This fall, I took part in a series of remarkable drag transformations. Armed with grease paint, false lashes, and support from my drag sisters, I helped half a dozen guys—one of them a straight hip-hop artist—leave their daily lives behind to become glittering queens for the first time.
For some of the boys I worked with, the drag metamorphosis was confined to Halloween. For others, it represented the start of a new career in drag. But all of them were so visibly moved by their experience that I began to reevaluate my understanding of drag’s transformative power. Watching ordinary guys begin to feel extraordinary, I wanted to know how makeup and Payless heels could so profoundly invigorate and liberate. So earlier this month, I sat down with three drag initiates to discuss how it feels to become a drag diva—what it’s like, as we queens put it, to “feel your fantasy.”
In the argot of queendom, the phrase “feeling your fantasy” often describes the moment when someone loses themselves in the glamour of their drag persona. If two queens are painting their faces side-by-side, and one of them notices her sister switch into diva mode, she might say: “Ooo, you’re already feeling your fantasy, girl!” This moment of ecstasy is always wonderful to observe in seasoned queens—but it’s truly powerful to witness in someone relatively new to drag.
Take Bobby, a friend who enlisted my guidance for a Halloween drag adventure after his buddies talked him into it. Built like an Andrew Christian underwear model, Bobby carries himself with the confidence befitting a gay man of his good looks, yet he always tempers that confidence with what his friends describe as an “elegant” manner. He is modest, polite, and straightforward. Or he was, until I commissioned my drag sister Monét X Change to paint his face. “Its amazing how our outer appearance can affect how we feel inside,” Bobby later told me. “Every time I looked in the mirror, I took on the persona of what I saw, which was bougie-er and bitchier than I ever imagined myself being.” When Bobby first glimpsed his altered reflection, the clean-cut, diplomatic gentleman I knew disappeared, replaced by an entrancing Naomi-Campbell-type who tossed her mane and demanded that we fetch her press-on nails.
Watching Bobby feel his fantasy, I was delighted. Maybe, as he suggests, he had never imagined being such a “bougie” creature. But I suspect that he had long yearned to unleash that diva spirit. And Bobby confessed that seeing himself in drag didn’t so much create something new in him as it gave him “permission” to put his usually deferential manner “on the back burner.” “Something came out that usually only my fiancé sees. I was this Upper East Side bitch who would not take the train,” he said. “And I have to say that I felt good.” Drag unleashed a part of Bobby that he too often—how shall I put it?—tucks away.
Before Bobby’s night in drag, I thought of drag as a mask behind which a queen hides herself. But Bobby’s experience triggered an evolution in that view. As much as drag veils someone, it also reveals, releases, and magnifies them. Maybe that’s because, when a painted queen looks into a mirror, she suddenly sees herself as something extravagant and extraordinary. Or perhaps it’s because the people she encounters begin to treat her that way.
When I guided my friend Mark through his first drag experience last month, he was more affected by the reactions of others than by seeing his reflection. Like Bobby, Mark is a good-looking, confident, but low-key gentleman—a far cry from the stereotypical drag personality. To make matters more interesting, he’s a straight guy, a father, and a hip-hop artist who rarely displays any flashiness until he’s on stage for a Lower East Side rap battle. So I was surprised when Mark accepted a challenge from his wife to try a day of drag with Miz Cracker. And I was even more fascinated by how calmly he took his physical transformation. Looking in the mirror after Ms. Change painted his face, he seemed happy … but somehow unmoved.
It wasn’t until we entered our first bar together that Mark began to feel his fantasy. “Me being in drag didn’t change my outlook,” Mark said. “The way that people looked at me did.” In New York’s gay scene, a well-painted queen is always treated like royalty. In a downtown drag bar, Mark was greeted enthusiastically by gaggles of gays eager to invite him to their tables. And it was this reception—not the makeup—that unleashed him. Mark mingled and joked with strangers, posed for pictures, compared notes on heels with lesbians. At one point, I even caught him doing a little dance for a nearby mirror. Mark was energized. “For me as an artist, it was about the audience’s presence and the attention, being able to take over the crowd,” Mark told me. “In the bar, there was a whole bunch of love. And I’m not even gonna front—I enjoyed it.” The crowd made Mark’s evening. And as I watched him, I wondered what would happen if Mark took this drag experience and ran with it.
Which brings me to Brian, also known as Ms. Juicy Liu. Brian came to me for a series of lessons just before he entered and won a major New York City drag competition. At the time, he was a very shy boy who had only dabbled in drag at parties. But by our last meeting, he had made a name for himself as a stage queen, drawing attention from nightlife folk and local divas alike. And though Brian remained shy in boy clothes, dressing as Juicy gave him meaningful access to something that he had privately dreamed of since his years of high-school drama classes. “I feel like [drag] has brought out this showgirl aspect of me that existed only in my living room, not out and about,” Brian told me. “That’s what’s been fun about Juicy—becoming a Broadway performer. Well, I’m not that. But it’s that feeling.”
Over the course of our Drag 101 meetings, I got to see Brian undergo a transformation much larger than Mark’s or Bobby’s. Yes, I saw him delight in his reflection after our first makeup workshop; and yes, on our first night out in drag together, I got to see him feed off of a gay throng’s adoration. But I also got to see him perform as a queen for the first time, win his first lip synch battle, bow humbly before his first standing ovation, survive his first drag scandal, and receive his first crown. In short, I saw Brian feel his full fantasy as Juicy Liu. And I learned how embracing drag can change your life, simply by giving you a face, an audience, and a forum that allows you to explore a hidden side of yourself.
*Editor’s note: To protect the fantasies of the subjects, only first names were used.