Herstory 101: Hollywood Can Be A Drag by Scarlett Bleu

Shock your friends!  Surprise your enemies!  Win a round of trivia!  Herstory 101 is back in session!

Welcome back my fellow queens and queen enthusiasts!  I hope you’re ready to read all about another figure from herstory who laid the groundwork to make the art of drag what it is today!

Before we get too ahead of ourselves, I would like to make a slight correction to my article about Julie D’ Aubigny.  In my last article, I stated Julie was from the 15th century when I had intended to say she was from the 17th century.  Blame it on my poor math skills, Autocorrect, or blame it on the A-A-A-A-Alcohol, but it happened.  I hope you forgive me…

Oh you do?  Great.  Let’s move on.

Today we will be journeying back to the good ol’ U.S. of A. and discussing an actor and female impersonator from young Hollywood.  He was given the title of “ambisextrous” (watch that be RuPaul’s next catch phrase), and he supplied what may be my favorite quote of all time; “I’m not gay, I just like pearls.”  He was known as Julian Eltinge.

Mr. Julian Eltinge

Like every good female impersonator, no one knows exactly when Julian was born.  He claimed his birthdate was May 14, 1883, but a birth certificate was found in Massachusetts with his given name, William J. Dalton, stating he was born two years earlier, in 1981.  Additionally, there are multiple stories as to how young William got started in female impersonation, but they all agree that he was a fabulous cakewalker (it’s a sort of dance style.  Google it!), he trained in dance with Mrs. Lilla Viles Wyman, and he had adapted the stage name Julian Eltinge by his stage debut at 9 years old.

In 1900, Eltinge was invited to perform a small part in Miladi and The Musketeer, a show put on by Cadet Theatricals, a group of amateur male actors who acted in both the male and female parts of a play. Mrs. Wyman recommended him to the director of the Cadets, and Eltinge impressed the theatrical group so much with his work ethic that the show they produced the following year, Miss Simplicity, was supposedly written especially to showcase Julian’s talents, though he was not an official member.

The Fascinating Widow

His fame continued to grow with his talents, and in 1904 he was selected to star in a show in New York City, Mr. Wix of Wickham.  While the show itself failed to impress (lasting a little over 40 performances), critics were quite taken with Eltinge’s talents, writing such remarks as, “If a man ever succeeded in lifting and almost totally obliterating the stigma which… attaches to this work, Eltinge has.”  The following year, Eltinge joined the vaudeville circuit.  Audiences were fascinated by his stunning costumes as well as his remarkable poise and grace.  By 1910, at just 19 years of age, Julian Eltinge had reached the pinnacle of the Vaudeville circuit and made his transition into more traditional theater.

He began performing in The Fascinating Widow, a play that made its way up to Broadway’s Liberty Theater in 1911.  His role in this play is argued to be his greatest success on stage.  While The Fascinating Widow also had a very short run in New York, Eltinge himself still continued to grow in fame, becoming such a nationwide household name that a Broadway theater was constructed and named after him in 1912, though Eltinge never actually performed in this theater.

By this time, Eltinge had become a master at dealing with the press and promoting himself.  He sold a self-titled magazine at his performances, providing beauty and fashion tips to women, and included a glimmer of the drag wit we know and love from today’s queens.  “See what the Julian Eltinge Cold Creame does for a man. Imagine what it will do for a woman,” declared one of the ads for his cosmetics line. Marketing genius!

Master Marketer

Eltinge made sure to loudly express his unhappiness at performing as a woman.  He made sure to be seen boxing, smoking cigars, and anything else to separate himself from an image of effeminacy. There were also several engagements to women that were always broken off.  He claimed the only reason he continued to perform as a female impersonator was for the money.  Despite his adamant claims otherwise, rumors of his homosexuality still bubbled up.

1918 and 1919 saw Eltinge’s return to the Vaudeville circuit with several Hollywood silent film credits under his corset.  He had become one of the highest paid Hollywood actors and even owned one of the most lavish villas in Hollywood, which he moved into with his mother.

