In New Orleans, there’s a drag performance every night of the week. (And sometimes, it’s more like three or four or five per night.)
On Saturday afternoons, there's a drag brunch at the Country Club and on Sundays, you can choose from those at The Fillmore New Orleans, Cru, Maison Soule and Artisan Bar and Cafe. Drag queens are reading to children as part of drag story hours at local libraries. Then at night, some of those same queens are doing an entirely different form of drag — wrestling each other in costume as part of the recent birth of drag wrestling in the city.
“These days, you can barely walk down the street without running into a drag show — almost to a fault. There's almost too much drag at this point,” says Vincent DeFonte, who performs drag in the city as Vinsantos and heads the New Orleans Drag Workshop.
“Drag has become so popular because of television that everybody wants at least one drag performer at their event,” DeFonte adds. “It doesn't matter if it's a bat mitzvah or a wedding or a baby's first birthday at this point, there's going to be a drag queen or a drag performer of some sort.”
Drag's roots date back centuries in many cultures, but local drag queens attribute some of the recent popularity of modern drag to the rise of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a reality show in which drag queens perform and compete against each other for a $100,000 grand prize.
Since the show began airing in 2009, several winners and fan favorites from the show have accumulated over one million Instagram followers, become producers and performed as part of international tours.
One of RuPaul’s most successful season winners is Gretna native Roy Haylock, aka Bianca Del Rio, who has sold out global comedy tours and starred in two films.
“He's making more money than any (local) drag queen ever, and that's something to say,” says Arthur Severio, who has performed in drag in New Orleans as Reba Douglas off-and-on since the 1980s and has a show, "Jubilee," at the Golden Lantern on Sunday afternoons. “That's mass appeal, a little boy from the West Bank.”
Another local success is Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffery Roberson), who has appeared on Broadway in "Chicago," played the Sydney Opera House and Carnegie Hall, and is currently in residence in Provincetown, Massachusetts for the summer, performing her new show "A Star is Bored."
Drag’s increasing popularity has changed New Orleans’ local drag scene. Local queens say having drag queens “in people’s living rooms” via TV and social media — through popular GIFs and memes — has contributed to a greater acceptance of the art form and the people behind it.
“RuPaul is in everybody's living room,” Severio says. “That was always my thing with Diana Ross. She did more for civil rights because she came in, and she was non-threatening and she was in people's living room, where it just became the norm. So I'm hoping that with enough repeat, we can change things.”
Quinn Laroux, a performer who started NOLA Drag Tours in January, says she also has personally experienced exposure leading to acceptance.
Laroux says that when she first began giving LGBT history tours in the French Quarter, seeing someone dressed in drag during the day was “a real culture shock” for some people. She says she experienced street harassment initially, but over time it faded as people came to expect her giving her daily tours. (She even calls a former catcaller a friend now.)
“I don't think that the popularity of the show necessarily reflects popularity of in-person drag, but I think it does change the way that people respond to it,” Laroux says. “It's no longer cool to make fun of the drag queen. I'm far more likely to have a bunch of bros say ‘Yas, queen!’ than to harass me these days, and I think that's just a really good sign.”
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With more drag queens in the city, however, queens are forced to reinvent themselves and hone their craft.
“I think it's ultimately made a lot of people step their game up because there's a new drag queen every single day,” self-described “drag extraordinaire” Laveau Contraire says, “and in order to continue to be relevant and continue to be booked, you've got to constantly be keeping your eye on what's popular and what's making you you — and then elevate it to the highest level.”
But seeing the success of TV queens has been difficult for some locals, who have been working in drag for years to achieve a fraction of the success RuPaul’s queens achieve.
“At first, I was a little bitter when 'Drag Race' hit its stride, just because these people that got on the show were getting this kind of instant fame, like television does with people,” DeFonte says.
“This is a really hard industry, and especially with the success of the television queens, they're going to get the gigs first. Us that have been in the business for a while and have just been clawing away at it are going to get them second, and then everyone else can fight over the rest.”
Contraire agreed, adding that some local queens resisted drag becoming mainstream, since the performance art historically has been underground.
Even some who initially were resentful about the success of the queens on “Drag Race” say the popularity of the show and the increasing public awareness of drag have been net positives for the New Orleans scene.
“What I came to realize over the next few years is that it just opened up, as far as a career artist, it opened up a whole world for me of work and possibilities,” DeFonte says. “It created a demand that was able to give me a full-time job.”
