Gurrrrl! Guess where we are going tonight? We are heading down into Old City Philadelphia to meet some boys dressed up as women! Drag Queens! It’s Saturday night (or Monday or Thursday) and you want to go to a club to dance off some of that stress! But you wish you could go without worrying about being hit on, groped, catcalled, or having something nasty dropped in your drink. The Philly gay club scene is the best place to do that. Look, you and I might be late to the party because my girlfriends have been hanging out at bars like Woody’s and iCandy for years, but here is our invitation now!
Now let’s get something straight before we go. Just because a man wears a dress as a performer does not mean he is transgender, transitioning from female to male, and that is the first thing drag queens want you to know. Drag comes from Shakespeare’s time when the guys played all the roles and when they played the women they were told , “Dress Resembling A Girl”. While there are some trans* performers, the majority are very happy as men, thank you very much, and view drag as a performance art that centers in heightened femininity as it is represented in our culture. If women in America are displaying full hairdos drag queens are piling on two wigs with extensions. Yes, the majority is also homosexual men, but the exceptions may surprise you. The local drag culture is inclusive of female drag queens referred to as faux queens and even straight men. Whatever their biological gender or sexual orientation these “girls” are characters and everything about them screams DRAMA (in the best way)! That’s how they like it and you will too.
Let’s Get Ready
You and I only have to pick out an outfit, do our hair and makeup, and off we go. Two hours tops, right? A drag queen will need at least two hours to paint her face on and that’s a standard makeup application. My “girls” Roxi Starr and Scarlett Bleu estimate between one and a half to three hours. While we are practicing perfecting an application of liquid eyeliner to resemble a cat eye without poking our eyeballs out these dames have already glued their eyebrows down with a glue stick, slathered on white clown makeup, and covered everything with foundation to create a blank canvas to begin their art. Schlomo Steel, a Michigan drag queen named Miss Dig, holds the art of painting on a face at the highest level of esteem and equates it with a type of meditation when he, a usually high energy restless individual, gets the opportunity to relax. Who needs yoga, right?
Queens are not born knowing how to paint their faces. Jarred Kyser, the aforementioned Scarlett Bleu, actually feared drag queens, much like many people fear clowns. “If they were on the sidewalk outside a club I would cross the street to avoid them,” he says. However, while perusing Netflix in the spring of 2013 he caught an episode of the now wildly popular RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality television drag competition show on the Logo channel. This lead to watching another episode, which lead to watching a whole season, which lead to binge watching the entirety of the series available up until that point. Jarred was hooked more than anything on creating a drag queen face and vowed to himself to bring this makeup art down to a science. His first attempt, in his own description, was awful. Being a tenacious spirit though he was determined to get it right and create the prettiest face imaginable. It took several months, but now Jarred transforms into Scarlett in a matter of two hours. While we were crying about our lashes sticking together with mascara these guys just turned into “girls”.
Next, as the queens say, it is time to create body-ody-ody. This step involves taking that straight up and down figure and sculpting it into the gay ol’ gal that will mount that stage. It all begins with the tuck. All the boy parts have got to “disappear” especially if these dollies are donning a leotard or bodysuit. This process may begin with cleanly shaving the genitals. There is no room for error here, so no depilatory creams. Yeah, it ain’t pretty, but beauty hurts. Once everything is hair free and smooth the testes are tucked up into the inguinal canal, as I have been informed by Ray Miles, Jr., A.K.A Donna Ria, “where they came from”, and then the scrotum and penis are duct taped back into the buttox area between the legs. Yes, I said duct tape, but stay with me, girl. We are already through the rough parts. The alternative to tucking, and AMEN to an alternative, is a gaff which is a panty made of synthetic fabric incorporating spandex for stretch and security. Everything is held in place and you and I will never complain about lying on the bed to pull on a pair of Spanx over our hips again.
Speaking of hips these “ladies” need curves. The feminine shape is quite literally sculpted out of foam. Occasionally a queen might invest in hip or butt pads, but at $150 dollars that is an investment. Most will make the better investment of an electric turkey carving knife and foam from a local crafting store. One drag queen I spoke with was a poor college student when he started doing drag and made his hips out of the chair cushion of a broken desk chair. It is definitely a “do what you can with what you have where you are” kind of artistry. At least three pairs of nylons or tights are pulled on one over the other for smooth legs and a sizeable derriere and hips and shoved down in there and adjusted.