However, in the early 1920’s, gay speakeasies cropped up in New York City, and early forms of drag began to appear alongside them. Suddenly, Eltinge’s style of female impersonation began to look old-fashioned and outdated.  He began to drink heavily, and was even caught smuggling in liquor from Canada in 1923, which marked the beginning of his decline.

His first and only sound film was ultimately his last film that he would star in.  Released in 1931, Maid To Order only brought to light that Eltinge had lost his touch.  His weight gain was obvious, and rumors of his alcoholism grew.  While he tried to revive his career through the rest of the 1930’s, local laws prohibited men from wearing women’s clothing, and he was forced to perform in dingy nightclubs in a tuxedo, pointing to a rack in the corner, which held the dresses he used to wear.

On May 7th, 1941, just one week shy of his 60th birthday, Julian Eltinge passed away.  True to his shrouded life, there is much speculation as to his actual cause of demise. Some speculated suicide, others kidney disease, while his death certificate listed a cerebral hemorrhage as the cause.

What of the theater named after Eltinge?  When the Great Depression struck, it became a burlesque theater (Vaudeville’s sultry sister), and then eventually was converted to a movie theater in 1942. It was renamed The Empire Theater in 1954.  In 1998, the building itself was actually picked up and moved 170 feet to the west, and was purchased by AMC to become the AMC Empire Theater on 42nd street, which still stands today.  The façade of the original theater remains mostly unchanged, and the lobby of the theater is actually the Eltinge Theater’s auditorium. Visitors can still see a mural of Julian Eltinge located directly above the box office.

The original Eltinge Theater 42nd Street New York City

The theater as it appears today

So why does a fallen Hollywood star, whose name has faded from our culture’s memory, matter to us today?  First off, his career gives us hope that today’s modern drag queens can be just as celebrated in our culture today as his once was. With shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race putting female impersonation back into the eye of the public, that brand of wide-spread acceptance may be near.  Secondly, his career provides a cautionary tale on many levels, namely that one should never stop evolving with their craft lest they be left behind. Third, and this is a sentiment I have always tried to live by myself, his career, and life in general, tell us to always be grateful for what we have and where we come from. Too often drag performers, myself included, get caught up in the applause of a crowd and begin to take the limelight for granted.  Remembering to stay grounded and grateful for all our opportunities not only provides an endearing sense of humbleness, but also prevents a sudden career decline.

That being said, Julian Eltinge won the hearts of Americans with his poise, grace, and remarkable transformation skills.  His career, while a cautionary tale in many ways, should encourage drag performers and their supporters to continue to showcase the art of drag back into the minds and hearts of the world at large.

And always remember: the higher your heels and hair, the taller your pedestal will seem.

To find out more about Julian Eltinge, or to just see if I got it all right, check out my sources here:

http://www.thejulianeltingeproject.com/bio.html

http://scaa.sk.ca/gallery/genderimpersonators/eltinge/E_intro.htm

http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/255

PHOTO CREDIT: Garrett Matthew

Scarlett Bleu enjoys writing blogs and binge watching YouTube videos in her spare time. She frequently polishes her Miss Venture Inn 2013 crown, and often asks the question, “Whatever happened to Baby Scarlett?” while staring meaningfully out a window.  Regardless, she has learned to love herself, and feels that is enough.

All the Colors of a Queen

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.

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Scarlett Bleu gave good face.

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?

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Punk Star Princess

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?

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I kind of love/hate her for this pc.

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.

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A tall glass of wine lover’s dream

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.

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The ringmistress of the show

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.

Traveling Queen

You know I love me some queens, but it is difficult to get into the city if you are me. ICYMI I’m a woman who uses a wheelchair for my main form of mobility and those descriptors combined are liabilities for traveling alone. I have hoodwinked my friends to give me rides to the clubs. They loved every minute of it, but jobs, sleep, blah, blah, blah. If only Erik Koral lived on this coast, not in Los Angeles, and had launched his www.drivingisadrag.com Lyft idea out here! I’d be set , because in the end it is all about me, right?

Alas, Erik, known in drag as Erika Simone, was between jobs after leaving a digital marketing position and needed to pay his bills (get the money, hunty!). He delved into the make-your-own-hours app world of Lyft, a car service much like Uber in which drivers connect with passengers who need a ride via text message. At the same time Eric was also experimenting with trying on his drag persona. Viola! @drivingisadrag was born!

