A bustling crowd at Vlada Lounge in Hell’s Kitchen quiets as Cher’s “Dark Lady” begins to play over the loud speakers. The lights dim as the audience takes their seats on orange couches and pleather stools in the upstairs. A theme song begins to play:
“Who is she?
Who is this ravishing sight?
With a fantasy face and staggering smile.”
A spot light illuminates the stage as Paige Turner, one of New York’s prominent drag queens, makes her entrance. The crowd cheers, some shouting “Slurp!” Turner’s unique catchphrase.
“Supermodel,” one of Turner’s signature opening numbers blasts. Lip-syncing to the song as she removes a pair of white oversized sunglasses from her face and brushes away the bangs from her blond wig, Turner opens a lunch box and furiously chomps down on a carrot. As the lyrics “I didn’t eat yesterday, and I’m not going today, and I’m not going to eat tomorrow, cause I’m going to be a supermodel” play, Turner comically spits the chewed pieces of carrot into the audience, clutching her stomach and looking distressed. The audience roars with laughter as she hits a final pose. Blackout.
In New York, drag queens are masters of the nightlife performance world. Men dressed as women who make a living performing in clubs, many of them are actors who fell into female impersonator roles; others are creative types who found drag as a unique form of self expression. Many have one thing in common: Being a New York City drag queen isn’t enough. They want more. They want fame. They want to be known beyond the bars and clubs of Manhattan. With Logo’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” television series now on its third season, drag is attracting international attention and breaking out of the constraints of the nightlife world.
Drag first gained national recognition in 1969 when a group of drag queens began a now historic riot outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s West Village. Protesting discriminatory police practices, drag queens took to the streets in flamboyant outfits. A year later, Gay Pride Parades began in major cities across the national commemorating the drag queens who fought against homophobia. These parades still happen today in many cities like Chicago, San Francisco, New York City and Los Angeles, featuring dozens of wildly decorated floats and hundreds of drag queens dressed in feathers, sequins and enormous wigs. While drag performers are scattered about the country, the drag “scene” is largest in major cities with a thriving nightlife industry where drag queens often establish a community of support for their fellow “sisters” in drag.
Small-town folk might never see a drag queen in real life, but they’ve certainly seen them in movies. Films like “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “The Birdcage” feature men dressed as women, cult films like “Some Like It Hot” and “Priscilla: Queen of the Dessert” showcase comical drag characters. “History stands by drag as something that extends beyond the nightlife scene,” said Rosamund Norbury, photographer and co-author of “Guy to Goddess: An Intimate Look at Drag Queens.” “There is also Jethro’s cousin on the Beverly Hillbillies who he played in drag! And of course Bugs Bunny.” These figures have been a visible in popular culture for decades though often only seen as a point of comedic relief.
“Drag is a performance art but it is always done with a wink,” Norbury said. “With an acknowledgement that the drag queen is actually a man under all the artifice.” And while comedy is a common thread among the drag depictions in mainstream culture, for queens themselves, comedy is only one aspect of their career.
Aside from a reality show like “Drag Race,” drag fame can take many forms. Some drag queens create a brand for their personas, complete with a full line of memorabilia products. Others look to YouTube and other social media platforms to share their talents with the world in hopes of striking Internet gold with a “viral” video. Still others use their unique personas as a platform to start new ventures aside from drag performance.
During her recent Sunday evening show at Vlada, Turner is a bubbly “actress” in a pink tulle baby-doll dress with a sharp wit and a cheap wardrobe; her dress was less than $20 and she jokes that she’ll return it after the show the next day. Originally from Highland Indiana, on stage Turner is a tawdry comedienne: “My goal first and foremost is to always entertain when performing,” she said, but behind the scenes she’s very business-minded, as drag performance is her main source of income.
Aside from being paid for her performances by club and bar owners, Turner bolsters her weekly income by capitalizing on the “Paige Turner” brand. At her performances, the audience members can purchase a variety of Paige Turner souvenirs. “I sell memorabilia so people remember me and also to brand yourself,” she said. Her stockpile of memorabilia ranges from key chains and magnets to autographed, framed 8-by-10 headshots and t-shirts.
At every show Turner polls the audience looking for out-of-towners or first time guests then hawks her wares to new fans. Once they’ve revealed themselves, Turner goes in for the kill. What first appeared to be a friendly get-to-know-you portion of the show was actually a stealthy ploy – she’s a top-notch sales woman.
