I met Scarlett Bleu at a karmic performance at Venture Inn in Venture Variety on a cold March night in 2015. She was only in town visiting for a few days and had booked this one show. After she took the leap and contacted me with this generous email message, “Unfortunately the music was still a little loud after the show Wednesday, so I didn’t quite hear what you were saying as you passed me your card, but whatever you need from me, please feel free to ask!” we had a lovely Skype interview. Shortly thereafter I asked her onboard The Queen’s Court staff and she has become your Highness of Herstory. Scarlett’s own herstory has some twists worth noting.
Jake Kerney (not his real name) was the young guy nervously crossing the street through traffic any time he might see drag queens heading toward him down the sidewalk in Philly’s Gayborhood. He developed an unnatural fear of them during his college career at Temple University, much like some people develop a fear of clowns. The idea of men decked out in layers of makeup, layers of clothes, and layers of wigs freaked him out.
That was until a fateful day with Netflix.The buzz had just begun to stir around RuPaul’s Drag Race. He watched the first episode of season 2 so he could criticize and dismiss it. However, episode one became three more episodes, became the whole season, became devouring seasons 1 & 2 in three days.Then intrigue set in. Could he transform himself into a mannequin-esque beauty the likes of Jujubee, Raven, or Pandora?
This became the ultimate challenge. Jake built up an arsenal of makeup, watched application tutorial videos, and set to work on the feminine face. The first time out was in his own words, awful. The idea of creating a masterpiece of pretty was consuming and this burgeoning queen would settle for nothing less than flawless exquisiteness. The determination to “get it” had solidified into marble and in a couple of months she appeared like Snow White in the mirror. The fairest of them all?
But who was she? This dolly needed a name. “It was hard to come up with an obscure headlining name,” Jake admits. Friends helped by running through lists of Greek goddess names, and other monikers. Jake particularly liked a rocker called Porcelain Black, but could not very well plagiarize the name. For a while it seemed he might take the alias Lola Stellanova. Alas, even with the tongue-tripping rhyme and star-sprayed reticence, it did not bring to mind starlet. And then there it was, Scarlett, from the modern day silver screen actress Ms. Johansson, combined with the French translation of azure, Bleu. Scarlet Bleu had face and name. A fishy queen was born.
The first opportunity to perform came when a friend who was a regular at the historic bar Venture Inn mentioned that drag queens performed there often. From then Scarlett amassed costumes and began to perform with help from Henry Britton whom she considers a drag mother and Sandy Beach who is like her drag grandmother. Henry especially has been a supportive theatrical force and Sandy has offered advice from her decades in drag starting in Atlantic City. Back when Scarlett was creating her body with repurposed office chair pads (Think the manufacturer saw that one coming?) and harkening back to her memories of high school shows like Meet Me in St. Louis and The Importance of Being Earnest for inspiration, Sandy and Henry were there to keep her afloat.
After her first performance she was asked back, became a part time server at Venture’s Sunday Brunch, and shook her groove thing right outside the bar, too . It was a natural next step then that she was crowned without ceremony (literally) Miss Venture Inn 2013, somewhat awkwardly in a scantily constructed costume from a previous number. Then there was an opportunity for time on the main stage at Outfest for Venture. Scarlett suggested an actual Miss Venture Inn pageant. She passed the crown on to Iris Spectre (Dylan Kepp) in 2014, and thanks to her creative thinking in coming up with the pageant it is now an annual event.
Scarlett began to hone her craft treating drag as an art form. She aims to entertain with a mix of smarts and comedy. She recognizes many of the reasons queens do drag: money, attention, sharing talent, and increasing confidence. Scarlett allows Jake to quiet all the voices in his head and shine a spotlight on a bit of true self through a filter of self-esteem that is not as easily accessible out of drag.
