LA DOLCE MUSTO

NYC Drag is On Fire! But is There Life Beyond “Drag Race”?

Drag queens are making it work and spreading their own kind of joy, on-screen and off

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Show me a New York City gay bar that doesn’t have drag entertainment and I’ll show you a CVS without a Beanie Baby. Drag has become part of the fabric of the gay nightlife experience, as de rigueur as DJs, gogo boys, and overpriced drinks. Ever since hookup apps started offering guys the chance to grab sex anywhere and anytime, nightlife venues have had to use other tactics to draw a crowd. Without hormonal urgency in the air, they generally rely on happy hours, videos, and drag, drag, drag.

Drag queens are the court jesters, the distractors, and the commentators of the scene. Some of them aim to be sparkly showgirls, while others adopt an outrageous, clowny persona, but either way, they learn to work a crowd with wisecracks, pratfalls, lip-sync, and, increasingly, live vocals. In many cases, they are theater-trained actors who found that they have a better career in a dress, so they do elaborate Vegas-style numbers or well-rehearsed concerts. Last October, on the sleek third level of the sexy club the Q, which opened last year in Hell’s Kitchen, I caught the talented Lagoona Bloo belting out current pop hits and original songs, backed by a combo, for a seated crowd that had bought tickets in advance. It was sort of the drag answer to the Café Carlyle. Drag queens also populate Brooklyn’s boîtes, creating a sequin-y blur that floats back and forth over the bridge on a nightly basis. Says Bushwick-based drag performer Janelle No. 5 (aka José Rodriguez), “When I started, it was a clear difference between Brooklyn and Manhattan drag. Brooklyn was considered more artsy and alternative and Manhattan was labeled as ‘the Broadway girls.’ But now, the lines have blurred and drag in New York is becoming just New York drag, which I really like.”

There’s so much New York drag that virtually all aspects of it have become welcome, especially by club owners looking for a packed house that’s ready to tip. Prompting the tucking mania, RuPaul’s Drag Race—the ongoing search for “America’s Next Drag Superstar”—debuted on cable TV in 2009, the same year the popular sex app Grindr started to dramatically change gays’ mating habits. This January, 738,000 people tuned into the season premiere, a substantial boost over the roughly 600,000 averaged the previous season. What’s more, Drag Race has won no fewer than 24 prime-time Emmys and has sparked spin-offs and a worldwide craze to throw on a wig and some titties and play around with gender, just for a giggle and a rush.

Not just gay male grown-ups do drag, mind you. There’s a 14-year-old cult figure named Desmond Napoles (who’s been making drag appearances since age 4); trans women (like Drag Race Season 9’s Peppermint—yes, you can be trans and do drag); and straight, cis males, too (like this season’s Maddy Morphosis, a gussied-up groundbreaker). Drag kings—women who dress like men to spoof machismo—are also still popular, and it’s just a matter of time before they get their own reality show. Kings of the Kingdom? Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow? You’ve Got Male? Well, there’s time to work on the title.

Drag queens of all kinds are sashaying out of my ears, and the proliferation of gender-benders couldn’t be better timed. NYC dance clubs have been under siege for years—Mayor Giuliani targeted them in the 1990s and they never made a big comeback, thanks to rising costs, restrictive community boards, and the Internet—so the “dance divas” who used to perform in clubs have become as extinct as gay mimes. But there’s always an audience for a drag queen, and a drag queen for an audience. Besides, the queens need to regularly go onstage and work out their routines and banter, so they can prepare their audition reel to send to Ru!

In the bars, it seems, every performer has either been on Drag Race or desperately wants to be. Those who haven’t gotten on sometimes end up feeling as unloved and marginalized as a Republican who voted for impeachment. That’s why at the slick West Village drag haven called Playhouse, I’ve seen entertainers ask the audience to “make some noise” for “local girls”—i.e., the ones who work their butts off and cartwheel around the room without the benefit of worldwide fame.

That club’s owner, Eric Einstein (who also has the nearby bar Pieces and the Hell’s Kitchen bar Hardware), has definite thoughts on the subject. “Drag used to be relegated to a separate, small corner of mainstream gay nightlife,” says the wiry entrepreneur. “With a few exceptions—like Barracuda [a long-running Chelsea bar]—drag shows were less common, relegated to a night a week, often with just a drag hostess. The bars were often the only—or, at least, the easiest—means for gay men to meet each other. But we’ve had an incredible 15 years of drag. There’s been a confluence of greater acceptance of being gay amongst the general population, as well as the evolution of the Internet and smartphones. Drag Race hit its stride at the right moment and helped push drag to the forefront of the gay and now gay-friendly consciousness.”

