No, they aren’t hoarders. And no, they are not interested in clearing out some shelves because you want a minimalist look. Collectors are a special breed of people whose passions drive them to maximalism.
For some serious collectors, Britney Spears and all the paraphernalia associated with the performer, is a symbol of a world that is never as small and narrow-minded as their small hometown. For others, memorabilia about characters who make it through horror movies alive connects them to how these survivors can be real role models.
The owners of impressive—some might say extreme—collections can be just as colourful as the pop culture artifacts they proudly display in their own private museums. Xtra talked to a few rabid LGBTQ2S+ collectors around the world about the objects they love and why they love them.
Collects: All things glamorous
Those who have attended Darian Darling-hosted parties over the last decade would agree that she’s a true Barbie of the club wonderland. Friend of Lady Gaga, Darling adds a touch of glamour to all kinds of events—from risqué chic-meets-freaky nights at The Box to high-rise fun with On Top parties in New York. Now residing in Los Angeles, Darling is also known as a prolific freelance makeup artist, beauty illustrator and creative consultant.
Her approach to collecting is easy. “If it’s glamorous,” she says, “I want it.” This includes fashion dolls and action figures (Barbie, JEM, She-Ra: Princess of Power, Wonder Woman, Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon), out-of-print fashion and beauty books, comic books, paper dolls, pieces from Moschino’s Spring 2015 Barbie collection, the work of 1980s airbrush/pop artists like Patrick Nagel, Syd Brak, Yosuke Onishi and Pater Sato. “I could go on and on,” she says.
“I have many expensive dolls in my collection, but the newest addition is pretty hard to find, particularly in the U.S. and especially mint in box: the 1994 Revlon Jenny doll from Japan, a tie-in with Revlon Cosmetics. The #JennyDoll was originally marketed in Japan as “Takara Barbie” in 1982, but was renamed after Takara Toys ended their licencing agreement with Mattel in 1986. American-style Barbie dolls didn’t sell well in Japan, so Takara Barbie was introduced to better appeal to Japanese beauty preferences, with a shorter height, large rounded manga-style eyes and a closed, demure mouth. She comes with a miniature Revlon lipstick, nail polish and powder compact, as well as “makeup” to apply to the doll itself. As a makeup artist, I love these types of items.”
Collecting has been a passion since childhood. “I always kept my paper doll collection intact and never cut them. I simply enjoyed the artwork,” she says. “I started my fashion doll collection as a teenager, buying all the things I either had or desperately wanted as a kid.” Internet shopping certainly made it easier. “I have been an eBay member since 1997, a few months after their inception. I also love going to doll shows, comic book stores, antique shops, flea markets and used book stores. I simply adore the thrill of the hunt, but you generally can always get a better deal online.”
Every collector needs a place to house their museum. “I’m lucky enough to live in my best friend’s guest house on an amazing property in Hollywood.”
Darling says that collecting is definitely an integral part of her identity. “I think there is a huge connection between my trans identity and my collection. All these artifacts are extremely feminine and unapologetically glamorous. Having them all peppered around my living space is a constant source of inspiration and beauty.”
Most prized possessions
“I recently just bought an original 1970 lithograph print of the legendary nude of the Andy Warhol trans icon (and my namesake) Candy Darling by pop artist Richard Bernstein that I’m so happy and proud to have in my collection. What makes it so special is that it was physically made by Richard when he was still alive, and was found in his Chelsea Hotel apartment in NYC after his death. I befriended the executor of his estate and he was kind enough to open the archive and sell it to me.
“The rarest book in my collection is probably Femme Mimics, by E. Carlton Winford, a pseudonym for the fetish/pin-up photographer Irving Klaw, self-published in 1954. To my knowledge, it’s the first book about the history of female impersonation, drag, transvestism, etc., released at a time when being gay was still considered a mental disorder and a man dressing as a woman publicly was illegal in most states in the U.S. This book was against the law, so it’s a miracle it still exists or ever even got made to begin with. Through a 2021 lens, the book is, of course, not particularly PC but it’s a fascinating piece of herstory.”
Check out some of Darling’s collection on Instagram.
Collects: Everything to do with Scream
Contemporary horror films have taken tremendous steps in improving queer representation (in July, Netflix’s Fear Street put a lesbian love story front and centre, for example). But this hasn’t always been the case: the genre has been dominated by straight characters, while queer ones were ridiculed as sidekicks or, worse, were the villains. But that doesn’t mean the genre hasn’t been embraced by queer community. One of the most adored franchises is 1996’s Scream, with David Arquette, Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox.