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Erica Simone and @venusdlite

Others have begun building their businesses on the Lyft platform, too, but none as glamorous as http://www.drivingisadrag.com . There is a @DISCOlyft car whose Twitter profile boasts being “the pioneer of the #LyftCreative movement”. There are also @hihoplyft, @MomLyft, and @drawlyft, among others. Those sound fun, but imagine the surprise of passengers that see Erik’s photo on their Lyft app image only to be greeted by Erika. Plenty of customers have walked right by the car not realizing their ride had arrived, because they are looking for someone that looks like a male driver. In those cases Erika Simone leaps out of her driver’s seat, leans against her car in her sky high boots, and yellow taxi driver get up and asks, “Need a ride, honey?”. The reaction usually goes: shock (People have been known to drop shopping bags), awkwardness (lots of nervous giggling), and acceptance (We still need a ride after all). Everyone fills the car, has a good laugh, gets a few selfies, and sometimes gets posted on Erika Simone’s Twitter feed. Genius, right?

All kidding aside, Erik is aware of the safety issues in driving in drag. He was scared the first week out, but took appropriate precautions to ensure his own safety by choosing neighborhoods he felt were safe and only driving from 2 pm to 10 pm. He has not had any problems as of yet and finds his biggest fans are straight girls. He is sharply aware of how unfair the facts are that he needs to take these things into consideration, but that is the whole point of his business.

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The gangs all here and ready to go!

Of course, neither Erik nor Erika are satisfied with one Lyft cab. Erik is an entrepreneur, not a performer (perhaps the only one in L.A.), and wants to expand his business. If you do see Erika Simone in a drag club she will likely be hobnobbing with the likes of Morgan McMichaels about safe rides for people of the LGBT community and not heading on stage to rock it out. The big vision is @drivingisadrag in every city. Erik and his alter ego hope to join forces with groups like The Trevor Project, “a hotline for gay and questioning youth”, and GLAAD to gain visibility and assist in creating a safe form of transport within the LGBT community, which can also extend out to anyone. The pinnacle of this business would include the ultimate party bus in every major city in the United States and a non-profit to help those in need of a ride, such as people traveling alone or hospital patients with no family support.

I sure do hope so, because summer is coming and the sooner @drivingisadrag gets to the Philadelphia area, the better. Because this girl is a big fan of drag queens, but not such a big fan of the speedline.

The Straight Girl’s Guide to Drag Queens

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.

Show Time!

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.

After Party

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.

Looking: Wigs, Wigs, Wigs

Drag queens wear wigs! Well, when they perform, most of the time they do. I have seen a few queens all pained without wigs on, but that is a different icon from a queen aiming to look as womanly as possible. Since wigs are the crown jewel of the queen’s outfit I went to a salon store to check some out with a hairdresser friend.

We entered Not Just Wigs a salon store in the Berlin Farmers Market and are greeted by hundreds of foam heads topped with varying lengths, colors, and styles of wigs. The shelves from the floor to about 2/3 the way up all three surrounding walls are stocked with hairpieces, hair accessories, and hair products. Above that all around the perimeter of the store/stall are two shelves that run parallel to each other one above the other. Here is where all these heads from white faceless foam to darker brown with eyes, lips, and noses. Stare down at us. I am so mesmerized by the selection and the way it is displayed I absently roll behind my friend who bee-lines it to a glass counter where a worker is stationed. She asks to see two types of wigs and only after the store clerk goes to get them do I ask her what we are going to look at.

“There are basically two types of wigs,” she says, “Real hair and synthetic. The real hair is usually human, but some are made of animal hair  and synthetic is the fake stuff.”

She goes on to say she doesn’t use animal hair wigs, because she is never knows if the goats they get it from are treated humanely. I start to imagine a billy goat with a head of long red curls and giggle to myself. I shake off the thought as the clerk brings the two wigs to the counter.

My friend takes them both and turns them inside out. “The other thing about wigs is how they’re made.” She is showing me the inside of a blonde bob. I quickly scan the shelves to locate the bald head where it came from, but she calls my attention to how the construction of the wig before us. “This one is a lace-front cap. Every single hair is hand-tied in place, so it looks real, moves more like real hair, and looks like is grew out of your head.”

