The dressing room is buzzing as the ladies prepare for tonight’s show. They focus on their reflections in lighted vanity mirrors, the familiar scent of hair spray filling the air, aerosol cans interrupting pop music from a stereo. Attendants help the talent into gowns, zipping, straightening and making sure every fit is just right.
This could be backstage at the Miss America pageant or a peek into the Jubilee! dressing room … except that these ladies are actually men. This evening’s show is Drink & Drag’s biggest event to date: the Under the Neon Lights drag festival.
Once mostly relegated to under-the-radar gay bars, drag has recently taken a swift shift toward the mainstream. With television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, pop culture nods on programs like The Soup and an American public increasingly more comfortable with LGBT culture, drag is moving further in from the fringe. And here in Las Vegas, that change is happening in real time. Cue hair spray fog ... now!
Behind the curtain
✪ Sometimes a show’s real magic is what the audience doesn’t see. Five o’clock shadows are erased, cheek bones miraculously surface, lips become pouted and an hourglass figure emerges from the boxy, masculine frame. “It’s a big process; it’s a lovely process,” says Desarae Penda’vis, a drag queen at Drink & Drag.
The time to complete the transformation varies for each drag queen and each individual look, though many can get the job done in an hour if pressed for time. “When I first started, it took me almost four hours to do it because I didn’t know how to do makeup,” says JewDi Vine, host of the drag revue at Charlie’s, a local gay Western bar on Arville. Diva Toxxx, who hosts FreeZone’s Queens of Las Vegas drag revue, says she goes through a daylong ritual—from nails and hair to the last-minute application of body glitter.
You can appreciate that process when Toxxx steps onstage, poised and polished like a true diva. She pretends to belt out Selena Gomez’s “Love You Like a Love Song,” getting close enough to the crowd for the sidelined spectators to see her flawless face. Audiences clamor to shove dollar bills into her bogus bust.
Drag queens employ all kinds of products, from the conventional to the bizarre, to accomplish a convincing female illusion. “Duct tape is essential,” says Coco Montrese, an impersonator in Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas—her Rihanna and Janet Jackson are convincing!—and one of Drink & Drag’s regular performers. The industrial adhesive is used all over the body, she explains. “You have to be well-groomed—everywhere ... or it can become very painful.”
Before starting on their makeup, many drag queens create a blank canvas. They shave off stubble, paste down unruly eyebrows with glue sticks and, for the brave or bald, duct tape their foreheads for a makeshift facelift. Some preparatory measures sound downright painful: Montrese sometimes uses crazy glue to adjust the shape of her nose or attach earrings, and Vine says she’s seen girls flat iron eyebrows with a heated spoon.
Many drag queens work for years and spend heavily to perfect their illusion. “You’re trying to create a look that no one else has,” Montrese says. As Diva Toxxx explains, “[Drag] is an art form. It’s a talent.”
Some performers craft serious custom costumes, while others piece outfits together from store-bought clothing, making the unfabulous fabulous and transforming secondhand finds into ensembles that might make dedicated fashionistas envious.
At Drink & Drag, the ladies receive a monthly makeup allowance of $30, while a four-person design team creates the looks that wow. For queens who have risen in the ranks, designer labels and couture ensembles can be par for the course. Montrese says her wardrobe includes pieces by Cavalli and Louboutin, explaining that many items have been gifts. “In order to do this, you have to be a creative person,” she says. “It can get very expensive in the beginning if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
The drag family
✪ Desarae Penda’vis is Drink & Drag’s mother hen. The Las Vegas native has been performing in drag for 19 years, which explains the extent of her drag family: 37 drag-daughters and 15 drag-granddaughters. “Back in the day when drag families started, it was because we all knew it wasn’t accepted by the families as it is now,” she says.
Today, drag mothers offer guidance and support, sharing makeup tips and telling their daughters which men to avoid in the clubs. For some performers, the drag family becomes a surrogate for a biological family that might not appreciate what they do. Some drag families are formal, with daughters either named by their mothers or sharing their surnames. Montrese’s drag mother was Mocha, hence her daughter—Coco. Toxxx doesn’t have a drag-daughter, but says she is looking forward to the process of starting a family. “I would love nothing more than to leave my legacy behind,” she says.
Whether drag queens are in families or not, many performers get encouragement from their costars. That support felt obvious backstage at Drink & Drag, where girls helped one another prepare and chatted throughout the pre-show process. And the relationship can extend to members of the audience, too. “I have kids in my family that aren’t entertainers—just young kids that need attention,” Montrese says.
