Most people have the same general idea of what defines a “drag queen”: a man dressing up as a woman, using large wigs, sequined dresses, fake breasts, feather boas and capricious amounts of makeup to get on a nightclub stage and sing Donna Summer or Whitney Houston songs.
Not skinny queens with no fake body parts getting beer poured on them as they sing Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.” Not a loud bearded lady wrangling jock-strap-laden men in a lube-soaked wrestling match. Not androgynous aliens who don’t feel a particular need to chose one gender over another.
Yet throughout the city—particularly in the St. Claude corridor—a new vision for drag is emerging. “I think the scene has changed in a really good way. I feel we are engaging audiences a lot more,” says Gag Reflex and Jock Strap Lube Wrestling host Neon Burgundy. “On our side of town, we occupy different venues. We put on themes with our shows, and the drag queens are in costumes based on that theme. Everything is a little more conceptual.”
Burgundy (pronounced bur-GUN-dy, like the street) is one of the pioneers and prominent figures of this new St. Claude drag scene, producing both her shows at the AllWays Lounge. While the AllWays is home to many drag and burlesque shows, Burgundy cites the club’s lighting rig as one of its more appealing attributes. “When someone is working the lights and using them to tell a story, it makes such a difference. You don’t get that everywhere.”
Burgundy uses the lights to full capacity for both her shows. Gag Reflex (which returns for a third season on October 28) is a monthly variety show built around themes such as the news (with queens dressing as WDSU meteorologist Margaret Orr) or impersonations (where queens impersonate one another). She also includes a drag queen duet with each show, something more rare than one may think.
Her most popular show, however, is Jock Strap Lube Wrestling (the next show is October 20). Like many hits, it came about almost as an accident. “I also bartend at the AllWays Lounge, and there was a night where I had nothing going on. I just wanted to make some money, so I threw together a very DIY last-minute Jock Strap Lube Wrestling,” recalls Burgundy. “It was a total shit show. The club smelled like baby oil for two weeks after. Everything was slippery with baby oil. But so many people came out.”
While it is uncommon for a drag show to resemble the aftermath of a GWAR concert, Burgundy understands the importance of giving the audience a memorable experience. “Our audience members just want to be engaged. They want to think about the show before the show is even happening, and they want to go home thinking about it as well.”
Some take the idea of “audience engagement” to a whole new level. Slenderella’s monthly show at the Bywater’s Bud Rip’s—Rips N’ Tits—breaks down barriers between audience and performer. Literally. There is no stage, no designated space for either group. “I call it the ‘Drag Gauntlet,’ says Slenderella. “I was inspired by the drag queen Brigitte Bidet, who does shows with no actual set stage and just the crowd all around you. I really liked that idea of just being in the middle of the crowd and fighting for your life. Now the people are right in front of you.”
Breaking down these walls has opened up what a drag performance can be. “When you think of traditional drag, you think of the old disco numbers like Donna Summer or Aretha Franklin,” says Slenderella, “but then there are those type of songs that don’t translate on a stage, but you have the crowd you can interact with. I once did ‘Cherry Pie’ by Warrant, which is not a lip-syncing song at all. But I just got in the crowd and had people pour beer on me. It’s really interactive, although it ruined my wig.”
Beer-soaked wigs aside, Slenderella feels the potential for audience interactions has expanded the palette of drag. “I think it’s opened up more avenues for different kinds of performers because some girls don’t want to do traditional drag,” says Slenderella. “They want to do something where they don’t wear any hair or do a song sung by a boy.”
Things have opened up for the audience as well. Bud Rip’s—in the heart of the Bywater—was once a dive bar when the neighborhood was more working class. While the bar followed suit when the Bywater became more upscale, it is still not exactly the type of place one would associate with cutting edge avant-garde drag queens.
However, Rips N’ Tits is expanding the parameters of both drag performance and drag audience. “The crowd we get there is really weird,” says Slenderella. “It’s a lot of straight people, a lot of gay people, a lot of queers, and then a lot of people I would never expect to see at a drag show, like full on big daddy bikers. That’s the fun part about it. Having this show at Bud Rip’s has opened up a lot more people to the queer scene and drag in general.”
The idea of pushing drag forward extends well beyond the Marigny and Bywater. Liberaunchy—the drag persona of local makeup artist Midori Tajiri—performs in the Uptown and Central City areas with an act that goes beyond gender impersonation. What started as a “Louis XIV/David Bowie mashup” has become much more. “He is now an alien who has come to earth and can’t tell the difference between modern things and artifacts,” says Tajiri. “Every time he masquerades, whether it is a lip-sync or some kind of human behavior, he’s oblivious to how bad he is at human-ing. Having a character outside both gender or age gives me freedom to explore things from a very childlike point of view.”