I exam the delicate sheer fabric and imagine how long it must have taken to tie each hair in place by hand. Then I spy the price tag attached inside and realize all that work is reflected in the price: $289! I mention the price to my friend who is checking out the other wig. She informs me that is actually on the low end as she has seen real hair monofilament (one strand tied at a time) hand-tied wigs go for anywhere from $650-$2000. Drag queens are not kidding at all when they talk of how expensive a quality wardrobe, including high quality wigs (yes often more than three), can be. I put the blonde bob right side out and back on the counter. I get a little nervous considering I haven’t washed my hands and have been touching the tires of my wheelchair.

The next wig we look at is a much longer, dark brown, curly one. My friend has it inside out too. This is what is called a basic wig. Instead of the lace on the inside there is a cap made like a lattice work and wefts, or long reams, of hair are sewn into the cap. wefts are what people often think of when they imagine hair extensions. These basic wigs can be made of human or animal hair, but the one before us is synthetic and therefore costs a lot less than the others. It’s still too pricey at $69.99 for me though.

My friend has to leave to go to work, so we thank the young woman who helped us and let her know we are done looking at the wigs. On the car ride home I ask about taking care of these expensive creations. I guess right when I think I probably could not throw one of these wigs into a plastic bag and hang it on a nail until I am ready to use it again like the cheap wig I picked up at a party store for Halloween decades ago.

“Synthetic wigs are easier to take care of then real wigs, but after a while you get a routine going for either one,” she begins, “With the real hair you have to comb them gently to get any knots out first literally with a fine tooth comb. Then you wash it like you would your own hair with shampoo, but you have to be sure not to get the cap wet. Once you rinse that out you condition it and rinse again. Real hair can be blow dried, but not synthetic. Synthetic hair will melt or shrivel up in heat. No curling irons, straighteners, or hair dryers for fake hair.”

Synthetic hair has to be replaced on its stand a foam or plastic head to dry. Luckily, because it isn’t human or  animal hair it won’t absorb the water and will dry quickly. There isn’t as much versatility in styling a synthetic wig contrasted against a real hair wig, but they can still look very good and natural especially on stage.

As my friend leaves me at home and drives off, I think about my mild obsession with wigs. I would like to go back to the store some time and try a few on. A wig can really bring out a persona, which is why queens use them.  Between the cost and the care though, I don’t think I will be rolling out of the store with a new persona anytime soon.

Preparing for my interview with Ray Miles, Jr./Donna Ria

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.

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The fateful sign

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.

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The Queen of queens

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.

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Donna Ria is ready for her close-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.

Post 3 – Hair and Reflections

Description of a Head of Hair
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While I am sitting in the student center Pit noticing the pattern of the carpet, blue and green leaf pattern, and the lights, groups of three cylindrical lamps suspended high above, a young woman sits at the next table. She swoops passed me, drops a large bag on the floor, and places her laptop on the table. She settles herself into a chair facing the pit and back to the wall. Her full, dark brown, almost-black-in-this-dim-light locks are cut in layers around her circular face with the longest layers in the back grazing her mid-upper arm. It cascades toward her face and into her eyes like curtains in a breeze. It is mostly straight from the roots down, but twists into fist-size curls at the bottom. She flips it out of her face over her left shoulder daintily with her left palm down fingers together in a tai chi slow motion. Then she rakes the fingers of her right hand from the roots at her forehead through her center part to the whorl on her crown. It’s a real supermodel move. The dim lighting showcases the iridescence of the thick and plentiful strands, dark as pitch one moment then suddenly streaked with browns: chestnut or bronze.

