A Drag Queen Christmas
My friend Olivia had jolted me into the drag fandom. “What do you want to watch?” she had asked. It was Halloween and I was in the mood for a horror classic like “The Blair Witch Project” or “The Silence of the Lambs”.
“Do you have any scary movies?”
“I’m not sure, but how about season five of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’?” she proposed. I shrugged, a non-committal gesture that catapulted me into the world of drag fanatics like Olivia.
Several weeks later, Olivia announced that “A Drag Queen Christmas” was touring Indianapolis. She excitedly pulled up all of the queens on her phone, showing me pictures of their best drag getups and enthusiastically recounting each of their most outrageous moments on RuPaul’s show. Each queen had debuted on the show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and had become an icon of their respective seasons.
“I love Kim Chi and Katya,” she had raved, emphasizing each syllable with a shake of her head. “You have to come with me! No one else will go.”
When I considered the world of drag (which truthfully was not very frequently at all prior to my friendship with Olivia), the only experiences I had related to drag came from television sitcom “Friends”, where Chandler’s father worked in a stuffy Vegas showroom and wore a headdress with feather plumes. I had imagined bedazzled outfits, thick layers of gaudy costume jewelry, and a stiflingly musty scent like my great-grandmother’s floral perfume. When I thought “drag queen”, I thought of extremely odd individuals who led a double-life and enjoyed caking themselves in makeup and parading in front of a crowd that was also embellished in similar red lipsticks and purple boas. I was intimidated by this world of the unknown, the foreign.
But Olivia batted her eyelashes at me and clasped her hands together, prepared to bend my hesitance into eagerness. If nothing else, it would be a weirdly interesting experience, right? Something to tell the grandchildren? Maybe I could discover the individual motivations behind drag shows for both queens and attendees.
So, partly out of friendship and partly out of the desire to understand drag culture, I agreed to try attending my first drag show. The following Tuesday after poetry class, we purchased our tickets to “A Drag Queen Christmas” which was to take place at the Egyptian Room in downtown Indianapolis. “This is going to be so fun,” Olivia promised.
Olivia and I had been texting all morning on the day of the drag show. I was inexplicably nervous — would I fit in? Would it be obvious that I’d never attended a drag show before? What would I wear? I had to make sure that whatever outfit I picked didn’t suggest that I was “too innocent” to appreciate the artistic offerings of drag queens.
Olivia: I hope we aren’t late! I really don’t want to get read.
Olivia: Yes, read. It means getting called-out and humiliated by the drag show emcee.
Olivia: Here, I’m sending you an article about what to expect at your first drag show. Trust me — everything will be fine! Study up!
I clicked on the link and started poring over the knowledge I was expected to learn before I met Olivia outside the Egyptian Room at Old National Centre downtown. Reading: drag jargon for insulting someone in a kind-hearted fashion for comedic purposes. Beat: an adjective for very well-done makeup. Fishy: an adjective for a drag queen who looks exceptionally womanly.
I was overwhelmed with lingo. In frustration, I slammed my laptop closed and walked away into my bedroom. I took several deep breaths as I laid out my black suede miniskirt and sent a picture to Olivia with the caption “???”. I ran through the list of things I still needed to do: find my eyeliner, choose a lipstick, go to the bank (Olivia told me to bring cash to tip my favorite queens).
Olivia: That looks perfect! Don’t forget to bring cash for the tips. See you at eight o’clock!
It was ten minutes after eight and I still hadn’t arrived at the Egyptian Room. I sloshed through the semi-frozen puddles, eager to get my seat with Olivia before the emcee noticed my tardiness. We met at the front door, where Olivia stood tapping her foot in a pair of shockingly glittered white pumps. She was wearing a thin, white vintage lace jumper, shaking her head at me as I tried to summon my most remorseful facial expression. After sizing up her flashy outfit, I was glad that I had selected my black suede miniskirt and left the oxford button-down shirt at home in my closet.
“I’m so sorry, there was nowhere to park, there was a ton of traffic, I’m the worst friend ever…” I trailed off in a wave of apologies, hoping one would stick. Olivia snatched my hand out of the air and yanked me into the lobby.
“Well, hurry up!” We took off running across the tile floor, giggling until we heard the bass throb against our feet. We entered the Egyptian Room lobby, which was decorated with elaborate crystal chandeliers and red carpet rugs rolled out from the back of the audience to the front of the stage. The introductory music was still playing so Olivia and I rushed to an attendant in a maroon uniform to help us find our seats.
The Egyptian Room had been filled with fold-up chairs numbered by row, filled with (surprisingly) ordinary-looking people chatting casually about their favorite drag queens in tonight’s show. The entrance was gated with a large sweeping golden arch and the lights were dimmed except for the green and red spotlights that jumped around the room in time with the bass of the music. On either side of the stage were velvet stairs and the stage itself was shrouded in a sparkly crimson curtain that was pulled tightly shut. I glanced back at the attendant.
“We’re EE4 and EE5, I think,” I hesitated, checking our tickets again.
“Alright, this way-” the stout attendant trailed off, shuffling down the aisle with Olivia and I close behind.
Once we’d gotten settled and pushed our coats underneath our seats, I turned back to Olivia. “I’m going to go get a drink before the show starts, would you like anything?”
She smiled, “I’ll just have whatever you’re having.” I squeezed her hand as I passed, trying to squirm my way back to the crowded aisle. I reached the bar, paying thirty dollars for two overpriced vodka cranberries and thinking about the adventure that this could be. Suddenly, my phone buzzed against the wooden bar.
Olivia: IT’S STARTING!
I grabbed our drinks and hurried back as the music got even louder, making my ribcage rattle and the limes threaten to jump out of their plastic cups.
