At a moment when our nation is struggling with fundamental questions about its identity, many of us are seeking transformation (whether political or personal) in our own lives—and no one knows more about transformation than a drag queen.
Queens have a reputation for fashioning themselves into something larger than life, for making themselves heard; if anyone can help us find our voices in difficult times, it's them. With that in mind, I asked drag royalty from across the country to reveal the experiences that helped them step up from so-called baby queens into the forces of nature that they are today, lessons that will resonate with anyone seeking change in 2017. Because in drag, as in life, creating a polished surface is just the beginning.
For Maddelyn Hatter, true transformation begins with finding the guts to work through her failures. "I think my major transformation would be to not fear risk," she said. "You'll only get better at something if you're willing to fuck it up." Sometimes, this philosophy applies to one's look—having the nerve to play with "the angle of your brow, the color of your contour"—but it often goes beyond that. For Hatter, it's about taking risks and developing the confidence to take chances in all parts of your life, and not being afraid to step outside yourself in order to find out what works. "You experiment, change it up always. Once you've found that one common denominator that defines you, hold on to that," she said. "Everything else can switch and change like the passing of time."
Finding self-confidence was also a key step forward for Cynthia Lee Fontaine, who said that her signature giddy humor and infectious laughter weren't always part of her drag persona. "In my first [RuPaul's Drag Race] audition tape, it looks like I'm selling vacuum cleaners in an infomercial that no one is going to watch at 3 AM," she said. "I was trying to be proper and professional, because when I was creating [my drag character] Cynthia, it was very pageant, very elegant, and sophisticated. But I'm really the clown in the family—they invite me to every party just to make them laugh. And I realized that separating Cynthia from my daily personality was a huge mistake."
Sometimes, Fontaine said, growth comes not from changing your personality but from augmenting what you know you already have. "You always try to have a certain outcome for yourself, so you don't realize what you have until you stop, look at yourself in the mirror, and say, Oh my God, I am very funny!" she said. "You should have the signature of your own real personal character on your character as an entertainer. That's going to be your key to success."
But transformation isn't always about augmenting the gifts you already have. Sometimes, Laganja Enstranja told me, it's about identifying and eliminating those traits that are holding you back. "The biggest thing that has made me the queen that I am today is getting sober," she said. "I was definitely wild and out of control before. It was all about the party, and not the art or creating an impactful message." In a 2015 interview with Johnny McGovern, host of the popular drag webseries Hey Qween!, Estranja said that she had spent the prior year getting "blackout drunk" while hosting events, attending RuPaul screenings, and even while waiting at the airport on her way to gigs. Driven by the insecurities that come with television notoriety and fueled by the constant stream of free drinks available while on tour, Estranja lost her way.
"But once I got sober, I found my passion and my voice as an activist," she told me. "Everything really changed for me. I wasn't just mindless entertainment anymore—I became an artist with something to say." Today, Estranja has made herself a visible advocate of medical marijuana reform, appearing on the covers of magazines like Dope poised to discuss the intersection of "gay rights, cannabis, and the pursuit of happiness."
Many queens I spoke with reached a turning point in their careers when they began to look at drag as more than just a pastime or a job. As they discovered better ways to connect with themselves, they were also discovering a deeper connection to their art. Like Estranja, Raja learned to look past the constant party that often accompanies life in drag to see what deeper lessons the craft could teach her. "The eye-opening experience for me was discovering that drag isn't just about the fun parts," she said. "Those are definitely the building blocks, but there's a spiritual base in it for me now. Drag teaches you about finding good balance—masculine and feminine, soft and hard—and looking past the black and white to find those middle areas you haven't really explored before. It's different for everyone, but I just find that I'm tapping into those more complex and spiritual aspects of drag that have been around for thousands of years."
True transformation isn't just about a change in one's persona or looks. It's about both—marrying surface with interior to see where they connect. Miss Fame, who is renowned for her immaculate makeup art, often speaks to that connection, and how creating a new exterior for oneself can spark an internal shift. "We all see ourselves a bit differently when in a look," said Fame. "I like to evoke a feeling with makeup. It's not just a face that carries a look for me, it's creating a vessel to carry an emotion to others, making someone look like and feel whatever it is they need to." Whether or not you're part of the drag world, or even captivated by drag, lessons like that can provide the inspiration we need to move forward at a time when our own best ally is ourselves.