Einstein says that in the aughts, customers started wanting more of an entertainment vibe from nightlife in lieu of the sex appeal, and drag provided that. These days, customers like to see up-and-coming queens perform so they can later applaud them on the TV show and crow, “I knew them when!” “Even just screening the show in a bar,” observes Einstein, “has become akin to showing the playoffs in a sports bar.” A drag queen inevitably hosts the screening and interjects commentary, as the crowd cheers, jeers, and analyzes every snapping finger and clicking tongue. It’s gay church. And the bars put on their own live mini versions of Drag Race too, from Polish the Queen at Playhouse to Lady Liberty at the Q. You can dress up and earn cash prizes before heading to L.A. to snag even bigger ones on camera.

Being on Drag Race can certainly boost your career out of the dive bars and into the mainstream. Insult comic Bianca Del Rio—winner of Season 6—regularly sells out large venues around the world and just co-starred in the drag play Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater. (I hear the play has its sights on Broadway.) What’s more, Bianca has moved into a Palm Springs mansion and is going to launch a drag museum in L.A. She has surely “read” her way to the top! Meanwhile, the friskily funny Shangela didn’t last long on Drag Race Season 2 and she didn’t go all the way on Drag Race All Stars Season 3, but she’s worked nonstop since, from a role in Lady Gaga’s A Star Is Born to the current HBO documentary series We’re Here.

Another perk of being a Drag Race star is that you might very well get to host the Glams, the nightlife awards celebration that drag organizer Cherry Jubilee presents annually. This year’s was the 23rd Glams and the biggest one yet, full of colorful personalities and edgy production numbers—like Inita D, Hibiscus, and other neon-clad creations swirling and posing to thumping music in a way that would have rocked the Super Bowl. Drag Race alumni Brita Filter and Rosé co-hosted with high spirits, pathos, and calls to arms about the need to demand equal rights. Lagoona Bloo won Best Vocalist and Best Cabaret Show, while Best Competition went to Lady Liberty and Best Event went to Bushwig, the annual Brooklyn drag festival that brings the whole scene together in a haze of Aqua Net. The big award—Entertainer of the Year—was copped by the aforementioned Janelle No. 5, who certainly earned it. Janelle is sort of a human Bratz doll, with over-the-top street glamour and some tough love for the audience—“This is your year. So get the fuck up, do what you need to do and figure it out!”

When I ask the 28-year-old club staple for her weekly schedule, Janelle takes a breath and replies: “Monday, Pieces. Tuesday, the Are You the Next Diva? contest at Aura Cocina, in Brooklyn. Thursdays at Playhouse. Fridays, I throw two monthly parties—NSFU, a safe, queer bondage party at 3 Dollar Bill, in Brooklyn, mainly for POC, and a Latinx dance party, also at Aura Cocina. Saturday, during the day, I’m at Aura Cocina again for a brunch that I produce called Shut Up, Bitch, which is my catchphrase. At night, I’m at Metropolitan Bar at 559 Lorimer Street, in Brooklyn. It’s a weekly dance party called Dial 559. And on Sunday, I’m at Hardware with the lovely, hilarious Izzy Uncut. I’m only off on Wednesdays.” She’s busier than Sarah Jessica Parker!

And Janelle doesn’t just prance around, honey. “I’m producing, hiring talent, hosting, and sometimes performing,” she tells me. “It’s a lot of labor. It’s important to leave your mark, make sure people are comfortable and have fun, and you make money in the process. Create a moment of happiness and entertainment for random people.” While doing all that, Janelle happens to make such a good living that she doesn’t need a day job—a pretty good score for a performer who’s not yet been on Drag Race.

But can a drag queen fully flourish without getting her contoured face on that show? Well, Janelle’s “drag mother,” Kandy Muse, and “drag grandmother,” Aja, both benefited from being contestants. “But I don’t feel like that has to be your end-all or be-all,” confides Janelle. “There are so many outlets to become successful. I look at Drag Race as a platform. It amplifies your reach to the world. But if it’s not your ticket, that’s fine as well.” So she hasn’t auditioned? “Yes, I have, two or three times,” she admits, and we share a laugh.