Collector Lee Capasso explains why this tongue-in-cheek, knife-in-hand meta slasher has resonated with him and with the community as a whole: “There are a lot of LGBTQ2S+ Scream fans, and I personally love the fact that the movies are written by Kevin Williamson, who has always been open about being gay. It’s really cool and inspiring to see someone like me create such a successful franchise,” he says. “When it comes to horror movies, queer people love the ‘final girl,’ someone who spends the entire movie fighting for her life and ultimately coming out on top. A lot of queer people can relate to these strong characters, as they inspire them to keep pushing through their battles, not only in the LGBTQ2S+ community, but in all walks of life. And Scream has one of the strongest ‘final girls’ in horror, [Campbell as] Sidney Prescott.”
Capasso’s passion for Scream is as long as the franchise itself, already lasting 25 years. These days his collection features VHS tapes from all over the world, magazines, posters and much more. How much is it all worth? “I don’t think I want to know,” says Capasso. “I do see it as an investment though. Pop culture memorabilia doesn’t decrease in value and there’s always someone out there who is looking for the items you have. So my collection also doubles up as a retirement fund, if I can ever bring myself to sell it, that is.”
“I don’t think I will ever be able to give up my collection. I’ve been collecting it for so long that it is part of who I am and it brings me so much joy.”
Capasso’s obsessive collecting doesn’t cause problems at home because his partner is a “massive collector” as well, who is just as excited to set up a “new horror room” in their new home. They’re also partners in business. “My partner and I have a T-shirt printing business (we design everything ourselves) and a TV/film/comic collectable shop, which is literally a dream come true for the both of us. We sell everything from newly released action figures to retro Ghostbusters figures from the 1980s, and everything in-between. When we’re not physically working, we’re driving up and down the country looking for vintage toys, buying people’s collections and going to retro toy auctions. It really is a lot of fun.”
Capasso prefers physical items to digital copies, even when it comes to TV and movies. “There’s a sense of accomplishment when I finally find a rare item I’ve been looking for and the excitement of when it arrives and I’m holding it in my hand for the first time,” he says. “When I hold an old copy of Scream on VHS it takes me back to being a kid in a video store seeing the cover art for the first time. It feels like owning a little piece of history.”
Top of the wish list?
“Back in 1997 when Scream 2 was released, I lived above a video store and they had a massive cardboard standee advertising the film in the window. I rented Scream and Scream 2 on video so many times that the video store manager gave me the cardboard standee when they were finished with it. Growing up I moved around a lot, and unfortunately the cardboard cut-out didn’t survive all the house moves and eventually it fell apart. I am constantly looking out for it, but it’s such a rare piece and I have never seen it for sale.”
Check out some of Capasso’s collection on Instagram.
Collects: all things Britney Spears
Aleksander Kovalsky might be a 32-year-old visual image and design manager in Moscow, but when he obtains yet another rare Britney item, he’s immediately teleported back to being a teenager in his hometown of Tomsk in Siberia.
“I’ve been actively collecting since 2006, even though I’ve been a Britney fan since her early days,” Kovalsky says. “I couldn’t buy licenced CDs in my hometown (we only had pirated ones), but I really wanted all of that. So I was spending my first salaries not on partying (like my peers did), but on exporting Britney items. I guess in a way I wanted to get a piece of Britney, that unreachable worldwide celebrity. Although I didn’t want any of her actual things, like chewed gums and stuff like that.”
For Kovalsky Britney always represented much more than catchy songs, flashy music videos and tabloid scandals. “I could always relate to her. She comes from a poor family and I did too. She was kind of a Cinderella who escaped her small town and I, as a gay Russian kid, wanted to do the same. When I was graduating from college in 2011 and still living in Tomsk, Britney played a show in Moscow. I came there with a friend and we basically stayed for good. So if it wasn’t for Britney, I think I wouldn’t have followed my dreams,” he says. “In Moscow I finally felt embraced by the LGBTQ+ community and even discovered people who threw Britney-themed parties. These people are still my friends. I’ve got Britney to thank for all of that, as well as not getting into drugs or alcohol, learning English and having good taste in music.”
In the past Britney herself has stated that when she’s on stage, she’s playing a character. “In real life Britney seems to be quite a shy person, just like myself,” Kovalsky says. “That’s something I kept in mind when I was feeling shy at dates in the past.” Was he ever ashamed of his Britney-session, since Russia (especially back in the day) had unspoken but very strict rules on what are considered to be appropriate role models and hobbies for boys? “Being a Britney male fan in a small Russian town in the early 2000s was something that I had to pretty much keep to myself,” he admits. “At best I’d rock out to Britney in my room after school with a friend. It was my big little secret. I did have a Britney T-shirt, but I was rarely wearing it: whenever I did, I was getting laughed at on the streets. Now, as a grown man, I’m very proud of my younger self. Yet I’m still uncomfortable wearing a Britney T-shirt whenever I visit Tomsk. It’s a sad reality of our perception of masculinity.”
