Conversation has turned to cars. Leah Halston is thinking about getting a new one. Spacee Kadett suggests a Kia because he was a passenger in one during a road trip recently and was pleasantly surprised by it. Leah dismisses the idea, saying she doesn’t want to drive something that looks like a toaster — “I want something petite and cute.” Bianca Nicole has no helpful suggestions but chimes in her desire for someone to buy her one of those new Honda Odysseys with the built-in vacuum — “Built in. It’s built in.”
This is typical office talk at a workplace that is anything but typical.
It’s Wednesday evening and the drag performers at Play Dance Bar have gathered for their weekly rehearsal. They have already received their paychecks and discussed the important stuff, like their plans for the upcoming Kentuckiana Pride Festival. During those proprietary conversations about group performances and float decorations, Leah insists everyone’s high heels match, despite the fact that nobody in the crowd should be able to see them. Shoe coordination can be a difficult task considering the manly feet on some of these queens, but Leah is up to the task. Militant attention to detail is a trademark of good drag.
As she puts it, “If you’re going to do it, do it right.”
Before she was a perfectionist drag queen, Leah Halston was just Anthony Celestine, an outgoing Texas teenager voted class clown at his high school. He wanted to make people laugh, which is what prompted him and a female friend to lip-sync a gender-swapped duet during a school talent show. The gimmick worked so well, the other singers who hadn’t known what was coming lost their composure laughing.
Looking back, Celestine admits this didn’t register as drag at the time. “To me, it was just funny.”
It wasn’t until a year or so later, when a friend needed an in-drag backup dancer for a Tina Turner impersonation number, that Celestine realized drag was more than just making other people laugh. Seeing himself all glammed up as an Ikette for the first time was all it took to get him hooked. His first stage name was Raw Shonique. (“That’s spelled however you want it to be,” Celestine tells me, clearly bewildered by his younger self’s thought process. “I don’t know. I thought I was some ghetto girl.”) Then came other names that didn’t stick. Finally, he settled on the surname Halston to honor a deceased friend of his drag mother — industry lingo for someone’s mentor, basically — and Leah because it sounded pretty and glamorous, just like the aura he wanted to embody. From there, it has taken 20 years of performing throughout numerous cities to perfect the always poised and polished Leah Halston, who now graces the stage at Play.
If you have never been to a drag show, here is how it typically works: A performer gets on stage and lip-syncs a song. The audience sings along, cheers and holds up tip money for the performer to grab. Depending on the venue and size of the crowd, audience members either walk up to an open part of the stage, or form a nice orderly line where they wait for their turn to hand their tip to the pretty person on stage. It’s a simple concept.
Here’s the part where people get confused. The performer might be a man dressed as a woman, or a trans woman dressed as a woman, or a woman dressed as a man, or a man dressed as a man, or any combination you can imagine. A good rule of thumb when attending any drag show is not to assume anything about anyone.
“People see Leah and they always think I’m trans,” says Celestine. “I guess that means I’m doing a good job.” Still, it can make finding potential dates tough.
The performer might be doing an impersonation, or a current Top 40 hit, or a Motown classic. The tone of their routine might be outlandish and comical — DeeRanged at Play has performed “Dick in a Box” dressed as Colonel Sanders with a KFC bucket. It might be a dark, serious spin on a ballad — Hurricane Summers at the Connection reinterprets Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” as being about an abusive relationship. It might be a dead-on impersonation by Leah meant to allow the audience to pretend they’ve seen Diana Ross perform when they might never be able to.
“There are a thousand ways to do drag right,” says Rob Harper, better known as DeeRanged, “and there are a million ways to do it wrong.”
Harper forgives the newcomers. He knows he looked “busted” at his own inaugural drag performance 15 years ago at an open-stage night. Still, he says, there is no excuse for most people not to look polished in whatever they do, especially in the days of YouTube and Pinterest makeup tutorials. What Harper does best, both on stage as Dee and off, is make people laugh. “The shock value of things makes my day,” he says. “I love the outrageousness of it all.”
As one of Play’s regular emcees, DeeRanged has plenty of opportunities to be just that with the audience between sets. At one recent show, she noticed a woman giving a shot to an older lady and quickly interrupted the affair, “Is that your mom? You brought your mom here!?” After maternity was confirmed, DeeRanged demanded mommy do a shot of Fireball on stage. The woman happily obliged amid cheers and high-fives from strangers in the front row.
Conversation has shifted to a bouncier subject: Boobs. “I don’t know what it is about those breastplates,” Spacee Kadett says to Bianca Nicole, referring to chest pieces that men can slide over their body to give themselves breasts for an illusion. “Doesn’t matter how much they cost. They always look fake to me, like they sit too high, too close to the neck.”