Also not on the Race yet is this year’s Glam winner for Best Dance Performer, Tina Twirler (aka Malachi Perkins), a high-kicking, 29-year-old diva from Chicago who flawlessly does “runway” in a bodice, thigh-high vinyl boots, and a purple answer to Jazz Age icon Josephine Baker’s shellacked finger waves. “I want to take you on a journey and make you feel happy, sad—all the emotions in one,” Tina tells me about her artistic mission.

Is her act political too? “Yes, especially when it comes to Black lives mattering. Me being a queer male artist dressing up in drag, any time I stand on a stage is an act of politics. Having the courage to do that takes a lot.”

As for the drag elephant in the room: “Any drag queen that doesn’t want to be on Drag Race … that’s a lie. I do aspire, though if I don’t get on, it’s not my end-all. I’ll be successful, it just might take me longer to accomplish what I want to do.”

I couldn’t yank out my fake butt cheeks and relax until an honest-to-goodness Drag Race star spilled some final tea for me. Sure enough, I got Yuhua Hamasaki, aka Yuhua Ou, on the horn for a kiki. Yuhua is a 31-year-old Chinese-American makeup and costuming wiz who appeared on Season 10 for three episodes that impacted her life. With “lewks” ranging from secretarial to pixie-ish to bejeweled temptress, Yuhua sports two-inch lashes, multi-colored eyeshadow, and a perky but sardonic wit. She says Drag Race enabled her to travel and do things she hadn’t done before, “but even after Drag Race, we all need to continue working as well. There are still the rehearsals, the content, the performances.”

Her trajectory? “When I started doing drag, it was to express myself, discover myself, and be more confident and happy, but then, in my mid-20s, it switched to a way to be myself but at the same time to get a check out of it. It was a hobby and professional. Now I do it because it’s who I am.”

That there are so many drag queens who are able to pay the bills via their stagecraft is a relatively new and refreshing phenomenon. In the shady past, the queer community often had a problem with drag queens’ easy access to their femininity and at times acted ashamed of them—until TV made them famous, of course. I’ve written that the LGBTQ hierarchy used to want drag and trans people to go to the back of the bus, when in fact they were already driving the bus. (The history-making 1969 Stonewall riots wouldn’t have been the same without them.) In 1995, I met legendary drag activist Sylvia Rivera, who always reminded people about her failed efforts within the queer establishment to increase acceptance for drag and trans folks in the 1970s. Sylvia also noted that, when the media came to cover rallies, she was shunted aside by the queer powers-that-be because they didn’t want a drag queen representing them to the public. Some straights have obviously felt the same way. At a 1990s AIDS benefit, Linda Blair (of Exorcist fame) told me she refused to pose with drag queens there because it would hurt the cause. My head spun around!

Only 15 years ago, says Yuhua, you wouldn’t even tell your date that you were a drag queen because it would interfere with the stereotypical imagery guys had bought into. “The media portrays gay culture as ‘You have to be in tank tops with muscles,’” says Yuhua. “And drag was not fitting into that mode, so these guys were scared and unsure. But it’s more accepting now.” “Yes!” I chime in, “in fact, I always see drag queens sporting really hot boyfriends nowadays.” “Some of them,” corrects Yuhua, with a vocal smile.

Drag has never been a feminist’s delight either—most drag queens get to appropriate the art of womanhood for a few hours before fully returning to male privilege, though gay male privilege isn’t always all that. The primary motivation to gender-bend seems to be the thrill they experience by diving into a fantasy version of themselves while getting strangers to ogle, admire, and laugh their heads off. “We work so hard,” says Tina Twirler, “and we are like prime-time entertainment because you can do so much with the drag, from the aesthetic to the hair to the numbers. We’re that release. Drag is a whole production.”

“I hope the audience leaves a little bit more happy than when they came in,” concludes Janelle No. 5, “and more intoxicated.”  ❖

Michael Musto is best known for his outspoken Village Voice column “La Dolce Musto,” which began in 1984. (With the Voices return, he is delighted to be back as a contributor.) He writes a gossip column for Queerty, has penned four books, found himself on the Out100 list of the most influential LGBTQs, and is streaming in docs on Netflix, Hulu, Vice, and Showtime.

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