Lazanya Ontré (Brendan Scanlon) in transition from man to Mona Lisa.
Foam butt cheeks, a Mardi Gras face mask, an old rusted film wheel and a drawing of a hairy man in a dress hang on the wall of a downtown Savannah home just a few blocks from River Street. Props and wigs cascade over almost everything, things custom-made and things store bought. White and black storage towers are positioned in different corners of the room, keeping the feather boas, woman’s skirts, accessories, stockings and undies organized, being sure not to get mixed in with the crowds of colorful and eclectic costumes fighting to keep their place on the garment racks.
High heels and boots, too tall and too great in quantity to fit in a black cube organizer, are strategically placed in front of a rarely used fireplace. To the right of the organizer is a wooden vanity dresser used by the three drag queens living there: Brendan Scanlon, performing as Lazanya Ontré, Will Cramer also known as Toyota Mitsubishi when on stage and Max Arnzen or Influenza Mueller for drag. All are members of The House of Gunt, a local, yet popular drag troupe in Savannah.
“When a straight man puts on a dress to get kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man's body and has the little operation, he is a transsexual. When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender, he is a drag queen.” In this 1995 American comedy film, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) explains to Chi-Chi (John Leguizamo) why he lacks the right to refer to himself as a drag queen. In Savannah, thanks to tourist, students, bridal parties and stragglers, the drag scene is well but changing.
Since Dax Martin, better known as Dax Exclamationpoint made his Season 8 appearance on Rupaul’s Drag Race, VH1’s drag queen competition show, representing his home town Savannah, many drag performers in the area agree that it is time for them to shoot their shot (take a chance). Now, since the announcement that Rupaul’s Drag Race, created produced and hosted by television actor, recording artist, and drag queen Rupaul, has moved from LogoTV, a digital/satellite channel aimed toward the LGBT community, to very popular New York City based cable television network, more and more transgender drag queens are sending in their audition tapes and making the cut. Transgender people have been doing drag for just as long as it has been around, but since after a series of unprompted, violent attacks by the LGBT community toward police and authority looking to diminish LGBT public expressiveness in the 1970s, known as the Stonewall Riots, and the constant backlash from society, transgender drag queens have been rather, underground.
Where exactly did drag come from? Someone didn’t just wake up and decide to put on women’s clothing. Drag, a word unthought of until the 1800s which means “Sense of "women's clothing worn by a man" according to etymonline.com, is said to be 1870 theater slang, from the sensation of long skirts trailing on the floor.” The entire phrase, “drag queen” didn’t come into prominence until 1941 in Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual by George William Henry II. The definition says “DRAG-QUEEN is a professional female impersonator; the term being transferentially used of male homosexual who frequently . . . wears women’s clothing.”
Men wearing women’s clothing and/or portraying the role of a woman isn’t anything new. In Ancient Greece, around 400 B.C, women weren’t allowed to perform in theater because the stage, as said then, was too dangerous. Drag even took place at The Globe Theatre in 1600 A.D. “In Shakespeare’s time, theatre was considered a low form of entertainment. It was crass and lewd and thought to be no place for a lady,” per HisKind.com, Exploring the 2,500 Year History of Drag.
The same bar was placed in Chinese Opera in 1880. Men played the roles of females in classic Chinese theatre and were put on a pedestal, as the female roles require “great skill and talent.” The Victorian Freak shows and the New York “Pansy Craze” of the early 1900s, great periods in time that forced drag queens to perform in hiding for people who felt exactly as they did. Refinery29 on YouTube.com posted a video, giving in-depth drag history through the means of a music video.
Danny Bercerill as Natasha Red before amateur night performance at Club One. His first performance in Savannah.
Lazanya Ontré is not transgender, he finds value in transgender people and the home they’re finding in drag. “It is more of a thing these days, or at least, gaining more visibility. They’re like the people we need to protect. They’re really just like any other drag queen, in terms of the drag world. Like they inspire people, they help each other out. They affect it in that they’re just being there, just like any other person would affect it you know,” says Lazanya Ontré.
In Savannah in 1988, The Lady Chablis kicked off the drag queen/female impersonator craze where she gained national attention in the film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt. She was Club One’s first entertainer, and she continued to perform there, until September 8, 2016, at the age of 59, she passed away. The drag queen hype hasn’t been the same since.
