Ok, before you start to think this is the beginning of some Stephen Sondheim musical spectacular, I’m not talking about my “real” life. I have a fabulous mother; some of you may have seen her at a show, when I’ve brought her onstage to embarrass her after explicitly promising before the show that I won’t. (This time, I swear, I won’t.) Of course I bring her up on stage and make her part of the show. Even though I tease and I poke at my audiences, everything I do is out of love. So when you love someone, you include them and you show them off. You make them feel special. That’s what families do.
No, I’m talking about my lack of a drag mother.
When I was first getting started, I had to find my own way. I didn’t really know very many performers and there weren’t any drag shows happening locally. So as I started to play around with drag, I found another outlet: I became a party girl. Not a hooker, you perverts. A party girl. I would get all dressed up in whatever tragic ensemble I’d found on clearance at Sears (remember when Sears used to be in the Kmart “dirt” mall? Oh yeah, bitches – I’m old school!), my latest cheap plastic, neon-colored pageboy wig from Spencer’s and go find a party. Back in the day, I knew a lot of the downtown, art-slash-punk, indie band kind of crowd, and even if I was a little tragic, they’d invite me to their parties because they knew I’d get rip-roaring drunk, make people laugh, try to kiss someone’s husband, and eventually end up gracefully passed out on a stranger’s kitchen floor (assuming I wasn’t passing out in bed with the aforementioned husband!).
I had to sort of make it up as I went along. I didn’t have a lot of cash, so much of my early wardrobe stank of Walmart sweatshops or the softer side of Sears, with occasional splurges to buy mini-dresses from Frederick’s of Hollywood that were some sort of strange-smelling synthetic fabric that sparkled nicely but made me slightly terrified of open flames. I learned about makeup by trying to find whatever resources were available on the internet (and this was the late 90s, way before YouTube and blogging were glimmers in a proud programmer’s eye) and just diving in – going to the drug store to buy what I could on the cheap and slapping it on my face until it look not too tragic. And a little less tragic after that. And a little less after that. I don’t regret any of my experiences. Even the times where I looked…ummm…”less than flawless” was a learning experience that helped me grow as a performer and as a person, but it also helped me realize how important the role of the drag mother can be.
For some people, drag mothers are just the people who get them ready to go for the first time or the queen who paints their face for them. And that’s fine. Just like there are all different kinds of families, there are all different kinds of drag families, and they all structure themselves and define themselves a little bit differently. For me, I like to think of drag family as something different. For me, I don’t think a mother needs to get her daughters ready or even be the one to launch them out into the performing world. Both of my current drag daughters, Sally Bowles and Kelly Coxsyn, were performers before I dug my talons into them and dragged them into my crowded yet well-accessorized nest. It wasn’t that I thought I was a better performer or that I had so much to teach them; I chose them because I enjoyed their personalities, their performances, and their spirit. I felt that we connected around the idea of what drag could be, about what it meant to be a performer. Even if we don’t always agree, we can talk about things we’ve seen or things we want to try and these discussions are tremendously engaging. Sometimes I’m able to push them and help them grow, but they do the same for me. What I have to teach them is largely the result of ridiculous mistakes I’ve made that once seemed terrible, and now make us laugh.
For me, drag is all about community. I don’t dress up at home to look at myself in a pretty dress or to feel the luxurious feel of soft fabrics. That’s all great too, but I’m in it for the performing, for the crowd. Drag is about sharing something with a group of people in a room, about connecting with people no matter where they are at in their lives, or how different you think you might be. Drag is empowering: it allows us to play with gender, the press against those strict boundaries that hold us in, and see where we can create some wiggle room. And no matter what those Minneapolis-airport-dick-sucking-closeted-khaki-wearing-Log-Cabin-queers might tell you, drag has been an absolutely essential part of the queer community for about as long as there has been a queer community. Drag queens were at the Stonewall riots throwing bricks, and drag shows have raised countless dollars for queer causes at all level, from small fund-raisers for community members who are fighting AIDS or breast cancer to large events benefiting national activism for marriage equality and employment protections, and all of this while being told that our voices are not mainstream enough, our issues not “really” queer issues, and our faces – at least our painted faces – not welcome at the table.
That is why we need strong drag mothers. To remind us that we are an important part of our communities, even when our communities themselves forget it. We need to encourage each other to keep going, to work on our performances and to always strive to be better, because there is nothing, and I do mean nothing, in the world that can compare to the feeling of really connecting with a crowd and feeling that exchange of energy. We need strong drag mothers to ground us – in this world where every single word you hear about drag lately seems to be about pageants and competitions, it’s easy to lose your head and think that the only way to be a better performer is to do better and be better than those around us. And oftentimes, we try to do that by belittling and demeaning those other performers. But just as that tragic trainwreck of teen angst, Lindsay Lohan, learned in the math-induced climax of Mean Girls, tearing somebody else down doesn’t boost you up at all; it just brings everyone down.
Who you are and how you develop as a performer doesn’t depend on how many titles you have or how much shade you can throw at the other girls around. It depends on how you carry yourself, the effort you put into your performances and the way you chose to evolve. It depends on how you decide to be (or to not be) a positive force in the communities in which you live. More than makeup tips or styling choices, that is what I’ve tried to model for my drag daughters and that’s what I hope they pass on if they decide to have “children” of their own. It’s important because I really do believe that drag can be a powerful type of performance that can give the audience something to think about while also being tremendously entertaining. And the only way we as performers are going to raise drag to this level is by working together and building each other up instead of tearing each other down.
After all, that’s what families do.
Tags: communities, drag family, drag houses, drag mother, drag performance, Flawless, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Lindsay Lohan, Log Cabin Republicans, Mean Girls, performance art, queer activism, queer communities