You think she is done? Not by a long shot. Sit down and browse some Facebook, darling, because there is more. Strap on a corset or tummy shaper, two to three bras, falsies in the base bra, and a tank top shaper to keep everything in place and smooth. Then she can pull on her dress or other costume and her often very high heels. Never flats! Don’t even think about it. Plus, this probably will not be the only outfit she wears during this evening, so rest assured you will very likely see her or one of her sisters rolling a small suitcase behind her full of more couture.
It’s a Girl!
Our little “girl” is all grown up and tucked in and she needs a name. No doubt if you have come across drag queen names you have wondered where they have come up with these creations of two word poetry. Each individual has her own naming story but there are some traditions as well. When a person wants to become a drag queen he or she will need a drag mother. The fairy-godmother-like drag mother leads the newby through a type of apprenticeship in which the fledgling queen learns techniques for face painting, body, and performance while the more experienced queen creates a house or legacy and earns a name for being someone who creates drag stars or drag flops. It depends on who you listen to. Girl, gossip is everywhere and we call it kiki. Roxi Starr for instance became interested in drag after her then boyfriend suggested she would be good at it. She approached a drag queen she knew and admired was born out of the Haus of Starr of Arizona. Janee’ Starr is her drag mother who she received her last name from. Roxi was a female name she always liked.
In other instances queens have used creative methods to name themselves or be named. Ariel Versace adores the Disney princess with the same name from the animated film The Little Mermaid and chose the last name of a fashion designer she admires but says, she ‘…will never probably be able to afford”. Donna Ria’s christening happened at the hands of Mimi Imfurst during a 1950’s themed show in which Mimi named Donna off the cuff as part of an impromptu gag during the show. Scarlett Bleu kicked around monikers with her friends and originally liked Lola Stellanova, but abandoned that for her current name as she was inspired by the singer songwriter Pearl Black.
Some drag queens use party game rules such as create a name by using the name of your first pet and the street you lived on as a kid. Mine would be Goldie Dewey.
Other drag queens abandon conventions all together and choose flashy and memorable handles like Pearl, Miss Fame, or Jiggly Caliente. Still others stick with their boy names like RuPaul himself or Willam Belli and Max, both former contestants of Drag Race.
Sometimes names are dependent on drag style. If a drag queen chooses a creepy character she might choose a name like Sharon Needles or Annie Christ, two dark goth queens who play on the themes of horror movies and assimilate Mortician Addams style into their acts. Similarly campy comedy queens will choose a funny or cutesy name like Trixie Mattel that incorporates the name of a toy brand.
We are headed into the famous Philadelphia Gayborhood, located between 12th and 13th streets and Locust, which boasts one of the oldest gay bars in the United States, Venture Inn. There are many types of shows every night from drag variety to full scale musical productions performed in drag. Tonight we are coming out of the suburbs and into a land of garments and glitter.
If it is Monday night any one of the bars is hosting a RuPaul’s Drag Race Party. The show airs at 9 pm Eastern Standard Time and the viewing party begins. There are drink and appetizer specials as well as witty commentary from patrons and drag queen servers alike. You can join in or simply relax, knock back a few five dollar cocktails, and laugh your ass off. My favorite viewing party is at iCandy with Roxi Starr and Aloe Vera, a va-va-vavoom pair that have perfect comedic timing throwing shade both at each other and the RuPaul drag queens. There are other excellent shows hosted weekly at clubs like Tabu and Venture Inn.
Any other night of the week your choices are more varied. You might want to check out the ongoing Drag Wars Cycle which starts up again in a couple weeks at Voyeur. It is a local competition hosted by former RuPaul’s Drag Race competitor from season 3 Mimi Imfurst. Voyeur is Mimi’s home club and you will rarely see her perform elsewhere. Established drag queens are a little territorial like that, but the newer emerging queens can get bookings in many clubs. Mimi’s club is a large open space with a surrounding balcony overhead where sound technicians and DJ’s do their thing and two long bars flanking the right and back walls. This leaves a lot of room for switching up the staging area. You might prefer the cozy feel of a smaller bar. Venture Inn serves food until 10 pm and serves up Venture Variety with the adorable Billy Cavallo as your host. One Wednesday night we were treated to Mary D’Knight Philadelphia’s premiere Lady Gaga impersonator who has performed with the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Choir and is one of the host/organizers of the Code Red event, a drag show that raises funds to support HIV/AIDS research. In that same evening we were also entertained by the uproarious Bev the current first alternate in the Miss Comedy Queen pageant. And if you do really want to shake off the stress on the dance floor, iCandy revealed their new one, called THE ARENA, at their fourth anniversary party Saturday, April 18.
