DRAG QUEEN: UNDRESSED
It was our first drag show. It surprised me because we live in Texas and Austin HAS to be the drag-iest city in Texas, right? But alas, I was a drag show virgin. I left my kids with a sitter, was delightfully surprised that my husband thought it would be fun, and off we went, using our valuable time away from the kids to go support a friend. Pannica Tack would be announced as candidate for Empress XXI of The United Court of Austin, a prestigious honor. My husband and I walked in to see her smiling face right away – PHEW! No awkward standing around pretending this was totally normal for us! She immediately introduced us to the current reigning Empress, Anastasia Fabre Davis, who did a great job making us feel welcome. We ordered drinks and mingled with a group of Queens. We may have been the only heteros in the place, but we were welcomed with open arms.
The night was filled with surprises and realizations of how little I know about drag. As the show began, the crowd fell silent, and the MC introduced the first performer. The music started as a Queen made her way out onto the floor lip synching a song that deserved to be belted out in all of it’s glory. Then my stomach jumped into my throat when I saw people lining up with dollars.
Did I accidentally walk into some kind of Drag strip club? What was going on?! And how exactly were they going to take off all those layers of clothes? Having already seen how complex getting dressed in drag was, I couldn’t imagine any of those clothes coming off gracefully on the floor. I’m pretty open minded, but male strippers are NOT my thing (regardless of what kind of clothes they are taking off). I glanced at my husband to see if he was as concerned as I was.
The performer took the dollars, curtsied to the tipper, and dropped the money in a large pot. I tagged someone walking by and asked what was going on. Apparently this is how drag performers are typically paid – through tips. All of their prep, beauty and grace is rewarded from the audience.
What made this particular event more spectacular is that all of the money tipped was going to charity. AWESOME! I shuffled through my clutch and my husband’s pockets for cash. As a member of the United Court of Austin Pannica Tack helps raise funds for charitable organizations! BOOM! Philanthropy is not only a part of the show – it’s the point! I absolutely love their work. The United Court of Austin works to raise financial support and supply services for all kinds of agencies that work to fight diseases like HIV, AIDS and breast cancer. Some of these organizations are: AIDS Services of Austin (ASA), Project Transitions, Breast Cancer Resource Center, Roy Lozano’s Ballet Folklorico, SPCA, Battered Women’s Shelters, and Wright House Wellness Center (WHWC). They have raised over $600,000 for these and other charities since 1994.
The next performer was someone I knew, and I was a little shocked to see him.
It was Pannica’s partner, Hardeux Tack, whom I mostly know as Darrell. But he was wearing men’s clothes! And he was singing for himself! I had expected to see only men wearing women’s clothing. The surprises didn’t
stop there – throughout the night people of all genders presenting as all genders took to the floor. There were even women who performed as women – wearing less make-up and sequins than I was wearing! The one thing they ALL did was perform songs that were belt-worthy. Not only that, but all kinds of songs; rock, country, theater tunes and even one rendition of Let it Go, the popular song from Frozen. As the parents of two girls my husband and I smirked at each other as we recognized the tune. At one point I leaned over and told him I was having flashbacks to performing Celine Dion songs in my bedroom when I was a little girl. OK, so maybe I still do from time to time. I might be more of a Queen than I realized!
I was IN LOVE. We had SO much fun! This was the Candidate Announcements, so EVERYone who is involved with the The United Court of Austin, as well as guests from the other six Courts in Texas, were there. We met people from all over the state – even WACO! Having formerly lived in Waco you better believe I found them and asked them all kinds of questions. I’m a white straight girl and I found Waco oppressive, I can’t imagine trying to run a drag show there!
A few new friends bought us some drinks and we got invited to the after party at a gay club up the street. We danced, we drank, and my husband got hit on all night. My cleavage has never been more useless, but it turns out my man is a hottie so we were still able to get a few free drinks! Lucky for me he is straight as an arrow, but he rather enjoyed the ego stroke. What better compliment than being hit on by a member of a population best known for their great taste? Thank you, Queens, I know my husband is quite the catch.