Scarlett Bleu has had her sorrows: falling off the stage during a performance at Voyeur (She did continue unhurt with a performance of Keisha’s Take it Off in which she shed multiple layers of clothes and two wigs before she was done) and a painful 30 seconds of silence during a Helen Keller performance. She has also had her triumphs. Case in point, a Mary Poppins number that dragged “A Spoonful of Sugar” into “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and back through “Umbrella” by Rihanna. The most touching moment she recalls was being assigned a spot on the Venture Inn 2013 Pride Parade float. Scarlett was given blue beads to throw. When a kid on the sidelines looked up to see Scarlett complimenting his blue wig and tossing him a strand of blue beads a connection of understanding floated through the air between them just as the beads did. The kid’s eyes lit up.
Jake is back home in Connecticut where he was raised, though he is a self-described army brat with a conservative Texan dad and the support of both parents. Scarlett Bleu is currently packed away in a rolling suitcase in a closet, but may traipse back to Philadelphia in the near future as she popped up earlier this year. She bloomed out of the dream to be a pretty, edgy, punk who wanted to stomp around in Doc Martens and has morphed into a graceful gazelle-like creature who can be as complex as 5 different eye shadow shades in one look and always simply classy.
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.
As you read in my Research Proposal I knew of Ray without knowing I knew a drag queen. Ray is a regular at my dad’s diner and serendipitously our paths crossed in the Into the Woods Drag Show invitation on Facebook. I was finally making the plunge to see a drag show and he was the promoter for the event. After some back and forth on there I finally thought I might meet him at the show, but the frigid night I went he was not there.
We became friends via our personal pages on Facebook and he loved my blog post/review/narrative of my experience at Into the Woods. We spoke through Facebook Messenger a few times regarding getting an interview, but nothing seemed to work out. I noticed he was struggling at his job as a server and wanting to get out bad! He is a professionally trained chef who worked in Disney and runs his own catering business, Chef Ray’s Catering, besides booking shows for his boyfriend Larry Cook/Roxi Starr. Industrious only begins to scratch the surface in his character description.
It turns out I had Ray on my mind one evening while strolling through the mall, as all my queens are constantly on my mind these days, and I saw this sign on an easel hiring for servers! Harvest Seasonal Grill and Wine Bar, an upscale self-described new American, vegetarian and vegan restaurant, was looking for staff for its grand opening. I almost rolled by, but thought, “What harm is there in taking a picture and posting it to Ray’s page on Facebook?” Well, long story short, I know, too late, he applied, interviewed, and was called and offered the job before he left the mall parking lot!
I didn’t necessarily do any of that because I thought it would tip Ray’s attention in my favor for an interview. He had already agreed. It was a matter of getting it scheduled, but what I learned from listening to my conscious and doing the kind thing was that I am approaching this just the right way, by being myself. Following Ray’s profile and soon after Roxi’s and then Donna Ria’s (Ray’s alter ego) has led me to many more queens and opportunities and has given me a clear picture to start with to find out who Ray is, who Donna is becoming, and the inner workings of drag.
I have also done what others might call more practical things in preparation for this interview. I have been attending shows in bars and nightclubs, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race every Monday night and live tweeting it, and following the drag queen contestants on that show as well as local, national, and international queens. I am reading articles about all aspects of drag performance from makeup, to padding, to performance choices like lip syncing, dancing, or telling jokes or all three and then some. I am planning to check out wigs and even try all this stuff out myself. I have created a guide of questions that I may or may not actually end up using in my interviews, but regardless the creation of which has gotten me to think about where I would like to start each interview. Though I know I have no plan as to where each interview will end up.
What I am finding most helpful, however, is connecting with people. I like their posts of pictures, premiere videos, and pithy quotes when I really like them. I comment, favorite, like, tweet, retweet, comment some more, reblog and connect. I have created some real bonds already even if they are online bonds. In Ray’s case particularly I had one date for an interview set up at a pageant show he was going to perform in, but then found out he wasn’t able to sign up to perform until April 9th. I was dogged while still being nice and polite and have now scheduled an appointment with him for Monday at noon. In general I have not only made myself familiar with drag queens and drag culture for the sake of research in this class, but I have become familiar in genuine appreciation of the hard work and artistry that goes into creating this beautiful illusion every night.
