Men and women in St. Louis are giving drag performance a new meaning.
Written by Hayden Andrews
To dress in drag is to style oneself in the wardrobe typically designated to the opposite sex, but to perform in drag is to express oneself beyond the stage. A drag number is a platform for artists to explore gender binaries and develop their own character.
At Webster University, the “Webster Bubble” is notorious for diversity in sexual orientations and identities. Webster’s uniquely safe environment births an opportunity for students to embrace the technique of drag, while channeling a little bit of attitude into a performance.
Webster held a spotlight on drag for thirteen years before RuPaul brought drag to the mainstream with his show, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Since 1996, Webster has been the venue for Drag Ball, the university’s second most attended event of the year (next to graduation).
Drag Ball continues to provide a stage for students with a desire to perform. University students are encouraged to take the stage without hesitation, a challenge to those refusing to acknowledge drag as more than playing dress up.
Public relations major Kevin Hamilton never did drag before Spring 2013. But after hearing about Drag Ball, he knew drag was for him.
Minoring in dance, Hamilton spent the last year working on his technique for the Webster University Dance Ensemble. After training last summer with a choreographer from a past show, Hamilton is now an understudy at The Slaughterhouse Dance Company, based at Washington University.
“Sometimes I am afraid that people are judging, because whenever you perform it’s like your most vulnerable place. People are looking at your talent, looking at what you have,” Hamilton said.
From a musical theatre background, Hamilton came to Webster without a lot of dance training. Mesmerized that “men were able to express themselves through drag,” it was by taking dance classes here that he was able to gain the technique needed to become the triple threat he aimed to be.
“When I do drag, I go for performance. I’m such a happy person, and I don’t really express my anger. So when I’m doing drag, I get to express anger and be a diva. I get to be whoever I want to be on stage. It’s just an exciting feeling,” Hamilton said.
Just after his first drag performance at the Spring 2013 Drag Ball, Hamilton was invited to compete at Attitudes Nightclub’s bootcamp, a regular event for amateur drag performers. Two weeks after, Hamilton placed first in the bootcamp competition. A St. Louis native, Hamilton had been an audience member at Attitudes before, where he got his first glimpse of drag. He credits the experience for inspiring him to go for a “total performance,” beyond just wanting tips.
Located in The Grove, St. Louis’ “gayborhood” known for primarily LGBTQ traffic, Attitudes is a venue for drag shows and nightlife, open to those 18 and older.
Sophomore visual arts management major N’Dea Whitfield was inspired to perform at Drag Ball after watching a drag show at Attitudes. Drag wasn’t a hobby for her before Webster. Had she chosen a different university, Whitfield says the LGBTQ family experience wouldn’t have compared to the one she has at Webster.
“Schools elsewhere [wouldn’t] be as accepting or nearly as celebrated to be out and proud,” Whitfield said.
Webster encourages students to nurture their confidence, whatever they may pursue. For Senior Ryan Moore, costume design major in Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts, performing as Anna Rex is a way to challenge societal norms: he doesn’t have to fit in and is able to look however he wants. Since his first drag performance at Attitudes in 2011, drag has demanded Moore to discover parts of himself and be secure in them.
“[Drag] makes it hard to become someone else when you aren’t 100 percent sure of yourself,” Moore said.
He believes if he had attended school elsewhere, his drag career would’ve gone differently.
“Webster has such an accepting atmosphere that I didn’t really think twice about diving into the world of drag,” Moore said.
A Dark Place
Drag became a very real sanctuary for 23 year-old Edward Barton following a tragic life event. At 15 years old, Barton transferred schools and moved across the country. Living with his aunt, Barton attended a high school where he knew no one.
“I did some things I probably shouldn’t have done. It was dark,” Barton said.
Right before graduating high school, Barton began doing drag in 2007 after seeing an amateur show at Boxers and Briefs in St. Louis. After going to Attitudes
with then-host Victoria Rose, one of the first drag queens he’d seen perform, Barton thought he would only do it once. Now, Barton is set to enter the Miss Missouri Continental Pageant in January as Kamiya Krush. If Barton places in the top two, he’ll compete in Chicago.
“I think drag saved me,” Barton said.
After seven years on stage under several different names, drag has become a business for Barton. He performs for money, but his drag persona is ultimately about being an individual.
“I can be anybody that I want to be. Kamiya is not just one person, she is many,” Barton said.
Barton has been booking a slot at Drag Ball, one of his favorite events, for several years.
“Webster is the only university I’ve ever known to have an annual drag show,” Barton said.
Siren and GlitterBomb
While Tyler Cross and GlitterBomb Productions have made Attitudes one of the top drag venues in St. Louis, Cross also is a fixture in the school community. Hosting Drag Ball almost every year for the past 10 years, Cross has been able to watch the university community evolve.
“Webster has gotten more and more liberal since I’ve been around here, since 2003. Everybody knows that, it attracts more of itself,” Cross said.
Growing up in Bonne Terre, MO, Cross came from “a strictly non-Christian, open-minded, slightly hippie-esque household,” seeing Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time at 5 and swearing his mom was at the video store picking up ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” the day it was released on VHS. At a young age, Cross was in disbelief to find drag as a career option. Word of drag in the city brought him to St. Louis, where he only had to see one show.
“You’re always like, ‘I want to be an astronaut or a firefighter.’ There’s no box to check for drag queen,” Cross said. “I didn’t really go into it with a character necessarily, and it was a long time before I realized I had one. Performance and hosting—hosting especially—were very essential to figuring out inadvertently who my character was.”
Even after 11 years on the drag circuit as Siren, Cross is “always coming up with something new in drag.”
“There’s always a million things I want to get done. Sometimes [Tyler] almost feels secondary, because [Siren] is very large. It’s hard to keep up with that,” Cross said.
Self-described as a “reasonably shy person,” Cross says drag can be for anyone.
“I know some people who are really, really, really bad at drag, and they’ve been doing it a really long time. And it’s awesome that they love it, and it brings them so much joy,” Cross said.
Concerning mentoring drag “children,” Cross has a strict no-adoption policy. A little too young for parenting, Barton sticks with his circle of queens, saying all of the friends that have been there for him, he made through drag.
“Anytime I need anything or I’m upset, they’re always there to help,” Barton said.
Drag families not only provide a haven for new drag artists seeking acceptance, but also are an opportunity to exchange makeup pointers or tutelage on weaker numbers.
Family members can be hesitant to accept drag as a creative outlet. Oftentimes, those who do drag feel a sense of isolation or judgement from their own family members.
“Being part of a drag family, is knowing that the people you’ve surrounded yourself with know, understand and accept you for exactly who you are,” Moore said.
It is this sense of acceptance and family that oftentimes helps new artists deal with some of the judgement that comes with performing in drag.
The exposure to cross-dressing in the university community instills a comfort with cross-dressing into students.
Moore says students’ understanding of drag as an art form, as self-expression, equips them to spread tolerance for LGBTQ youth beyond the “Webster Bubble.” Maybe someday a student will return to Drag Ball a veteran, year after year to raise yet another generation.