Meet the Queen Behind New Orleans's Changing Drag Scene
Vinsantos Defonte is the queen of New Orleans queens, and she wants you to know that drag is having a comeback in the Big Easy—and it's bigger and bustier than ever.
Way down Bourbon Street, past the T-shirt shops and dozens of Hand Grenade stands, is Lucky Pierre's—one of the French Quarter's first exclusive all drag and burlesque clubs to have opened in decades. Inside, Vinsantos Defonte—queen of New Orleans's flourishing and newly bourgeoning alternative drag scene—is onstage with some middle-aged and middle-America types, asking questions about their sex lives and handing out complimentary drink tickets while the crowd ("mostly tourists," she tells me later) looks on. In full drag, wearing a short dress and black wing, she kind of looks like Elvira.
"It's mostly tourists that come here," she tells me later.
Since moving to New Orleans five years ago from San Francisco, Vinsantos has taken over the New Orleans drag scene with her distinctive harlequin and performance-art-y style. Her influence has expanded from the underground Bywater scene to more commercial clubs in the French Quarter; today, she runs one of the most intense drag workshops in the country and hosts a weekly drag bingo night, not to mention her onstage appearances at places like Lucky Pierre's, where she is currently simulating cunnilingus with a couple from Ohio.
While Lucky Pierre's has only been open for a year, it's done more than just bring back traditional Southern drag to tourists and locals in New Orleans; the club has created a community of queens from all over the city.
"Drag can be very cliquish," Vinsantos says. "So when this club was opening, they hired people from all the different drag scenes in the city. As opposed to before, when maybe we were afraid to talk to each other or throwing some kind of shade, now we're all friends and that's enhanced the experience."
And that's saying a lot. When she first moved to New Orleans, Vinsantos wasn't sure how her distinct style would fit in. "I don't think I'd ever done what I call real drag before moving here," she says. "I'd never worn breasts and I definitely wasn't padding or changing the shape of my body. I just had this signature face and fucked-up wig. There was never anything pretty about it. It had this sort of cartoon glamour to it and it was beautiful, but it wasn't what you would think of when you think of professional drag at all."
Southern drag has its own particular style—think big hair and sequined gowns, like Dolly Parton with a dirtier edge. It has a long history here, too; performers inherit the last names of drag houses that predate the 1960s in some instances. As a result, Vinsantos didn't see the scene as accommodating for transplants and performers wanting to experiment with more nontraditional forms of the craft. This is what prompted her to start the New Orleans Drag Workshop—now in its fifth cycle—where Vinsantos has taught dozens of queens who have challenged the traditional style. Several are now working as professional performers, and two biological female graduates are working full-time at commercial clubs like Lucky Pierre's, something that Vinsantos says is very rare for traditional Southern drag.
"As far as the drag workshop goes, I think it's really important that it's here," says Small Doses, Vinsantos's only drag daughter, after co-hosting a bingo night with her.
"There are men and women out there that want to be on stage doing drag or doing performance art or people that want to have the chance just to try it out," adds Small Doses. "It gives them a space to feel comfortable, to feel loved, and to not feel ashamed for who they are or what they're trying to do and it's comforting and embracing."
Small Doses has known Vinsantos longer than anyone in the New Orleans scene—they performed together in clubs and resorts throughout California in the early 2000s. Once Vinsantos set up shop in New Orleans, Small Doses was not far behind and was one of the original draguates from the first cycle of the workshop.
"I really didn't know what to expect when I went in because it was the first cycle, but it was something when we all came together and realized that we were all in it together and all there to support each other and we were all there to love each other. I think it's difficult to find an environment like that."
Vinsantos is unsure how much longer she'll continue to seek the spotlight and sees herself taking on more of a producer and mentor role, despite "only being 28." Currently, she's helping plan an international drag festival in Austin and is preparing for another cycle of the workshop this summer. She wants to be assured that the alternative drag scene in New Orleans will continue to flourish when she's transitioned from being a full-time performer, and thinks that her own vanity will likely be the driving force behind her retirement.
"Even now, I'm super critical of my age when I'm in drag and noticing those fucking fine lines, and those wrinkles, and those folds, and the extra chins. I'm getting hyper vain about the whole thing," she says. "These are things that I really am thinking of right now and why I think the workshop is such a big deal to me, because I do feel like the natural progression for the performer is to be on stage the whole time and then take what you've learned and then help other people grow their careers.
"At some point I'll know, I'll see that one photo that someone took at the club and think, That's it. I've got another ten years before it's just embarrassing though. Thank God for Botox."
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