Categories of drag queens? I had no idea that there was more than one type of drag. But as Paige Turner says in her article The 11 Most Common Styles of Drag at http://www.dragaholic.com “…the art of drag is so diverse…”. There are as many styles as there are queens. That being said, however, eleven main styles emerge and I have got to decide which type I am interested in becoming.
First and foremost is the Faux Queen. Naturally (pun intended, wait for it), I fall into this category because I am anatomically a woman. By default I will fall into this category as the definition of this style is according to Turner “…a drag queen that is a biological female”. Real lady with lady parts playing an over the top feminine lady. Done and done.
Now narrowing my style down means eliminating some obvious choices. I won’t be a TransDrag Queen because that category is inclusive of trans* people who are in gender transition. A Tranimal is another style I won’t be trying. This seems to be more of a purposely disheveled experimental type of drag that is not entirely rooted in female impersonation, but more mired in exploring the unconventional possibilities of drag as art and social platform. It is also referred to as terrorist drag. Another artsy style is Androgyny or Genderfuck Drag which again does not conform to men presenting as women, but rather teeters between the genders by mixing fashion and makeup from both sexes. There’s also Club Drag which grew out of the Club Kid movement of the 1990’s New York City nightlife scene and centered around often extravagant costumes and make up worn by this group during this era. These are the categories I may write more about eventually, but am not pursuing in my own drag transformation.
Activessel and Pageant Drag are two more queen styles I probably won’t be involved with myself, but only because of their purposes and not because of the style itself. Pageant Queens are very much like biological female pageant queens in that they aim for an impeccable presentation of self and compete against like others for awards. I do have an interview with Roxi Starr who will be competing in Cash for Queens, a drag pageant run by former Rupaul’s Drag Race contestant Mimi Imfurst at Voyeur Nightclub. Roxi is not exclusively a pageant queen, but more on her in later posts. Activessel Queens do not necessarily perform drag merely for entertainment purposes. In fact, their intentions are usually philanthropic. They may be a group closely tied to the drag community that bands together and creates and performs a drag show as a fundraiser for a particular cause. I am lucky enough to have a personal friend who was an Activessel Queen at a younger age. He is Anthony Koslowski and will be interviewing with me in mid-April.
All this to say I want to be a Fluid-Fish-Camp-Goth Queen! Well, maybe not all at once. Fluid Queens flow between styles and since I will be trying a few I hit that category. Fishy Queens are the style that is generally most visible to the mainstream audience and was featured in movies of previous decades such as “The Birdcage” (1996) and “Too Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” (1995). These are the queens whose goal it is to look as much like done up, beautiful, flawlessly painted women with overtly feminine characteristics and personality. I got this one down! Camp Queens also referred to as clown queens, though I won’t throw that term around because I haven’t figured out whether or not it is derogatory, are funny “girls”! Their wardrobe and makeup is all part of the stand up routine and makeup especially is meant to exaggerate facial features like eyes and lips and not accentuate them. It’s all about timing and comedic effect for camp queens. And last, but certainly not least, is the Goth Queen. Dark ladies of the stage are reminiscent for me of the kids I hung out with afterschool by the back door theater entrance in high school. They were the stage crew decked out in all black. The guys were silent and carried stuff around stage. And the girls? They were a cross between Winona Ryder in “Heathers” and Winona Ryder in “Beetlejuice”. Pale faces, dark cat-eye black liner and bed-head tresses. These throwbacks to my juvenile days begin to explain the role of the goth queen who has the ever-present black outfit perhaps with lace and eerie accessories and may even go as far as mimicking horror films.
So now that you know what kind of queen(s) I’m going to be, why don’t you take BuzzFeed’s quiz and find out what kind of queen you are? Then you can share your results here in the comments! Come on! We’ll keep it just between us “girls”!