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It was in October/November last year that images of men with glitter-adorned beards started to surface on the internet. This caught my eye immediately as I am somewhat of a magpie and have always been drawn to all things that sparkle and shine, especially as child. Raiding my mother’s jewellery box, tipping out and ogling its contents was a regular Sunday ritual at my house.

From there on I decided that I wanted to give it a go and create a few portraits of friends, but up the ante somewhat and apply a full face of makeup. I quite liked the idea of pushing and blurring the boundaries of feminine and masculine stereotypes.

I had been watching a lot of Drag Race, and have got a lot of my friends on the Ru Paul wagon now – it’s Sunday nights round someone’s house sorted. I just fell in love with everything about it – the costumes, the makeup, the wigs, the catfights! I wanted to give it a go. I had done some drag in my late teens – dipped my toe in, so to speak – but now I wanted to really try it properly. I started watching makeup tutorials online, practising on myself to hone my craft.

When it came to the start of the Bearded Brutes project I decided I was going to use my newly found makeup skills on all the guys. It ultimately has turned into a series of colourful, popart, kitsch, genderfuck portraits. Each one has their own story behind it. None of them are thrown together and they all reflect the model chosen.

I wanted to show gay males in an almost ambiguous way. Obviously you see that they are male first and foremost but with an added streak of playfulness and kitsch quality. Over the past few years I have become more and more integrated into the drag community, and with the #manchesterqueens whose zest for life and passion I really soaked up. What they do every weekend is a pure art form. It’s not just throw on some lashes and a cheap wig – it is cohesive, well planned, projected living artistry. I guess their influences transcended into my working style and this ultimately formed the Bearded Brutes.

There is so much pressure I think to conform these days and be so gender specific, but why? Why do we have to brand ourselves as gay, bi, trans, straight, gender neutral, etc? Society as a whole plays a big part in forcing people to decide who they are and what they are about. No thanks, not for me. I think that sometimes trying to conform stunts creativity and growth. What I am so lucky and grateful for is that I get to hang around with creative types all the time who never label themselves, and it’s a pretty exhilarating experience being in a label-free environment.

Each model is handpicked by myself and, although they don’t know it, have been in my mind’s eye for some time. I don’t just pick people with beards. I think about the person, their personality, look, creativity, etc. Every Brute has been amazing and thoroughly enjoyed this process of becoming one of the glittered 20. I would never have used someone who didn’t have a fire in their belly like I do right now. It is evident from the series so far that these guys are having a ball!

The style of each Brute is simply put together from conversations I have with them before and during, by tapping into their psyche – learning what makes them tick, excites them and even how they think they would look as a bearded beauty.

I am first and foremost a freelance photographer by trade and, although I love my job to death, I love to break away from time to time and just have no boundaries. When you are shooting commercial work, be it food, hospitality and even portraits for a client, there are always dos and don’ts and more often than not a fairly strict brief to follow. That comes with the territory, and I have learnt over the years that is just the way the industry works. When I do personal projects like this one my mind just runs amok, off the page.

I wanted to produce something that when you walk into the gallery and see these on the wall you just go: “Oh my.” I wanted them to be bursting at the seams with individuality, colour and personality. The world has become such a dark dangerous place of late, I wanted to turn the light back on.

Mark Leeming’s Bearded Brutes at Home, Manchester, is until 22 Jan 2017, part of Home Projects (#BeardedBrutes)

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