Gone are the days when our cultural capacity for famous drag queens was capped at one. RuPaul's Drag Race, a reality competition show that premiered on the LGBT-focused Logo channel in 2009 before moving to the more widely available Vh1 last year, has made a household name of a handful of former contestants.
Many of the queens featured on Drag Race now command gigs on the national touring circuit. Last year, Viceland picked up a series starring season seven alums Katya Zamolodchikova and Trixie Mattel, who's stopping by the Charleston Music Hall for a full-fledged stand-up/country music extravaganza next month.
New York Times contributor Isaac Oliver proclaimed this the "golden age" of drag in a feature published in January.
"I will say, this has never been seen before," New Orleans-based queen Varla Jean Merman told the Times. "Drag is a viable career."
While there's more room for queens to make it big, most aspiring performers still have to start from the bottom, toiling away at local nightclubs multiple times a week for stray dollar bills. Local queens say a typical night can yield them anywhere between $75-$100 (including base pay from the venue), but that doesn't account for the countless hours spent on makeup, sewing, and styling, nor does it make up for the cost of wigs or fake eyelashes.
As the art of "female impersonation" finds new audiences, it's also come under newfound scrutiny from feminists and women's rights advocates who are concerned by the dilution of a practice meant to bend gender norms into yet another exercise in the male gaze.
Charleston's homegrown queens stress that the artform helps expose people to LGBT culture in a relaxed setting, where the tension in the room is sucked away by the 6-foot-5-inch man lip-syncing Adele in stilettos. The scene in the Holy City is supportive, with club owners like Daniel Brinker of Dudley's on Ann and seasoned performers like Patti O'Furniture and Brooke Collins helping guide young queens through the difficult first years, when your foundation may not yet match your actual skin tone.
We spoke to five locally-based drag queens about how they got started in the biz, what inspires them, and how they occupy their "boy lives."
Sam Lawrence, 21
When Sam Lawrence came out to his parents at 14, he sought out other young LGBTQ locals to help him navigate his newly-acknowledged identity. Together with members of local nonprofit We Are Family, Lawrence attended Pride events and slowly made his way into a culture that, as a high schooler, looked like more homework. Suddenly, there were new social rules, aesthetics, cultural references, and rituals to learn. All of which had to be adopted with a kind of poise unnatural to most teenagers.
"I had experienced the normal, first couple of steps getting into the gay world, which can be really hard for someone," he says in a phone call during the off-hours between his day job and his budding drag career. "Drugs and alcohol are a big thing you have to prepare yourself for as a young adolescent."
Lawrence, better known on the circuit as Venus Alexander, now keeps himself focused with a steady stream of gigs, some of which require a pair of really plump hips.
"It's just the way my pads are raised," he says. "It's always worked out for me really well, to be honest."
During Labor Day weekend at Dudley's, her "home bar," Venus Alexander performs an Ariana Grande medley. In contrast to Misty Daze, the night's other featured queen whose statuesque constitution and razor-sharp cheekbones intimidated me into avoiding eye contact, Alexander grins and bounces as she carries a bouquet of crumpled $1 bills backstage — offerings from a pleased audience made up of equal parts giddy bachelorette parties and stone-faced regulars.
Along with keeping him out of trouble, drag is also his therapy. Between working full-time at a MAC counter in Mt. Pleasant (where he's managed by Julianna Jade, one of the first queens he ever saw perform) and side-hustling as a hair stylist, the Charleston native says nothing takes the edge off like a good dance number, even if drag just adds more work hours to his weekly schedule.
"I'll get my stuff and do a crazy dance number and turn that negative energy I have into something positive, and at the same time I'm dancing for people, seeing my friends, having drinks, and having fun," he says.
It's been this way since he was 17 and entered a drag competition at Tabbuli, the Mediterranean restaurant on Market Street that hosts a weekly drag night and bi-monthly drag brunch.
"When I started, it was 18 and up, but they were lenient with it because the shows hadn't progressed to the point they're at now," he says. He began helping out with hair and was soon implicitly added to the cast's family, a biz term that describes a group of queens usually mentored by the same mother.
"Those who really want to do this, who are motivated enough to pump out looks and practice their makeup when they're bored at home, are the ones who are gonna last," he says. "Drag is very competitive in this town, I will say that."
