Published in the Fall 2016 Talisman magazine
Glittery spandex dresses and glossy wigs littered the backstage floor of 643 Sports Bar and Grill in Bowling Green as drag queens joked with one another before their performance on October 7.
Queens lounged in pantyhose and fastened corsets with contoured cleavage.
Huddled in a corner before an illuminated mirror, Harrisburg senior Lane French perfected his makeup after four hours of preparation for his first show as a cast member of the O’Haras of Bowling Green, a local group of drag queens.
French emerged as Lily McQueen Fitzgerald and began the show with a bang, strutting from backstage in black stilettos to the vibrating beats of Jennifer Lopez’s “Papi” before plunging into splits. The crowd erupted in applause and praise.
Lily dazzled the audience with energetic performances and her blunt and bold personality, which was carefully crafted by French.
“Lily is everything Lane wants to be but is too afraid to be,” French said. “When you’re in drag, it’s almost like you’re wearing a mask to the people who don’t know you.”
Evident by his dominant presence on stage, Lily is not the first character French has portrayed.
A performance arts major with a concentration in musical theatre, French got his start in acting by performing in children’s shows in high school. However, he did not discover drag as an art form until he transferred to WKU from Campbellsville University in 2014.
French had watched drag shows at Play Dance Bar in Nashville but didn’t consider trying it himself until a female friend performed in a show at WKU.
“I was just standing at the pageant looking up at the stage and thinking to myself, ‘I can do this, and I can be really good at it,’” French said. “And thus, Lily McQueen Fitzgerald was born.”
Lily actually began as “Lily Star,” before French decided to draw inspiration for her name from two of his drag idols — Mallory McQueen and Edie Monroe Fitzgerald.
French’s involvement in theater initially led to Lily performing mostly Broadway show tunes, but he soon learned that pop music was better received — especially in Nashville gay bars, where the stakes for performances were higher than at shows in Bowling Green.
“I learned that drag queens really have to mold themselves to what is popular culture at the time, so it is a freedom of expression, but you also have to remain doing what is popular,” he said.
French said his background in theater helped the process of learning and improving in drag.
“Stage presence is something I really pride myself in, and I really learned that from the art of theater,” he said. “I think they’re very closely related, and having a theatrical background really helped me a lot.”
French began learning about makeup techniques in a theater makeup class at Campbellsville University. But, he is mostly self-taught in the art of applying cosmetics for drag, which proved an elaborate and expensive practice.
“I thought if I just learned how to do girl makeup that would be enough, but no; it’s a whole other beast,” he said. “CoverGirl does not cover boy.”
French learned drag makeup by watching YouTube tutorials late at night with makeup brushes and color palettes spread across the floor before him as he perfected the craft.
His style pulls from popular trends in drag, such as high creases and strong, angled brows, though French diverts from the norm of hiding male features, such as a strong jawline, by highlighting his.
French owns about 10 wigs. At the O’Hara show, Lily flipped a straight, brunette wig to a J-Lo song, sported a firehouse red wig with big glasses, and pranced around the crowd in a blonde wig reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe.
Recent WKU graduate and Waynesburg native Logan Barnett, a friend of French who often helps with his shows, said there is so much that goes into drag that many people don’t realize. Seven pairs of tights, two to three bras, and pads and corsets to create a feminine shape prepare a drag queen to take the stage — but also incur a considerable expense.
French said he doesn’t profit from the tips he collects from performances. They only allow him to earn back the money he spends on all the necessary aesthetic materials.
French performs at open stage nights at Play Dance Bar and has won their competition “Last Queen Standing” twice, the prize for which was getting booked on a regular show night with professional queens. French was also cast as a member of the O’Haras, with whom he can land regular bookings and pay in addition to tips.
Louisville senior Austin Brannin, also known by his drag name Lexi Von Simmons, is a “drag sister” to Lily, as they often perform together. Brannin enjoys the character drag allows him to play, which he describes as the most heightened version of himself.
Brannin looks forward to doing drag full time after graduation, when he no longer has to juggle homework and a job, along with the tasks to prepare for his performances.
French plans to move to Nashville after graduation in December to make drag his profession, but he will remain on the O’Haras cast in Bowling Green while also bartending on the side.
“Becoming a drag queen and realizing I’m really good at it has really molded my future career choice in that my drag skill set is a lot higher than my musical theater skill set,” French said. “Will I still want to audition for musicals and stuff when I get out of school? Absolutely. But it’s not a dream of mine anymore. A dream of mine now is Ru Paul’s Drag Race, as compared to two years ago [when] a dream of mine was Broadway.”
Barnett will make his drag debut soon as Lucille Hampton, though he plans to perform only as a hobby.
Barnett said doing drag helps boost his confidence. Coming to WKU from a small, conservative town, he was once uncomfortable with his sexuality. Now he views drag as a way to become more involved in gay culture.
“As part of the gay community, I think it’s important to experience all aspects to become well-rounded in the community,” Barnett said. “It’s also important in today’s society to play with gender roles.”
French said one of his biggest pet peeves about the outside world looking in on drag is the common misconception that drag queens want to be the sex they are portraying.
“That’s not the case at all,” he said. “Drag is an art form that makes fun of the idea that we only have two genders and makes fun of gender altogether. I think the biggest thing I want people to know is that just because they do drag doesn’t mean they want to be transgender — it’s an art form, like acting.”
French said the experience of performing, entertaining and expanding on an art form that people already know and love has been an empowering experience.
“It gives you so much power to stand up there and lip sync to someone who’s already famous,” he said. “Not a lot of people can go see a Beyoncé concert, but you can give them the façade of going to see Beyoncé. And a lot of people just find you so fierce. I feel like a superstar.”