Autoethnography on Manhattan Drag
“Well, Drag is whatever you want it to be—drag is…if you’re going out as business man one day and you’re in your business suit, that’s your drag. Also, drag is random gay men in dresses, who are debatably beautiful, dancing to Kylie Minogue,” expressed Giovanni Palandrani, my roommate/drag performer. Drag has always been a form of entertainment; but with the growth of drag in pop culture, drag has become more expressive. Some drag queens go for artistic endeavors, while others aim to transcend the crowd with a character. Overall, the drag community is widely diverse, and behind each queen is a unique motivation. No one wakes up one day and says, “I’m going to do drag today.” Drag takes more than time, money, and networking—it takes dedication. With the community growing in the public eye, it takes a true passion to stay true to oneself and continue to make one’s own drag.
I used to scroll through eBay, clicking through all types of links and tabs relating to wigs. Ordering off of Visa gift cards so that my mom wouldn’t find out. For me, the wigs were the best part of drag; with every wig, the look, the attitude, and the persona could be something different. Altering a wig can make anyone feel new and revamped. My sophomore year was full of drag parties, and RuPaul marathons. When the wigs arrived after their long voyage from China, it was time for a party. Everyone would show up with new hair, new costumes, and new identities. It was always key that we got ready in order: the makeup, the costume, the tuck, the heels, and then the wig. Once the wig was on, we were done; aside from touching up the lipstick that stuck to beer bottles. Jesii was our “drag mother”; he had already created a name for himself online but not as a man, as a queen. Reina Vanity, his drag persona, had fans on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr. He never did so well finding the right costumes, due to his full figure and lack of knowledge in sewing. Nevertheless, Jesii knew a good wig when he saw one. His collection was massive; the hair hung on his wall on hooks to keep them in their finest condition. He would take special care of them, always brushing and bending them delicately until she performed. She would whip the hair, swirl it in the air, always making sure that the glue had firmly secured it to her skin.
For our group of misfit teens, performing in drag was fun. It was a playful act that became personal and exciting when in an intimate setting. We laughed and giggled at the performances of others. Occasionally, shouting a “yaasss,” or “turn the house down,” as we sat on the small sofa and admired each other’s performances. It was simply for the joy of performing and enjoying the company of those around us. Nothing was ever rehearsed and often the song choice was made on the spot.
I was nothing close to the standards of Reina Vanity. I never developed a drag name or a persona to model myself from. I didn’t publicize my drag or make it an identifiable part of me; I was never Will the Drag Queen. My last time performing in drag was in March of my junior year in high school. I performed as Lady Gaga in the powder puff challenge of the school’s class competition. It was my first and last public performance, my au revoir to drag. It was an ultimately fun performance; even though synchronized dancing was never my thing. The thirty-second performance went by so quickly that I never had time to really process what I was doing. I had exposed drag to a town that wasn’t fully liberal and had ousted myself as a drag performer, whether I was or not. Although the performance brought us 1st place and tons of praise, the love of doing drag had ultimately diminished afterward. As the group of friends began to move on to less grandeur expressions of our individuality, we grew away from the essence of drag. It became redundant and our wigs were traded for booze and better clothing.
Although the physical attributes of drag were cut from my life, I still admired the performance and expertise displayed by the queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Friends and I would watch the show religiously, betting on who would survive the lip sync and who had the best outfit. I never thought I would come across drag of such a high caliber on a personal level, until I found my college roommate, Aquaria. When we moved in, the name hadn’t been made official but had been in the works. After reaching out to other drag queens, Giovanni settled on the name so that his career as a drag performer could begin to have some solidarity. It not only took time and effort to acquire the name but also to apply her look.