Julien Nicolas, 27
Julien Nicolas has noticed a sea change in drag in the four years he's been performing in Charleston.
The 27-year-old transplant from Roanoke, Va. has been around long enough to see drag inch out of the shadows.
"It was predominantly gay to begin with back when I worked at Pantheon, and since then it's changed so much," he says in a phone call during a vacation that, so far, has mostly been filled with sewing. "At Dudley's on any given weekend, I feel like we have a predominantly straight crowd with our gay regulars. It's this really great mixture of everyone coming together to enjoy the entertainment and not really questioning it."
The addition of drag to everyday outings like brunch and dinner is a weighty topic, expertly explored by Post & Courier's Hanna Raskin earlier this year. Whereas drag shows once provided safe spaces where performers toyed with the boundaries of rigid gender norms, the practice has also evolved into a novelty show where your easily-shocked aunt might celebrate her birthday.
But the added exposure is still changing the way people see drag, its performers, and, hopefully down the line, the concept of gender as a whole.
The monthly Blackbox Cabaret production at Midtown Theatre in North Charleston, which debuted in June, allows Nicolas to take his Julianna Jade drag persona to more mainstream audiences.
"At the Blackbox Cabaret, it's a lot of families," he says. "That's something new too, performing for kids and teenagers something they weren't able to see in the past."
The drag brunches at Edmund's Oast Brewing Co. also help expose younger crowds to the artform.
"There are kids that are just having a blast," Nicolas says. "It's so awesome to see the parents expose their children to this and be open about it."
Nicolas, who works full-time at MAC and is known as a mother to a few younger queens, credits drag for much of his confidence and personality.
"Being an 18-year-old kid in a city in Virginia, I was definitely a little more shy," he says. "I wasn't super outspoken. [Drag] certainly builds confidence, and it's kind of a nice escape, but it's certainly creative expression as well."
For Nicolas, that's mostly where it ends. Drag, he says, is a "creative outlet."
"I think there are a lot of misconceptions among those watching drag sometimes," he says. "They assume this man must be a woman or must want to be like that all the time. That's one of the biggest misconceptions I've had to deal with in my career, people misconstruing the creative aspect for someone questioning their gender."
Tradd Pstrak, 27
Sitting across from you at a sun-kissed coffee shop, Tradd Pstrak is as disarming as any other peninsula college student. But his drag persona is so convincing — or fishy, if you want to get technical — that his grandma actually thinks he's somebody else when he's dressed up.
Known as Kylee Lovlee to the crowd at Dudley's, he lives within walking distance from his mom and his grandmother, who struggles with dementia and is often awake late enough to witness her grandson waltz into her house, face beat to the gods, to check in on her at 3 a.m.
"She'd say, 'Send him to Vegas!,'" he says.
The full-time MUSC nursing student began his drag career as a patron at the former Club Pantheon in 2013. It was there that he met another queen, Melody Lucas, who helped him prepare for his first talent competition that March.
"Originally, I was actually kind of scared of drag queens, [it was] almost like a fear of clowns," he says. "But once I met Melody Lucas, they were just so friendly. She invited me over for dinner the following week and let me watch the process. She let me see how much art goes into it."
He competed in Drag Me to Stardom, an eight-week long competition for a spot on the standing cast at the now-defunct club. He got second place that summer, and won the next search that fall.
Pstrak stayed on cast after the Ann Street spot was renamed Cure, but was quickly transferred over to Dudley's (along with the rest of the cast) when the new venture failed to attract steady customers.
The School of the Arts graduate has always had a penchant for the dramatic. He was a member of the school's orchestra, but drag, he says, allows him to more fully explore his creative interests.
"Drag kind of allowed me to re-awaken my creative side and utilize everything," he says. "It's got the art, the theatrics."
Dubbed either the "bubbly pop" or "pop rock" princess—depending on who you ask — Pstrak usually performs a combination of Avril Lavigne, Kesha, and Katy Perry tracks, with some Evanescence and Paramore sprinkled in for good measure. All while wearing balled-up old T-shirts wrapped in panty hose to simulate breasts.
