If there is one thing North Dakotans know, inside and out, it’s nice. Or at the very least, the appearance of nice. In fact, before we had an oil boom or crazy legislators who thought we should try to force women’s reproductive organs back to the 1950s, the main thing we were known for was a little thing called “North Dakota Nice.” It didn’t mean that we were actually nice, of course; it just meant that we were nice to you out in the open. We might hate your face actively and openly in our living rooms and around our dining room tables, but if we were in our yard and you were in yours, we’d still smile a tight-lipped little smile and wave before going back inside, muttering under our breath about what a horrendous douche-nozzle you were. Good fences, good neighbors and all that bullshit. Like any place, we have our lunatic fringe that loves to get hatefully vocal on the editorial pages (or in the local pulpit), but for the most part I was raised around good old-fashioned passive-aggressives who make a mean tater tot hotdish but NEVER make a scene.
Even though I’ve become a fabulously raunchy drag queen and was a bit of a social shit-starter in my younger days, that “North Dakota Nice” mentality is always there in the back of my mind. Every time I open my mouth, there will always be a part of my brain, tucked way in the back wearing a neutral housedress with a frilly apron and clutching her tasteful pearls, that is a little bit horrified by the things that come out. Still, I always thought of myself as a pretty “open book” kind of person: much of my comedy while hosting shows comes from my own life, because what is the point of having crazy adventures and meeting (and sometimes fucking) eccentric and strange people if you don’t get a good story out of it?
But then something strange happened: I started work on filming a documentary. I’d always had the idea that a documentary would be a great project. There are a lot of people out there who had no idea that there are fabulous drag queens here in North Dakota, and my very existence is eye-opening to them. For a lot of those people, they are even more perplexed when they find out that I have a master’s degree and teach college-level classes. If they were aware of drag queens before, at best they didn’t really think of them as “actual people” who had lives outside of the makeup and spotlights and at worst just assumed that drag queens were some sort of specialty sex workers or strange perverts lurking in the shadows waiting to snare their unsuspecting husbands in a trap of duct tape and discount lingerie (for the record, when I snare someone’s husband, they are always perfectly aware of the situation – in fact, they are usually initiating it – and I NEVER do it in discount lingerie. That cheap nylon irritates my skin; I’m delicate, you whores!). Like everyone, I have had my share of personal struggles and I know there are people out there who can identify with them. Plus, having been a fabulous drag queen for the last decade and a half has left me with some pretty funny stories. A documentary seemed like the perfect idea.
I expected that the project would be very personal, that I would have to come face to face with my most vulnerable moments. What I didn’t expect was that 1950s housewife voice in my brain to get louder, more aggressive, and much more agitated. All of that “open book” stuff went right out the window and I started to worry about what I was putting out there in the world. Did I really want to talk about THAT? Do I really need to share THAT story? We’re very early in the filming process, and I’m already catching myself editing, wanting to stay away from certain details or situations that are too…messy. Much of what we’ve filmed so far has been more general background – how I got into drag, my interests in theatre as well as some of my non-drag interests but at one point the conversation veered toward a very emotional time in my life: when my grandmother passed away. There was much about that experience that I had tucked away, not ready or willing to fully deal with it. As we talked, and as the memories and emotions came to the surface (along with more than a few tears), that polite voice in my head had risen almost too a panic. I felt like I shouldn’t be sharing as much as I was. That I should keep it inside, and present a calm, distanced front.
That’s really what “North Dakota Nice” is all about: repression. Our culture doesn’t place a high value on emotion or vulnerability, so we repress those things in order to seem cool, calm, and collected. It doesn’t matter that those things are still there, even when we hide them, or that we are doing ourselves more harm than good by keeping it all bottled up inside. What matters, or so we think, is keeping up appearances.
I never thought I was on board with the whole repression thing, but vulnerability just isn’t easy for any of us, no matter how self-aware we think we are or how open we think our book is. It’s one thing to say that we want to share our story with the world, but it’s another to realize that we have to share the whole story, and be open to other’s interpretations of our stories, if we want them to be truly meaningful. Yes, I could edit out parts of my story that I find unflattering, but I believe in this project and I don’t want it to just be some sort of Janessa Jaye Champagne promotional video. If people are going to connect with me and my story, it has to be because I’m a whole person, someone who sometimes makes bad choices and isn’t always the shining hero in their story. I love Miranda Lambert’s song “My Mama’s Broken Heart” because it really gets at the heart of this desire to keep up appearances and not do anything that the neighbors will talk about:
In this case, I’m both the mother and the out-of-control daughter; part of me wants to keep everything safe and sanitized, without exposing my shaky and vulnerable self, and another part of me wants to finally say all of those things that I know I probably shouldn’t but that feel like they’re killing me slowly from the inside out. I’ve always said that there are three sides to any story – your side, their side, and the truth – and being willing to be truly open and reveal myself, even when I’m not always the “good guy” in every situation, helps bring me a little closer to that truth. It can feel scary and a little out of control, but that can also be very freeing.
And even in what little filming we’ve done so far, I’ve started to discover something I didn’t anticipate: the more I let go of those expectations of how I should behave or what I should or shouldn’t allow myself to say, the more I’ve begun to feel like the hero in my own story once again. We are defined as much by what we don’t say as what we do say, and the more I open up and say those things that have been packed away in the dark, dusty corners for so long, the more I find myself once again feeling in control. It’s a scary place to be, but it’s also rewarding and surprisingly joyful. And hopefully someday soon, with some editing and a catchy title, it will make a damn good film.
(Keep an eye on the World of Champagne for updates about the currently untitled documentary project starring our very own Miss Jaye, as well as for details about the inevitable fabulous world premiere party! For now, we’ve decided to post a very early teaser featuring a tiny portion of what we’ve been working on so far. We hope you enjoy it!)
Tags: 1950s housewife, Champagne Dreams Productions, Chris M. Stoner, Chris Stoner, concept trailer, depression, documentary, documentary film, drag documentary, drag performance, drag queen, drag queen film, hotdish, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye Champagne, keeping up appearances, Mama's Broken Heart, mental illness, Miranda Lambert, non-fiction film, North Dakota Nice, repression, theater, theatre, Tim O'Neal, world premiere