In Savannah, drag houses and drag clubs are limited. Following Chablis passing, different clubs and bars started to appear throughout Savannah. “Cyranos, it was on MLK, and it was directly across from Burger King,” is where savannah drag queen, Kennedi Marshall, Kennedi D. Sherrington on stage, met who inspired her to become a drag performer. “Drag was something that I stumbled upon, it wasn’t something that set out to do. It wasn’t something that I paid attention to, to be honest. There was one… female impersonator that caught my attention, and I was mesmerized by her.”
There isn’t much buzz about Club Kitty. Club Jade, before becoming night club Island Breeze however, was “the hood club,” says Brandon Thompson, Chi-Chi Bonet Sherrington for drag, and Club One’s “Hot Tamale,” says, “It’s like going there you don’t want to feel like you’re better because you know, every bodies learning, but it’s just kind of a completely different experience because we’re used to having rhinestones on our costumes and putting on a lot of make-up, and then you see somebody whose ‘I’m just gon put on some brows and go out there,’ it’s like, what? That not drag.” Club One, the first and most prominent drag club in Savannah, and The House of Gunt, which is a group that performs and hosts drag performance events, are the two main known sources for drag queens in the city.
Now, the city’s drag club and drag troupe—Club One and The House of Gunt—rely on a regular, everyday crowd aside from promoting their events via social media pages such as Facebook and Instagram. “The majority of our crowds honestly are tourists, and bridal parties, and straight gawkers, so we don’t have a huge gay clientele, so I’m grateful for the folks that do come in,” says Todd Mauldin performing as Blair Williams, who is Miss Gay Savannah, Miss Savannah Pride, Miss Gay America 2015 and also Club One’s show director and performer.
The lights are off, but the room is lit. Vibrant disco lights dance on the white tile floor, making it a little easier to see. The bartender toward the back of the room is serving up drinks to the brides-to-be and their friends, and the pool tables to the right are surrounded, almost made invisible by the large amount of men standing around it.
“Everybody line up! The Show is about to start! Places, the show is about to start! You have to show a look, have a look, or give a look! Faces, Beautiful! No one ugly allowed!” Fashionista by Jimmy James rings through the speakers, and the audience automatically knows where to move. The center of the club lights up, guiding all eyes to the black theater curtains toward the back of the room. On Thursdays and Sundays at 11p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30p.m. and 12:30p.m. drag queens are found at Club One lip syncing, giving life, and of course, taking tips from those who come to visit.
If you thought drag queens perform for free you are sadly mistaken. Drag queens can be paid three different ways: tips, the bar, and the door. “Generally speaking, it’s nice when you get paid and you get tip money, and it’s nice if the bar is straight out is like ‘I’m paying you this much,’ like $75, $100, $125 to do one or two numbers.” On Thursday’s and Sunday’s, the Club Cabaret performs for free working only off of tips, no cover charge. Friday’s and Saturday’s its $10 at the door, on the upstairs level of Club One at the Bay Street Theatre. “For the paid shows, in the peak season, we’re in the $100s, $150s, those are the best shows. The ones that’s are free downstairs, maybe $50-$75,” says Toyota Mitsubishi.
Drag performing, for some people is their main source of income, their way of life, unless they choose to take another route. Drag queens host and promote events amongst many other things such as acting, singing and modeling. “And usually you’ll have like a promotor or maybe one drag queen, or a drag queen slash promoter. Like people do all type of crazy shit, all I want to do is perform!”
“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a book and movie that put Savannah and the drag scene on the map. People from all over wanted to witness The Lady Chablis and the “gay Savannah” that is portrayed in the book. An image that Toyota Mitsubishi thinks now is slightly false. “Savannah is kind of known for the drag scene, but in a weird way...but it’s not really what the media portrays it to be or what everybody thinks Savannah is like. Honey, this town is queer [homosexual], and, yes, there are drag queens here but I think it’s kind of a little more underground.”
Todd Mauldin as Blair Williams laughing at a text message before a Saturday night performance
Drag, is composed of many different type of people, people who all identify as whatever it is they choose to identify as. Drag queens and transgendered people are often confused for one another. On chat show The Real, before season 8 of Rupaul’s Drag Race aired on March 7, 2016, Rupaul, clarified the common misconception between a Drag Queen and someone who classifies themselves as transgender. “Drag is really making fun of identity. We are shapeshifters. We’re like ‘okay, today I’m this, now I’m a cowboy, now I’m this. Transgender people take identity very seriously – their identity is who they are.”