“Here,” I handed Olivia one of the cups and settled back into my seat as a beautiful woman in a red-and-white dress marched out onto the stage. The crowd cheered loudly, as the tall woman took the microphone and twirled a strand of her dark hair between her fingers.
“Hello, Indianapolis! My name is Bob the Drag Queen!” she curtseyed to the crowd. I turned to Olivia, who was smiling widely and gripping my arm with both hands in excitement. Bob the Drag Queen continued her introduction, joking about her accessibility via the internet, “I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I can find you on my personal favorite, Google Maps. If you’re a ho, I’m on Tinder and Grinder. If you’re a conservative ho, I’m on Christian Mingle; if you’re a Jewish ho, I’m on J-Date. I’m also a professional, so connect with me on LinkedIn!” The crowd erupted with cheers and laughter, and I wiped away the tears from my eyes.
Olivia and I exchanged smiles and she nodded her head as if to say, “See? I told you that this would be fun.”
The show continued with Bob the Drag Queen’s banter as she introduced each new queen to the stage. Roxxxy Andrews took the stage first, sporting a long sparkling white evening gown — well, half of an evening gown. Once the audience could see the full dress, we realized that her right side was almost completely exposed. She danced erotically across the stage, collecting cash tips from either side by the designated “tipping stairwells”. I was amazed at Roxxxy’s confidence — never in my life would I be able to pull that outfit off. I found myself in a strange and unexpected position of envy. Roxxxy was beautiful, exotic, demure…and there was not a single feather boa in sight.
Next up was Kim Chi, a tall South Korean woman who entered the stage dawning a glittery Christmas tree outfit, complete with bright red bows with matching red silk gloves and a mint-green wig. As she walked back and forth along the stage collecting tips and giving air-kisses to fans, she would twirl and strut to the beat of her EDM track, “Bo Peep Bo Peep”.
During Kim Chi’s act, I realized that drag shows were more than a fashion statement or a queen’s interpretive holiday-themed dance. Each drag queen was inspired by her own personality, which was evident through the type of femininity they exhibited. Roxxxy had obviously served as the sexually-enlightened, liberated queen. Kim Chi was clearly a creative (albeit quirky) queen, while Bob the Drag Queen was a comedian with a uniquely feminine flair.
Suddenly, Olivia grabbed my arm. “We have to go up there! She’s my favorite queen!” She waved several dollar bills and pulled me out of our seats. As Olivia dragged me down the red carpet toward the stage, I saw people turning in their seats to observe the fans approaching the stage to tip Kim Chi. Olivia turned back towards me just before we reached the stage, “Did you bring cash for tips?” she practically shouted into my ear.
“Yes! I didn’t know how much to bring though.” Since I hadn’t known how much to bring, I had taken one hundred dollars in cash out of my checking account. In the moment standing in front of the ATM, it had seemed like an investment in this new drag experience. Now, as I tried to conceal the stack of cash in my hand, it seemed excessive.
“That’s okay! I’m probably going to give her two or three dollars; I have seven total for tips tonight. Do you have enough?” I nodded in response, trying to seem nonchalant. I hastily took two dollars and carefully folded the remaining stack of dollar bills into my purse’s interior pocket.
We walked down the red carpet aisle, finally arriving at the stairwells designated for tips. Olivia turned to me, bouncing up and down on her toes and shrieking in a pitch that was clearly audible over the blaring music. As Kim Chi swayed over to the line of people holding out tips at our stairwell, I felt adrenaline flood my veins, making the room slow down. My hands tingled and burned as I clutched the cash in my outstretched hands. Kim Chi the Christmas Tree was an idol of the audience’s adoration and in those moments I represented everyone who had become enamored with the institution of drag. I was one of them, one of the attendees, another drag fanatic. Kim Chi knelt to receive Olivia’s cash, winking seductively and sending Olivia into a frenzy. Olivia clapped her hands and stepped aside for me to take her place.
“You’re wonderful,” I gushed, handing her my tip. She took the bills from my hand with long green acrylic fingernails, tucking the cash into her bra.
“Thank you, Vanilla,” she replied. I smiled, my face burning brighter than the red bows on Kim Chi’s outfit.
After the show, Olivia and I babbled constantly, unable to contain our adoration for “A Drag Queen Christmas”. The vodka had left us both inebriated and we relived each moment of every drag queen’s act.
“Hey, what did Kim Chi mean when she called me ‘Vanilla’?” I asked, slurring each word into the next.
“You just probably weren’t the kind of person she expected to see at her show!” Olivia laughed in a full and musical sound that resonated through the still winter air.
I smiled, “This wasn’t at all what I was expecting.”
Olivia smiled back at me. “People rarely are.”
At class the next day, I told a classmate and close friend about my time at the drag show, fully intending to enlighten him of the drag world and my findings. I had no sooner uttered the word “drag” that he wrinkled his nose, “Drag is disgusting, it grosses me out. It makes me feel physically ill to see that much makeup in one place.”
I felt my cheeks suddenly get very warm. “Drag is an art form,” I argued impatiently. “Queens have to create unique characters, effectively communicate those inimitable qualities of their character, design and perform elaborate choreography routines, purchase and create original fashion statements in the form of multiple outfits, and they do it all in a pair of stiletto heels.”
Not all drag queens wear bright red lipstick and purple feather boas. Not all drag queens are gay men. Not all drag queens want to be women. Not all drag queens participate in drag shows exclusively for money or a career (shockingly enough, their tips rarely even cover a quarter of the cost of their drag attire for one evening).
Drag queens are the best of every art we claim to appreciate. Drag queens are dancers, designers, authors, musicians, athletes, public speakers. But above everything else, drag queens are people.