Liberaunchy’s main show is the T.M.I. Talk Show, a format that gives the androgynous alien a chance to finally make human connections. “The T.M.I. Talk Show is very close to my heart because, to me, T.M.I. stories are a way to become instantly closer to people, says Tajiri. “Over-sharing helps the other person share back. It can be really cathartic. It’s partly performance, but it also encourages other people to perform and share and be cathartic as well. If audience members are one less button buttoned up during the show, it can be a butterfly effect of freedoms that you give to other people when they see that you can do it and you can spread that joy with them.”
Liberaunchy, the female Tajiri’s vaguely male persona, is not a traditional “drag queen” by any stretch of the imagination. But challenging traditional gender norms provides immense opportunities. “It’s refreshing for audience members to see drag that is beyond gender impersonation or a binary of gender portrayal,” says Tajiri. “It doesn’t have to be about gender at all. It can be about creatures, it could be from space, it could be an amoeba. It doesn’t even have to be human.”
Some of you may be wondering how a group of similar, like-minded performers in the same discipline are all coming into their own at the same time.
The answer, it turns out, is simple: Vinsantos.
At the risk of oversimplifying, there would be no alternative drag scene without Vinsantos. Originally from San Francisco, Vinsantos performed the night she moved to New Orleans. She also immediately recognized a scene in need of some variety. “There was a lot of drag, and it was cool to me because I had never really experienced Southern pageant-style drag, but it was very one-note,” says Vinsantos. “There was nothing really avant-garde or experimental. It was very traditional, and that was frustrating to me because I didn’t really have a place to work within those communities.”
As Vinsantos began to inspire up and coming “alt-queens” through performance, she slowly began to realize that in order to create a truly thriving scene, young performers needed discipline. “A little tiny alternative drag scene started to pop up in the Bywater with these young kids I knew,” recalls Vinsantos. “After the very first show they produced, I thought it could be something cool, but no one seemed to be working very hard at being good or professional. It was more like a party and a playground.”
Vinsantos had the idea of producing a drag workshop so that performers could hone their craft. “I just approached a group of friends and asked about forming a workshop environment where we worked on these acts and tried to make them better and hold each other accountable for the art itself. And then on top of that we can have fun,” says Vinsantos. “I grew up with what I consider some of the best performers in the business, and I just wanted to see these kids who have the interest actually put some work into it. In doing the workshop and this ten-week program, you really watch people develop themselves. It’s all about confidence. If you have total confidence, you’re going to be a more memorable performer.”
The New Orleans Drag Workshop—of which Neon Burgundy, Slenderella, and Liberaunchy are all graduates—more or less directly led to the thriving alternative drag scene. “I don’t want to take credit for expanding the drag scene into what it is today, but I will take credit for it,” laughs Vinsantos. “The first incarnation of the workshop made me realize there are formulas that make up a great performer, and if we take this little set of rules or ideas and apply them to drag, we can create something really interesting and memorable. I think that was the spark that started to get people really into this other side of drag.”
In doing the workshop, Vinsantos realized she struck on something much bigger than a few kids in the Bywater learning about proper makeup. “I thought the school was just going to be a bunch of us weirdos trying to create an experimental drag scene, but it has turned into people from all walks of life who want to do all kinds of drag,” says Vinsantos. “It gives people a starting point and a group that is accepting of them so they could get out there and experiment; the only rule is that you have to be good by the time you graduate, or ‘draguate.’”
The students took this lesson of inclusion to heart, and they now pass it on to the audience. An inclusive, accepting workshop begat an inclusive, accepting scene where performers try to find a deeper connection with audience members, be it physically, mentally, or emotionally. In doing so, the alternative drag scene—which includes the shows by Neon Burgundy, Slenderella, Liberaunchy and Vinsantos, as well as shows like High Profile at the Hi-Ho Lounge and various performers appearing in burlesque and vaudeville shows—has led to some experimental art in the city that pushes boundaries the audience didn’t even know existed.
The members of the alternative drag scene are not interested in replacing traditional drag. They are merely trying to carve out their own place in the city’s drag and art scene. “If you’re different, you’re just going to have to do your own thing,” says Tajiri. “It’s a growing scene and genre where you’re just going to have to jump in and figure out your own place in it as you go.”