You don’t have to be a man in a dress to be a drag queen.
For the last four years, I’ve stood side by side with some of the most talented drag professionals in the business, giggling over dirty jokes and cocktails as we prepare for our weekly drag show. Despite, or perhaps because of, my female genitalia, my sisters in drag accept me lovingly into their circle, sharing tips, sharing costumes, and, if the size is right, even sharing shoes in order to lift each other up into the array of hot stage lights to perform to an eager crowd that is often standing-room only. It’s the truest form of sisterhood and female camaraderie I’ve ever found in my life – and most of them are dudes.
Our little show, the biggest of its kind in Alaska, features drag queens (men impersonating females), drag kings (women impersonating men), a couple transgendered performers who are making the slow and often heart wrenching transition to the gender they should have been born with, a few gay performers who sing live, and myself – the show’s only genetic female drag queen. I also sing live. I’m not the first “real lady” drag queen our variety show has seen. The way was paved for me by our previous show hostess, a ballsy singer with a “don’t fuck with me” attitude and a shoe collection to die for.
I found myself alone at Mad Myrna’s, Alaska’s biggest gay cabaret and nightclub, exactly two weeks after my divorce was finalized. I had married my first boyfriend after an impossibly trite high school romance at the much-too-young age of 18, filled with the sort of hopeful nonsense that love is all you need. After 6 years, it turned out we both needed much more than that, and called it quits.
After I left my husband, I moved in with a crazy (in a good way) broad I’d found looking for a roommate on Craigslist. We were at least 20 years apart in age, and her dog desperately wanted to be friends with my two cats, who spent most of their time moping in bed with me while I tortured myself with romantic comedies.
But Alaska is a weird place, and if you don’t get out of your house in the wintertime, you can go legitimately insane. With only 2 or 3 shreds of self-esteem to my name, I wasn’t ready to go into straight bars and face rejection and judgment from men who couldn’t possibly be attracted to a 25 year-old, overweight divorcee, but I did somehow find the strength to put on my favorite jeans, a pair of heels, a low-cut black shirt, and head to the gay bar. Alone. On a Friday. What the hell?
I’d never been to a drag show before. I knew what a drag queen was, obviously, but I’d never seen what happens after the dude looks like a lady. There was so much energy, talent, charisma, and glitter on that stage, and I was completely hypnotized. Having been a bit of a theater geek my entire life, I coveted the spotlight. I wanted to be up there, glamorous and beautiful. I wanted people to cheer for me. I wanted that applause.
I wanted to be a drag queen.
The Friday night drag show became a ritual for me. I took cues from other patrons on style and dress, and become progressively more comfortable in my own skin. I made friends – like Daphne, the hostess/DJ of the drag show, who marched up to me one night at the show and dragged me onstage to show off my shoes, telling me how beautiful I was. I was simultaneously flattered and incredulous. Me, beautiful? Me, fabulous? Doubtful. But the cheers came. The applause came. Daphne cried into the microphone, “Isn’t she just lovely?” And the crowd was deafening. And for the first time in my entire life, I believed them.
Months later, after two auditions, I was finally given guest status in the drag show as a live singer. The first audition fell flat as I’d come ready for a theater audition – in street clothes – and for a drag show, you bring yourself in costume and “in face.” I learned my lesson, corrected the issues, took the critiques and came back for a second shot and nailed it. That Friday, I would hit the stage as a brand new guest. A drag singer, belting out “All That Jazz” from the musical Chicago.
After my first performance, I was approached by one of the drag queens in the show. She looked like Barbie – tall, impossibly gorgeous, with a cold, bitchy face and perfect lips. “You seem very dynamic,” she said. “I’m dynamic as well. We should be friends.” And without another word, she walked away.
It takes bravery and confidence to step out in drag. From the nylons to the false lashes, no matter how many layers of makeup and accessories you cover yourself with; drag leaves you feeling naked and vulnerable. It’s equal parts liberating and terrifying. Drag can also be polarizing. I’ve been given flack for calling myself a drag queen while daring to be in the possession of a vagina. Some of my queen friends cannot be “out” at work, and take great lengths to keep their drag life and their boy life separate.
When I joined the show I was a timid guest, stepping out of my comfort zone in cheap lashes and ill-fitting costumes, and no one at work knew where I went or what I did on Fridays. Today, I host the show four months out of the year in custom corsets and intricate makeup designs, refusing to settle, and always pushing myself to be a better performer and a fiercer drag queen. I’m happily remarried to a man who loves me in and out of drag – and that bitchy drag queen who called me dynamic was my maid of honor at our wedding. My coworkers come to the show – even my boss. Finding the drag show meant finding myself, picking myself up off my feet after a devastating divorce, focusing on my needs and my happiness for the first time in my life.
In a society where women are often pitted against each other in petty competition – we want the same jobs, the same men, the same shoes on the sale rack – the bonds of sisterhood between ladies of a like age are harder and harder to forge. It took a family of lady-boys to show me that there is strength in numbers, and it really is better to support each other and help our friends reach for success.
My point, guys, is that you don’t have to be a boy in a dress to be a drag queen. Deep inside all of us is a fierce, confident persona dying to be let out once in a while. You don’t have to lash yourself into corsets and fishnets for a live audience to find her. Sometimes you find her in the extra bounce in your step after a good review at work. Or maybe she’s the voice that says, “I deserve better than this,” at the end of a bad breakup, the voice that gives you the strength to put your big girl panties back on and get back to life. She’s the voice who told me to be open with my feelings and say “I love you” first to the man who is now my husband.
We’re all drag queens, ladies. Never settle. Never give up on what you know you deserve. Never be afraid to set the tone or start a trend. Never leave the house without safety pins, and never, ever underestimate the power of a well-made shoe to turn your whole day around.
Whatever your spotlight, whatever your song – bring it. The world will be a more fabulous place if you do.