The Real Chili Philly: Social Media Star Phil Ferguson takes his Crochet Drag Offline and Outside

Artist Phil Ferguson, known to his 130,000 Instagram followers as Chili Philly, became Insta-famous for posing in his culinary-themed crocheted hats — from pizza slices and burger buns to eggplants.

His kooky creations and pop aesthetic have been so successful he has been able to leverage his social media popularity into pay, monetising his practice.

In the wake of last year’s same-sex marriage survey, however, he’s hoping to share not just his craft but his politics with fans and followers.

‘I wanted to have my own set of drag’

Ferguson began crocheting while studying sculpture at Curtin University in Western Australia, and the hobby survived a move to Melbourne in 2014.

“I didn’t really have much direction of what I was doing when I first moved,” he recalls, “but I started really getting into the idea of drag.”

Through binge-watching the reality TV drag queen competition RuPaul’s Drag Race and attending drag nights across Melbourne, he developed an expanded notion of the form.

“Drag is a lot more than just a man dressing up as a woman; it’s actually somebody performing a whole different thing, whether it’s gendered or not,” he said.

Starting with a potted cactus-plant hat, Ferguson started to explore the idea of crochet couture.

“I wanted to make all these things in order for me to have my own set of drag to wear,” he says.

A young man in a crocheted eggplant hat and crocheted kiwi hat.

Initially, Ferguson posted photos of his crocheted hats on Instagram as a way of meeting people and making friends in a new city.

“[But] my Instagram blew up and … ‘Phil Ferguson being the crochet hat guy’ took off, and I just ran with it,” he says.

Ferguson’s drag plans were set aside as he dedicated his time to creating and curating his Instagram output. But as his following grew, a disconnect began to emerge between his online and offline selves.

“Something I have realised over the last year or so is that it [my art] came from a very camp place, and I think a lot of my followers they … don’t necessarily pick up on the queer nuances that I have in my work; rather they just see a funny person wearing a funny thing and looking funny.”

A young man stands on a street.

Coming out(fits)

Ferguson grew up in a small town in Western Australia and he describes his time in Melbourne as a “kind of gay awakening”.

“A lot of my being comfortable with myself becoming gay was happening alongside my social media profile getting developed, and once it exploded it really gave me a lot of self worth,” he recalls.

Consequently, he says, he was initially protective of his work — reluctant to risk losing control by, for example, letting others wear his work or developing their existence offline.

A young man in a crochet ramen noodle outfit.

The often vitriolic debate and campaigning around Australia’s same-sex marriage survey helped change Ferguson’s mind, however.

“I didn’t necessarily get utilised [in the Yes campaign] in the way that I could have been, given how broad my audience is. I should have probably put myself out there a little bit more,” he says.

Creating full drag outfits and wearing them outside has become a way of expressing a part of his identity that he felt had got lost in translation.

“I’m more than just a guy who’s wearing the silly hats; this is actually something a little bit more attached to me and my queer identity.”

Fittingly, Ferguson appeared in drag at this year’s 40th anniversary Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. He’d appeared in the parade before, but wearing one of his full outfits, on the street, in the crowd, felt different.

“It was definitely a celebratory time, given all the things that happened in the last year,” he says.

“Wearing [my outfits] out now and getting props from people and your peers, just by simply being out, is such a different experience from just getting a few likes on an image,” he reflects.

“It’s almost a little bit more gratifying because they are actually responding to you.”

A young man in a rainbow crocheted outfit at the Mardi Gras paradeSource