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  • A Tough Act to Follow: In conversation with the Zakar Twins

A Tough Act to Follow: In conversation with the Zakar Twins

This article series – A Tough Act to Follow (get it?) – is an exploration into the performative nature (and indeed, the “theatre”) of social media. Each feature will see me interviewing an Instagram influencer, social media personality, or somebody who utilises social media to advance their career, as we explore the construction of online identities. In particular, this series is interested in gender and sexual identity.

Zakar Twins

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

Following my last “tough act”, Joe polito, are influencers, models, actors, writers and best-selling authors, the Zakar Twins, aka Michael and Zak, aka “the Middle-Eastern Mary-Kate and Ashley”!

I have been fond of the Zakar Twins for years – how could I not be inspired by out, loud and proud, gay, Iraqi-American twins?!

At two hours in length, this is the longest interview that I’ve ever done. It’s also the most fun – and after reading this essay-length article, you will understand why!

Zakar Twins’ personalities

I told the twins that I’m not used to seeing them dressed so casually, to which Michael responded: “[we’re] shirtless usually”. Indeed, the twins ooze both body and sex positivity, and they brought this to our interview.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

The twins haven’t been to the UK, but they love Little Mix and Marina (and Rebecca Moore of the Cock Destroyers, of course). Their play was originally supposed to premiere here because of our love of slapstick humour and lack of Middle-Easterners.

I told the twins that Americans have a romantic image of the UK; in reality, it is a bit of a “shithole”. Zak joked, “I love shitholes”, and though I didn’t realise this at the time, that was probably another example of his brazen humour.

I told the twins how bad the pandemic is in the UK – people even had New Year’s Eve parties during lockdown – to which Michael responded: “we have people coughing at each other for fun”.

Yeah, okay, you win…

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

Zak later asked me how old I was, because he could not tell if I was “18 or 42”. When I told him that I was 21, he joked, “God, a child’s interviewing us!”

An award-winning child journalist!

When I remarked that my beard and eye-bags made me look older, Michael told me that I have “a very nice face” and Zak complimented my good eyebrows, good eyes, good nose, beautiful lips and good teeth – but not before sassing me once more by telling me that my lips look fake and admitting that he expected me to have “Jewel teeth” because I’m British!

This constant and unashamed sass, shade and sex positivity made this the most easy-going, enjoyable and entertaining interview that I’ve ever done.

Zakar Twins’ background

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

The twins are the children of Iraqi-born parents, but they hadn’t realised how delicate Middle-Eastern politics and culture were. It wasn’t until media organisations began calling them “the gay Arabian twins”, after their best-selling novel and sold-out play brought them mainstream recognition, that they had to put an emphasis on their Iraqi roots.

Technically, the twins are Chaldean: ethnic Christian Iraqis who adhere to the Chaldean Catholic Church.

Zak said their sister still identifies as Arabian because that’s what she was told she was growing up – it is, after all, what Western narratives often decide all Middle-Eastern people are.

“We’re just White, according to standardized testing,” Zak jokingly concluded.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

Joking aside, Zak told me that he is “proud to embrace a culture that wants us dead”. This is a startling phrase that the twins recently printed upon t-shirts and wore for a photoshoot.

“I’m prideful of the Middle-East, but they’re not prideful of us,” he said eloquently. “It’s frustrating trying to fight for the Middle-East when the Middle-East hates you”.

The twins grew up in a very White neighbourhood and didn’t know much about what was going on in Iraq when they were children. Michael said that 9/11 happened when they were in first grade. “I thought it was fifth,” said Zak. “Second.” “Fourth.” Michael then decided, “somewhere in elementary school. I don’t know what year we’re in right now ‘cause of Covid!”.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

It wasn’t until they came out that they began to learn the “severity” of being both Middle-Eastern and gay. Since embracing both their sexuality and their ethnicity, it has become all the more clearer to the twins just how much many people in the Middle-East hate gay people – and since finding fame, how much many people in the Middle-East hate them, specifically.

This hatred became even more intense after a post, in which they merged the Iraqi and Pride flags, went viral “for the wrong reasons”.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

The twins have never been to Iraq, but Zak told me, “if you want to go [to Iraq] together, we can,” with Michael asking if Iraq is only around 9 hours from the UK. I said that sounds about right given that my flight to Dubai took around 7 hours.

