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In a year where our new president sought to implement a series of anti-LGBTQ views and policies, it became more urgent than ever to throw on some feathers and be a visible queen. But not just any old feathers. This was the year where RuPaul’s Drag Race moved to VH1 and gained a larger audience, thereby upping the bar for local queens trying to get noticed. No longer can you just put on heels and mouth along to Ariana — you’ve gotta get a gimmick. As someone who sees drag performances way more than I go to church, I’m qualified to declare these the standout drag moments of 2017. Some of the winners are Drag Race contestants, while others want to be. Pretty much all of them are against Trump.
Bootsie Lefaris and Tina Burner
At the Miss Comedy Queen prelims at Industry Bar in May (which I judged), a tight race broke out between two local faves who were definitely not texting it in. The zany Bootsie Lefaris won with blackened teeth and a spectacular hillbilly number she called “Redneck Christmas,” while the witty Tina Burner came in a close second, scoring in the 60 Second Spokesperson category, where she was given an empty orb and had to describe it in a minute. (Tina decided it represented the Trump administration and its utter emptiness when it came to rights, honor, and promises.) Both gals were sent to the finals in Orlando and made the top five, though they couldn’t prevent the esteemed Amanda Punchfuck from winning.
The annual Miss’d America Pageant is always an eyeful at the Borgata in the otherwise rapidly fading Atlantic City. This September, NYC gals scored high, Tina Burner coming in third (though her Trump bashing in the Q&A section surely got a stellar amount of points). The winner was Pattaya Hart, a petite regular at Boots & Saddle drag lounge in the Village. For her talent, Pattaya performed a slithery “All That Jazz,” backed by steamy male dancers, and though that choice wasn’t wildly original, it was certainly pulled off with an electric professionalism that rocked the place.
In the summer, the NYC gays go to Fire Island or Provincetown as often as they can; either way, they’re guaranteed a good drag show. At the Crown & Anchor Inn in the latter resort, I caught up with the surreally wacky Dina Martina, who dresses in appliquéd blouses and misshapen hair and lipstick and tells tales of her meat cleanse, her love of distressed pork, and how she couldn’t bring her adopted daughter along because she was only allowed one carry-on. Dina also sings — pop standards like “Girls on Film” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” — with gargling sounds and hard and soft g’s interchanged. Inspired and a bit scary.
Trinkets was a musical play at the Gene Frankel Theatre by Paul Alexander, who was deeply involved in the meatpacking club Mother, in addition to having been a member of the technopop trio the Ones. With this show, he told a story of West Side drag and trans characters having to do sex work in the Nineties because no one else would hire them. In the process, they forged a family full of warmth, humor, and tragedy-surviving. Honey Davenport — a regular at the Monster in the Village — was terrific as the lead hooker, Diva, performing in a way that suggested she could go beyond lip sync and club gigs.
Bianca Del Rio
A RuPaul’s Drag Race winner, Bianca Del Rio is a foulmouthed, incorrect, and hilarious insult comic, like Lisa Lampanelli with more of a penis. And she appeals to the young straights. At the Space in Westbury, Long Island, in April, Bianca’s “Not Today Satan” show had her indulging in a withering monologue of rat-tat-tat sarcasm. That was followed by an audience Q&A segment, where Bianca was asked which Golden Girl she is. “Sophia,” she replied, “because I’m usually not part of the story. I come in, be a cunt, and walk out.” She was also sardonically asked if she’d ever let Trump grab her pussy. “I would,” Bianca responded, “and I’d say, ‘You know what, motherfucker? This is the primest piece of real estate you’ve ever had your hands on.’ ”
Marti Gould Cummings
In January, at the weekly Stage Fright night at Therapy, Marti Gould Cummings hosted Tony winner Michael Cerveris in a talk show setting that was funny and informative. It’s nice to hear a drag queen actually talk! She sings, too. Before the interview, Cummings belted a doo-wop version of “My Heart Will Go On,” which almost made sense because Cerveris had been in the Broadway version of Titanic.
The plus-sized drag queen — a long-running scene queen for her flawless lip sync, spirit, and saucy humor — was feted at the Highline Ballroom in January, a birthday event organized by promoter pal Daniel Nardicio. Sweetie’s cancer had come back, and everyone sensed it was time to loudly sing her praises. After an all-star tribute concert, Sweetie gave a long, beautiful speech full of love and gratitude. As the crowd’s eyes welled up, she lip-synched one of her standards, “I Shall Be Released,” as if it were the first time. She died in March.
The oldest Drag Race contestant ever, Charlie Hides — a London-based talent who has a popular YouTube channel — made constant references to his age when he brought his TransAtlantic Dame to the Triad in March. “I’m so old that my ears are still ringing from the big bang,” Hides cracked at the outset. But his act — a mix of singing, shtick, and even sentiment — showed no sign of wear and tear. Best of all, Hides impersonated Cher and talked to himself dressed as Madonna on video. When Madge suggested the two divas have a lot in common, Hides (as Cher) said, “Did your daughter become a man? Do you have an Oscar? We have nothing in common.”
While the Manhattan queens tend to be polished and manic, the Brooklyn ones are relaxed and more avant-garde. Sasha Velour stars in Nightgowns, a revue at Williamsburg’s National Sawdust space, which I saw in May and which had an otherworldly calm to it. “You are now in the space of relaxation,” Sasha told the audience right off the bat. “Take a deep breath, but not too deep because I haven’t washed this dress.” She went on to lip-synch “A House Is Not a Home” while flipping picture cards that told the song’s story, ending by revealing a little cardboard house atop her head. Not long afterward, she won Drag Race.