Drag shows are a subcultural phenomenon. But the term “drag queen” is a common term in pop culture.
Thanks to the success of recording artist and drag queen superstar, RuPaul Charles, more people are connected with the drag queen culture. Charles hit the charts with the song “Supermodel (You Better Work)” in 1992.
At Southern, students are demonstrating their interest in drag.
Seniors Elijah Ortiz and Joshua Chandler have taken on drag personas.
Ortiz, a sociology major, grew up around “queer culture” and has always been interested in the art of drag.
“I grew up with my mom, who is a lesbian, so me and her now-wife, Angie, would watch ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ together,” Ortiz says.
“I was really young and that was the first time I ever was introduced to drag. I would go, later on when I was 18, to my first show with my mom in Florida.
“And then I started going last summer to a bunch of drag shows all the time, so I was like, ‘you know what? I might as well start doing it.’”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a reality competition series that has been on the air since 2009, has brought the art of drag to the mainstream. The show features a group of over a dozen drag queens each season competing in multiple challenges where they showcase their talents in acting, singing, dancing, and even design and construction of outfits.
“I’m really new [to drag],” says Ortiz. “I haven’t gotten in full drag yet. I have been working on making my face and figuring out what kind of drag I want to do,” he says. “I still need my drag mom to help me out with some of the stuff I need to get before my first performance.”
Learning who you are on the stage is an important part of drag. Many performers have an alter ego, including Ortiz. While he is Elijah Ortiz at school, she is Vypra Butera when dressed up.
“So my [drag] name is Vypra Butera, Butera comes from my drag mom’s last name,” Ortiz says. “Oh my god, it’s so embarrassing [how I came up with her Vypra’s first name]. So first of all, it just sounds sexy, but also it comes from a villain from ‘Power Rangers,’ she was pretty cool. She was like a demon queen, you know the vibes, so I thought that was cool because I’m very nerdy. I love nerdy stuff and fantasy stuff and I always grew up watching ‘Power Rangers’ and stuff like that.”
Ortiz says there may be confusion from outside the drag community about gender and pronouns, but all people need to do is ask. Ortiz’s pronouns are he/him/his while he’s out of drag, and she/her/hers while she’s in drag, but this may be different for other performers.
“I don’t know if you consider me masculine because it’s very subjective. But, I would consider myself, outside of drag, more masculine of a person,” says Ortiz. “In drag, I like to be hyper-feminine. It kind of balances out everything.”
After figuring out who he is in drag, Ortiz says his next step is getting his look down.
“First, you have to learn how to have money because it can get expensive,” Ortiz laughs. “I mean, you don’t need money to do art. Drag is just an art at the end of the day. We call it painting our face, but you need to get makeup. It really depends on the drag you’re doing. Personally, I need to get my makeup. I need to get my wigs. I need to make my body, that means padding, because I want to have pads on. I need to buy some outfits.”
Ortiz says he is starting to finalize his makeup routine, but it takes him quite a bit of time to fully “paint his face.”
“Everyone [in the drag community] knows AirSpun. It’s a pretty good powder overall. It’s a translucent powder. We love the smell of AirSpun. That’s what I use to set my [Maybelline] foundation. It’s pretty good, and not too expensive.
“And then I use E.L.F. concealer,” says Ortiz.
Next comes the practice. Performance types are different for every performer. Ortiz grew up loving dance, and that is what he plans to do during his first performance.
“I’ve choreographed some stuff. I have to get new heels, or just good heels to dance. So, I can like actually perform with heels, which is completely different than just performing. So far, I’ve just done things in my room,” he says.
Whether the performer is making a room feel “explosive,” calm or doing a comedy show, Ortiz says there is a sense of freedom and safety.
“The atmosphere [of the shows] is pretty great. I mean, I love gay bars and gay clubs because they feel a little bit more free. When I go to a bar, and it’s filled with straight people, I feel uncomfortable. I can’t like do anything that I would typically do out of fear. Being in gay bars is nice,” Ortiz says.
“That whole environment is, in general, great for me. But, drag shows are really great because they show an art form specific to queer culture. I love that. I also love androgynous drag. I heavily like things that really go against gender roles.”
According to Ortiz, both drag queens and kings attend to these shows.
