Robert Hayman has been described as an “everything artist,” and it shows not only in his work but in his entire being. The Renaissance man, best known for his wildly imaginative collaborations with RuPaul’s Drag Race star Laganja Estranja (one of America’s most powerful drag queens), is a visionary of the highest order. Even in conversation he encompasses themes of variety, pondering past, present, and future as he discusses Los Angeles versus New York, the Roaring Twenties, science fiction, finding love, and so much more.
Fans now have a direct connection to Hayman’s genius through the YouTube series Muse Me, which shows behind-the-scenes footage of his weekly photo shoots with Laganja from concept to staging to final images. In the first season alone, their collaborations have included an Atlantis-like orgy of water and jewels, a rainbow celebration of nonbinary beauty, a Marilyn Monroe-inspired light symphony, an edgy futuristic space witch, and an homage to the 1978 film noir Eyes of Laura Mars.
“My purpose in life has always been, ever since I can remember, to be an artist,” says Hayman. “And the reason why I think I choose to be an artist is to make people feel… The best [photographers], when you turn the page of a magazine and you see their photograph, it arrests you instantly. It stops you for a second… Life is a challenge. So when I make art, I want to bring people out of that. Even if it’s for six seconds with a photo, or five minutes with a music video, or two hours with a theatrical production or a movie, I want to be able to escape this world and have some sort of transcendent experience where they just suspend their disbelief and transport to another place.”
Muse Me empowers viewers to do that very well, though Hayman has been creating fantasies his entire life. First trained as a ballet dancer from age eight, he turned to acting as a pre-teen and was auditioning for Broadway in his twenties. A career shift came when Hayman moved to Paris, initially shopping his work as a fashion photographer but getting noticed by agencies for his outstanding makeup artistry. Soon he was being booked for major fashion shows with brands such as Yves St. Laurent, Chanel, and Jean-Paul Gautier.
“I’m a one-man show,” Hayman states of his work now. “I do the makeup and the styling, and I art-direct the shoot.” Admittedly, the DIY aspect makes it hard to find the correct support. Robert confesses that he’s had trouble acquiring representation as such a multimedia artist: “I’m a painter, I’m an actor, I’m a writer, I’m a director. I direct music videos. I am a photographer, a makeup artist, a stylist. And agents say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t know how to market you. You have to pick.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t want to pick.’ I’d rather do it all myself. I know exactly what I want. That’s my art.”
This approach helps inform the magic of Muse Me. Theatre, as both actor and director, remains a mainstay of Hayman’s career – one could call the performative art and photography Robert creates with Laganja (also known as Jay Jackson) a cinematic cabaret. Both self-aware and willing to adapt to new environments in search of an exciting narrative, they combine emotional force, curiosity, and visual teleportation in every shoot. What results is true innovation
“I don’t want to call it a work ethic because [we’re not making money from this], so I will call it artistic energy,” Hayman explains. “[Jay] happens to be an artist, which is why we connected so well… And [Muse Me] makes it interesting how I can redefine, reinterpret, reinvent this one person who can be both man and woman.”
According to Hayman, Jackson is his first nonbinary muse. They play with gender and androgyny constantly in their work and throughout Muse Me, though Laganja does have an absolutely perfect face for women’s styling.
“Being a gay man, my friends often ask me, ‘You shoot beautiful women. Why don’t you shoot men?’” Robert notes. “I love shooting men, but there’s something about women. I think it’s probably because I’m a makeup artist and the whole transformation process with the face is interesting to me… I [do makeup on a drag queen] the way I would do a woman’s face… You know, so many photographers out there shoot beautiful women and they just want to get them naked, and it becomes exploitative. I may use nudity in my work, but when I take pictures of women, I want them to be goddesses. I want to raise them up.”
That sense of divinity permeates Hayman’s every creation. He speaks often about his belief in “manifesting” ideas that he wants to come true (he claims his collaboration with Laganja as an example), and an otherworldly quality marks his work. From supernatural beings front and center – models dressed as fairies or mermaids – to softly spiritual experiments with light and nature, the element of something beyond human is ever present.
“I’ve been accused of creating dark work,” Hayman comments. “But I think I also create a lot of light work. I think the better way to describe that is fantasy. Because again, I want my pictures to pop, I want [them] to be arresting. Sometimes you’re doing a shoot and you’re clicking and clicking, and it’s not popping up… I won’t stop shooting a look until I know I have gotten something where I went, ‘Oh, that’s so cool. That moment, there it is.’ [In storyboard] I can give you an idea of what the picture’s going to look like. But during the shoot, a model might move a certain way that inspires a whole other direction, or the lighting might happen in that moment. That is unexpected, but beautiful… The unexpected, the accidents, often lead to the picture, because it’s gotta be special or else what’s the point of being a photographer?”
Several ephemeral moments get captured exquisitely in Muse Me, like the flowing trash-bag gown Laganja wears in the desert (designed on the spot and destroyed after filming), or the single take of paint drips placed just so on Jackson’s body for a Pride rainbow. However, Hayman is also aiming to take his vision of the unexpected to new heights. As a filmmaker, he’s crafted a short entitled Channel, a pilot of sorts for a sci-fi series of the same name. In 2115, people who die are able to return for twenty minutes at a time, their minds brought to life by connecting to special individuals called Channels who allow their bodies to be used as vessels. When a young Channel (Community’s Jess Adams) is tasked with restoring the soul of a controversial pop star, chaos ensues as the latter isn’t content to stay within the time limit… It’s a fully immersive yet delicate universe Hayman builds in this film, featuring Jackson as a charismatic android assistant to the channeling process. You can see the complete synthesis of Hayman’s vision on display – detailed styling and escapist design at once both Art Deco and alienesque, an intriguing storyline that leaves you breathless to the last moment, all suffused with a gorgeous sensitivity. For these are huge questions of life and death (“Would you risk everything to stay alive if it meant essentially killing someone else?”), and who better to ask them so delicately, so provocatively, than an “everything artist”?
In the spirit of incorporating “everything-ness” to Robert’s work, I have to ask him about how cannabis influences him. After all, Laganja Estranja makes the plant her mission – so what does the molder of the muse have to say?
“I smoke grass every day for the most part,” he answers. “Sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. Just depends. I prefer smoking it ancient style, rolled or out of a pipe in flower form. As an artist, I want to create something new and I find that smoking ganja induces a mental state where I experience unusual and original thoughts. More so than when I'm sober. In the end it shows up in my work in the most interesting ways, which gives my work a style and presence that would probably not be as strong if I hadn't smoked. Take the rainbow-colored yarn emanating out of the mouths of my models in this issue. See what I'm saying?”
“Directing,” he goes on to assert, “encapsulates my art more than any other medium.” One is inclined to agree, watching his process unfold in both photography and film. Hayman says that as a director, he functions as both organizer and audience, which reflects in the work. You cannot look at his pictures, his videos, an episode of Muse Me without feeling the wonder and the love that drove him to make them. With each piece, he has manifested his private vision for the world. But he also invites us to take that journey ourselves, synching our own dreams and ideas to his creation so that we may in turn create art from it. In his own way, Hayman has found a path to a new, regenerative method of artistry – one that is simply everything.