“Ultimately, I think it's gotten more eyes on drag,” Contraire says. “There have been so many drag brunches that have popped up since ‘RuPaul's Drag Race’ just because so many people want that experience for their bachelorette party or in New Orleans.”
This mainstream attention has brought drag out of the dark in a quite literal sense. Traditionally, drag was performed in gay bars and nightclubs. Some queens preferred — and still do — the dim lighting to play a role in the illusion of the performance, hiding any imperfections in their makeup or costumes. But drag brunches, story hours and other daytime events have expanded the audience for drag to include families, children and early risers.
Drag queen story hours in public libraries are popular in New Orleans, but some story hours in the state have faced pushback. After the Lafayette Public Library postponed a drag story hour event in October 2018, it became the center of national controversy.
Groups in opposition to the library sponsoring the story hour brought a lawsuit against it. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) countered the lawsuit, calling a ban on the story hour “targeted, viewpoint-based discrimination.” Library officials eventually lifted the ban on Jan. 3.
The lack of pushback in New Orleans could be, in part, due to the city’s long history of drag performance — along with the city’s tradition of costumes, parades, self-expression and celebrations. Club My-O-My, a famous female impersonation club, existed in the city and just over the parish line from the 1930s to 1960s.
In August 1972, the annual Southern Decadence Parade began as a going-away party for a group of both gay and straight friends. It eventually evolved into a gay Mardi Gras celebration featuring drag queens and still runs through the French Quarter every Labor Day weekend.
As chronicled in the documentary “The Sons of Tennessee Williams,” gay Mardi Gras krewe balls that held pageant-style drag events existed in the 1960s — often hidden because the police would bust them and those arrested could lose their jobs.
“There's a whole subculture here too with Mardi Gras balls,” Severio says. “That's how people started communicating together. They would go to the ball because it was the only place that they could go. ... The St. Bernard auditorium would fill up with people.”
Decades later, gay bar Lucky Cheng’s opened across from Antoine’s in the mid-’90s and was based on a restaurant of the same name in New York City, centering on sassy drag waitresses as well as drag performances. More recently, Bianca Del Rio hosted afternoons of drag bingo games for years at Bourbon Street gay bar Oz.
Still, New Orleans author and host of the radio show “Louisiana Eats” Poppy Tooker says drag is now more “accessible and available to everyone” than ever before.
“Now many of these drag brunches, while there will be sometimes a little risque element, people bring their children,” Tooker says. “LGBTQ families come, and straight families come.”
In 2015, Tooker started a series of pop-up drag brunches benefiting New Orleans health clinic CrescentCare, which originated as the NO/AIDS Task Force in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic. When she first started hosting the fundraisers, Tooker says there weren’t many drag brunches in the city.
In the succeeding years, she watched as other drag brunches began popping up in the city. But it wasn’t until last summer — when she saw Brennan’s Restaurant advertising its own drag brunch to coincide with Southern Decadence — that she understood how popular drag had become.
“I thought, holy moly, Brennan's has jumped on the drag queen bandwagon. This has gone totally mainstream,” Tooker says.
She explores both the history of brunch and drag in New Orleans in her upcoming book “Drag Queen Brunch” — a collection of drag queen profiles and brunch recipes from local restaurants. It will be released Aug. 27.
She has dedicated the book to her drag queen friends who died of AIDS in the 1980s as a way of remembering the plight the LGBT community faced only a few decades ago. Before any sort of formal organization to help victims was formed, drag queens would perform shows to raise money for their dying friends, Tooker says.
It’s a plight Severio remembers all too well. His older brother introduced him to the world of drag when he was a teenager. Just a few years after Severio moved to New Orleans from Livingston Parish to join his brother — after growing up in what he says was “a very bullied atmosphere” — his brother died of AIDS-related complications.
“He was the first one that I knew in New Orleans that died of it, so (it was) pretty devastating,” he says.
For Severio, drag became an escape. He embraced the elegance of traditional Southern drag — complete with sparkling gowns and large wigs — a glamour which often was in contrast to his reality at the time. Finally, he could perform the same diva anthems by Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli he’d dreamed of performing as a kid.
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At the time, the drag scene in New Orleans was not too different from drag in other southern cities, with pageants that valued polished looks and the style aspects of the performance art.
Decades later, DeFonte moved to New Orleans from San Francisco in 2010 and found the scene to still be reminiscent of this “old-school” era of drag — a far cry from the punk, alternative drag scene that had first transfixed the tattoo-clad former band member in the ’90s.