The light above Giovanni’s desk flickers on while he preps the desk for the timely process of applying her face onto his. He mumbles along to himself as he pulls out the brushes he will use to apply powder after powder. He wraps his hair back and the project begins. He battles with gray contact lens in the bathroom. Occasionally yelling a “shit” or an “ohhh my godddd.” Once he manages to pop the lens in, he sits down in his seat and fumbles through his array of sponges and begins to pat. First lightly, then quickly like the wings of a hummingbird. The powder that didn’t stick to his primed skin fluttered in the air, hovering in the light in front of him. Prior to the application, he made sure to remove every fiber of hair from his face, chest, armpits, and eyebrows. Since he has such a skill with the art of makeup he decided recently to shave his eyebrows off completely, and draw them on everyday. “It’ll be easier to do my drag eyebrows because now I don’t have to wait to glue them down,” he said as he ran the razor across his hard brow bone. Next brush, next color, and now let it sit. He turns on his blow dryer and the roar fills the air with the dust has coated his desk. The particles dispense further and become invisible to the naked eye. “Should I do a red or a nude lip?” he asks. “Red,” I reply. He follows my advice, as he does with many others. He seeks the approval of others before most of his decisions, and this trait is heightened when he becomes Aquaria, his drag persona.
He continues to apply coats of lipstick and lip liner, making them look plumper than they are. He moves up to his eyes drawing on his new eyebrows and then going to work on the liner. He moves the brush swiftly, assuring to make soft, concise lines that he will fill in with more eyeliner. As he finishes his last wick of liquid eyeliner, he places the bottle onto the desk. He gazes into the mirror, viewing from all angles the face he has painted onto his skin. The contour curves that cut into his face and the accentuated shadows on his nose to slim it down and hide its masculinity. It’s a true art form, contorting the face by using shades and highlights, masking the masculine with the feminine.
He works away at the accessory he created to stand out amongst the queens attending the same event. He finishes the last knot, clips the thread and places the silver outlining around his face. He removes the piece and looks into the mirror again, finishing the job he didn’t before. He rubs a couple more brushes into the tubs of powder and finished with a click of the brush onto the desk. Not made by the placement of his hand but gravity taking the brush as he released it from his grasp. Almost done.
It’s crunch time; he darts in and out of the room, fumbling with the door each time before finally wedging the door open. He runs his arms through the drawers under his bed to grab a hairbrush and multiple pairs of tights. He places all his items on his bed and grabs the platinum blond wig, his favorite. He flips it upside down; spraying it with hairspray to keep it from losing its wild up-do. He slips his feet into the massive platform heels without looking down and stands tall. The massive heel almost erases the masculine structure of his thighs, smoothing the lines of muscles under his tights and fishnets. Observing himself in the mirror, he bends his knees and arches his back to get a full view of the completed look, stopping at the eyes because his wig has not been glued on yet. It’s time for the tuck.
He walks behind his bed ducking to assure that his crotch is hidden as I stare away at my computer screen. He squats and slings back his last element of manhood up and in between his tights. He perks himself back up; adjusting his legs and settling into the most comfortable position a man can when his testicles are in small sockets above his penis. He turns back to his wig grasping the hair to ensure that it has enough hairspray. It’s good; he closes up the aerosol can and tosses it under his bed.
He clips his hoop earrings in and turns into the mirror for one of his final gawks. Then the wig goes on, covering his head in another identity; she’s finally completed. She ties the laces up to her mid calf and begins to work away at applying nail glue. She has just a few minutes to get her three-inch metallic nails on. Just before 7:15 p.m. she grabs her phone and struts out the door, clicking into the hallway and knocking at the neighbors door to show off tonight’s look.
It never took me this long to get ready. Thirty minutes was around the usually time for all of my friends and I to squeeze into the bathroom and get ourselves together. The epidemic that Aquaria goes through to get ready was insane. It took around two hours of time to turn Giovanni into Aquaria, and this look was done in a hurry. The hard work did, however, pay off. The pride in her completed ensemble was featured on Instagram multiple times that week, with over 200 likes and a range of comments applauding the queen.