Pop and progress
“They wanted nothing to do with you once you left the stage,” Montrese says, remembering her first audiences, back when she performed while studying at Alabama State University in 1992. Men would enjoy the show, but once the queens joined the audience, they were completely ignored.
That’s all changed. Not only are gay men turning out at drag shows and socializing with the entertainers, but there’s also a substantial heterosexual presence. “Coming out of Divas Las Vegas, the straight men always say to me, ‘My wife dragged me out here; I didn’t want to come, [but] I’m so glad I did,’” Montrese says. “That’s a rewarding feeling, knowing that things are changing and things are evolving.”
She says drag was nudged toward the mainstream by its growing pop-culture presence. “Straight people see RuPaul’s Drag Race on TV, and then they want to go out and see what that’s like,” Montrese says. “And then they come to Drink & Drag or they go to Divas.”
JewDi Vine also references recent anti-bullying campaigns as agents of progress. “Some major changes are going on in our community, I think, that really opened up people’s minds to be more perceptive and to be more accepting of our community.”
Drink & Drag owner Kelly Murphy says about a third of the bar’s business comes from guests who stop in randomly during their trot down Fremont Street—many of them straight. “For people to stumble in off of Fremont Street and go, ‘You know what? This is kind of pretty cool,’ … you can feel the change,” Montrese says. “It’s a good feeling.”
And it’s not just happening Downtown. Toxxx says more heterosexual guests are heading to the Fruit Loop these days to experience drag up close and personal. “We have a very large crowd of the heterosexual orientation, and they love us—they live for us,” Toxxx says. “It reassures you that things are changing; things are getting better.”
Las Vegas Boulevard is lined with world-class theatrical productions, A-list headliners and custom-built showrooms. And like other performers, drag queens aspire to perform in the heart of the Entertainment Capital of the World. “Most girls who are stationed here covet nothing more than to be in a mainstream show, to be a headliner, to be on the Strip,” Toxxx says.
They don’t have to look far for inspiration. “I think having a show like Frank Marino’s gives us an opportunity in Las Vegas to grow as entertainers,” Vine says, referring to the Imperial Palace’s Divas Las Vegas, launched by Marino in 2010 after he starred in An Evening at La Cage up the Strip at the Riviera for more than 20 years.
Toxxx says drag queens across the country crave the kind of stardom Vegas seems to suggest. “We have girls who will contact us constantly to come out here, and they don’t really care what the circumstances are,” she explains. “Being able to say ‘I performed in Las Vegas’ is generally coveted.”
Once established, some drag queens continue their pursuit of fame by competing in pageants. After winning Miss Gay America in 2010, Montrese wound up performing for a pageant in Las Vegas—judged by Marino. “Once I got the job, every drag queen across America would send me messages on Facebook: ‘Oh my God, you’re living your dream,’” Montrese says. “It’s all of our dreams to make it to Vegas, no different than an actor in LA working in a restaurant trying to make it.”
Penda’vis says paying her dues got her where she is today. “It’s just like any other profession, because it is a career,” she says. “Drag does pay the bills.”
Of course, these women perform for more than their paychecks. There’s fire in their eyes and in their dancefloor struts—confident and commanding. They perform because they have passion; they perform well because they have pride. Covered in body glitter, wearing sky-high heels and glowing under the lights, they look like they’re having the time of their lives. Go see their next show and you just might, too.
Where to see drag in Las Vegas
Drag Revue: Friday-Saturday, 2 a.m.
1415 E. Charleston Blvd., 385-2018
Charlie’s Las Vegas
Charlie’s Amazing Drag Revue: Sunday, 10 p.m.
Drag Queen Bingo: Tuesday, 9 p.m.
Latin Afterhours Drag Show: Thursday, 11 p.m.
DIViAnce Drag Show: Friday, 10 p.m.
5012 Arville St., 876-1844
Drink & Drag
450 Fremont St., 489-3724
FlamBOYance Drag Show: Thursday, 11 p.m.
4213 W. Sahara Ave., 364-1167
Flex Cocktail Lounge
What’s the T: Tuesday, midnight
The Grand Tea Room: Wednesday, 1:30 a.m.
Drag Wars: Thursday, 11 p.m.
Addicted to Drag: Friday, 11:30 p.m.
What a Drag: Saturday, 11 p.m.
Show Tunes High Tea: Sunday, 5 p.m.
4371 W. Charleston Blvd., 385-3539
Queens of Las Vegas: Friday-Saturday, 10 p.m.
610 E. Naples Dr., 794-2300
Piranha Boutique Nightclub
Fierce Friday: Friday, 11 p.m.
Goddess: Saturday, 11 p.m.
El Deseo: Sunday, 1 a.m.
4622 Paradise Rd., 791-0100