alter-ego I had created,” says Koukezian.

He discovered Beirut at the age of 18 when he enrolled at the Collège Artistique de la Mode Moderne to study fashion design. For his diploma project, he imagined himself as a reinvented Cleopatra — a fantasy character with every detail in place, right down to the size 44 heels.

“I chose to be a diva and to live like one," says Diva Beirut. (Credit: Tarek Moukaddem)

“My father made [the heels] for me in my grandfather’s shoe workshop,” says Koukezian. “He also made my wig. It was the most beautiful proof of love, and above all the promise that by standing your ground, you can make things happen.”

Koukezian won first prize for his project. Then, the budding diva was noticed by choreographer Hadi Awada.

“[Awada] opened doors for me into a world I knew very little about. He showed me the Pose series, and introduced me to the art of drag.”

Awada encouraged Diva Beirut to take her first steps into the Lebanese drag stratosphere.

Self-love, despite everything

“Unlike many Lebanese queens, I didn’t learn the traditional codes of the drag scene from Cher or Madonna; instead, I drew inspiration from [local female performers such as] Haifa Wehbe, Najwa Karam, Elissa, and their glamorous personas.”

Koukezian goes on to say, “Bassem Féghali, [a Lebanese comedian] remains a tremendous source of inspiration for me, even though I wish he would fully embrace the term ‘drag queen’ and help propel things forward.”

In May 2018, Diva Beirut made her electrifying debut at a Grand Ball drag show. During her performance, she shocked the audience by shedding her corset, revealing her breasts, and sparking a scandal.

“This occurred shortly after the controversy of the two girls who had kissed at Disco Banana, leading to the establishment’s closure. I was taken off stage and disqualified,” Koukezian recalls. “My heart was broken. But once again, I didn’t give up.”

But Diva Beirut’s resilience shone through as she quickly rebounded and participated in a captivating drag show at the Bardot.

Unfortunately, her ascent was interrupted by a series of significant challenges, including Lebanon’s economic collapse in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the devastating Beirut port explosion. However, she emerged even more dynamic and volcanic in 2021, making a triumphant return to the forefront of the drag scene.

Through her co-direction of the Kteer Wow show with her sidekick, Hoedy, as well as her solo performances, Diva Beirut solidified the essence of her drag persona: that of an Oriental diva— a witty, mischievous, exuberant, and hilariously quirky being.

She embraces her imperfections and urges everyone else to do the same while delighting audiences with her self-deprecating humor and a captivating sense of authenticity.

“This diva persona has not only allowed me to discover who I truly am but also taught me the importance of self-love, no matter the circumstances,” says Diva Beirut. “It’s undoubtedly challenging, but it’s the ultimate key.”

Diva Beirut captivates her audience with her awe-inspiring performances, each surpassing the last in grandiosity and magnetism. Whether she’s satirizing the Miss Lebanon elections, donning a tray of kebbeh as headgear emerging from a fridge, showcasing the Toka Toka dance for the 2022 football World Cup (which went viral), or portraying an atomic version of Sabah (a Lebanese singer), she mesmerizes live audiences and social media users alike.

Her rising popularity led to invitations to perform at prestigious venues like the Institut du Monde Arabe, where even the drag queens from RuPaul France recognized her. Later in 2023, she performed with Hoedy in Barcelona and Andréa in Tunis, leaving her mark on the international stage.

What sets Diva Beirut apart is her ability to break down barriers and draw in an audience that one wouldn’t typically expect to embrace the world of drag.

“I’ve had politicians, middle-class women from Ashrafieh, women who ask me for makeup advice, and even straight alpha men who come to take photos with me at my private events,” Diva shares.

Her talent extends beyond her performances; she designs costumes and pieces for clients from all walks of life. This versatility is at the core of her message — to widen the doors of the drag and queer community, leveraging the love she receives from her fans.

Diva Beirut will present her very first show, “Beyond Drag,” this evening at UFO. The show, entirely conceived by her, is centered around the theme Supernova. She says the show will be a monthly event with distinct themes, “featuring lip sync and comedy performances, while also creating space for emerging talents on the drag scene.”

“It’s called ‘Beyond Drag’ because this project is driven by the idea, the ambition, to transcend conventional notions of drag,” Diva says. “I want to blend the art of drag with art in a broader sense.

*Beyond Drag, tonight, July 27, 2023, from 8:30 p.m., at UFO Beirut, Seaside Road, Dora. For bookings: +961 79 149 009

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

She arrives dressed in a form-fitting, bubble gum-colored t-shirt dress — a creation of her own, just like everything else she wears. Hanging from her wrist is a petite handbag and her nails were styled into pointed leopard prints.Her three-day-old beard and radiant smile add to her striking appearance, making her a captivating sight. An apparition of sorts.As she passes by the window, the...