You’d never know it by the time they serve us glamour onstage, but the night doesn’t always start out pretty for a drag queen. Two hours before showtime, the varied cast members file into the PLAY Dance Bar dressing room to paint their faces and don their costumes and wigs. Some are men and some transgender ladies, all are gorgeous, talented and ready to give their all to entertain the guests of the bustling Nashville nightclub.
With the new abundance of instructional YouTube videos and a certain drag queen-focused reality television show, the mysteries of female illusion are no longer what they used to be. Now that drag performers’ carefully tucked secrets have been exposed, there is a challenge to keep drag audiences excited and entertained. PLAY emcee and Miss Universal Show Queen 2012, Dee Ranged, agrees.
“The Drag Race show is great,” she says, while transforming from Rob to Dee with a makeup brush and thick layer of stage paint, “but it is a reality television show; people have to remember that. It’s not the best drag out there just because it’s on TV. A lot of these things they are showing on camera, the tricks that we’ve been doing for years behind the scenes. No one was really supposed to know how we did it, and that’s what was fun about it: the illusion of drag. Now it’s even harder because we have to perform with everyone knowing exactly what we do back here. So you’ve got to twist things and show the audience something completely crazy onstage.”
Completely crazy describes Dee Ranged herself. While PLAY Dance Bar’s signature performance style leans toward beautiful female illusionists, Dee Ranged’s wild character performances like Edward Scissorhands and the Mad Hatter add comic relief and wild creativity to the popular Church Street shows.
The lovely Sara Andrews also started out as a comedic performer, but not surprisingly has found her art evolving more toward the “pretty”.
“Every now and then I still pull out a funny number just because I enjoy it,” she says about finding inspiration for her performances at PLAY. “I also look to pageant contestants I admire and watch lots of videos and look at pictures of other performers online. I love to try to figure out a new way to do my makeup or hair.”
Meanwhile, Nichole Ellington Dupree has been making Nashville audiences gasp with her fabulous dancing and flawless “death drop” move for years. She credits her drag “mother” longtime Cabaret and Chute performer Vanessa Del Rio with instilling in her the importance of giving an audience an amazing experience.
“No matter what you are doing you have to have a connection with your audience,” Nichole says. “That is the key to success. I try to express what is in my heart and draw from the emotions I am feeling that day.”
She also says requests from friends are great too.
“When people make a point of coming to see you and share what they like and their point of view with you, it is especially rewarding,” she explains. “They want you to succeed and want to give you support and help you be your best. So I love getting recommendations about fashion and music and my friends’ advice.”
Cast member and Entertainer of the Year 2011 pageant winner Aurora Sexton thinks the increasing TV popularity of drag and female illusion performance art has brought change to the profession.
“I think a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race is good for drag in general, because it brings attention to the art form and exposes a new generation to something they may not have seen before,” Aurora explains. “Back in the day the pageant system was how girls advanced in drag and got more bookings and higher fees. Now for many performers TV is the goal, and that has made things very different in our industry. It’s a different skill-set to be a TV personality than a live performer, and now it is also being rewarded differently.”
However, according to Aurora, a downside of the popular LOGO reality show is the lack of representation of transgender entertainers.
“Some of the most talented performers in our industry are transgender,” she says, “and that they are excluded from the show fails to show the wide variety of female illusion being performed today.”
“Every type of entertainer has a shelf life,” explains Play Mate and transgender performance artist Deception. “You have to stay current and keep your act fresh. Audiences have a very short attention span, and it’s our job to keep them entertained and make them forget about their problems for a few hours.”
The ladies agree that that is the value of a really good entertainer: they can capture an audience and truly command a stage.
“Drag is like the army in a way,” Deception says. “Many are called but few are chosen.”
See the Play Mates live at Nashville’s PLAY Dance Bar on Church Street Wednesdays through Saturdays at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. with an additional 9:30 p.m. show on Saturdays.