Club One dressing room makeup table 1/3
Some Transgendered people, however, do perform drag. That is called female impersonation. But transgendered people aren’t the only ones who perform drag. Fem queens are women, but in many way, do their make-up and on clothes just like a drag queen would, but is and was born a woman.
Tall and dark with a short black bob, contoured cheeks bones and breasts pushed up to her ears, Candice Young, known at Club One as Jazzmyn P. Braxton, is currently in the process of undergoing sex reassignment surgery, changing from male to female. Young says that the difference between a drag queen and a female impersonator isn’t in the definition, but in the preference of the performer. “Now if you call a drag queen a cross dresser, she may get offended. It’s a derogatory term. People see crossdressers as men who go in a bathroom professional, and come out with women’s clothes on. A drag is more complex. Now a transsexual who may do drag can be called a female impersonator or a drag queen. It just depends on the title that she wants to use.”
Getting dressed and preparing for the performance Lazanya says, is the most tedious part. Drag queens tuck their genitals behind them, creating the illusion of a vagina, use make-up to create breast, slide on two or more pairs of dancer tights to hide the hair on their legs, some even shave their eyebrows so they can have a blank canvas to draw on.
“I live for it! I promise I do. All the colors, personalities and characters, it’s exciting, it gives me almost like a rush. I always feel like I want to go back stage beat my face [to apply r when makeup applied to a face is powerful, neat and eye catching] throw on one of their costumes and perform for the crowd, they’d love me,” says 23-year-old, Club One audience member, N’Gina Wright.
Basil Soper a transgender writer for Pride.com, wrote an article, “Making Room for Transgender Drag Performers,” addressing the quiet clash between drag queens and female impersonators/bio-drag (another word for female impersonator) performers as Soper calls them; saying that transgendered drags confuse the public and are the reason for the common misconception place between both parties. “When trans folks perform bio drag, it can make other transgender people uncomfortable. Some believe the performer is perpetuating the idea that drag and being transgender are the same thing, while others say bio drag isn't drag and that being trans gives a performer unfair advantages,” says Soper.
Sky Quinn, A transgender woman from Honolulu, Hawaii, was also addressed in Soper’s article. Though Quinn identifies as transgender, she has no wish to be classified as a female impersonator because when she gets on the stage she is no longer who she was prior to. “It's interesting because we're still doing a type of transformation and what we wear and do on stage as performers is vastly different from how we behave and what we wear in public. For me at least I got to play pretend and be a vision of myself that I wasn't yet during my transition.”
Going against all aspects of what drag is supposed to be is The House of Gunt. Chest hairs and facial hair, a bloody Donald Trump, unicorns, unibrows, braces and a Raggedy Ann wig are just a few elements seen in past shows. Every show is different, speaking for a specific cause, dedicated to specific theme or fighting for rights, equality, and acceptance, but most of all shows do the job of redefining drag and beauty itself.
A survey of national news conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, shows that there has been an upward shift in hate crimes not only against the LGBT community, but against races, religious groups, ethnicity etc. as well. In 2005, the Jewish reigned as the largest body of hate crime victims. In 2014, the LGBT community was at about 140,000 hate crimes per one million adults. According to Reuters.com, “Hate crimes in nine U.S. metropolitan areas rose more than 20 percent last year, fueled by inflamed passions during the presidential campaign and more willingness for victims to step forward.”
“Gunt is the area between your gut and your cunt,” says Lazanya Ontré laughing uncontrollably. “It’s all about like intersection, of like beautiful and ugly, and gender, like boy and girl, like fear, and like insecurities. Kinda like, bringing out your insecurities on something beautiful.” Toyota Mitsubishi says that he views drag as an “exaggerated, high-end form or performance,” “drags not about just one specific thing… we’re all a little different, but I think that collectively questioning drag in a different way, which kind of takes us away from what other drag houses are like.”
