SOME OF MY first major girl crushes were on drag queens.
From Albin in the original La Cage aux Folles to Priscilla’s Aussie crew to Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes werking it in Too Wong Foo to RuPaul’s VH-1 talk show, I fell head-over-heels in love with these marvelous creatures teetering on their monster stilettos.
Raised a feminist but nerdy and unsure of myself, I saw in the giant towers of teased-up hair and painted dragon talons a powerful archetype of the Divine Feminine rarely seen in daily life.
I remember being fascinated that they were not women, but they were not not-women, either: More like trash-talking superheroines who would save a busload of schoolchildren with maternal grace then throw a back-stabbing frenemy under the same bus.
Or maybe half-human, half goddesses—furious, flamboyant Kalis breathing fire and shimmying across the stage to Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Close encounters with the wickedly hilarious wonders of San Francisco’s Castro district and Savannah’s flawlessly fabulous Club One Cabaret and House of Gunt performers have only served to strengthen my adulation, as did a brief glimpse years ago of the iconic Lady Chablis, may she be resting in peace surrounded by sexy specimens in leather loincloths feeding her grapes.
The truth is I would love nothing more to know what it is like to be a seven-foot tall vampy enchantress who can make grown men cry by refusing to let them lick my boots. However, my drag queen infatuation does not extend to emulation, since I can’t change the fact that I’m a middle-aged mom who regularly trips over invisible twigs and cannot apply fake eyelashes without blinding myself.
I’m happy to settle for basking in the Max Factor glow, and you can understand why I squealed like a little bitch when Club One Cabaret show director Blair Williams asked me to judge the very first Star Search Finals, where I would sit within glitter-inhaling distance from the performers.
“Drag has always been a part of what’s been happening here, but this is the first time we’ve had a year-end finale,” says Blair of the historic club’s monthly lip-synch and talent show. “This is the big opportunity to be seen on our main stage.”
Just like a superheroine, Blair is mild-mannered accountant Todd Mauldin by day; at night she morphs into a sequined sassafrass who has been slaying audiences for 25 years and won Miss Gay America in 2015. As show director she plays doting mother hen to the contestants and trades charmingly caustic barbs with co-host Chi-Chi Bonet Sherrington, another gorgeous local legend whose rhinestone-studded outfits are only outsized by her booming personality.
“I may be big, but at least I’m not old as dirt,” sang Chi-Chi as the pair faced off during their introductory shtick.
“Oh is that right? Girl, don’t break the stairs on the way down,” giggled Blair, widening her manicured hands around Chi-Chi’s hips.
The Mean Girl nastiness is all in good fun, and the sisterly love for the evening’s up-and-coming glamazons is crystal clear:
“These performers have worked so hard, so y’all better clap and yell when they come out here,” commanded Chi-Chi, tossing a mane of curls. “And get those dollar bills ready, bitches.”
Tips are always a nice way to show appreciation for your favorite dancing queen, since with a few notable exceptions, drag does not pay. In fact, like most artistic passions, it’ll wring you dry: There’s the make-up, which takes loads to create those perfectly contoured visages, plus the custom-made costumes, and do you have any idea how much a pair of size 14 peep toe pumps costs?
It also takes hours of practice to perfect choreography and timing the lyrics with authentic pathos. Pop figures from Liza Minelli to Lady Gaga have provided endless inspiration for traditional drag queens—historically known “female impersonators,” though I think “interpreters” is a better descriptor, because what actual woman is walking around the grocery store in fishnet stockings and eyebrows into her hairline?
Drag can also transcend our stubborn binary definitions of gender by blasting us with high-concept art, embodied by House of Gunt founder Influenza Mueller’s glittery beard and blistering social commentary. In fact, I believe it’s this boundary-twerking that has inspired the societal sea change of female and transfolk empowerment happening right this minute.
Now, it’s extremely important that we don’t conflate “drag” with “trans,” because they’re not the same at all. One is based is upon fictional roles; the other relates to real people finding their way in an often hostile world. (You can gently break it to your grandma that saying “transvestite” is no longer appropriate in any case, unless y’all are singing Rocky Horror karaoke.)
While some drag performers may present as women in their everyday lives, most, says Blair, melt back into maleness as soon as the mascara comes off.
“This is a persona, a character I assume—Blair is way more flamboyant and better-dressed than who I really am,” explains the director. “But I identify as a man, and that’s just as important to me. Trans people may never step on a stage, but they have the courage to express who they are in the world every day.”
For many of us born before the millennium, drag was our first introduction to the idea that gender can be fluid. The language may still be slippery and new, yet we now accept that identity is complex, and those who show us what that looks like are some of the bravest among us.
Their legacy extends beyond beauty: The dazzling mistresses of my youth inspired me to become the woman I am today, and the bedazzled booties of yore surely cleared the way for social and political victories.
Six, count them SIX openly transgender citizens were elected to public office last Tuesday, including Danica Roem, the Virginia journalist who defeated the incumbent state rep and sponsor of that ridiculous bathroom bill, and Minneapolis Councilwoman Andrea Jenkins, the first transgender person of color to hold office in the U.S. Also big ups and air kisses to Georgia’s own Stephe Koontz, now sitting on the City Council of Doraville.
As I chortled along with Blair and Chi-Chi’s bitchiness bit, it also occurred to me that drag’s campy cynicism and gleeful taunts render real-life bullying ridiculous, mirroring for the rest of us not to so be damn judgmental of each other.
Except that of course, being judgey was exactly what I was there to do.
“Bring on the dancing girls!” cried fellow arbiter JinHi Soucy Rand as Club One’s Travis Coles prepared to tabulate scores.
As I suspected, I’d make the worst drag queen ever, because I couldn’t find a single flaw in anyone: I was blown away by all of the courage, creativity, and yes, divinity, from Alana Coke’s sexy dance moves to Akasha Karmichael’s dramatic soliloquoy to Edna Allen Hoe’s devastating punk rock pout.
In the end, it was gold lamé queen Carman iCandy who took home the $500 prize, which should at least cover some of next year’s make-up bill. I hope to see all the contestants again, though I probably wouldn’t recognize any of them on the street. (I did run into a dressed-down HOG’s Lanzaya Ontré after the show and she complimented my outfit. I basically died.)
Until then, I remain an ardent, if bedraggled, drag devotee. Maybe one day y’all will teach me the secret to false eyelashes?