Her souvenirs aren’t expensive: small items are only $5 and t-shirts are under $20. This tactic has spread Paige Turner souvenirs to multiple continents – from the fridges of European tourists to the key rings of South American visitors. She hopes that this self-promotion might one day lead to bigger and better things. “Ideally I would like to have my own talk show or game show on [television] and have my own stage show produced in Vegas or Broadway,” Turner said confidently, despite the lofty nature of her goals. Turner guest starred in the off Broadway musical “Little House on the Ferry” and regularly performs at weddings and birthday parties all over New York State. While she’s not shy about wanting to break out of the nightlife world, her attempts to achieve fame are modest compared to some other drag queens.
Misty Meaner is four years into her professional drag queen career. Always jealous of the variety of fashion options women had and bored of wearing typical boy clothes even while growing up in Bellport, New York, Meaner dove into the world of drag in New York City. “I felt more comfortable in a dress than in a three piece suit,” Meaner said.
Meaner, 24, is a pretty queen, her long blond hair often accentuated with vibrant eye makeup. Her style is fashion forward, 20-something evening wear; on some nights she might even be mistaken for a club-bound Lindsay Lohan. She’s got a quick tongue, calling out guests who leave during the middle of her show or comically harassing regular audience members who won’t put a dollar in her tip bucket at her weekly show at Vlada.
Like her style, Meaner’s performances are relevant and modern. Many drag queens perform outdated musical numbers from classic Broadway shows or 80’s pop hits, but not Misty Meaner. Her diverse repertoire includes recent Christina Aguilera hits, rare gems from hip-hop’s TLC and even a song by 12-year-old pop star Willow Smith.
While drag is a way for Meaner to express her more beautiful side, fame is always on her mind. “People would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would say a celebrity,” she said. “And in the gay community drag is the easiest way to access that.” While having gained a modest reputation performing at numerous clubs in Manhattan and Brooklyn, being a name in nightlife is just the beginning for Meaner.
“Going Viral! with Misty Meaner” began just over a year ago on the first floor at Vlada Lounge. The goal was simple: aside from entertaining the audience, Meaner wanted to create a performance so stunning that once uploaded to YouTube it would “go viral” – or catch attention of YouTubers around the world and become the talk of the social media world. During her show she encourages the audience to film her musical numbers and share them on social media platforms in the hopes that one viral video might set things into motion.
While Meaner has since changed the name of the show to “Drag Team Tag Team” to feature Mocha Lite, another drag performer and Meaner’s out-of-drag partner of five years, “Going Viral!” was a modest success. This spectacle marks Meaner’s longest running weekly show and was also the show that first brought the “Misty Meaner” persona to Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan’s up-and-coming nightlife epicenter; previously Meaner had only performed in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn bars. She hasn’t gone viral yet but she’s still hopeful. “One of my friends posted a video of me doing my mix of the viral video ‘Britney Spears Stoned’ and it has gotten almost 1,500 views,” she said, somewhat bewildered. “I have no idea how.”
YouTube seemed like the most reasonable step on Meaner’s path to fame. “In today’s day and age the easiest way to become a celebrity is to ‘Go Viral!’ Or go on reality TV,” she said, but reality television is not Meaner’s favorite means of getting famous. She’s the first to vocalize her less-than-positive views on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the notion of being a “reality TV star.”
Increased media attention is a significant factor in the escalating popularity of drag. Norbury agrees: “I do believe that drag is becoming less taboo, but I put that down to the Internet and reality TV. There is much more exposure, so it becomes less of a taboo.” And with more exposure, drag queens are more and more hopeful that their dreams of success will become a reality.
Meaner is certain of her goals and confident that this is only the beginning of a career that will continue to grow in the coming years. “I believe I can achieve anything I set my mind to,” Meaner said. “With the amount of success I have gotten in the little time I have been in New York City I can only imagine where I will be in five years.”
Optimism like Meaner’s is a common characteristic in the drag world. Many drag queens are convinced that they will one day become household names whether it’s through viral performances, reality television appearances or even using their drag character as a jumping-off point for another endeavor.
Despite drag’s increased popularity, not all are convinced that fame beyond the nightlife world is feasible. “The essence of a drag queen is really performing in the nightlife scene,” said Leila Rupp, co-author of “Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret.” While hopes of becoming an international star may be at the forefront of many drag queens’ minds, Rupp’s opinion remains grounded in reality.
