A look behind the drag scenes: Meet the queens bringing you Pride 2019
“Our room isn’t ready, so we’re totally f@!ked.”
Lady Shug and her posse of queens, Deja Williams and Khloe Layla Malone, are due on stage in an hour at the San Juan Center for Independence in Farmington for the Queens Riot: A Celebration of Queer Resistance. It’s been a whirlwind of a day, with last minute trips to Albuquerque and Walmart in order to make sure everything for their show that evening is in order.
The hotel room, though, which should have been ready an hour ago, throws a wrench in things.
To pass the time, the trio brings in containers and bags of supplies they’ll need for their show into a back room, which turns from kitchen into makeshift dressing room.
After some anxious pacing, bored phone scrolling, and setting up merch tables, the crew decides to return to the hotel to see if they can start putting on their faces.
History in the beauty makingBaking. Contouring. Fake eyelashes. Cut crease. Ombré eyebrows. What many associate with beauty YouTube vlogs, Instagram, and the Kardashian/Jenner clan are actually makeup techniques long perfected and passed down from drag queens and drag mothers hustling in clubs.
“In pop culture, the queens, they always set the trends,” said Shug. “We’re always constantly changing the trends.”
It’s taken a long time for drag to be accepted into the mainstream, but its influence has been seeping into our culture for decades. In the ’60s and ’70s, iconic drag queen Divine starred in John Waters’ films and was even the inspiration for Ursula, the sea witch in the classic 1989 Disney movie “The Little Mermaid.” Throughout the ’90s, RuPaul appeared on talk shows, released “The RuPaul Show” in 1996 then “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2009, and was the 1994 face of the M.A.C Viva Glam collection. In the early 2010s, videos of beauty bloggers like Jaclyn Hill and Kim Kardashian, who were showcasing makeup techniques long used by drag queens, went viral. In 2012, Kardashian famously posted a before and after video of her contouring.
Still, the beauty industry is slow to recognize those who have paved the way.
“Do I feel the drag community has been given the credit it deserves for highlight, contour[ing], cut creases? No, I don’t,” Osmond Vacious, a.k.a. Vivacious, a New York-based drag queen since the ’90s club kid era, told Elle. “Why do I say that? When was the last time you saw a drag queen in a commercial for L’Oreal, CoverGirl, anyone? We’re not there.”
But there’s a lot more to these performers than just pantyhose and powder.
“As drag queens, we do give an element of magic and fantasy if you sit down and pay attention,” said Scarlett Ultra, a drag queen and host of Durango Pride 2019.
The painstakingly applied makeup and costumes can take hours. Scarlett, the winner of the 2017 Miss Drag Durango, has been thinking about Pride for the last six months.
She’s been buying costumes and rhinestones and listening to her playlist non-stop.
“I have to get into a certain headspace,” she said. “I have three weeks to get ready and start packing my bags. I divide everything into different baggies for different days and numbers.”
On the day of, Scarlett likes to take about six hours to apply paint and get into pantyhose and costume.
“When I first started, it took about three hours. The process has really developed when it comes to detail,” she said. “I feel like I focus more on myself than I did in the past. I take time on highlighter and contour and make sure everything is blended. That takes the longest to perfect. There’s a big advantage to sitting down and taking your time and listening to your music and focus on your paint. I listen to music, sing, and dance. Powder is everywhere. If you could fast forward, it’d be a puff of smoke and I’d be in drag.”
At the end of the transformation, Scarlett is a bombshell with beautifully exaggerated eyes. She’s been performing drag for 10 years, but just as everything else in the beauty and entertainment industries, the process is always changing.
“I feel like I’m always learning. There’s always a different eye, lip, and face shape,” Scarlett said. “My favorite part of drag is it’s always evolving over time.”
Her least favorite part?
“Tucking. There are ups and downs to tucking, but drag is painful. There have been times where it’s been so uncomfortable that after a show I’ve gotten in the car and undressed in the McDonald parking lot. But, if you give your all there’s going to be some pain. But I find rays of sunshine because it’s much more than that.”
Face timeMeanwhile, back at the hotel, the room is finally ready and preparations are in full swing.