This prompted Zak to decide it might be better for us to just go to Dubai. “It’s illegal to be gay in Dubai, too,” I said. When I brought up the more “liberal” Jordan and Lebanon, the twins commented on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach to homosexuality there. They won’t kill you for being gay, but they probably won’t accept you either.

If you’re queer and want to visit the Middle-East, you might have to hide your queerness, as much as that sucks. Turkey and Israel are probably the safest Middle-Eastern countries for queer people. My family and I once went to a “gay friendly” hotel in Turkey!

Zak told me to just come to America, but I joked that it might soon be illegal there, too, so we settled on “f*cking Canada” – you know, that country with the smouldering hot Prime Minister who identifies as a feminist and attends Pride!

Yes, I will simp for Justin Trudeau in every article in this series

Zakar Twins’ family and book

The twins came out over a decade ago. Their incredible coming out story needs an article of its own – hey, they wrote a (best-selling, as they reminded me) book about it – so I have opted not to go into great detail about it. I can’t possibly do it justice in the short amount of words that I would be able to allocate to it.

In a nutshell, they realised the other twin was gay when they accidentally hooked up with the same guy, and when their religious mother found out that they were gay, she threw holy water at them and left the house for a week! Their book is largely about how their mother handled their coming out. Just read it for yourselves!

The reason the twins’ book pays little attention to their siblings and father is because, unlike their mother, they had little issue with them being gay.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

Whilst the twins’ sister (who is “living the straight dream” with three kids) was fine with them being gay, her tolerance didn’t extend to Zak sleeping with one of her friends!

Their older brother is “in his own world” so he, too, was unfussed, whilst their father was accepting but didn’t want to get involved out of fear of being yelled at by his wife!

“He’s not a bad father; he just isn’t, like, a present father,’ Zak explained.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

When the twins came out, their mother left the house for a week. “She went to go and sleep with the church,” said Michael – and no, that is not figurative; she literally did that.

Zak described their relationship with their mother as “a journey”.

Just over a year ago, she bought them rainbow ice cream for their 27th birthday, which shows just how far she’s come.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

But whilst the twins came out to her over a decade ago, she still makes backhanded comments. For instance, when Zak’s best friend got divorced recently, his mom told him that now is his time to “f*ck her” – and yes, she was being serious.

The twins’ mom knew they were writing a book about coming out but paid little attention to it and insisted nobody would read it.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

But then it became an Amazon best-seller! Oops.

Zakar Twins’ mom and play

Photo: @zakartwins. Link to original.

Similarly, when they turned their book into a play, their mom thought that it would be community theatre – you know, three chairs on a stage – not a touring production with an elaborate set.

Whilst the play was supposed to visit six cities, legal issues meant that it could only visit three, so the twins had their mother fly out to the final city (Minneapolis) with their best friend so that she could see it.

The twins cast a “female impersonator” (not a drag queen, dahlings; Vince Kelley hates being called that) to play their mother, which is deliciously devious and hilariously ironic.

Zak explained they chose to portray their mom as over-the-top because “coming out is normal, and it needs to be mom’s reactions that make it weird… Who’s the weird one, mom or the twins?”, which I think is brilliantly subversive.

The twins’ mom, understandably, found the play uncomfortable to watch, especially because the first act portrays her as a villain, which made her want to walk out during intermission (that’s interval for us Brits). However, she went on stage at the end of the play (at the insistence of the producer).

Seeing her sons’ sold-out play first-hand, and the love that audience-members gave to them, helped the twins’ mother finally realise how important their work is.

Here she is embracing her beloved sons with a warm hug, a cute smile and a sharp knife.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

But the play, ironically, made the twins realise that they hate theatre. “We’re made for TV,” said Zak. “I want to film it once and never go back”.

The twins explained the play’s production company wasn’t the best to work with. The company tried very hard but they just didn’t understand how to properly run such a big production. The twins found that when something went wrong, they got the blame.

“Also,” announced Zak, before quickly deciding, “next question”, because, as Michael explained, if they don’t stop now, we would be there for three hours.

But the journalist in me wanted to know more, so, like Elizabeth Warren, I persisted.

The twins revealed that riffs started to emerge between them and production because of communication problems.

Zakar Twins’ celebrity experiences

One of the production company’s top choices to play Mom was RuPaul winner Jinkx Monsoon, who I interviewed awhile back (and she follows me on Instagram, might I add). The twins had the opportunity to work with her at a later date, an experience which they called “amazing” because she’s both professional and funny – and “she gifted us edibles”.

