From Grant Beatty to Gigi Fontaine

A pair of Mary Jane shoes. Black. A high heel and a thick platform with a strap across the foot. It was the pair 13-year-old Grant Beatty had been saving his allowance for. He only had enough for half, but his parents covered the rest. His first article of clothing from the opposite gender, post-play context, but surely not his last.

It all started at an early age when Beatty would sit and watch the award shows on television with his mother--Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Primetime Emmy Awards. It was only for the dresses showcased during the red carpet event. Their elegance and glamour always mesmerizing to watch.

“I only wanted to know what who was wearing. I didn’t care who won what award,” he recalls.

Beatty’s mother’s side of the family is very accepting of the LGBT+ community, having several family members within the community themselves. One of them being a cousin of Beatty’s who does drag professionally. Beatty would listen in on his stories about doing drag and even ask for advice. Having a relative who did drag was only one factor that influenced Beatty when making the decision to pick up the hobby.

Growing up in a city outside of Bangkok, Thailand, Beatty was exposed to the country’s popular tradition of kathoeys or “ladyboys,” another term for transgenders and drag queens. The term may sound derogatory, but was highly accepted and extremely common. “Most of the time, you can’t even tell if it’s a boy or a girl, they’re so good at what they do,” Beatty says. He recalls seeing shops and stands along the streets selling outrageous looking shoes, clothes and accessories. Beauty pageants were even hosted for kathoeys.

While in Thailand, Beatty would dress up in typical female attire when partaking in something as simple as going out to the movies with his friends. It wasn’t weird and no one would stare. If they did, it was to appreciate his outfit.

“I have gone out dressed as the opposite sex here in America before and it felt a lot different,” he says. “I could tell more people were looking at me with weird looks, scowling as if my presence was offending them.”

Beatty has always had a great friend and family support system. His cousin who does drag professionally and his friends who would mess around with makeup with him on nights spent staying in. So it comes as a shock to know that his mother had a lot harder of a time accepting his hobbies of cross-dressing and doing drag, regardless of already having family members who identified as LGBTQ+.

“Suddenly it’s her child. Being a little different isn’t easy … I think it was fear. She was afraid that I was making my life harder than it needed to be,” he says.

Beatty believes that we reach a certain point in our life where genders split. A male child can no longer play dress up in his mother’s heels because it’s not what boys do. This then develops further into the habits of a “real man.” Society is so conditioned in its narrow-minded way of thinking, and that’s what made Beatty’s purchase of a pair of Mary Jane shoes difficult for his mother.

Beatty’s aunt and her partner were two of his biggest supporters, speaking with his mother about accepting Beatty as who he was and reminding her that making him “normal” wasn’t normal for him. Working through a period of figuring out who he was, Beatty was faced with the question “do you be normal and unhappy, or do you be out there and face criticism?” Growing up in Thailand during the time of his life that he did really influenced him in becoming the person he is today.

“Had I not grown up in Thailand, I’d be a lot more scared. I would have hid [who I was] a lot more. Not be as expressive. I’d be more ashamed of it.”

Beatty identifies as pansexual. In his words, it’s similar to bisexuality, but the key difference is the prefix. Bi, meaning two, means you’re attracted to two genders: male and female. Pan means all. It’s an attraction to everybody. That could be women with feminine traits or masculine traits and men with masculine traits or feminine traits.

“Gender doesn’t really have an affect on whether or not I find someone attractive or romantically interesting,” he says.

Misinformed people may make the assumption that if a man does drag, he is gay or transgendered, and that is not always the case. Yes, some queens choose drag as a lifestyle and may be transgendered. Yes, some gay men enjoy doing drag. But, straight masculine men can enjoy drag, and feminine women can partake in drag as kings.

“Drag Queens are often seen as overly dramatic, insensitive, restricted to just one gender, among other things. One thing that everyone must keep in mind is that drag comes in many different shapes, sizes and forms,” Kasey Willener, vice president of PRIDE! Kent, says. “You don't have to be a man dressing up as a woman and you certainly do not have to be queer to perform.

Beatty is only one of many who can attest to breaking that stereotype.

“I can say I’m confidently male and have no intent of changing that. But fun is fun; dress up like a woman and lip sync on stage.”

He has been one of the lucky ones. Never experiencing the trauma that countless others do on a daily basis just for being who they are, he’s never felt the need to hide himself. He’s not ashamed of who he is.