Each performer secures a spot in front of a mirror, scrambling to shave, shower, and glue over their eyebrows. The hotel room is a gusto of powder, pantyhose, and a steady flow of cheeky banter that pings across the room like rainbow-fueled missiles.
“I need like 30 minutes to do my face. But for her it takes two to three hours,” said Shug, nodding toward Khloe.
“Shut up,” said Khloe, laughing.
“I swear, she has the smallest fucking face out of all of us, too,” said Shug, without missing a beat.
Amidst the panic of the running clock, the room is searingly hot. Deja repeatedly pauses in between layers of makeup to reach for a large black fan with the words “POWER BOTTOM” written across.
“My eyebrows are turning into oatmeal,” she said, making a face as she leans over a mirror.
Shug, unsuccessful in tracking down a ponytail holder, digs through her bag for an unusual, yet genius, replacement.
“If you ever don’t have a hair tie, just use a condom,” she said, pulling her hair back into a bun. “Because it has lubrication already.”
As they continue to powder, blend, and contour their faces, all three agree that their personas are inspired by the strong women in their lives and that they’re constantly growing as performers.
“I would say, for all of us, we just keep learning. With makeup trends, it constantly changes,” said Shug. “I was self-taught. I would just watch. The way I started doing drag, I was an assistant backstage manager and I enjoyed that, but I would never be in the spotlight until my mother pushed me out there. And then I kind of like it and I got a voice. But first, when I was younger I did drag the way I was taught. As we evolve and get older, our drag evolves as well. Khloe, do you feel like yours has changed?”
“Absolutely,” said Khloe while applying eyeshadow. “I would never dance (when I first started). My first year of my drag, I did not do my makeup at all. Everyone painted me.”
“Remember when I first started, I was the weirdo?” said Deja. “I was the weirdo creep queen. It took me a long time to figure out who I was in drag. My highlighter was real fucking bright and it still is, but after 10 years of doing drag, I’ve perfected a few things. And nothing is ever going to be perfect. We’re fucking men in women’s items. I’m not trying to be perfect. I’m just trying to be me.”
Shug – a nonbinary queer who performed in Las Vegas, was featured in Vice, is having a documentary made about her, and whose awards include one of The Advocate’s 2019 Champions of Pride, the 2018 USA Today Pride representative for New Mexico, and the 2016 Miss New Mexico Pride – moved back to the Gallup, N.M. area to be closer to her people. As a Dine/Navajo person, it’s clear when she talks about her people that her heart is still very much embedded in the community. There is still rampant poverty and a lack of acceptance when it comes to indigenous LGBTQ people, she said.
“Moving back to my reservation, I’ve become more in tune with my culture and with privileges and just being a voice for people who don’t have a voice or don’t feel comfortable using it,” Shug said. “My persona has been very cutting edge as far as it’s very political. It’s very in your face. Sometimes people will feel uncomfortable at the things I say or do when I perform. It’s become interesting. Shug has made me become more aware of myself in and out of drag.
“I didn’t realize my people were still so oppressed in society. ... My people are still living in like a third world country. No water and no electricity in so many parts of the reservation. ... No groceries, no healthcare for miles and miles away.
“We’re a sovereign nation. We have our own government. Even that, our government doesn’t protect our trans and gay relatives. There’s no hate crime laws. There’s no law protecting us from being fired for being gay if you work for the tribe. If you’re a same-sex couple living on the reservation, your marriage is not valid. So it’s super backward, and people don’t realize that. They think, ‘oh equality – we have same-sex marriage everywhere. No, no we don’t. So it gets kind of depressing talking about it, but it’s true. Lately, I’ve gotten my voice and I haven’t been silent for a while. I’m calling these officials out, like our president. Wake up. We’re here. Do something. Something should have happened many, many years ago.”
The show must go onAfter about an hour of hurried brush strokes and putting on bodies, it’s time to go. They’ll have to finish anything else in the venue dressing room.
On the way there, Shug runs through the schedule, rearranging this and that while going over everything with Deja and Khloe. After parking and dragging in the rest of their necessities and exchanging pleasantries with the other performers, Shug slips into a long, sleek dress, heels, and earrings before hurrying off to the stage.
“Oh myyyyyy,” said Shug to a roar of applause and excited shrieks. “What’s going on Farmington!”
The show has begun.