Gorgeous locks of hair, falsies, short skirts and red lipstick mean a lot more than a great Saturday night at the Landshark when they’re being worn by men. And five-o’clock shadows, three-piece suits and faux hawks make a totally different statement when worn by women. That is what drag is about. The men and women who choose to perform in drag are playing a game with gender — enhancing, recreating and destroying the stereotypes that come along with it.
Why drag this out?
Drag is about dressing up in the opposite sex’s clothes, yelling “hey girlfriend” and shaking your hump. But it’s also about breaking rules, breaking down and breaking the standards, even within the drag world. “This is an evolving community. You’ve always got someone who’s wanting your job, who’s wanting to take over for you,” Tyler Cooper, aka Sabin, said. “And if you don’t continue step up that game, you’ll lose it in a heartbeat.” Sabin’s five current titles have shown she can step up her game successfully, as Cooper makes a living off performing as his alter ego.
A performer since kindergarten, Cooper spent years dancing professionally all over the world before an injury took him out. Four knee surgeries later, he was ready to get back into the game. “My first drag mom, Nazhoni, asked me if I’d ever considered doing drag and I laughed in her face because I’d never even considered it at that point,” Cooper said. “And then a couple weeks later, she had me on stage in a pair of platform boots and a black fishnet shirt with makeup all over my face and the rest is history.” Sabin performs all over Michigan and currently holds the pageant title of “Michigan Drag Queen of the Year.” She’s also a staple at Spiral Video Dance Bar in Lansing.
While queens get the lion’s share of the spotlight, there is an emerging talent of female to male kings that is being recognized. “The drag king concept is getting to be a lot bigger in the past few years. It’s growing, but it’s just a few years behind the queen,” said Bradley Briegal, owner of Power Diva Productions out of Grand Rapids. “Back in the day, the queens weren’t as exposed as they are now as an art form. They’re now getting out there and mainstream exposure.” Briegal owns several titles for drag queen pageants, and he owns a few for kings as well.
Mara Deutch has never participated in any pageants, but received some help and coaching from Briegal as her drag alter ego Chad Waterfalls was being formed five years ago. “I get along really well with drag queens and gay men for that matter,” Deutch said. “They give me little tips because they are men in their lives and they know how a man should look.” Deutch’s best tips came from her drag family, which includes her drag grandmother, Sabin. The families are about friendship and support, creating an actual family within the community. The queens helped Chad become the man he is on stage.
Drag is a hobby for some like Deutch and a career for others. With Power Diva Productions, Briegal was able to create his own career doing something he loved. “I did all right in school, but it wasn’t for me. I needed a career I could have fun with and this is it. It’s never boring when you cross the street with a car full of drag queens,” Briegal said. “I get to meet people and travel and work with my friends. It’s a lot of fun. I enjoy the artistic side of it too. When you see someone you’ve heard about for years, it’s amazing sometimes when they step out of stage. Like mini celebrities.”
Sometimes though, drag life can really be a drag. MSU alumnus Josh Kilmer-Purcell of the class of ’91 accounted his days as drag queen of all queens, AquaDisiac, in I Am Not Myself These Days: A Memoir, a New York Times Bestseller. The darker, yet inspiringly funny and witty, side of drag was clear through his use and abuse of alcohol and drugs in order to make his way to the top of the drag ladder in New York City. Now a columnist for OUT Magazine and author of the forthcoming novel Candy Everybody Wants, Kilmer-Purcell has made the somewhat destructive days as Aqua into a life experience he isn’t quick to forget, but isn’t about to start again.
Kilmer-Purcell got his start in Atlanta, shortly after graduating from MSU. He used drag as a creative outlet and a way for his self-proclaimed shy self to break into the gay world. “Being a very creative person and an [advertising firm] art director, I was just amazed at the costumes and how they pulled it all together. It was mostly from an artistic point of view that I was interested at first,” Kilmer-Purcell said. “Plus, there was the fact that they were getting all the attention. They were getting paid in these clubs. I thought it would be a great chance for me to do some artistic creative things. But then also I was a very shy person. I would never go up to anybody in the club. Once I had all the paraphernalia on, they came up to me.”