“It just seemed like there was a style and there wasn't much outside of that style,” DeFonte says. “It was pageant queens and Top 40 queens, so a real traditional type of drag, and I didn't think that there was a place for me in that world. I couldn't get gigs. My character was too weird. I felt kind of shut out from the whole thing.”
DeFonte ended up performing at local burlesque and variety shows but longed to get back into the drag world. DeFonte and others who felt similarly about not fitting into the city’s existing drag scene formed a troupe where they could hone their experimental forms of drag. Together they created the New Orleans Drag Workshop in 2013, where they would teach new performers the different skills involved with drag and share tips and tricks along the way.
Since its inception, the workshop has drawn a wide array of drag hopefuls, including female drag queens and drag kings, and those with traditional and alternative performance styles. More than 100 performers have “draguated” from the program, and the 10th “draguation” will culminate with two shows Aug. 20 at the AllWays Lounge and Theatre.
Initially, DeFonte says, members of the traditional scene had criticisms of the workshop.
“I think part of them thought, well, they're coming for our gigs, which they hold very near and dear to them because it's work. Nobody wants to be replaced at work,” DeFonte says. “Also, they didn't really understand the experimental nature of our drag. I've literally been told by these old school queens that, to them, drag is a man that is working to look like a real woman.
“What real women they are talking about, I'm not sure because I've never met these real women,” DeFonte says with a laugh. “I'm pretty sure they're football players in Texas somewhere.”
Laroux, who participated in the drag workshops in 2017, moved to New Orleans from Tennessee five years ago. She felt drawn to the city’s emerging alternative drag scene after seeing a drag number in Philadelphia about domestic violence.
“That (number) kind of changed what I thought drag could be because I always kind of thought it was — like it is a little stupid. It's kind of just like clown-y and weird. But I'd never seen anybody do something that was so smart and emotionally well-put-together and something that felt more like theater than drag until I saw that show,” she says. “But I think that's something I pretty regularly see in New Orleans now. A lot of people are thinking about it differently than just, there's a song that I'm going to do, which makes me really excited.”
Many of these new forms of drag are more underground and more adult in nature, like drag wrestling. Queens Jassy, Hugo Gyrl and Visqueen created ChokeHole, where costumed queens wrestling one another doubles as social commentary on issues like gentrification. In one show, the audience cheers for a drag queen dressed as a giant green bug and boos the landlord figure fighting her.
Laroux’s drag can look like anything from Violet Beauregarde from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" to “a brain-eating amoeba number” to her own political drag cabaret show, which she describes as “a drag version of ‘The Daily Show.’”
When there weren’t spaces for Laroux and other alternative performers to do what they wanted, they made their own space, as drag performers throughout history have done.
“Right now we have people who have seen that the scene doesn't have space for [us] yet, and so we've kind of built this whole other thing that works for us,” Laroux says. “The people that I'm studying and fascinated by in history are doing the kinds of things that a lot of people in New Orleans are trying to do now — really making unique queer spaces that really work for us.
“I have so much respect for the older queens because back in those days, the pageants that a lot of queens kind of talk negatively about now — though I definitely don't think anything bad about those queens — those were their alternative spaces that we're trying to create now,” she adds. “They're not opposed, they're just kind of alternative to each other. ... I think there's space for everyone to do what they want to do, and it's not helpful to rank them or pretend like they're not connected deeply.”
That perspective has become increasingly common as many New Orleans queens have bridged the divide between the two scenes. Kingpins of both communities, like friends DeFonte and Persana Shoulders, who runs the drag show out of Oz, have judged each other’s two starkly different pageants.
Some queens have even joined both scenes, like Contraire, who does a variety of drag events including drag brunches and drag wrestling. She started in the pageant world in the French Quarter, learning about poise and putting together a package, and then became interested in the alternative scene in the Bywater, where she learned about storytelling and looking at gender through different lenses, she says.
“I got a very diverse view of the scene. I just immediately wondered why no one was trying to do both,” Contraire says. “I pride myself on being kind of a drag chameleon … If I can do a birthday party and then go perform at midnight the same night, that would be my dream.
“There's so many talented people in the city who love the art form of drag,” she adds. “If we can have a jazz band in almost every restaurant and club in the city, we can also have drag shows in those places as well. ...We are creative artists and we can literally meet the needs of whatever entertainment you need for your event or venue.”
Tooker says this future could be closer than one might think, referencing a special rendition of Arnaud’s traditional Sunday brunch scheduled for Sept. 1, which will feature drag performers instead of its usual jazz band.
“I would say Laveau is absolutely right,“ Tooker says. “Not only is it possible, but it's happening.”
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