I have been observing from afar, but go up to her now. “Excuse me,” I start and then explain I am a graduate student who has to observe someone’s hair for later description. Would she mind if I ask her a few questions? She has about five minutes before she has to go to work she says, but will answer my questions. I ask her the color and as she describes it as a transition between a dyed black and her natural dark brown I try to concentrate but am mesmerized instead by the darkness and thickness of her hair close up. I cannot see the highlights and lowlights she is describing and that I saw previously from the adjacent table. Her hair is everything mine is not. I innocently covet thick dark masses of mane, reams of Rapunzel ringlets I can braid into ropes and configure into elaborate updos. This is why I have developed an appreciation for wigs. I realize I am lost in her hair, not looking at her, and redirect my eyes to her face nodding at what she is saying about not using any hair products beyond shampoo and conditioner and some anti-frizz serum in the summer. I engage in the conversation again asking if it is normally curlier and she says yes. I tell her it reminds me of my daughter’s hair and imagine it wet and sprung up and out into spiraling tresses as my daughter’s much lighter brown hair does after a bath or in the midday heat at the beach. I jot down keywords and thank her for her time. She wishes me luck on my assignment and I leave her to her laptop and locks.

Reflections on Observations

In thinking on my experience of observing and taking fieldnotes in the student center I have come to the realization that initially I felt anxious and probably went into the ladies room because of that anxiety. On second review, however, I know that I was reflecting the feelings of some of my group members and regressing to the more timid and apprehensive self I was in my late teens and early twenties. I soaked in the intimidated energy of my group and manifested that in my own approach at first. That would soon change though.

I felt uncomfortable and annoyed waiting for the handicap accessible stall as I normally do when an able-bodied person uses the stall. I think it is only fair if there is a line and an able-bodied person uses the stall as long as she is ahead of me. When many general stalls are open though I get aggravated. This is why I added my comment “I observe there is only one handicap stall” to the banter of my cohorts humorous comments. It’s probably why I mentioned that the person who used the stall did not wash her hands, something initially that one of my classmates noticed.

Once out in the hall above the Pit I was confused about how to get down. I initially assumed I would use the elevator, then noticed the chairlift only to find that was out of order, but finally to be directed to the more modern chairlift/elevator. In the past I would have been agitated and frustrated by the fact that it was not readily transparent to me how to get down to the Pit. Now however, after years of using my wheelchair I find that whoever is with me is usually more upset about the lack of handicap accessibility. The fact that two people were willing to point me in the right direction , literally, helped me feel relieved. It also made me feel appreciation for their kind and friendly assistance without even being asked.

Using the chairlift harkened me back to a time when I have used other chairlifts at my previous place of business and gotten stuck midway up or down a staircase. I pushed passed that though and did not let it deter me. I followed the instructions on the wall even though in instances in which I am unsure in public I get nervous. I blocked out the fact I was in a public place as is my coping skill to do and got myself into the chairlift/elevator and down into the Pit. I even felt a little giddy at the fact that I got it all to work without help, much like all the technology I am learning these days from my research class to PARCC testing in my own classroom.

In the Pit it was comforting to see my classmates and instructive to follow their lead in finding an unassuming spot to observe from. I never settled in one place for too long because I had lots of energy coursing through me by that time. The longest I stayed still was first while talking to the worker who was closing down the Starbucks Café and she told me the medallions around the Pit’s uppermost walls were club insignias. I learned that she heard that during orientation. The second time I sat put for a bit was while observing the young woman’s hair I described above and then a few minutes later while taking to her.

I was glad and proud of myself for speaking to her, because I proved to myself what I already knew. I am no longer as timid and anxious as I used to be even if I tend toward more reserved behaviors in most instances. I was able to glean more information about her hair and observe it up close. I did briefly consider asking her to touch her hair, but I did not want to get so bold as to border on creepy. I was genuinely impressed that she uses minimal amounts of product because my sister, a curly haired girl I grew up with, was always trying different products to tame her hair.

I appreciated the muted lighting and could imagine getting comfortable on one of the upholstered chairs and having a cold or hot drink from the Starbucks when it is open. The environment reminded me of when I was working on my undergrad degrees and how as a commuter I never really felt part of campus life unless I was in the cafeteria or the library. I became sentimental about being a commuter and my thoughts that I do wish I had lived near campus at leat one year.

Soon I reconnected with classmates who were winding down or finished their own observations as was I and we headed back to class. I was comfortable on the chairlift/elevator on my way back up and am glad to know it is there for  future use. Once back in the room we were using for the evening I decompressed and let the “on” energy of the assignment drain out of me as I relaxed and began to reflect.