An infectious energy buzzed throughout the upper level of the Tabu Lounge and Sports Bar, during the weekly Sinful Sundays performance—and it wasn't just from the whiskey. The crowd whooped and cheered, waving their tips in the air as Omyra Lynn, decked out in black and gold, performed a number to Kelly Roland's seductive single "Kisses Down Low." Each queen captivates her audience with such intoxicating charisma, that it became easy to forget that these ladies are lip-syncing, or, sometimes, the fact that these aren't actually ladies.
Spanning over multiple genres, the art of drag has been turning heads for centuries, from Greek and Roman theater, to comedic vaudeville, to the 1990's UK show Blankety Blank, with the flashy and quick-witted Lily Savage. While its history in the US has been a tumultuous one amidst adversity against the LGBT community, in less that 50 years it has also seen a journey from the Stonewall Riots, to the mainstream popularity of RuPaul's Drag Race. Here in Philadelphia, the drag scene continues to flourish, with Sinful Sundays, Brittany Lynn's Drag Mafia, the Dollhouse Revue, a second cycle of Drag Wars, and much more. However, becoming a drag queen is more than throwing on a dress. The fiercest queens employ the combination of elaborate cosmetic design, costumes, wigs, lip-syncing, live singing, dancing, etc. Layer all that upon the development of a daring persona and drag becomes as much the art of confidence as it is about its striking aesthetics.
"Doing drag is one of the most empowering things I have ever done in my life," said the Goddess Isis, the host of Sinful Sundays, who has been performing drag now for about 20 years. "You put a microphone in my hand, I'm the most confident person you'll ever meet."
After sneaking into a DC club at the age of 16, the Goddess Isis' first real exposure to a live drag show also became her first time as a drag performer. "They had a show called a Suicide show, where they would just randomly pull somebody out of the audience. Then, they would take you down to the dressing room, put you in drag, and put you out on stage and let you do a number," said Isis. Aside from some trouble managing his wandering false breasts, during a lip-sync performance of Mariah Carey's "Make it Happen," Isis said that it was a great first experience. "And I just haven't stopped since then."
For Isis, a key component of drag performance is the ability to connect to others. "You have to learn the art of communication with the crowd," said Isis. Observing the Sinful Sundays numbers, this is easy to understand. When performing to a mix of Tony Basil's "Mickey" and Kreayshawn's "Gucci Gucci," what gets the audience going isn't just the intensity that put into the song. It's also that undeniable sensation, as the performer locks eyes with patrons, of absorbing every ounce of attitude, and soaking up every word, somehow just by locking eyes.
Porcelain, a Philly native and local queen, described drag performance as a "confession stand." "Whatever happened that week, you can kind of tell through song selections what someone's going through," said Porcelain. Though she only began drag performing two years ago, her background in more traditional arts made for a smooth transition. "Even with tattooing or painting, you're still sculpting faces when you're doing portraits," said Porcelain. "When I apply it to drag, I kind of already have the mind to figure out how to give myself plastic surgery, and make things look different," said Porcelain.
Another performer, Misty Maven, went to school for makeup, also explained how just the cosmetology alone factors heavily into the artistry of drag queen performance. Using the face as a "three dimensional canvas," he can completely alter the shape of his face, and create a new jaw line. She said, "It's an art form because you have to know contouring, highlighting, and color theory. Everything like that comes into play."
One also has to admit, there is quite no other style of expressive outlet quite like drag. It can be taken in endless directions and genres, and can draw inspiration from anything and everything. One is free to fully embrace a feminine transformation, while some can go a more comedic route, with full makeup and a five o'clock shadow. For example, though they have many similar tastes, and perform in many of the same shows, Porcelain's dazzlingly dark, fetishistic style is a stark contrast to Misty Maven's pretty approach, with its weird or crazy undertones. "We can be wearing the same dress and probably look completely different, still," said Misty.
Misty also explained how drag scenes tend to fluctuate just from geographical nuances. Unlike the pageants of the south and the club kids of New York, many Seattle drag queens go an entirely separate route. "They'll do this thing, where they just wear normal women's clothes but then their makeup will be like bright white lipstick with a beard, and glitter eyebrows," said Misty. "No one does that here."
The wide span of genres, the exotic makeup, and wild costumes, suggest that drag cannot simply be broken down as just dressing up as the opposite gender. For the Goddess Isis, she said her persona is "more of a comic book character… than she is someone trying to look like a woman." Her look, which can involve heavy tribal designs, eye patches, and highly decorated rhinestone designs adorning her bald head, reflects this image of a comic book heroine. This also ties into the tradition of lip-syncing. "When I do a Pink song, I'm not trying to impersonate Pink. I just want you to get a feeling for that song that she's delivering, and whatever twist I might put on it," she said. "I've done Pink's Raise Your Glass but as Dionysus, the god of wine."
Aside from drag shows, Porcelain has also been booked for fashion shows and art galleries. Over the summer, she'll also be attending Warped Tour shooting blood from a water gun at a few lucky audience members. "I guess I broke out more into the alternative scene, as the whole, alternative tattooed girl. It's kind of like people are seeing that as Porcelain, which is cool, because I'm not just being limited to drag," said Porcelain. The Goddess Isis explained that she, alongside many fellow Philly queens, have used their infectious positivity for good, becoming involved with several anti-bullying and suicide prevention programs, emphasizing the importance of "being a light."
"I think everybody should do drag once," said Isis. "If you ever have a confidence issue, get in drag. Get in drag. You're ten feet tall. Every time." Whether it's Porcelain's alternative pin-up shoots or Misty Maven's makeup tutorials, it's all a testament to the remarkable strides that drag performance as taken, and the new interests that have been taken with aid from mainstream television. However, if you have an interest in drag, you don't just have to tune into RuPaul's Drag Race for inspiration, but take a look at the dozens of talented Philly queens.