Atlanta's Drag Queens Don't Have Time for Your Drama

By Elektra Kotsoni

All this talk about human rights can get slightly boring, don't you think? I mean activism is important and all, but all the having to defend your community stuff leaves less to time to celebrate it.

Legendary Children is such an attempt: a photographic exhibition about to take place in Atlanta themed around the city's flourishing drag scene headed by Brigitte Bidet, Cayenne Rouge, Edie Cheezburger, Ellisorous Rex, Evah Destruction, Jaye Lish, Kryean Kally, Lavonia Elberton, Mo'Dest Volgare and Violet Chachki and captured by photographers Blane Bussey, Jon Dean, Blake England, Kevin O and Matthew Terrell.

I spoke to Jon Dean, Edie Cheezburger and Cayenne Rouge about it all.

VICE: Oh man, I expected full-on drag queens, you're wearing pants and shirts.
Edie Cheezburger:
It's too early for that. It's 7AM over here. Bear in mind that it takes a couple of hours to get dressed.
Cayenne Rouge: I think it takes me about an hour to paint now, but maybe that's because I shaved my eyebrows so it's quicker.


Left to Right: Edie Cheezburger, Jon Dean, and Cayenne Rouge.

Thanks for the tip. How do you guys explain the flourishing drag scene in Atlanta? Would you say its more tolerant than other American cities?
Jon Dean: I think Atlanta has become a sort of Mecca for the gay community, especially in the South. Gay people just kind of come in from other cities in the state—they may not stay long, but it’s made the community grow a lot. There is a lot of gay history in the area. You always hear stories from the 1960s and 70s about groups of gay women and men getting together at Piedmont Park, smoking pot and staging Pride parties.

Is this the first time you’ve put on a photographic exhibition focused on the life of the drag community?
Jon Dean:
Yeah, it’s the first time I have worked on this scale. The last I did was my senior show at SCAD [Savannah College of Art & Design], and that was just a small student show. Undertaking this—getting all the girls together, getting all the photographers together… It's definitely been a challenge working with this many gay men.
Edie Cheezburger: There is so much drama when you deal with gay men's egos.
Cayenne Rouge: Gay men and drag queens in one room? No!


Left to Right: Edie Cheezburger, Jaye Lish, and Violet Chachki, as photographed by Kevin O.

Why did you even decide to work on this?
Jon Dean
: A lot of the work I did at university involved putting on wigs to create these larger-than-life characters for cinematic schemes, so I just thought, Why don’t I work with drag queens? I also moved here recently and the drag scene was so big and everybody was so creative, I couldn't really escape getting involved. I've known Cayenne for a long time, and as she was starting to get into drag, we started talking about some kind of art collaboration that would involve photography and drag queens. We met the rest of the girls, started going to the shows—went to Edie's show and at some point it transpired that the city was the base for this great group of creative and inventive queens. We just thought that it would be better for us all to work together instead of trying to compete.

That’s nice. How big a part of the scene is competition, then?  
Jon Dean:
I think it's a natural part of it, as we are all attracted to the same group of people. I started noticing other photographers like Matt Terrell, Blake England, and Kevin O hanging around the same places I did, and I think it made sense to ask, "Who's this person shooting the queens?" I mean, the overall feeling in Atlanta is quite competitive, especially within people our age.
Edie Cheezburger: There’s lots of attitude.


Cayenne Rouge photographed by Jon Dean

A couple of months ago, I interviewed Tom Bianchi about how the gay community in America dealt with the onset of HIV in the 80s. He said HIV forced gay men to grow up and come together, under this one common cause. Would you say we are past that now? Are people finally allowed to focus more on their identity as artists, rather than the social aspect of their sexuality in America?
Cayenne Rouge:
I honestly think that a lot of gay men have kind of deluded themselves, because we have been making a lot of progress stateside. But we forget that we’re creating this avant-garde art in Georgia, which isn't all that progressive. Atlanta is this weird liberal bastion in the middle of a relatively conservative state. A few miles from here, people would probably shoot you for pulling in the wrong driveway. I feel like in Atlanta we’re so enslaved by the illusion we’re free to do whatever we want, that we forget to be a community.

That’s interesting.
Cayenne Rouge:
It’s almost like a double-edged sword. You get freedom and equality but you lose that common thread that makes you a community. I feel like that’s one of the reasons why drag has re-emerged. It’s become a really popular form of expression.
Edie Cheezburger: I dunno. You put a bunch of gay men in one tiny place, and they’re gonna compete against each other. Everybody wants something greater and bigger and more amazing than the next person. Jon, I like that you guys hold together as photographers, but in drag it's different. All these people are just competing to have a show. There are only so many venues and only so many nights a week to have one, so for people to actually get together and put on something decent—that’s sort of amazing. Everybody’s hungry. There’s only so much spotlight to go around.


Violet Chachki photographed by Blake England

You mentioned you face fewer problems when it comes to homophobia in Atlanta specifically.
Edie Cheezburger:
Yeah, especially in midtown Atlanta we’re such a small bubble of a community. Of course we’re not separated from gay bashings or homophobia or anything like that. We just know what’s safe for us.

So what are you expecting to come out of the exhibition?
Jon Dean: Ideally, I would like to sell some work—maybe break even. It's already brought this group of people together in a really cool way, so the important thing is out of the way. Now, we're sort of talking about taking the show further.
Cayenne Rouge: I like the idea of giving drag to straight people. It's really fulfilling when people that have no other connection to the drag scene learn to appreciate it.  
Jon Dean: We definitely don’t want to just create this little exclusive bubble. We’re trying to open it up. It'd be great if loads of queens come to the exhibition but it'd be even better if other kinds of people come, too. We are trying to be careful not to make the show so focused on these specific queens that it scares people away.

If you happen to be in Atlanta any time between September and October 1st, you should pass by Gallery 1526 (1526 Dekalb Avenue Northeast) to check out Legendary Children. Bear in mind that all of the girls will be performing live at the closing reception on September 28th.

Also, visit their website.

Follow Elektra on Twitter: @elektrakotsoni

Previously:

Tom Bianchi Photographed His Gay Paradise Before it Disappeared Forever

It's Not Easy Being Maxime Angel

Photographing the Loving Gays of Vietnam

Comments