His trademark water-filled breasts with live goldfish inside and thirst to entertain helped make AquaDisiac a sensation. “I was a successful drag queen. When I moved to New York, I was getting more and more successful, which means I was going out more and more nights, which means I was getting drunk more and more nights and doing more and more drugs,” Kilmer-Purcell said. “At some point, I was just like, this doesn’t really have a retirement plan attached to it. It just dwindled. I started cutting back and the thing about a drag queen is, once you cut back, you’re forgotten. A week later, if you haven’t worked somewhere, you don’t exist.” While he has since retired his fish-filled boobs for good, Kilmer-Purcell has remained active in the pursuit of gay equality on a different level and left the drag life to a new generation of queens and kings.
Drag is all about taking gender roles to a new level and never recreating something in its original form, meaning drag is always evolving and changing. “I am pieces of everyone I come into contact with because I learn every day. I never stop learning,” Cooper said, adding, “I learn something new every day that I do this. Whether it be a new brush tourniquet or a dance step on stage or a new way to wear lipstick. That’s why I like my job. You never stop learning and that’s something I know. When you think you’ve reached your pinnacle, it’s time to go away. And I think that’s in every profession.” Sabin books bar performances, shows and competes in pageants all over Michigan in order to keep her act fresh and new. Sabin’s look is a bit more androgynous when performing by her standards, often sporting a shaved head and intense face makeup with her outfits. Sabin breaks stereotype of drag queen by her performance and it has paid off. “A lot of people cater to what I call the cookie-cutter drag queen. They’re these girls that get up on stage and I’m not going to knock them because it takes a lot of balls to get up on stage. It takes a lot of balls to do what we do,” Cooper said. “And that’s what I mean by the cookie cutter girl. What are you doing to make yourself different, to give yourself that appeal. Girls think they go up there put on a wig and some tits and they’re going to be fabulous and everyone will love them,” Cooper said. “But you’re just being some regular old drag queen. And that’s not what I want.”
Next up, Miss Conception
One of the biggest problems drag performers face is the reactions of others. While many of these reactions stem from fear of something different, they can really affect the lives of the performers. “For me, a lot of people thought the reason I did drag was because I was afraid of coming out as trans[gender],” Deutch said. “I have a lot of people who came to me at first and were like, ‘If you want to dress like a guy, why don’t you just be one?’ To me, that’s kind of rude.”
Drag is a major part of the LBGT community and has not had as much exposure in mainstream culture, at least not at the levels drag is in the LBGT community. “I think that drag performance is looked on much more positively within the queer community,” psychology junior Jill Franckowiak said. “Outside of that community, sometimes it can be viewed as degrading genders or enforcing stereotypes. But at the same time, I think that having drag performances is important, in the sense that I think it allows for a space to provide a fluidity of gender performing.”
Some performers have different gender identities and some do it for pure entertainment or creative value. “A lot of straight people assume that if you’re a drag queen, you want to be a woman. Everyone confuses transgender, transvestite and drag queens. There’s this huge spectrum of gender play,” Kilmer-Purcell said. “To me, I never wanted to be another gender. But I liked the idea of being in costume. I liked the idea of almost being a clown. It is a costume. The most common thing people assume is that I wanted to get an operation to become a woman.”
Generally, the same misconceptions that come outside the LBGT community are present inside the community as well. “There are a lot of bars that I personally don’t know that won’t cater to that part of the gay community,” Briegel said. “People who go to those bars never see drag queens. Even people who have been out for several years may have never seen a drag queen.”
Spiral Video Dance Bar in Lansing hosts a drag show every Sunday and has performers during the week as well, but that hasn’t stopped some queer-on-queen prejudice from existing. “What I’ve noticed is that a lot of men will not date a drag queen. I honestly don’t understand. Drag is just a hobby,” Deutch, who used to be a regular performer at Spiral, said. “I can’t answer that, but a lot of gay men are not into drag women. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘So-and-so is really good looking and so cute. I just wish he didn’t do the drag shows.’ That’s really frustrating.”