Well, it started when I met Pannica at Bedpost Confesssions. After I started The Good Body Project I had gotten the idea that photographing a Drag Queen from start to finish would be quite fascinating, and Pannica was the PERFECT subject.
I went to Pannica’s house for our photography session not knowing exactly what to expect. I honestly didn’t know much about drag other than what I had seen in Too Wong Foo. I had some limited insight from the interactions I had had with her at Bedpost Confessions, but hadn’t asked any hard questions. I was planning to ask Pannica some of those questions and I knew I would put my foot in my mouth at least once before I left. She assured me no questions were off limits, no matter how ignorant they may seem, and promised she would not get offended because she knew I would be coming from a place of genuine curiosity.
When I got there, Bret opened the door. No sequins and feathers, no line dancers or fanfare. I think this was maybe the second time I had ever seen Pannica out of “uniform”, and it was weird. Like seeing a police officer who works in your building in their street clothes. I had to do a bit of a double take! I have always referred to Pannica as a “she” but seeing her as she was in daily life – dressed as a man – my heteronormative brain was doing flips. It was failing at trying to comprehend why Pannica was standing before me in jeans and a t-shirt. I was already dreading the pronoun catastrophe that was likely to come.
(Disclaimer: I am not an expert on the Transgender community. I give this advice in order to help those unfamiliar with the Trans Community. If you have feedback on this advice please let us know so that we can best serve the general public)
Since pronouns and terminology for men who dress in women’s clothes are the most sensitive, that is naturally the first question I asked. As I set up my lights and back drop Bret explained that it is usually safest to go with the gender that is being presented to you, and if you aren’t sure, ASK. Still, it is not so cut and dry. What do I do when he stands before me as he is in his daily life – a man? When he himself stumbles when he leaves me voice messages?
“Hey doll! It’s Bret… Pannica… WHATEVER. Call me back!”
Well, for the purposes of this piece I will use the pronoun “she” from here on out except where I am speaking of Bret before Pannica was born.
After lots of discussion on drag queens, men, women, trans men, trans women, and the rest of the alphabet soup under the trans umbrella I had an epiphany: drag doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the sexuality or gender identity of the performer – or the viewer. If you enjoy bawdy theater, great music and amazing stage makeup, you’d probably like drag. You don’t have to be transgender, gay – or even in touch with your cisnormativity (if you don’t know what this means, it is probably what you are) – to enjoy the lights, colors, music and fashion that is a Drag Show. Aside from randy queens getting some while they happen to be wearing a dress, this is neither the focus of nor the intent of drag shows. And don’t worry, when queens take their partners to the bathroom at the club it isn’t for risky business, it’s because taking three pairs of hose off to pee is damned near impossible when you are wearing press on nails.
But back to the moment – where was the damn glitter and sequins? Pannica’s home was modestly decorated with simple modern decor, quite peaceful. I had honestly expected her home to look a little like my good Jewish friend’s parent’s house; plastered in fake gold and other gaudy atrocities. Her partner was in the kitchen cooking carne guisada and their cat dodged playfully around my equipment. We shot her before shots and talked about our favorite music. It was anticlimactic and lovely and… normal. And then…
THE DRAG ROOM
A room bounding with flowers and wigs and gowns and YES! SEQUINS! The adjoining bathroom – stocked with more makeup than I have ever seen a single person own, in every imaginable color, shade and level of “sparkle”. She put my tiny bare-bones make up bag to shame and I was immediately overwhelmed with the endless possibilities of color combinations and blends.
As Pannica began the process of applying her make up we talked about things that heteronormative people say, “How do you walk in those shoes?!?!”, and the things I never knew drag queens said about each other, “She’s fishy”, meaning she really looks like a woman. Seeing the process of her gluing her eyebrows down, yes, with an Elmer’s stick of glue, and paint over them to make her face completely white I understood clearly why one might call someone who likes to sleep with a drag queen in drag a “clown f**ker” (OMG, I KNOW I KNOW! Her words, not mine!).
