Prizm News / January 1, 2019 / By Ken Schneck
Six performers talk about how they got their starts, the changes they’ve seen and their favorite number ever.
By Ken Schneck
Before “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Before “To Wong Foo.” And, yes hunty, before “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Far before the pop-culture obsession with watching those padded hips sashay away, drag queens have been working the stages for decades. From hole-in-the-wall gay dive bars to main stage pageants to bachelorette parties in random straight bars, there’s a generation of grand dames who have paved the path for current performers.
To paint a fuller picture of the evolution of drag in Ohio, we assembled six queens with well over 200(!) combined years performing across the state. The words that follow are their tales told in their own words. Because, let’s be honest here, these divas sure don’t need our help to tell their story.
They’ve been doing it for years.
FIRST TIME ON STAGE
AMANDA KAYNE (Dayton): I was at the Water Main in Piqua, Ohio, in 1979 and my friends dared me to get on stage and do a number. I was shaking so bad. I didn’t know the ins and outs of what I was doing and certainly didn’t have a lot of makeup on. But suddenly I was like a different person. After that night, I ended up working there for years.
ANDRIA MICHAELS (Cleveland): My first time on stage was about 30 years ago in a bar in Columbus called the Grotto. I was 16 at the time. I have two older brothers who are gay. A queen had told them, “Your little brother would make an incredible queen.” They said no. But then the queen told them that I could make money. And next thing you know, there I was singing, “I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love.” My tit popped out, but I won the money.
PENNY TRATION (Cincinnati): In 1995, the AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati had a fundraiser with a Madame Butterfly theme. There were thousands of butterflies inside of the House of Adam bar Downtown. I remember wearing a white silk pantsuit. I experienced almost no stage fright, no trepidation. The minute I walked on stage, I thought, “Oh, this is right.”
BIANCA BOUVIER (Columbus): My first drag memory was at a talent show in 1983 in Cincinnati at the Alley Cat. It was my first time being in the bar and my first time doing drag. I was only 15, but I knew if I slid in there on Talent Night they would let me in. I had never seen the show. I sang live, because I thought that’s what the girls were doing. And I won the talent show. I never did that again once I figured out that I didn’t have to sing live!
TWILA STARR (Toledo): I actually won Miss Bourbon Street in 1975 at the Bourbon Street bar in Toledo singing “Midnight at the Oasis.” I would see all of these beautiful women and when I found out they were men, I thought, “If they can do it, I can do it!”
DENISE RUSSELL (Warren): In 1978, I used to go to the Old Plantation in Akron, which is where I saw my first drag queens. When the show was over, I approached these stunning women and I realized they were men. I really started performing for the first time in 1981 at Ann’s Bar in Warren, Ohio, singing “The Theme From Ice Castles” at an anniversary party. I jumped right into the deep end. I was performing for free, so they didn’t care if I was good or bad.
EVOLVING AS A PERFORMER
AMANDA KAYNE: I was never a Top 40 queen. If a song didn’t touch my heart, I didn’t want to do it. I practiced a lot in the car. I tried out a lot of different stuff. When something works, there’s no other feeling like it. It’s euphoric. When it doesn’t work, you still have to finish your song. If you don’t touch one person—and you can tell if you don’t—then you didn’t do your job. So you come back trying to do better.
PENNY TRATION: I’m not a great performer. There are people who are much, much better. But I discovered my skills as an emcee and a director almost by accident. Everybody else was busy getting drunk and I didn’t drink. So I ended up running the show.
BIANCA BOUVIER: I don’t think people realize how rough it was back then. I can go back to those days in 1983 where the black girls had to dress in the men’s bathroom. We had a lot of prejudice in the gay community. It was horrible. I took a break as a drag queen but came back to it because I loved it so much. I missed my family.
DENISE RUSSELL: I started out lip-synching like everyone else, and then I went live. Not many folks did it. As I’ve always said, I sing in the key of B… Bea Arthur.
CHANGES IN DRAG
PENNY TRATION: We’ve seen it change a couple of times since I’ve been around. Everything used to be Las Vegas showgirl, rhinestones and big costumes. Then it changed to passable women. Now things are over-the-top. It will be something else next.
AMANDA KAYNE: Drag has changed so much over the years. Nothing bad against the queens today, but some of them don’t put a lot of work into it. They think if you put on a pair of heels and a bra, you’re done. But that’s not a costume. You have to think about the music you’re doing and dress to fit that song. We used to have so much camaraderie and companionship. We would go in packs of five or six girls to a show, doing four or five numbers apiece. I miss that.
ANDRIA MICHAELS: The thing that has been lost on stage is the connection between the entertainer and the audience. You can’t just get on stage and do your thing. You have to grow that energy between you and everyone in the crowd. Everybody can get painted up like Bozo the Queen, but that doesn’t mean you can entertain. Sure, your makeup and costumes may be outrageous. But what can you actually do? Where is you in that mess we call drag?
BIANCA BOUVIER: I am so blessed to be able to be able to see the changes. The last generation of queens had to marry a woman. You would do drag, take it off and then go home to your wife. There is such variety now. Back when I came out, you had to have a character. I had to pick either Anita Baker or Whitney Houston. That’s how it was. Now, they’re pushing boundaries.