The twins have relationships with plenty of drag queens, including Farrah Moan (pictured) and Jackie Cox – the latter of whom is also Middle-Eastern: her father is Canadian and her mother is from Iran. We stan!

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

This prompted me to ask the twins why they recently revealed that Alyssa Edwards is the worst drag queen that they’ve worked with. Michael then gave me an exclusive as to why he chose Alyssa: “she is a little diva”.

They spoke of an unsavoury fan interaction she had, but when I asked if this was on the record, they told me they will only tell me the story if it’s off the record – so sorry, dahlings, but I’ll be taking this secret to the grave. There is more than enough juicy material in this article to keep you entertained, so don’t @ me.

Drag Race only exists because of the fans; a lot of celebrities will still get work if nobody likes them… Drag Race girls won’t. You need to, like, cater to your fans,” Zak explained.

“Never meet your heroes,” I said, remembering my disappointing meeting with Miranda Richardson. Michael explained he’s scared to meet Gwen Stefani, who he has a tattoo of! “I’m sure she’s nice but, you know, she’s dating a country man now…”

We then went on to talk about Little Mix, Marina and the Pussycat Dolls. Predictable, I know. This prompted Michael to tell me that Nicole Scherzinger (one of my favourite singers, who I sort-of met but not really) is apparently “crazy scary” to work for. Some of their friends have worked with her: “she is the HBIC, and you’ll know it”.

Zakar Twins’ careers

Zak explained they originally started Instagram as models: “let’s just have fun and look cute because we’re cute”. Michael explained that whilst their personalities make them nines, personalities do not matter in modelling.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

After this, they decided to write a book – not as advocacy but just because they enjoyed writing. It is the positive reception to the book that lead them to advocacy, because they realised how much they could help people. What makes their “coming out” book so different to others is that it is a comedy.

“I literally get boners for good writing,” said Zak. “I was writing our book the other day… and I connected two chapters that I was struggling [with]… f*ck, I’m wet… I love good writing!”

Their second book is a mental health guide, whilst their third book, ‘I’m Going to Kathy’s’,  is a second memoir and a sex positive guide to finding your perfect man. “I’m Going to Kathy’s” is the line that the twins told their mom whenever they were sneaking out and “getting laid” – they pretended to be at their friend Kathy’s house.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

It took the twins a while to realise that they are writers, not models, at heart. Becoming influencers allowed the twins to skip college and find success in an alternative route, though they have noticed that their influencer careers have slowed down since they have gone from models (posing in their underwear) to activists and writers. “We don’t regret what got us to this point; we just wish we were more aware of what was being posted.”

Although the twins’ verified Instagram account has over 100 thousand Instagram followers, they do not quite feel famous, possibly because most of the praise that they receive is because they are authentic (out and proud gay Iraqis), not because of their work: “[they’re] thanking us for being a person… that’s easy…” explained Zak. “[They thank us] for being just a normal person; that’s why I feel normal. I’m like, oh, it’s nothing, because it really should be nothing”.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

Michael commented on the ever-changing nature of social media and how their brand has to keep changing to keep up with social media. When they first started modelling, they were a little more “nude-sy” because “sex sells”.

They want to get to a point where they do not have to worry about social media, but it has been a brilliant source of promo for them and has helped them massively with their careers. They haven’t relied on agents to get them work, though this has required them to play the game, especially because you can’t rely on “being cute” forever.

The twins are also artists. Michael creates rice art: he paints rice and then glues each piece to a board. I told him I want one; he told me I better get saving!

Zak, ever the sass queen, jokingly calls Michael’s art “rice on a board”, but this stunning piece took Michael eight whole months to create.

Isn’t it gorgeous? No, not that. Eyes up, people!

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

Whilst Michael is more “craft-sy”, Zak is a painter. He even painted people’s genitals as Valentine’s Day gifts!

But he’s not one of those artists that removes the sexual, or de-sexualises nakedness. Rather, he embraces it; he sees sex and sexuality as things that should be celebrated.

I was left asking myself, is there anything these guys can’t do?!

Zakar Twins’ trolls

Indeed, there is. The Zakar Twins cannot avoid controversy – not so long as they continue fighting for the rights of marginalised peoples.

After Candace Owens’ rant about Harry Styles wearing a dress, to which Styles responded wonderfully, the Zakar twins did their own response post.

