Commentary: Drag shows have changed since the days of the Fabulous Four: Naomi Sims, Donna Day, Mr. Tiffany Jones, Hot Chocolate and later joined by Tasha Kohl. The divas who lit up the stage of The Copa on Richmond Avenue in the early 1980s were entertaining, funny, and were frequently referred to as female impersonators.
While enjoying a drag show with a couple of friends recently, one of the people in my party (we’ll call her Karen) had the expectation she was there to see men dressed as women impersonating the likes of Cher, Madonna, or any number of female stars. Disillusioned she turned to me and whispered, “Why does she have a beard? Is she too lazy to shave?”
Somewhat taken aback by her observations, I got to thinking. Are drag performers today different from the greats of yesterday? The Fab Four and others of the era never had facial hair and if they did it was covered up with magician-like makeup artistry. The most masculine thing we saw back then was Donna Day pulling her wig off during a number and flinging it around on stage.
John Gonzales, aka Paivi Lee Love, was a good friend and roommate in the 1980s. She was the first drag queen friend of mine. Paivi’s performances of Natalie Cole’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” are the stuff of which legends are made.
Paivi was a regular at EJ’s, performed frequently at The Copa in Beaumont and could be seen regularly at numerous other showplaces in Texas.
Preparation for a show usually began in mid-afternoon for Paivi. She had to shower, prepare gowns and other outfits, choose music, pick out wigs and then brush, comb, tease and spray them. We went through tons of Aqua Net in those days. She would also rehearse, paint her nails (fingers and toes), pluck eyebrows and other hairy places, and shave. Paivi always made sure she was never on stage with a five o’clock shadow.
To me, John Gonzalez was a brave individual, daring to be true to his inner self. He loved being on a stage, and one of the best compliments he could receive was when he was told, “Girl, you peed on that stage.”
Bearded drag queens are a fairly recent phenomenon. “How can you be a drag queen if you’ve got a beard?” and “Why don’t you just shave it off?” are surely two frequently asked questions of bearded entertainers.
“There is so much to drag beyond female impersonation, and who is even to say what a woman is ‘supposed’ to look like anyway? It’s extremely limited thinking, conforming to toxic gender norms and completely missing the possibilities and power of drag,” states Geiza Poke from Berlin.
“Drag has so many subcategories now, which is brilliant. I enjoy f*cking around with gender, and bearded queens have existed for decades. But to be honest the only reason I have one is that I feel more attractive out of drag with a beard. Simple as that,” says London’s Baby Lame.
Just as the LGBTQ community has evolved from secret tea parties and undercover gay bars (think Stonewall), the drag community has evolved as well. As my friend Paivi was a trendsetter who had the courage to be true to herself, so are today’s bearded drag queens. Laziness has nothing to do with it. Plus it takes a lot of courage to put on a dress and perform in front of a crowd. Now try it in stilettos with make-up and a beard!
The days of being a drag queen equaled female impersonators are long gone. While these entertainers are usually the first to volunteer to host and perform at fundraisers for our community they are also the ultimate celebration of queer expression. Drag has always been about breaking the rules, from Sims and Day to RuPaul’s Drag Race. Not so long ago in Houston, a person could be arrested for dressing in drag.
The Bayou City enjoys a multitude of bearded drag queens that are featured regularly at all of the usual venues. They perform to sold-out or standing room only crowds on a regular basis.
So Karen, the performers you enjoyed on our night out are not too lazy to shave. They are following the example set by their drag queen predecessors. They are taking risks, being true to themselves and entertaining the hell out of us.
They are exactly where they belong: on stage with a beard and all. Now shut up and enjoy the show. And don’t forget to tip!
Four of the six aforementioned Houston performers are gone. Naomi Sims passed away in 1992, Donna Day in 2003, and Tiffany Jones in 1985. Hot Chocolate moved to Las Vegas and became an even bigger star. Kohl is still performing, currently living in Dallas.
My friend Paivi Lee Love died in 1999.