Just a Stitch Away

The apartment resembles the outside of a circus tent, walls with pink and white stripes line the living room. The hum of the sewing machine filling the space. A mannequin at the center of the room surrounded by yards of fabric, like faithful disciples, waiting to be chosen to drape that body. Tirelessly trying to finish a fish-inspired costume, the drag queen Pierretta Viktori explains that this outer layer, resembling Disney-Pixar’s Dory but something less copy written, will tear away to reveal its skeleton. She’s preparing to debone herself ahead of a performance with other queens just like her.

Drag queens who don’t identify as male, but think it’s drag all the same. Pierretta is not only a costume designer, but she’s a perceived woman by society’s standards. Also called cisgender, or labeled female at birth, she’s wearing away the standard that drag is just female illusion.

If not simply a personal campaign to change minds, she’s put a target on her back in doing so. Pierretta has faced both online and in-person harassment all over that one word: drag. Not only does she wear the wigs and rhinestones, but sometimes she does it as her self-described true form: a reptilian monster. The character even has a back story: crash landing from outer space into a circus, assuming that’s what inhabitants of Earth generally looked like, that’s where the pierrot clown aspect came into play. Though, it’s not so easy being scaly green.

The harassment started online, when Pierretta would post pictures of herself in full regalia, tagging it as drag. This didn’t sit well with one person half a world away. For two months, she engaged a man from Sweden telling her ‘why call it drag? Call it cosplay.’ After all that time, they still didn’t see eye-to-eye.

Pierretta says she fell into performing backwards. As a designer, she felt most comfortable behind the scenes, like a proud mom at soccer games cheering on other queens who wore her creations. Though with a little encouragement, and with the idea that performing would bring greater exposure to what she was making in her studio space, she first started showcasing her skills in online pageants. Bursting out on stage in tear-aways, like the fish-inspired look.

“[That’s] how I view my performances, of how many of my costumes can I shove into one performance. So, it’s kind of like an advertisement for what I’m doing, but it also distracts from the fact that I don’t know how to dance.”
Video Courtesy John Brandi

Aside from the incident from Sweden, she hit a roadblock when she tried to enter an online drag competition, one that appeared on the social media site, Tumblr. Based off the popular reality show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, the online competition followed a similar format. Queens being picked off until one is crowned the winner. This caught Pierretta’s eye, and when she decided to apply for the second cycle, she was given mixed messages. “I had two-out-of-five judges tell me I would get on, but at the last minute they were like ‘oh no, we’re not picking any biologically female contestants because it’s not fair.’”

Desperate to prove them wrong, she competed on her own, alongside. The judges took notice and crowned her winner of cycle three.

“My view is, the best way to change someone’s mind is to prove them wrong.”

The word ‘no’ didn’t come from just behind a computer screen. When Pierretta started to appear on stage, with a collective of other cisgender and trans members, she and her sisters faced backlash for even appearing. At one live performance, LadyQueen Collective had some of its members mix with other male drag queens, faring so well that they won part of the competition. Tensions were high when one male drag queen approached the LadyQueen members backstage with verbal, and almost physical, confrontation. “One of the other contestants, who’s male, was upset she didn’t place because apparently, she was telling her friend, ‘I’ve got rent to pay,’ as if the rest of us don’t. She goes into the dressing room and starts screaming at my friends, ‘you don’t belong here, you’re not part of this community.’”

Taking the traumatic events of that night, LadyQueen centered a whole other show around the idea that drag isn’t just for the boys. Pierretta jolted across the stage to Lady Gaga’s ‘Perfect Illusion,’ stripping down to a pair of duct-taped ‘X’s’ across her breasts and nude panties. Holding a sign with the popular RuPaul catchphrase, “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag.”

This word, drag, is not an exclusionary idea but rather one which every person participates. Her second performance of that show was some clever wordplay. Pierretta performed Klaus Nomi’s 1981 cover of “You Don’t Own Me,” saying she chose this version because “it says ‘don’t say I can’t play with other boys’” and that it fit perfectly into the theme of the night. The collective was here “saying we can do this and we’re going to show you what we got.”

Though she continues to challenge the idea of drag on the NYC circuit, Pierretta hopes that the conversation about what drag can be catapults to the national stage. The world of reality television has just begun to change, with LGBTQ+ visibility at an all-time high. Though there’s still a way to go.

As Pierretta was stitching away, the phone rang for openly trans woman and NYC drag performer Peppermint. On the other end was RuPaul’s Drag Race telling her she had been chosen to appear on season nine. Pierretta recalls the joy radiating from Peppermint when she went to her home to do fittings for the dress she would go on to wear on the final episode of the season, when she made history and became the first trans woman to be chosen as top four, beating out 10 other contestants to secure that spot.

This was a step in the right direction. A step which Pierretta has been advocating for since at least last season. “When I was working with [season 8’s] Acid Betty, I was telling her about it, she’s like ‘no, I think that, that’s the next step. That’s the way to make the show shocking again.’ Drag is becoming mainstream but then people just picture drag as men.”

To subvert the whole process, Pierretta believes the clock is ticking away for when RuPaul allows cisgender women to enter the race. Allowing Peppermint follows a shift in thinking from the host, where RuPaul once gave flippant remarks that biological women had Miss Universe. Allowing Peppermint to compete, especially at a time when the show has jumped from Logo to the more widely available VH1, is a huge step in showcasing all the forms of drag.

Even Peppermint believes the show has really helped her reconcile those two aspects of herself. One where she doesn’t have to be in two separate categories, but a trans woman who does drag, period. The queen said of her experience on the show, in the final YouTube webisode of Untucked, the companion after-show to drag race, that for so long she had to build a wall between those two parts of herself. Between being a trans woman and a drag queen, which she described as “exhausting.”

“I had to hide the fact that I was trans.”

Giving her this platform has given those that struggle with their gender identity and sexual orientation an outlet, this coming at a time when violence against LGBTQ+ people is up 217 percent, according to a report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 68 percent just committed against those that identify as trans.

Now is not the time to be flippant.

Peppermint, coming in second place in her historic season, and Pierretta, snatching wins across NYC stages, are two drag queens that will continue to redefine what drag can become when we all think outside the box.