Atlanta-based drag queen Steven Diehl better known as Biqtch Puddiń and best friend/drag queen Lazanya Ontré are both sending in audition tapes, and in a time when drag is in its prime and on the up and up, competition is thick. Though location and popularity may vary in different states and cities, the aspirations are still the same. Drag queens all over the world are preparing their audition tapes for Rupaul’s Drag Race Season 10. “Rupaul’s Drag Race is a platform to launch a career off of. The true competition happens after the show airs. Now you have a larger audience looking at your body of work. It’s up to you to present that to the best of your ability,” say Biqtch Puddiń. New Savannah resident Danny Becerill, performing as Natasha Red will be sending in an application as well, this being his third attempt.
In the world of drag costumes, you either make it or buy it. Drag queens work hard, long and extensive hours to either purchase a costume or afford the materials necessary to make an outstanding outfit, outfits that will keep the crowds attention, glitter and all.
Club One performer, Jordan Alexander struts through the black curtain to “Diamonds” by Rihanna, wearing a black silk robe with silver studded shoulder pads and tassels along the rim of it. A large black studded belt with an all-around elastic waistband kept the robe closed. As the music picks up Jordan Alexander takes off the robe revealing a cheetah print, long sleeve leotard, with a red tasseled skirt, his legs wrapped in fishnet with black leather ankle boots. On his chest, rhinestones ride the rim of the sweetheart neckline. Homemade breast created by Jordan Alexander himself filled out the costume in the right places. His face glistens from the highlight on his defined cheeks, nose and chin, each sculpted and contoured.
When first starting drag, Natasha Red didn’t have the money to buy costumes, expensive make-up, hair pieces etc. Coming from Puerto Rico, he didn’t have anyone to help him make his costumes, teach him how to do his make-up, or mix his music, so he taught himself.
Natasha Red then and now.
“Every time I asked other people for help, they didn’t want to help me because they know I was good, and they didn’t want me to be that good. So, that pushed me forward to learning how to sew, learning how to do my make-up… do wigs, do my own mixes, learning how to work my own pictures for photoshop. I didn’t have no money to do it so I was like, ‘I don’t have any money to do this stuff so I can just try to learn how to do it because since I was small, they used to call me MacGyver in my house,” says Natasha Red.
In the drag world, it doesn’t just stop at lip syncing and dancing for them, one could take it a step further and compete in drag pageants. Kennedi D. Sherrington competed and won the title of Savannah’s Baddest B*tch 2010, competing again for Orlando’s Baddest B*tch a few months later. “There are all different types of pageants, there are all different levels to the pageants of course, you know when you start talking about the females there’s the new comers and then there’s like the national level. You have your male lead pageants… then you have you know, your stud and fem pageant.”
Professionalism plays a big part in drag performance. There are rules that should be followed to run a successful drag club or to be a successful drag queen. The crowd should be able to connect, relate and enjoy what is being delivered, and drag queens should “always remain professional” Chi-Chi credits Club One on teaching him professionalism. “One thing I love about Club One is the professionalism that we have here. The older queens teach us the professionalism that they learned throughout the years, and you don’t get that in drag everywhere you go. You don’t have a setup dressing room, sometimes you’re getting ready in a closet or an attic. So, the professionalism that you learn here is bar none.”
The drag scene can sometimes be petty says Lazanya Ontré. “The drag business varies honestly. In different cities, the drag scene kind of acts in different ways…. The drag scene can be very petty. Atlanta, for example, is very high school. Everybody is very petty sometimes, but they’re also very professional. Every little detail is taken into account, and there are so many gay people in Atlanta, it’s such a beautiful thing.”
When the make-up comes off and they’re all untucked, the drag queens have a house, friends, and a family to go home to. Chris Becerril, Natasha Red’s husband says that being in a relationship with a drag queen is completely different from being in a relationship with a regular person. Drag queens are perfectionists and sometimes Natasha can get upset. “Everything from their make-up, and outfit, to the props and accessories. Every small detail matters. There are times when I’m yelled at just because I grabbed the wrong brush. Or because I don’t know the names of the makeups. I mean I don’t know about makeup because It's not my forte and I could care less, but I try so things are easier for him. Besides that, It's a good time. Gets me away from home and work and back into a fantasy world I guess.”
In Savannah, drag is collaboration, coming together to educate and have a good time. Drag performance isn’t a craft that people wake up and are good at. Drag didn’t come easy for most performers but friends, family, passion and art is what keep them moving, that’s what Savannah is about. If press is what bought attention to Savannah than theirs is not telling when the next drag queen will get their shine. But until then, in the words of Rupaul “Sashay Away.”