Kovalsky’s collection boasts more than 1,000 items: records, perfumes, magazines, posters and more, all stored inside a one-bedroom apartment. Luckily, his boyfriend doesn’t mind. “Since he’s not a pop culture fan, initially I was hesitant about revealing my obsession to him. But he’s never bothered me about it and my hobby makes it easy for him to pick presents for me. Although he did recently ask me to put some of my stuff in the closet, since our bedroom was getting too cluttered. Guess we just need a bigger place now.”
Obviously, being a true Britney fan in 2021 is more than collecting CDs. With a lion’s share of her stans joining the #FreeBritney movement, there’s an uneasy question of who’s profiting from collectors like Kovalsky. “On my YouTube channel I’ve always tried avoiding any discussions of Britney’s private life,” he says. “Because for so long (until Britney’s speech went viral) it was just rumours and speculation. But I surely support #FreeBritney. As a collector, I’m glad that her team is releasing “new” songs (even though they’re old recordings) and has re-released Glory album with the cover art Britney originally wanted it to have. And Britney does mention these releases on her Instagram, so I know that she’s at least aware of it.”
But if Britney ever commanded her fans to throw away all of the things her brand has released since the conservatorship, would he comply? “I don’t think I will. If she ever does ask that, she will be talking from her personal point of view. But does she really know what it’s like to idolize somebody the way her fans idolize her? What’s it like to have something you’re looking up to with such devotion? I’m not sure. I don’t even think I want to go to a meet-and-greet if she ever has one. I’m okay with the image of her I have in my mind.”
Supporting the Britney brand has led Kovalsky to working for another brand: he thinks that his collector’s skills helped him land a job at Louis Vuitton. “When I realized I had too many CDs, I had to find creative ways to display them, to put it all together, very LEGO-like. That surely comes handy in my work.”
Most outlandish purchase?
“I got a rare one-track promo CD of ‘Radar’ single for around $250. But the most cherished and unique item is a huge poster of Britney’s Moscow show that I ripped from the wall with my friend. Yes, it was risky but it was worth it. And even though I hate pirated CDs, I still love holding the very first CD I got as a kid. It brings back all these memories.”
Check out some of Kovalsky’s collection on Instagram.
Giuseppe Alessandro Balzano
Collecting: Sailor Moon (and all things Britney Spears)
Giuseppe Alessandro Balzano, 34, lives in Macherio, a small town near Milan. For the last 15 years he’s been working in the bakery department of a big supermarket and he says that he really likes his job. But there’s also something that he loves: Britney Spears and Sailor Moon, the Japanese mega franchise about magical schoolgirls.
“I got obsessed with Sailor Moon in elementary school,” Balzano recalls. “I remember playing with my friends and wanting to be Sailor Jupiter, my favourite warrior. But since for them it was very difficult to understand my desire to portray a girl, I had to be content with playing the role of Milord. I was very envious of my friends who had Sailor Moon backpacks, cases and toys: I couldn’t explain to my parents that I wanted these things, too. I don’t think they would have understood. However, I have a beautiful memory of my sweet uncle buying me a Sailor Moon sticker album and every day after work he would buy me two or three packs of stickers. That was the only thing I had of Sailor Moon, and it meant the world to me. When I grew up I finally indulged my childhood whims.”
He really did: These days his Sailor Moon collection consists of more than 500 items, including dolls, games, DVDs, comic books and various merchandising. Once, he almost let go of his overall collection, which also includes more than 1,400 Britney-related items and in total costs between 15,000 to 18,000 euros (about $21,000 to $25,000 CAD). “We had a difficult time in our family that led me to sell part of my old collection. I was very upset, but family comes first. About two years after that crisis had passed, I saw that my buyer was re-selling everything, including many rare pieces. So I got it all back and continued collecting. I think it was destiny.”
As for new items, he finds them online (mainly on Facebook fan pages, since “the prices went too high” on eBay). He’s got his own “Sailor Moon dealer” in Japan, who “purchases and ships all over the world.” Finally, there are comic book conventions in his native Italy where, he says, “You can often find many interesting things.” But collecting has gotten a bit too commercial for him. “It’s no longer a passion but a luxury hobby, because people take advantage of it by making absurd prices. And shipping and customs costs are very high, too.” Of course he misses the good old days of record shopping: “There is nothing more beautiful than entering a music shop and getting lost in the middle of thousands of discs.”
Updating his collections feels very organic and important to him, a way of paying respect to the brands and people that helped him through the tough times. “I believe that everything we do and follow reflects what we would like to be, but for some reason can’t be. When I was in school I was made fun for being obese and also labeled a sissy. It really wasn’t easy. I admired the strength and the beauty of Sailor Jupiter and wanted to be exactly like her and to rebel against school’s bullies. Not just for myself but for everyone. While Britney Spears’ music was extremely helpful when my mother passed away many years ago. If I hadn’t had her and her music, it would have been much more difficult to overcome.”
Top of the wish list?
“The piece I want the most is the Sailor Starlights change star, which is very rare and expensive especially with the original box.”
Check out some of Balzano’s collection on Instagram.