So with the basic “what to say/what not to say/what we can say but you can’t say” talk out of the way we moved onto eye make up and Pannica’s back story.
THE BACK STORY
Bret was born in a tiny town in East Texas. The only indication of his future as a drag queen was his love of theater and one moment when he was about five years old. He wore his mother’s slip and high heels, a mop for a wig and a dinglehopper (fork, for those of you who aren’t up-to-date on your Little Mermaid trivia) to brush his imaginary red locks. If only his mother
had known she would be seeing much more of this some day when he was an adult! He escaped in 2005 when he went to college and upon graduation in 2009 he moved to Austin and found “home”. In June 2011 his friends convinced him to dress up in drag for his birthday… and Pannica was born. She performed her first show over Thanksgiving of 2011 at an amateur night at a bar, ironically named “Decisions”, in Longview, Texas. A crazy night where she prepped only one piece and a single ensemble. Upon arrival, despite calling ahead to confirm how many pieces to bring, the emcee asked her for the music for her two pieces, leaving her to do one on the fly in her (luckily) adorable undies. She won anyway! From there she went on to perform many more shows and become a member of the prestigious United Court of Austin.
She tells me about her favorite shows and epic fails (think 40’s era sailorette gone tragic hot mess) as she adds the contour to her face, using different shades to create the illusion of high cheek bones, a slimmer nose and less defined jawbone. Seeing how complicated this makeup application process has me staring in awe. How does one learn such a skill?!
Well. that’s why there are drag mothers! Yes, that’s a thing! And Pannica is one lucky girl – she has TWO. They guide her through the complexities of drag-hood – the politics, the makeup, and any other help she asks for.
As Pannica speaks admiringly of her drag mothers she applies the contour of her eye make up. She stops and looks at me in all seriousness and says “When you edit these photos keep in mind, If I can’t achieve it with make up, it shouldn’t be done in photoshop.” Yes, ma’am, no photoshop will be touching those glamorous eyes! They are bright and beautiful with layers upon layers of color and contour. I can see how important this is to her. The self control required to not itch your face as to not ruin the hard work put into all of this makeup is admirable. It makes my face itch just thinking of it!
THE BODY, BY ROOMS TO GO
Like, no really. Pannica is a fashion genius and can turn pretty much anything into a gorgeous ensemble, and that is not limited to her clothing. Her nonexistent hips and butt are constructed by – yep, you guessed it – cutting out couch cushions! Brilliant! She places the cushions in the appropriate places and holds them in place with not one, not two, but THREE pairs of hose! (Remember that whole “needing help to go to the bathroom” thing? Yea, this is why.) Those suckers aren’t going anywhere. She told me the key to all of this is really about proportions, and that is how you choose everything. Your heels(the higher the heel the smaller your foot looks), your hips (to match the man shoulders), your makeup and your hair (the bigger the hair the closer to God and the smaller your shoulders look). I consider how little time I spend thinking about any of this in my daily routine.
THE FINAL PRODUCT
As we took the final shots I struggled to get all of her 6’6” (with heels) self into the frame. I am a tall girl, but if you ever want to feel short, stand by a drag queen! The final product was someone totally different than the man who met me at the door. THIS was Pannica, and she was beautiful.
While many things surprised me through this whole experience there is one thing that I knew would hold true: Drag Queens are just people. They just enjoy beautiful clothes and lip syncing songs to their hearts desire – and they sure know how to have a heck of a lot of fun! Meeting my new friends brought such laughter and, weirdly, an innocence back into my life. They made me feel like a giddy little girl. So, next time you meet a Queen, don’t take things too seriously and start a conversation! You’ll be surprised what you might learn, or what friends you might make.
And, as Pannica said herself “I don’t take myself too seriously. After all – I’m a grown ass man wearing a dress!”