“They are definitely porn boobs,” responds Bianca, before continuing drag shoptalk with a description of these full-body woman suits she once saw being sold at a transgender conference. Spacee is intrigued. He has researched male muscle suits, but none of them look realistic enough to invest in. Those things don’t run cheap.
“Probably better to pay a credit card off or something,” he says, before adding longingly, “I want one though.”
What surprises people most about Spacee Kadett is that he even exists. When it comes to drag, queens reign supreme, but kings are around. “One of my favorite lines to say when I’m on stage is, ‘I know you came to see dudes in dresses, but you got me instead,’” says Spacee, or Amy, as she is known offstage. (Amy requested we only reveal her first name in order to separate her day job from her stage persona.)
Being a drag king comes with some unexpected challenges, like having to stand on a box during the cast photoshoot because all of the queens are a foot taller than you when they’re in heels, and having everyone assume your job is easier than your coworkers.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is figuring out a stage persona. “The question becomes, how can I make it exciting but also masculine? If drag queens are exaggerated women, then a drag king should be an exaggerated man. But entertainment is more feminine by nature. Sequins on your blazer are feminine.”
Spacee then might be described as “a theater boy,” not macho, not pure camp but comedic, a type of diminutive lounge singer or karaoke addict who’s entertaining but not glamorous like a queen.
“I think that’s OK,” says Amy. “If your illusion is strong, you can go far. There are flamboyant kings out there. Entertainers are keeping some feminine aspects. Even queens are seeing an evolution. There are more club kids out there. It’s evolving as society does.”
Too often dismissed as campy and meaningless, drag is, at its core, subversive. It rejects the idea that with biological sex organs come the immutable traits of maleness and femaleness. It shows us that our gender expression is just that: an expression that can be tailored and explored and exaggerated.
For Bianca Nicole, the only trans performer at Play, drag was a catalyst for self-discovery that led her to transitioning her life. For Mikhail Schulz, feeling comfortable as Vanessa DeMornay made him wonder if he should transition permanently.
“If you do (drag) enough, I think at some point you’re going to question yourself. At the end of the day, only you can decide,” says Schulz. “I thought maybe I would be happier. I did a lot of soul searching. It took me a long time to feel comfortable in my own skin.”
“Maybe we should all shout at the end ‘Best bar!’”
The cast is back to rehearsing their staging, this time for a Pride group performance. This suggestion is made in jest, but beneath the giggles is a kernel of truth. Everyone wants this public performance to be strong. Not just because the LGBT community, of which they are all a part, deserves their best during a historically important celebration week. Not just because it’s great promotion for their business. No, it’s because they want to be better than their competition.
If you are headed to a drag show in Louisville, chances are you are headed either to the Connection or Play. The former is a downtown staple celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The latter opened in Butchertown last summer to much fanfare. Between the two is a sometimes-healthy-sometimes-not-so-healthy rivalry that spans from Derby City to the Music City. The bad blood runs deep enough that the Connection’s management declined to be a part of this story unless LEO promised not to mention Play.
Here is the abridged version: Before he was one of the co-owners of Play, Louisvillian Todd Roman helped the Connection owners George Stinson and Ed Lewis open a second location in Nashville. Attributed with putting the city on the map when it came to gay nightlife, Connection Nashville operated for a dozen years before it was crowded out of the market and shuttered by all the rivals it had watched emerge around it. The most devastating of all its competitors? Play Nashville, which Roman started after parting ways with the Connection. LEO’s sister publication, Nashville Scene, described the opening of their city’s Play as “the nail in the coffin” for the Connection, which closed its doors in 2005.
Both bars helped create a scene and rode the wave of expanding audiences beyond the LGBT community. Straight folks — especially the boozy women of bachelorette parties — make up significant portions of both bars’ audiences. “There isn’t a bitch in Louisville whose wedding I haven’t blessed,” jokes Hurricane Summers, who has performed drag for more than 30 years.
That element in particular can be a source of annoyance for some LGBT customers. Is it right for those who can get married to flaunt that fact around all the people who still can’t? Scott Sastre, the man behind Hurricane, wrestled with that very question.
“I thought once that I was not going to do it until we can all get married,” he says. “Then, I thought, if we want to be accepted in straight bars, we need to accept them in gay bars. Sometimes I do try to make a mention. ‘Oh, I’d love to get legally married.’ Honestly, sometimes I get a bad taste in my mouth. It depends on the bride.”
He remembers one obnoxious bride in particular who literally asked Hurricane, “Aren’t you jealous? I’m getting married!” All Sastre could think to do was be curt back. “I just responded, ‘Yes, I am, and I’m feeling ignored, bitch. Anything else?’”
“You need to work on your arms,” shouts out Karmen DeLaRouge. “They’re a bit …”
DeeRanged nods, understanding what her coworker is getting at. Dee has just finished a choreography run-through of “Move” from the “Dreamgirls” soundtrack, and despite earlier declarations that she “definitely had it down,” there had been some missteps she’d need to correct before it goes live.
