All photos by Rachel June
When legendary San Francisco drag queen Vinsantos Defonte first came to New Orleans five years ago, she was taken aback by the town's lack of drag performers and clubs. There wasn't an outlet for more diverse forms of drag, or "alt queens," as Defonte called them, and she couldn't find a single "faux queen"—a biological woman dressing as a drag.
More importantly, though, Defonte realized there wasn't a gateway for young or inexperienced performers to learn the tricks of the trade. She quickly got to work, starting what might be considered the world's first all-encompassing school for aspiring drag queens and kings. The three-month program, which is now in its third cycle, is an intensive crash course into the world of drag. Some students spend upwards of 20 hours a week perfecting their performances and mastering the many layers involved in the craft—everything from selecting and styling wigs to finding the correct size of fake breasts.
Defonte also brought in "adjunct professors," such as professional hair stylists and body-padding experts, who instructed the students on various techniques. Raja, who won the third season of of RuPaul's Drag Race, once gave a special guest lecture.
Upon completion of the grueling semester, there is but one final test for the students: a real drag show, in front of a sold-out audience. At the most recent graduation event, there were even scouts from local theaters and bars who are looking for potential full-time performers.
Standing on stage in a bright blue sequined dress, as a small fan created a windblown effect in her hair, Defonte—whose drag persona is a bit of a mix between Harley Quinn and Phyllis Diller—introduced the performers.
"Tonight, you're going to see all kinds of the different sides of the world of drag," Defonte said. "You're gonna see a lot of boys as girls, girls as stuff, and some shit that I don't even know what to call it. But it's all drag, and I fucking love all of it."
Note: The pronouns used throughout correspond with the gender identities of the drag characters, which are not necessarily the same as the gender identities of the performers themselves.
Drop Dead Darling
The first performer I met was Drop Dead Darling, who looked like she came straight out of a David Lynch film. She told me that she had never performed on stage before in her entire life and that this was a "big, kind of everything moment."
Before meeting Defonte and joining the school, Darling was on a leave of absence from medical school, mostly for health reasons. "I had to have knee surgery done and another surgery after that... and I'm having another surgery again in two weeks," she said. "It's kind of been a bit of a tune-up."
She had even considered dropping out of the drag school at one point. "I was in a really rough spot. I had backed out of the program halfway through," she said. "And Defonte sent me an email asking if I was sure, and at that point I was the most depressed I had ever been. But she made me reconsider, so I decided just to continue on with it. It sounds cheesy and cliché, but I think the school helped." She described the experience as a "transformative process."
"I really did not expect to learn the things I did about myself and gain some of the personal qualities that I did through it," she said. "It's just kind of changed the way that I'm going to proceed with my life, even if I don't necessarily make drag a career."
Glamdromeda Strange was one of two biological females and the only faux queen to complete the course, though she doesn't feel the particular men in the class gained any insights into the experiences of the opposite gender.
"Obviously it's not the easiest thing to walk in heels if you've never done it before, but I feel like that stuff is trivial in a lot of ways," she said. "As a female, you have a lot of stuff that you deal with on a daily basis—like how women have to deal with being catcalled, and a lot of [men], especially straight men, can't understand why that's a problem."
She quickly added: "But I'm pretty sure all of the guys in my class were gay, or at least bisexual. There weren't any straight guys in this group, so they have a whole different set of things they deal with, as far as gender and sexuality—and the things they face on a daily basis. I feel like I was trying to learn as much as I could about that experience as they would have been about becoming a woman."
Dasani C. Waters
Dasani C. Waters was one of the only students with actual drag experience. In her teens and early 20s she became friends with a group of drag queens in Northwest Arkansas and began performing with them. "It was just something that was fun and entertaining, but I never thought about it as being something that was a career—until now," Dasani said.
After a successful audition last week, she's now performing part-time at a local drag club. "The club said I could work them into my schedule—around my other job, that is."
Next up was HanniBelle Spector, adorned in a bright pink pearl necklace and giant blond wing. When asked if any of her family members were in the audience, she told me, "They didn't really know about the graduation. If they found out about it—it would just be another one of those things."
I asked her to elaborate. "I'm sure they would have a lot of questions, like if I wanted to be a woman, things like that. I think that they would have to warm up to it. I've encountered some resistance from them before. They're a little more ignorant about what all goes into it."
Eileen Dover (right)
Eileen Dover had never performed on stage in any capacity before. "On the first day of class, as we all sat around the table and introduced ourselves and a gave a little background about ourselves, I found that a lot of the class had, at least, some sort of background in theater—even if it had been in a school play or something," she said.
"I had never been in anything before, though. The whole artistic arc was brand-new for me, definitely terrifying."
LiberRaunchy, the second biological female graduate, knew she wanted to enroll from the moment she learned about the class. "There was just so much variety, and it's something I've wanted to do for so long," she said, "but there really hasn't been much room for other types of gender representation in the drag world."
The character "comes from a Louis XIV, or Louis XV, kind of pompous androgyny style... It's not drag queen, and it's not drag king. I think a lot of times when people see androgyny, people think more of, like, David Bowie. They think of a man, who has more mannish qualities, and a sprinkling of female qualities... Through this character, I'm trying to imagine androgyny from an almost pre-pubescent quality, like if gender was to be played with by someone who has no gender or by a child who is pre-gender."
Through the class, LiberRaunchy was also able to come to terms with some gender issues that had perplexed him throughout his life. "Growing up, I used to do a form of drag before I knew what drag was. I would dress as a boy and do things to try and erase or hide my gender. And I used to think, Maybe I'm supposed to be a boy, but as I've gotten older I think it's something beyond gender. I'm not really a boy or a girl. I feel something closer to pre- or post-gender somehow."
To clarify all that, he told a story:
"When I was a kid I was in a sand castle contest at summer camp. And I decorated my sand castle with the most beautiful thing that I found on the beach, which was these dried, silvery fish. When the other girls saw my sand castle, they were like, 'Gross. That's covered in dead fish.' It hadn't occurred to me that I had made this thing covered in dead fish. I thought I made it beautiful.
"And even though I knew they were making fun of me, I didn't care. I felt like the workshop would be an experience like that. I'm gonna get on stage and do something weird. Maybe no one will get it and they'll think, Gross—a pile of dead fish. Or maybe people will see my perspective and think there's something beautiful there, even if there is something weird or grotesque about it."
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