“I welcome women doing drag. I think that drag kings are great,” Ortiz says. “Drag kings are typically cis-gender women, being or doing drag as men. But it could be anyone doing or being a drag king.”
While those outside the community typically think of men as drag queens, Ortiz says women also can do drag and says trans women paved the way for drag culture.
“We can go all the way back to ball culture, which is kind of where drag originally came from,” Ortiz says. “And that was full of women doing drag.”
Ortiz says he fully supports anyone doing drag, but there are still some perception issues inside and outside of the community.
“Overall I don’t like the way people perceive drag. Sometimes people have a narrow idea of drag. And, they will only accept certain people doing drag or they will not accept drag at all,” Ortiz says. “There is a lot of femmephobia. So you kind of get it from all sides, which sucks. But, the queer community is less likely to beat you when you’re walking to your car if you’re in drag.”
Ortiz has a support system, and drag shows have a great atmosphere, but he is still hesitant to be in drag outside of these shows.
“It just makes me nervous to be in drag because I know how people speak about men in makeup. They’re very open to beating someone up because they’re in makeup. I’d be afraid but luckily I have a good amount of friends that are OK with that,” Ortiz says.
With this fear always inside him, he still stands up against the stereotypes of drag.
“The stereotypes are obviously not the best. People don’t respect drag as an art form. They just see it as people with no talent. I literally was looking through my social media the other day, and the comments are, ‘if this person did not have makeup on, an outfit on, or wig on they would look crazy doing this performance. And, I said, ‘Interesting. You just took a big chunk of the art out. But, it’s OK,’” Ortiz laughs.
“Drag has grown in popularity. That’s something to look forward to. I guess it keeps growing.”
Throughout the fears and stereotypes, Ortiz believes the feeling of doing and being in drag is worth it. He says drag performers just need that support system and need to figure out who they are, and if it is worth it to them.
“I feel good advice would be trying to figure out what you want your drag to be, and not taking it from someone else,” Ortiz says. “You can always take inspiration from other drag performers. Figuring out what you want to do is probably one of the more important things before you can just start going into it.”
Another student drag performer and activist, Joshua Chandler, a social work major, drag has been a part of his life since his youth.
“I saw other drag performers in a queer prom that I went to. I thought it was so awesome just watching it, that it really made me interested in doing drag.”
Inspired, Chandler began to experiment with drag himself in high school. His biggest challenge was “knowing where to start.”
Attempting to get into the makeup and hair took time for him to learn.
“It’s like anything you’re starting for the first time. It’s trial, error, practice and making mistakes. It’s different for everybody. A lot of it is learning your own face and feeling comfortable working with yourself and knowing what you feel good in.”
He describes watching YouTube videos and getting connected with other performers in the community as assets to improving his art. Like Ortiz, Chandler says watching shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” inspired him.
However, while the television show has opened the drag world to those outside the LGBTQ+ community, it can still limit perspectives. For Chandler, his drag means more than just performance. It’s another way to engage in his activism.
Chandler works for an organization called Q Plus, which focuses on creating “more youth accessible spaces” for the LGBTQ+ community. According to its Instagram page, Q Plus “aims to uplift youth voices and create spaces for queer youth to be themselves.”
Candler says, “A lot of the spaces where drag shows are in are bars, restaurants, night clubs, places that are age 21 or older. We do open mics where myself and my drag mother, Xiomarie, host together.”
The open mics are “bringing drag to a different audience because it’s not a drag show.” It’s a Zoom event.
Chandler says at these events, people can “sing, dance, share poetry, it’s pretty much a place for youth to express themselves. It’s an empowering space because people are so supportive of each other. A lot of what we emphasize is staying in contact with each other after the open mic to support and build up each other’s art and each other’s journeys.”
While the original focus of Q Plus was youth, Chandler describes its goals of expanding through these open mics.
“We’ve actually had some students from Southern, too, who’ve come to the open mic. It’s become more multigenerational. Middle school, high school, college students are all coming together.”
He envisions drag as a celebration of “all different forms of art and expression. Drag isn’t just what you see on TV, it’s not just lip sync battles and competitiveness. It’s also about community and about supporting each other. Not all drag artists have to perform. It’s OK to just dress up in drag and go out or take pictures or post to
a YouTube channel. Whatever you want
to do. There’s no real rules to it.”
By Sarah Shelton and Everett Rende