The hobby or livelihood of the performers can severely affect their personal relationships and dating life. Briegal has seen this happen firsthand with many of the performers he represents, who also happen to be his friends. “If you do drag or even if you’re transgender, then people think you’re easy. You’re willing to put out for everyone,” Briegal said. “That’s really frustrating for the transgenders who just want what everyone else wants. You know, like a relationship.” The tolerance and acceptance of drag culture will immediately influence the more personal side of the person behind the facade.
While the drag culture may not be fully embraced by every part of the LBGT community, many have embraced it with open arms. Franckowiak, for example, believes androgyny is beautiful. Her circle of friends really enjoys drag performance. “From my friends, my gay friends and such, it seems to be something they embrace,” she said. “I would definitely say it’s a positive thing, at least with the people I know.”
To assume something about a performer is to make oneself ignorant to that person’s self-concept. “Whether you’re gay or straight, if you’re uneducated, the misconceptions are the same,” Briegal said.
Let’s Drag the Queer Community into This
Drag is a staple in the LBGT community, at MSU and otherwise. Pride parades are filled with drag queens and kings of all types. “I think it just shows a sense of being fearless. A lot of us grew up afraid of what the world thought of us. Dressing up as another gender is a big middle finger to the male-female heterosexual world,” Kilmer-Purcell said. “It’s like, you call me different, now I’m really fucking different. What are you going to do about it? So I think there’s certainly a sense of pride that I really enjoyed about it when I was younger.” The community of drag queens and kings in East Lansing ranges from college students to professional drag stars like Sabin, who make a living out of their alter egos.
Sabin and other local favorites will perform in the MSU Drag Show on April 18, which is hosted in part by the University Activities Board, Respecting Individuals on Neutral Grounds (RING) and the LBGT caucus for Mason/Abbot and Snyder/Phillips. “Our goal is to get us out there,” Deutch said. “We want people to accept the LBGT community and it shows that because the majority of our audience is students who are not a part of the LBGT community.” Deutch said students from all over campus enjoy the show, and some of the Christian campus groups have been known to show up.
When the non-LBGT community experiences drag on the university level, it helps to clear up misunderstandings and preconceived notions about the entertainment. “We’re not bad people,” Deutch said. “And as much as we maybe are stereotyping genders, we do it in a fun and silly kind of way.” Kings like Deutch, aka Chad Waterfalls, perform routines, dances and songs practiced and perfected over several weeks.
Drag is a way to make the LBGT community more approachable, while messing with the rules of socially-accepted gender. “Drag queens are probably leading the way: drag queens, drag kings, gender-fuckers and queers in general,” Kilmer Purcell said. “It makes it a lot harder to come up with something when you’re not just throwing on a beehive wig and some trash. You’ve got to work a lot harder.”
“Gender-fucking” is the idea of breaking mainstream gender rules, but even within the drag community, not all gender-bending is wholly accepted. Androgynous performers and trans-performers have to even pave their own way in the drag world. Performers like Sabin have enjoyed the task of redrawing the lines of what makes the typical drag queen, or cookie-cutter drag queens as Cooper calls them. “If you tell me I can’t do something, oh that’s fuel, honey. That’s fuel. I’m going to do it just to prove you wrong and now you have to deal with me my way,” Cooper said.
Sabin and other drag performers dress up during pride events to represent themselves and the LBGT community. “We have a job that a lot of people don’t even realize. We are the face of the community. When you go to the pride festival, you see the drag queens. You see all this bright random shit,” Cooper said. “You don’t remember the naked boys walking down the middle of the street. You remember the drag queens in their ten-and-a-half-foot head dresses and eight-foot tall heels.” This is all in hopes that if one accepts a more extreme side of the LBGT community, they will accept the community all together.
The rules of gender have existed in society for as long as there was society. Putting lipstick on a man or some scruff on a woman plays with the senses, tricks the minds and redefines how we all express ourselves our own individual gender. Drag is the forefront of leading the gender-fucking revolution.