Queens in their own right
October 27, 2015
The lights turn on, exposing a stage a backdrop of red velvet laced with shiny metallic streamers. The speakers pump out Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” and a performer dressed in an electric blue leather bodysuit and white feather boa emerges from the curtain, lip-syncing along. It’s Sunday night in Atlanta, and “the best drag show in the city” is just getting started.
Tony Kearney is one such queen from Atlanta, and he delights in the outlandish aspects of drag.
“I love getting out there and just being ridiculous,” he said. “To me, helping people to escape their lives and just making people laugh is the best part.”
Kearney has performed as Wild Cherry Sucret in shows all over the city since 2008. Each show, he said, is “meant to be campy and make people fall out of their chairs [laughing].”
Drag queens, who are usually male, often dress in stylized gowns and showy lingerie to put on extravagant variety shows. Performances can include lip-syncing, dancing, runway walking and comedy routines.
Their outfits range from simple dresses and wigs to complex creations that fit their creative personas. When they put on makeup – or “paint their face” – they often exaggerate “feminine” features by contouring, applying fake eyelashes and drawing arched brow lines.
“Honestly, drag just makes me giddy,” he said. “It’s really only a hobby for me, but it’s one of those things you just always look forward to. It can be a lot of work, especially putting on the damn makeup, but I never get tired of it.”
Fellow drag queen Raymond Matheson goes by Ruby Redd when he performs at the Hideaway. He’s also the club’s manager.
“I just think it’s hilarious to get up there in a dress and wig with my face all painted,” he said.
Matheson takes pride in drag’s ability to discuss current events through a humorous approach.
“At our shows, nothing is off limits,” he said. “A lot of what we say is politically incorrect, but we’re always just teasing at the way people think of the world. Besides, the acts themselves involve a lot of pop culture and politics. There’s a bit of everything going on.”
The show’s acts have included everything from reinterpretations of Pulp Fiction to stand-up comedy about Donald Trump to lipsynching duets between a queen and her puppet.
Like Kearney, Matheson likes what shows do for the audience.
“One of the absolute best things – and maybe saddest things – about what I do is that I can help people get away from all the negative stuff happening in their lives,” he said. “When people come up to you after a show and say, ‘Hey, I was diagnosed with HIV a few days ago, and work has been really hard, and your show was the first night I’ve had fun in two weeks,’ it really means something to me. It really makes it all worth it.”
Although they both describe their drag styles as “campy,” or over-the-top, Kearney and Matheson agree that drag can be much more.
“It’s more of a fun hobby for me, but some queens really take it seriously,” Kearney said. “They make it into their own art form and really look at fashion and dancing and even singing and comedy.”
He thinks that drag shouldn’t be categorized.
“Drag is really a spectrum,” he said. “Obviously, there are some people who are more artistic and serious, and there are some people who are just there to goof off, but it’s almost a mixture. You can’t just put performers in a box.”
Many of the queens, especially younger ones, incorporate all parts of drag into their style. Atlanta native Violet Chachki, winner of the most recent season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, has been described by the show’s judges and critics as being fashion-forward.
“Queens like Violet Chachki have such fierce, captivating outfits that draw you in, and then they have humor and acts that make you laugh but also gasp in awe,” Matheson said. “A lot of people don’t give it enough credit for being artistic, but it truly can be.”
Both Kearney and Matheson agree that drag highlights gender norms and stereotypes.
“A lot of people think that because I do drag, I’m questioning my gender,” Matheson said, “but that’s just not true. Just because I dress up as a girl doesn’t mean I want to be a girl.”
Some drag queens are transgender, though. Matheson works with several queens who identify as female, some of whom have even undergone gender reassignment surgery, he said.
“It really questions the idea of what boys can wear and what girls should wear or look like,” Kearney said. “It’s stuff like, ‘Should this drag queen shave their beard when they’re dressed as a girl but keep it when they’re not?’”
Drag shows are about more than just making money, challenging stereotypes and entertaining an audience.
Kearney and Matheson perform with the Armorettes, one of Atlanta’s biggest drag queen groups, and their shows actually raise money for charities. They have helped raise over $2.1 million for 27 HIV/AIDS and LGBT organizations.
Audience members are encouraged to tip the performers during shows. According to Matheson, who has performed with the Amorettes since 2011, almost all of the group’s charitable donations come from these tips.
“There are the people who really are just about [earning] money, and they usually leave after a little while,” Matheson said. “But the majority really just doesn’t care about it. They appreciate the cause because many of them have experienced it first-hand or know people who have, so donating their tips makes them feel good.”
Earlier this year, the Armorettes donated over $10,000 to three different HIV/AIDS organizations. This kind of generosity comes from the group’s growing audience.
Kevin Crumsey, known as Trashetta Galore, credits this newfound popularity in part to shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. The show features several queens competing in a series of challenges to be crowned the best queen. Violet Chachki’s success in the most recent season resulted in increased attendance at the city’s drag shows, he said.
“RuPaul has definitely brought drag into the mainstream and into the world of straight people,” Crumsey said. “After Violet won, lots more people came to see our shows and always wanted to see someone with a style like Violet’s. Of course, a lot of the time, they got something different than that.”
Crumsey sees a downside, too.
“The girls on RuPaul’s show are a lot more bitchy than most queens,” he said. “Like, I can guarantee that no one is as shady as they are. It’s not bad to be shady, but it’s a lot different than how most drag queens act.”
Crumsey appreciates the growing attention, though.
“I really think it’s fantastic that everyone, straight people and gay people alike, you know, are getting into drag,” he said.
He hopes that organizations like the Armorettes will engage younger people, too.
“I really just hope we can reach out to teens who are LGBT or even straight,” Crumsey said. “They’re the ones who are going to be influencing the LGBT rights movement in the future, and they’re the ones who are going to be running organizations like the Armorettes.”