They responded in typical Zakar twins fashion, by donning dresses and lambasting Owens. This is not the first time that they have donned (and rocked) “female” clothing, but their response to Owens was particularly fabulous.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

The twins told me this response was actually a response to their ignorant cousin, who had been praising Owens.

Owens saw the video, though, and shared it, which lead to even more death threats for the twins.

“Whenever we go viral, it’s for the wrong reasons,” said Zak. Michael agreed: “we get death threats”. “I don’t feel like we have a solid fan base; we have… people who like us and people who want us dead”.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

Michael thinks that it’s “so tacky” for Iraqi men to make fun of men wearing dresses when thawbs are, essentially, dresses: “you just don’t call it a dress”.

He also can’t understand why people in the Middle-East are so outraged over homosexuality when there are so many bigger (and indeed, actual) problems over there. This reminded me of that time Shakira responded to an homophobic Colombian politician who wanted to ban her from the country after she “promoted lesbianism” in her music video with Rihanna. Shakira responded: “In a country like ours where there are so many needs […] for a councilman to use his voice and his time to talk about a video by an artist like me means we’re not doing too well councilman-wise, right?”

Zakar Twins’ queer politics

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

Although homophobia is a big problem, the LGBTQ+ community, itself, can be pretty problematic.

When I asked the twins about these problems, Michael responded: “it seems, if you’re not G then you don’t matter”.

Zak said that queer communities in different states have noticeably different problems, but a general problem is the division: there are so many subgroups.

Michael understands this, however, because the only stories we have been fed in the past are those of White, gay men, so of course a Black trans-person will assert their identity.

Zak agrees, though he thinks the (ever-growing) LGBTQIA+ community should just call themselves “queer”.

Indeed, the mission to cover every base is admirable, but the alphabetic acrobatics are a little intense. Where are we at now – LGBTQIABCDEFG? Don’t forget the plus!

Michael believes we are at a great time to be alive because the queer community (yes, we settled on that) is at a breaking point, where their stories are ready to be told – but who wants to tell them, and who is listening?

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

For example, fifty agents turned the twins’ book down. Some told them their story was too niche, even for a gay story, because being Middle-Eastern is “not sellable”. But their book became a best-seller and their play sold out, so put that in your pipes and suck on it!

This reminded me of J. K. Rowling’s battle to get Harry Potter published, but perhaps that is a bad comparison. Oh, how they fall…

When I asked the twins about racism, and fetishisation, within the gay community, Zak said, “I’ve never… turned down someone for skin colour. I’m just like, you’re hot, I wanna f*ck.”

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

He then went on to talk about how he started playing rugby in high school because it is “super gay”, with all that close male contact and the jockstraps – and yes, he was a hooker.

I next asked the twins about the fetishisation that they face not just as Middle-Eastern men but also as gay twins. For instance, one description of their play makes an awkward incest joke.

“Our producer put that, and that was the stupidest thing ever,” is all Zak would say on that.

Michael said he gets it because they’ve done “sexualized” photoshoots, and whilst siblings like the Kardashians have done the same, the Zakar twins are some of the few brothers who are comfortable being body positive around each other.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

The Evans brothers (one of whom is dating the aforementioned Nicole Scherzinger) have posed naked together, but they aren’t gay, so there isn’t that ridiculous speculation that they might be incestuous.

“Our point was to normalize queer people in the Middle-East, but some of those intentions were on our poor planning”.

But whilst Michael understands why some people might speculate, he asked: “if me and Zak were banging, wouldn’t you think we’d be more private about it? Like, we would not be posting those photos!”

But I think it’s great that the twins are posting those photos – and I don’t say this in a thirsty way. Photos like that are helping normalise the radical notion that people can wear (and indeed, not wear) whatever the hell they want.

Photo: @zakartwins on Instagram. Link to original.

The twins are on a mission to be themselves – and help others be themselves in the process.

Indeed, they’ve been inspiring me since I was a teenager – I hope this makes you feel old, Zak – and continue to inspire me to this very day. I hope after reading this, they have inspired you, too.

Whilst you wait for their upcoming second and third releases, you can purchase their best-selling book, ‘Pray the Gay Away’, on Amazon.

You can follow the Zakar Twins on Instagram and Twitter @zakartwins.

Tags: A Tough Act to Follow, body positivity, LGBTQ, Middle-East, Queer Theatre, sex positivity

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. To write for theatre, DM me or email [email protected]
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