In some cases bookings in not-necessarily-gay clubs are available for drag queens such as at Bob & Barbara’s that holds the title for hosting the longest running weekly drag show. Promoters like Ray Miles, Jr. will schedule a drag queen for a one night performance and if she wows the audience she will hopefully be asked back to perform at a later time.
What you will see at a typical show is a series of three to five minute performances that include lip syncing to tracks created by mixing songs and spoken word. You will see people tipping performers by extending bills out toward them in a calm polite manner until they are accepted. I learned how to do this via Schlomo Steel’s blog which covers everything about drag-itequette. As he writes, “Don’t make a drag queen work for the tip. She’s already working for it”. Keep in mind all that preparation she did and rehearsal, not forgetting the tucking. Also, you will see people having fun, cheering for their favorite queens, and generally being good spirited. Most of my “girls” inform me they have not seen a fist fight at a drag show which is automatically a point in favor of gay clubs over straight clubs for those of us who prefer our drinks do not get spilled on us.
Another thing you will see at shows are the drag queens mingling with the crowd prior to the show. As I learned from a prerecorded Q&A with Ariel Versace, many drag queens get ready at home first and then arrive at the club fully dressed or at least with body on. At Thursday night’s Cash for Queens competition the queens were especially fishy, that means pretty. Iris Spectre, who I met at Venture Inn, was wearing a long sleeve head to toe gown of ombre sequins and a matching feather head dress. She was captivating in that ensemble and even moreso during her performance as Cat Woman which included lip syncing and dancing to dance, pop, hip-hop and rap music, and clips from the Batman movies.
A more atypical show is a musical production. On my first visit to the Gayborhood, I was in the audience of a drag version of “Into the Woods”, a musical that was recently released as a movie. Voyeur’s cast lip synced to the well known show cast that featured Bernadette Peters as the Witch. In the drag show version, Mimi Imfurst took on Bernadette Peters’ role and at the end of Act One transformed from a scraggly faceless creature to a sparkling goddess in green thanks to the help of the well-known drag queen and sartorial talent Cleo Phatra. She is Mimi Imfurst’s best friend and seamstress. Mimi is clad in all kinds of Cleo creations. For the evening gown portion of the Miss Comedy Queen Pageant she recently donned a full-body Miss Piggy costume with animatronic capabilities so Piggy’s mouth moved when Mimi spoke. The shows are the over-the-top spectacles they are planned to be. Every show will surprise you whether it be with elaborate costuming, hilarious unexpected comedic timing, or the ending dance move queens call a death drop in which they throw themselves bodily to the stage at the end of a number. This late night, even in the middle of the week, is well worth that fourth cup of coffee the next morning.
The best part about drag queens is their interaction with the audience before, during, and especially after the show. As long as you ask politely and do not grab at them, they will always pose with you for a selfie to post on social media. You definitely need to do that to make your friends jealous and get them out to the clubs. Some queens stay once the show is over and the dance floor opens up to dance with the crowd. Even the internationally famous drag queens like Bianca Del Rio, Sharon Needles, and Pandora Boxx who are currently touring the world in many live spin-off shows connected to Drag Race are all over Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook posing with fans around the world.
As many drag queens have accounts on these sites they also directly respond to fans’ comments and questions. Often on Twitter you can see drag queens retweeting fan comments, fan art, and fan photos along with their own promotions of show dates, record releases, and online Drag Race recaps.
I do not know if I just happened to fall into a lucky batch of queens, but every one was generous and sincere about her craft and sharing anything about it. There is a kindness that comes from seeing fans accept and admire the work and a joy of celebration in the work itself that permeates through the audience. Drag queens don’t know a stranger because everyone they meet is a friend. In the end, isn’t that what we want in a man anyway? Girl, these “girls” make me a better woman.