__________

His first official drag show was the drag show put on at Kent State by PRIDE! Kent his freshman year. It wasn’t intentional, but something his friends signed him up for after he jokingly commented “wouldn’t it be funny if I did this.”

“It was very scary. You have the added bonus of being a freshman and everyone kinda hates [freshmen] a little bit,” he says. “It was nerve racking, but I’m really glad I did it.”

Gigi Fontaine mid-performance at Interbelt Nite Club's event, Battle of the Wagon Heel

According to Willener, the purpose of the annual drag show is to “showcase one of the most recognizable art forms to come from the LGBTQ+ community” and give new queens and kings the opportunity to practice and show off their skills. Drag queens are the opposite of drag queens; women who tape down their breasts and perform as men.

Beatty got on stage and did his thing, having $1 bills thrown at him in the process. Normally the relationship between the crowd and the queens is interactive, with it being customary to tip your queens.

“In hindsight, I wish I had focused more on the lyrics than the dollars, but hindsight is 20/20,” he jokes.

Beatty has participated in PRIDE! Kent’s annual drag show ever since his first time three years ago, and even landed first place in 2017, tiara and all.

“Last year the prize was a $100 gift certificate to Sephora, I was really sour when I lost. The year before that was another $100 gift card to Amazon or something. This year the prize wasn’t money … but a spot in the lineup at Interbelt for Bad Girls Club.”

Interbelt Nite Club is a club in Akron that hosts Bad Girls Club, a drag show, every Thursday night. So after the drag show at Kent, Beatty and the queen judges all headed to Interbelt for a longer night of lip syncing and dancing. At Interbelt, he had the opportunity to look behind the scenes of an official drag show. Fast-paced and mountains of makeup, reminiscent of his time in theatre during high school.

“It’s far less glamorous in the changing room than you’d think,” he says.

Gigi Fontaine performing at Interbelt Nite Club's event, Battle of the Wagon Heel

Every aspect of the routine is in Beatty’s control: song choice, stand up and outfit. The key is to make sure the outfit echoes the music and lyrics.

Balancing a hobby like doing drag and being a student can be challenging, mostly financially. A full-time student doesn’t have $300 to drop on a glamorous dress, much less the time to actually leave the apartment to purchase one.

“It’s so expensive to get fabulous things,” he says.

Luckily for Beatty, thrift stores exist and he started his collection around the time of middle school. Now, he owns around six different sets of heels, seven dresses, three or so total outfits and three different colored wigs--aquamarine, salmon and maroon.

Beatty has only participated in the drag shows put on by Pride! Kent, plus the time at Interbelt.

“It’s something I would like to put energy into, but it’s also something that I know school has to be first,” he says. “I can do drag forever, but I don’t wanna do school forever.”

He hopes to take a year or two after graduation to really put time and effort into doing drag. Possibly in between undergraduate and graduate school.

__________

Beatty as Gigi Fontaine

It’s April 23, and viewers are beginning to crowd around the dance floor of Interbelt Nite Club. Tonight’s event is the Battle of the Wagon Heel, a drag competition between 10 students, five from Kent State University and five from the University of Akron. This will be Beatty’s second performance at Interbelt. Several disco balls are reflecting colorful lights off of the walls, ceiling and floor. The music is blaring but dies down to a hum when upstairs. It isn’t Grant Beatty in the dressing room preparing for his performance, but Gigi Fontaine.

Gigi was a name Beatty used when playing house or dolls with his friend as a little boy. It only seemed fit to use it as his stage name. Fontaine, on the other, was all he could think of in the moment of having to decide on a name.

She is clad in a black blazer and pencil skirt, just long enough to cover the tops of her white thigh-high pantyhose. She’s wearing black strappy heels and her maroon wig, which hangs down to her neck. The entire look is completed with a dusting of gold glitter on her beard. “Well I wasn’t going to shave it off,” she says.

Fontaine is eighth in a lineup of 10 performers. She struts out of the dressing room and down the stairs, meeting her friends who showed up in support. When her time comes, she takes center stage. One last deep breath before having to dance for three and a half minutes before being able to catch it again. "The Dame Says" by Ivy Levan begins playing and for three and a half minutes, Fontaine is able to do what she loves and knows best.

Created By
Alexandria Kobryn
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Alexandria Kobryn

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