DENISE RUSSELL: It’s almost kind of sad. I worry we’ve seen the heyday, that the art form has passed. There was a specific way we did it back then. You started on a talent night and you had to be good enough in order to get paid. Now you have pop-up queens who perform one time and they want to get paid top dollar.
BIANCA BOUVIER: It was always a quiet thing. I was a promoter and used to have to go all over and pass out flyers to get people to show up to shows. I would be grateful if I could get 150 people there. Now, I just have to push a button and people show up!
PENNY TRATION: We used to be lucky enough to work for an almost exclusively LGBT audience. Now it’s like going to a zoo exhibit, straight people viewing gay monkeys at the zoo. How do we transition these skills to these new audiences who are there to gawk and be titillated? We are basically coal miners. We have to relearn skills or go away.
ANDRIA MICHAELS: The audiences have gotten cheaper. I have no idea who told this last generation that tipping is not necessary. A compliment is nice, but a dollar is better. I can’t take a compliment to the gas company.
THE DRAG OF OHIO
AMANDA KAYNE: Dayton drag is different than other cities. We have all different types of queens in different types of bars. Ask yourself, “What do you want out of your night?” and you will be able to find it.
ANDRIA MICHAELS: In other cities, you have to be prettiest. In Cleveland, you have to be prettiest and you have to be able to beat someone’s ass.
PENNY TRATION: Drag in Cincinnati is more of a Friday and Saturday night thing. We’re transitioning into dinner and brunch shows, which has been really fun. Doing drag on a Sunday morning when you have bacon and a mimosa, you’re just a happier person.
BIANCA BOUVIER: Columbus just has so many more opportunities. With so many different bars, you can try different styles. You really can do whatever you want to do here.
ADVICE FOR YOUNGER QUEENS
AMANDA KAYNE: Listen to older ones, because so many times I have been asked, “Should I do this? Should I do that?” and they totally do the opposite. They’re not taking the experience that I’ve had and doing anything with it. Drag is not easy. It takes a lot of work, a lot of preparation and a lot of money.
ANDRIA MICHAELS: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. I wanted to be a fierce queen and entertainer, and I found out I didn’t want much after that. I’m not willing to give up my private life. Now I nurture my private life because that enhances my stage life.
PENNY TRATION: Practice. Just practice. Take lots of pictures and ignore things your friends tell you.
BIANCA BOUVIER: I tell them to get out of here. Go to New York. Go to Atlanta. Check out what’s going on in other cities. Perspective is an amazing thing.
TWILA STARR: Be careful with that contouring! It might look good from the back of a big club, but in these small intimate bars, it can be scary up close.
DENISE RUSSELL: You need to learn your history. We’ve all had to do that. You have to know who paved the way before you just as you will do for someone else.
DRAG QUEENS AS ACTIVISTS
DENISE RUSSELL: We felt hugely responsible during the AIDS crisis, because our government and our country weren’t doing anything. I can’t tell you how many benefits I had done. Our friends were dropping like flies and we kept saying, “We have to do more.”
AMANDA KAYNE: You don’t always have to go to a protest in drag. You have to have your voice known. You have to know what you feel, channel your passion, and you can do a lot. We have done a lot. It’s not just one day a year during Pride. It’s every day. I live my life 365 days. I’ve done my job if I touch others. I want to talk about my experience with everyone I can. That’s my responsibility as a gay person.
ANDRIA MICHAELS: Drag and activism should be one and the same. It’s sad that they can be separated. With drag, you are the gay community’s version of Hollywood: They can tear you down, but you’re always the first person they call for a fundraiser. You have to let your moral compass guide you. You don’t have to be an activist for everything. Why would I consciously do drag in a segregated community? Because I felt the need. I want to break down barriers.
PENNY TRATION: Whether you are doing it on purpose or not, we are all activists. You don’t have to beat people over the heads with it, but you can’t come to a drag show and not be bucking the system in some way.
BIANCA BOUVIER: I did the fundraisers. I performed constantly. I always feel like I could have done more, and I get mad at that. But I still have the voice for it.
TWILA STARR: When the AIDS crisis hit, I fundraised for 13 or 14 years. Every queen has a responsibility. Every queen needs to contribute. It just makes you a better person to give back to the community.
ONE SONG. FOR. YOUR. LIFE.
AMANDA KAYNE: “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton. I do it from the heart. If it weren’t for audiences coming to see me, I wouldn’t be here. The song says so much in only a few minutes.
ANDRIA MICHAELS: “How Can I Ease the Pain” by Lisa Fischer. My brother threw the cassette single at me and said, “You better know every word. You have to do this.” I did it the next night, and it was the first and only time he ever tipped me. A $50 dollar bill and a tear in his eye.
BIANCA BOUVIER: “I Believe I Can Fly.” Everyone knows me by that song. I had girls tell me they won’t go near the song if I’m in the show.
TWILA STARR: “Let’s Stay Together,” Tina Turner’s version. We need each other. We have to stick together.
DENISE RUSSELL: Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” I won my first national competition doing that song. I can make them laugh with that song.
PENNY TRATION: “Love Will Keep Us Together,” because it’s the truth. No matter the question, love is the answer.
Ken Schneck of Cleveland is the author of “Seriously… What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew” and “LGBTQ Cleveland: Images of Modern America.” He’s also an associate professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University.