“I look like a T-Rex,” Dee says, “a Tranny Rex.”
It would be remiss to talk about drag without mentioning the general public’s token queen: RuPaul. His reality television competition show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which debuted in 2009, elicits a mixture of ire and appreciation among the industry. Without a doubt, “Drag Race” is guilty pleasure reality television at its finest, featuring contestants “lip-syncing for their life” and competing in challenges like literally insulting one another to each other’s faces.
Logo’s most successful series, “Drag Race” has undoubtedly placed plenty of new butts in drag venues across the country, especially on nights when former contestants and winners are guest performers. (Play welcomes four in the next six weeks. They also boast alumna Jade Jolie on their regular cast.) Yet, for veterans of the industry, it can sting when audiences ignore their hard-fought fabulousness and focus only on the small-screen stars, many of whom are relative newcomers to the industry.
“It used to be that the pageant winners were celebrities,” says Leah Halston, who estimates she’s earned 70 titles in her more than two decades of drag. “Now, nobody cares about pageants. It’s all about ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’”
Entertainer of the Year is a long-running national pageant system based out of the Connection here in Louisville, with preliminary rounds held across the country. There’s also Miss Gay America, Miss Gay USofA, USA Unlimited — the list goes on and on and on. Winning — or leaving a lasting impression — at any of these helps launch careers. DeeRanged, Bianca Nicole and Vanessa DeMornay have all held the EOY title, while Spacee Kadett has held the EOY’s newer male impersonator equivalent. Nearly every other cast performer at Play and the Connection has or currently holds a regional or national title from somewhere.
RuPaul’s race isn’t the sole pop culture phenomenon influencing — or being influenced by — drag. The Billboard Top 100 is filled with female pop stars whose performances feel like they are one tucked penis away from being a drag show. It was in a 2010 video for “California Gurls” that Katy Perry fought gummy bears with icing shooting from her bra, but that could easily be a DeeRanged skit. More recently, Nicki Minaj and her questionably real proportions utilize as many over-sexualized outfits and fake wigs as any drag show, and Iggy Azalea is an Australian white girl performing in drag as an American Southern rapper every time she gets on stage and raps about being fancy.
Then, there’s Lady Gaga.
The LGBT-friendly “mother monster” has roots in the New York City drag club scene. If her elaborate pageantry and lyrics like don’t be a drag, just be a queen didn’t give that away, she made it especially clear back in 2011 when she made a surprise visit to the Connection after her concert at the KFC Yum! Center. Vanessa DeMornay worked at the club at the time and asked the megastar to join her on stage while she performed the singer’s “Born This Way.” With zero prep time, Gaga did more than that: She grabbed a microphone and sang the hit song herself.
Vanessa remembers, “There was this moment where I was, like, ‘Wait, what do I do on stage now? Do I still lip-sync?’ But it was great. She was great. It was a night I will never forget.”
Videos recorded with cell phones went viral. Soon after, TMZ and news outlets around the world were writing about an unexpected appearance of a big star in a little bar in a city with stronger ties to the drag world than most realize. Back at the Connection, staff simply reeled in happiness over the fact that Gaga had been so down to earth. She’d even cleaned up her own chardonnay after somebody bumped into her and spilled it.
“We had this white board with everyone’s schedules on it,” says Vanessa DeMornay. “As she left, she erased our schedules and wrote, ‘I always wanted to be one of the queens, and tonight I was.’”
We should all be so lucky.
Watching a drag show without the drag is weird.
Were it not for the corny shimmies and finger-snapping I recognize from the Spacee sets I’ve seen, I never would have guessed the girl in the bright colored maxi dress and poofy curly hair was a drag king spotting his moves for tonight. Same goes for Karmen DeLaRouge, whose shaggy hair, basketball shorts and “U Mad Bro?” T-shirt make him look like someone’s kid brother and not somebody capable of taking command of an entire room.
It’s easier with some of the others. Even in sneakers instead of heels, Jade Jolie and Vanessa DeMornay walk like they just left the set of “America’s Next Top Model,” while it’s DeeRanged’s raunchy humor that gives her away. Still, I find myself half wondering if a hidden cameraman is going to emerge from the shadows of the empty bar and say I’ve just been punked.
Of course, nobody does. Instead, the cast just spots their moves and places on stage, correcting when necessary and smiling a lot. Without a doubt, this is a job they take seriously, but it’s also a calling and camaraderie. Right now, they’re practicing a Spice Girls medley, and they line up in a row on the peninsula of the stage. Sitting next to me, Spacee lets out a little cheer, then turns to me.
“It’s hard to tell right now, but that part will get a lot of cheers.”