“I think it’s pretty hard [to achieve fame],” she said. “The few examples, like RuPaul, probably make it seem more likely to a lot of drag queens.” During her time with the queens depicted in the book, Rupp discovered that the pursuit of drag fame is a difficult and stressful battle. “It takes talent, it takes hard work, and it takes a strong composition,” said Rupp, whose book offers a glimpse into the lives of the drag queens working at the 801 Cabaret in Key West, Florida. Aside from simply being a man dressed as a woman, the nightlife industry is a brutal one. “Drinking, drugs, staying up late, working hard for not very much money takes a toll,” Rupp said. “It takes a strong desire to do [drag].”
But despite her skepticism Rupp is sure of one thing: “There is certainly more visibility lately, and that can be only a good thing,” she said. Some drag queens are already monopolizing on this new wave of attention by branching out into different forms of self-exposure.
Judson Harmon, 20, who uses his own name as the name of his female persona, has been working as a drag queen for more than four years. Getting his start in an Arizona regional theater production of the musical “La Cage aux Folles,” which features male actors dressed in drag, Harmon learned that he could flourish as a female impersonator.
Always having a sense of style, Harmon combined drag performance with a fashionable female persona and gained a reputation in New York City. While many drag queens struggle to make a name for themselves as a “unique” performer in the nightlife world, Harmon has bypassed the club scene by starting his own company that sprung from his drag stylings.
Standing eight feet tall in an eclectic mix of leather, gothic and chained or studded ensembles, Harmon found it difficult to shop for his nightlife wardrobe at already-established retailers. Finding little to his liking – and with the financial assistance of his family – he launched ODD Style, just in time for Fashion Week, in Hell’s Kitchen. Using his recognized name and signature look, Harmon joined forces with other fashionable creatures of the night to launch a company that has the potential to achieve success in beyond the drag world. “I don’t want to achieve fame as solely a drag queen because that’s just one side of me that people see,” said Harmon. “I want to achieve fame as a perfectly bizarre individual showcasing my many different sides.”
Carrying well-known brands as well as up-and-coming designers, ODD Style is a shadowy tribute to the world of street fashion. “It’s a healthy mix of underground and semi-underground fashion,” Harmon said, which is, perhaps not so coincidentally, a near-perfect description of Harmon’s haunting drag person. His arcane sense of style is laid out on ODD Style’s online store: a pair of golden spiked earrings, a set of studded punisher gloves, an immaculately constructed leather and denim cape. The website, http://www.odd-style.com, features pieces generally priced from $120 to $700, though more affordable accessories range from $20 to $50.
Since the fruition of ODD, Harmon’s popularity has dramatically increased, styling photo shoots for New York fashion superstars like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” winner Sharon Needles, along with more nightlife performances, when his schedule allows. “I wasn’t that popular before ODD, but I have found my calling through it,” he said. “I suppose it both attracts people and intimidates them to see that I know exactly what I want to do with my life.” And at such a young age, Harmon has already achieved a level of success that many nightlife performers might never see.
Fame may not be at the forefront of Harmon’s mind, but he’s conscious of the benefits of being well known. “Fame equals success equals money equals the ability to make a positive change in the world,” Harmon said. And while a fashion company wouldn’t immediately seem like a way to change the world, Harmon acknowledges his understated vanity. He is convinced that ODD Style is the only chance he has at making a difference, even if that difference is only changing the way the fashion world views street style. “If you want to make a big change without being famous, join the American Red Cross. But personally, field work is not a flattering look on me,” he said with a laugh.
Though his popularity is still growing, Harmon believes that this is just the beginning. “We get hits on the site from Estonia!” he said. “I forgot that country even existed until I received an order from there.” Putting drag on the backburner but keeping his drag principles of individuality and shock-value in mind, Harmon has created a brand this is creeping toward international recognition.
If drag continues to garner mainstream recognition, however, some are concerned that the art will lose the glamour that it once possessed. “I find, these days, that the tendency is more towards ‘passing’ rather than going to extremes,” Norbury said of the less flamboyant and striking appearances of drag queens today. “In my recent experience there is less over-the-top mimicking.” The “fantastic drag” that was supported by annual events like “Wigstock,” created by drag icon Lady Bunny, is being replaced with more realistic interpretations of female now edging away from taboo. Norbury believes that drag might be losing some of its flavor in exchange for a place in the mainstream spotlight.
Regardless of the changes that may take place in the drag world, drag queens continue to step up their game, searching for the big break that will take their careers to the next level. Fame may be fleeting, but history has shown that drag is not. “There will always be drag,” Norbury said.