"It's almost like mirroring the feminist movement, utilizing strong females," he says of drag culture's gravitation toward pop divas. "There have also been a lot of female artists that have pushed for their own standing in society. Madonna for example, she's always had women's rights and LGBTQ rights at the forefront, [then] Lady Gaga came along as well. They really have these empowering songs that I feel like a lot of gay culture relates to compared to male pop artists."
Michael Peaks, 28
Michael Peaks works at Harris Teeter, helping collect groceries for online shoppers. His day normally starts at 7 a.m., and he gets home from the Teeter somewhere around 3 p.m.
"I take a cat nap, because that's essential," he says. "Once I wake up from my nap I look over my stuff, I'll take a shower, shave, and get ready."
Getting into drag takes anywhere from an hour to an hour-and-a-half, but he's usually ready to leave his house by 9 p.m.
The Charleston native performs two or three times a week as part of the cast at Dudley's. He first started doing drag about five year ago, doing twice-weekly shows at the now-closed Patrick's Pub and Grill in West Ashley.
"And then one night on a Tuesday, the show director at Pantheon, Brooke Collins, came and saw me and said, 'We're doing a talent show in a month, and once you do the talent show, we can talk about doing a cast position,'" Peaks recalls. "I was super, super nervous because I knew who Brooke was, but I'd never actually met her until that night."
That was the old way of getting a standing gig performing drag in Charleston. In the years since, the market for queens in the Holy City has seen a bit of a surplus.
"There's a competition called Drag Me to Stardom, which is like a talent search contest of different challenges every week," he says. "That's the way you get on cast now. I was fortunate enough not to have to do all that, but it's definitely something that tests the limits of what it takes to be a cast member."
Onstage, Kymmya veers toward the more "x-rated" spectrum of Top 40, preferring tunes by Rihanna and Beyoncé. Her favorite song to perform to is "Drunk In Love," an ode to steamy relationship sex in different rooms of the house.
Peaks is the first to denounce his early looks and performances.
"I'd go out in any old thing," he says. "Some cut up jeans, a bikini top, some Shake-N-Go wig, as opposed to now where I take a little more care in my drag."
Audiences expect more these days. Even if they're straight.
"I just did a brunch at Bay Street Biergarten," he says. "They came prepared. The audience immediately attached to us and loved everything we did."
With the full support of his drag family, his real family, and his coworkers ("I've had my boss come to my shows," he says), Peaks has been able to find a voice that he hopes inspires his audiences.
"You can't be a drag queen and be ashamed, he says. "I feel that drag queens show that I may be a woman exaggerator character, but I'm living my life unapologetically, unashamed, and proud of who I am."
The hype surrounding Carmella Monet Monroe is enough to make you stare from afar, gripping your $5 plastic cup margarita as you wait to introduce yourself to this year's Empress of Charleston.
El Jefe on King Street was decently populated on a late Wednesday night as Carmella walked out in a glittery tunic. Soon enough, the flowy frock was tossed aside, revealing a tight bodice perfect for death-dropping to Teyana Taylor's blasphemously-underrated "WTP." Her second set of the night interpolated Mean Girls quotes spoken by titular plastic Regina George between songs from the 2004 film's soundtrack. She topped off her performance with a cartwheel during "Rumor Has It."
Carmella's look is versatile, ranging from a Conchita Wurst-inspired bearded lady drag (achieved, only partially, by not shaving) to typical evening looks. Sitting backstage between a table covered in makeup and a cooler filled with vats of salsa, the Batavia, N.Y. native says finding her footing took quite a bit of trial and error. She joined a burlesque show put together by a friend after he was enthralled by RuPaul's Drag Race during his stint in community college.
"It was a struggle at first because I had to find myself," he says behind a pair of azure-colored contacts. "I already knew who I was out of drag, and I had to find myself in drag and who I could be."
Those first few years of dressing up — the wonder, the reverie, the questionable makeup choices — have elicited a sense of compassion for fellow up-and-coming queens.
"I love to help girls," he says. "If they ask me a question, I'll give them my opinion."
He lives in Goose Creek with his boyfriend, a major source of support — emotional and otherwise — while he works on his drag career full-time. "I always make sure I move enough gigs and I can have enough to continue making my costumes, and buying my fabric, and buying the stones and the hair," he says.