On Saturday afternoon, while most Southern Decadence visitors were busy partying in the French Quarter, drag performer Violet Chachki, 24, was in a quiet room in Bywater, signing autographs and answering dozens of questions about her childhood, gender identity and "RuPaul’s Drag Race," season 7.
In June 2015, she was crowned the show’s champion, receiving a $100,000 prize.
Chachki said she is optimistic about the art of drag, which is flourishing in New Orleans and many other cities, thanks to what she calls a big group of “baby drag queens” – younger people who have adopted the art and broadened it beyond its campy roots.
Her audience, mostly fellow performers or people with ambitions to perform, had many questions about costumes and makeup. Chachki said she used to make most of her own costumes and that blue eye shadow has been her go-to makeup lately.
For fans in the room, Chachki said she likes poodles and collects vintage perfume and Avon bottles. She used to collect ceramic clowns and still has a clown cookie jar and piggy bank, but she ditched the rest of her clown collection because it creeped out her roommate, who first dubbed her Chachki, a play on the word "tchotchke."
Then Midori Tajiri-Byrd, who performs as Liberaunchy, shifted the conversation to Chachki’s background and views on male-female perceptions of gender, often referred to as “the binary.”
Chachki, 24, was born Jason Dardo in Atlanta and identifies as “genderqueer,” also known as “genderfluid,” which allows her to basically move between genders as she feels like it. As she described it, “On some days I feel more like a female. Some days I feel more like a male. Some days I don’t want to take my makeup off. And some days I don’t want to put it on.”
She attended Atlanta’s Catholic schools and remembers how her baggy school uniform came in handy during high school. After school, she would go to Goodwill second-hand stores, find a few vintage dresses she liked, then put on her baggy uniform over the dresses and walk out.
At age 19, she moved away from home, living with her longtime friend, Billy Hardman, who was at Saturday’s talk. The two of them broke into gales of laughter, recalling the days when they drove around Atlanta in Hardman’s old yellow car so that Chachki, using a fake ID, could compete in drag shows at semi-dingy bars like Le Buzz.
Chachki said drag helps her explore her identity, though sometimes even the drag world can be confining, as she found when she showed up for a recent Hollywood role that called for "Jackie O. in drag."
“They basically just wanted a man in a dress. But they got Violet Chachki,” she said. After two days of shooting, she ended up leaving, feeling humiliated, she said.
Though those in her Bywater audience have long accepted drag queens, many people in the rest of the world – including Hollywood – are still accepting the idea, Chachki said. “And it’s hard to be a gender-variant person and try to get work.”
Even during RuPaul’s show, there was a “nude-illusion” segment when she chose to be flat-chested and was criticized for that, she said.
For some, it helps that there are now names to describe other drag categories, said producer Bella Blue, who brought Chachki to town. Faux queens, also called bio queens, are women who adopt a drag style usually associated with male drag queens. Drag kings are women who dress in male drag.
On Saturday night, Blue presented Chachki's drag show at the Always Lounge as part of Blue’s monthly “Dirty Dime Peepshow” series there, which is known for pushing boundaries.
But the categories are not yet broad enough for some. Tajiri-Byrd, a woman who performs gender-fluid shows that can switch genders within the same dance or seem androgynous, has coined the term “beaux queen.”
Simone Byrd, a student from Shreveport, asked what advice Chachki had for aspiring performers like herself.
“Do it now. Do it yesterday,” she replied.
Some people hesitate because they want to be polished and perfect, which Chachki thinks is a mistake. “Just start now and you’ll get better,” she said. “Or you might hate it.” Either way, she said, "you’ll be glad that you didn't wait."