“…I feel very powerful and important [in drag] because people pay a lot of attention to you because you don’t look like them, you look cooler than them. I feel like it’s easier to go out in drag because people care about you more than if you’re just another gay guy at the bar or club,” he admits. To some, like Giovanni, it’s a love for attention and admiration. He is aware of his talent and knows that he can use his performances to increase both his social status and self-confidence. After all, with RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 Winner, Sharon Needles, as his drag mother, he has learned from some of the most prominent queens on the circuit. However, that doesn’t stop him from admiring his work even after it’s completed. It isn’t uncommon for him to re-watch his performances the next day to pick and poke at what he could improve on and what he was happy with. His drag lacks the essence of humility; although he draws humor into her performances and nature, it is all rehearsed. Aquaria’s performances are that of a dancer – rehearsed, practiced and strategic. If something goes wrong, her Rolodex of recovery techniques flips through her head to try and make the absolute best of the situation. After the performance she will sit and run through what went wrong, harping on negative attributes of the performance and shedding light on them on the walk home.
Although he is no stranger to the stage, from performing with his high school dance ensemble since freshmen year, his priorities have shifted focus to gain a foothold in Manhattan drag. As a Philadelphia native, Giovanni explains the difference between the drag cultures of both cities:
“NYC drag is…in the words of drag-icon Madonna, reductive. You can go to a drag show and find a handful of blonde bombshells– with the same wig, in the same look they wore last week, at the same gig and it can just be very repetitive.
Philly drag is definitely more about theatre, concept, and mixing comedy with glamour and entertainment. I think in NYC the drag scene is more paycheck oriented. Meaning they do what they can because they have to. In Philly they don’t limit themselves for their performances, in terms of monies & theatrics. But it’s because they don’t have to be; the same crowd always comes out in Philly. NYC brings tourists and unfamiliar faces a lot of times,” (Palandrani, Interview).
As the crowd fills into the club, men and women climb onto the high barstools. Aquaria has been in the back prepping for the past thirty minutes while the guests order drinks and wait in anticipation for the show to begin. The small spotlights highlight the wooden railing and nicked up boards that serve as the queens’ stage. Boots & Saddle serves as the start up spot for aspiring drag queens. The “little drag bar that could” has been supporting queens for fifteen years (Hernandez, “The Little…”), and Tuesday’s are reserved for the up-and-coming queens of Manhattan. As the bar fills up, a spunky queen in a green jumpsuit hops on the small stage and begins interacting with the guests. She cracks jokes and curses up a storm, laughing along with the crowd as her curly black wig shakes. She introduces herself as Yuhua Hamasaki, the master of ceremonies and queen of queens for the night.
Four queens perform, each two numbers with brief entertainment from Yuhua to give the queens prep time. With all the elements of hair, make-up, wardrobe, performing, MC’ing in one, Yuhua says she found her job. “When I started, it wasn’t about the money…it was more about expression, and fun, and celebration of me. Then realized if I enjoy doing it so much, why not get paid for it as well?” Yuhua told me during her interview.
She sprints into the back to change her hair, coming out shortly after with a vibrant fierceness. The long red wig trails behind her as she walks, ending at the middle of her thigh. Before snapping her neck to whip her new wig, she grabs the microphone and greets the guests for the final performance, hers. She lip-syncs along to ‘All About that Bass’ as she slaps her padded butt and shimmies around the tiny stage. Her performance displays her expertise in the elements of drag, as well as her love for the fun and enjoyment of performing in drag.
At the 3 a.m. arrival to the dorm, Aquaria’s heels are the first to go followed by the half the nails and the outfit. Aquaria is put to rest before Giovanni because she cannot live without these material items. At night the queen is taken to rest and the character is a separate entity. As a young adult, Giovanni is searching to establish himself in two fields, fashion and drag. Many older queens intertwine the two, coming from artistic of fashion backgrounds and using that in their drag. However, for Giovanni it’s hard to devote to one completely at this point in time.
The queens of Manhattan devote themselves to a work that is so diverse it’s only real factor is men in dresses. Portraying a female character through drag is often taken as a lack of masculinity but the queens are truly turning the masculine into the feminine. They blend creative natures with artistic attributes and performance allows these queens to make drag their own. Performing their own drag is often what makes these queens so approachable and boosts the enthusiasm of the individual to pursue a career that may sometimes be difficult or excessive work.
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