Paint the Town Technicolor

Additional reporting by Natalie Ragusin.

Girls are sugar, spice, and everything nice. Turn it up a notch, and you’ve got a drag queen, performing with charisma, nerve, and undeniable talent. Blowing kisses and dancing with crowds sure is sweet, the scantily clad outfits sure are spicy, but sometimes, drag queens have a little sass that makes them not-so-nice. Get ready for a glitzy and glamorous trip to the wonderful world of Milwaukee’s drag scene.

A night of glittering gowns, five-inch heels,on February 27. Queens strut their spiky stilettos on stage, each performance embodying a distinct aesthetic and story. From queens sauntering like Ginger Rogers or stomping like Beyoncé to vogue-
style dancing like Madonna, the audience has its fix of emphatic entertainment.

The Milwaukee Theatre is packed with people and the energy palpable. People hoot and holler in excitement. Many attendees wear gender-fluid fashions. One by one, queens strut out as if on a conveyer belt, serving perfection reminiscent of Barbie herself, and the roars reach a fever pitch. The audience dances and sings when the queens walk by each seat, bending down to lip-sync as a live camera follows. Some guests jump to their feet and start dancing along with the performers, giving them a run for their money.

Audience members bring dollar bills up to the stage to support LGBTQ causes, raising more than a thousand dollars for youth programs Project Q and Pathfinders Milwaukee, which helps LGBT+ homeless youth. A night of fierce artists and advocacy? We’ll take it.

Each drag ensemble brings something original to the table and allows the audience a glimpse into a technicolor world. Is drag a lifestyle or an art? Most queens were keen to say both—they go hand in hand.

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Drag queen performs Cher’s “Woman’s World.” Photo by Peter Setter.

Milwaukee Drag Culture

Milwaukee may not have the big drag scene of other cities like Chicago, but local drag queens say it is growing. The annual UWM Drag Show, Hamburger Mary’s restaurant that serves burgers with a side of drag, and gay clubs like La Cage in Walker’s Point and Hybrid on Brady are providing more opportunities for queens to perform.

“Milwaukee shows are kind of old fashioned,” says Dita Von, a tall, gazelle-like drag queen who has been performing for a little over two years. “They want you to look a certain way, and they want you do certain music. Whereas in Chicago, it’s different. You come out and express yourself, with no rules. Here, it’s more like (rigid). You better make sure you have your nails, your earrings, and your eyelashes.”

Von has a day job but loves to perform in drag on the side for fun. As a former theatre performer, she loves the stage and bright lights.

Even though Milwaukee’s drag culture is small, it’s recently been thrust into the national spotlight. Local drag queen Trixie Mattell competed on the reality series “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which is the drag world’s answer to “America’s Next Top Model,” hosted by actor and performer RuPaul. Mattell finished sixth, but the big win was bringing national attention back home.

Iyvanka Infiniti Love, a drag queen who started performing in 2008 under the name Mz Candii, sees the city’s drag culture as varied.

“It’s big, and there are different sections to it. There are the male pageants, there are female pageants. You have transgender women who do drag, you have men who just like to dress up and do drag. It’s mainstream and broad,” says Love. “A lot of us are families and are cordial, but of course, there’s competition when it comes to pageants.”

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Malaya Marvel channels Maleficent with her drag show costume.

Drag Discrimination

Most drag queens agree that the local culture is accepting and welcoming, and that people outside of the drag community are cordial to performers. However, most drag queens also experience discrimination based on their identity, and some queens experience discrimination from other queens.

Iyvanka Infiniti Love says many of the older queens feel as though they endured discrimination, and that the newer queens don’t face it because of them.

“A lot of the older queens have had to go through things that I haven’t had to go through,” says Love. “(Older queens) don’t understand that they have paved the way for us to not have to go through what they went through. Then you have the queens that are newer, and they go buy costumes and they don’t get costumes made like I do. There’s this disconnect where there’s this older generation still around and they see drag as a form of art through expression and costume, and they feel like going into a store and buying girls’ clothes to put on isn’t drag.”

However, Love has found a supportive community within the drag culture that isn’t bound by these generational differences. She is running for a pageant this year, and feels that the advice and words of encouragement from older queens is genuine.

“We need mentorship,” says Love. “Drag has evolved from so many things, that we all need some type of guidance.”

For others, like drag king Otto T. Dix, a relatively new king who has been performing for about a year, discrimination is based on people’s misconception of how to correctly identify a drag king or queen. Some kings and queens, like Dix, prefer that people refer to them by gender-neutral pronouns in order to encompass a gender identity that is both male and female. Dix wears a button that specifies their pronouns as “They, Them, Theirs.”

“Even in the drag community, there are a lot of people who will misgender me, which is a struggle to deal with,” says Dix. “It’s tough when you’re a drag king and everyone assumes you’re female, and that’s not the case.”

As a nonbinary identifier, Dix stresses the importance of the use of pronouns in drag culture and how it is always acceptable to ask and not assume.

Drag Dictionary

Hunty

A term of endearment, a play on the word “honey.”

Halleloo

An interjection to express joy or praise. Similar to “Can I get a gay men/amen?”

Beat

To apply makeup to your “mug” or face to perfection. ‘Beat to the gods’ and looking flawless.

Campy

Over-the-top drag. Campy queens usually don’t intend to be a female impersonator.

Drag Mother

An experienced queen that acts as a mentor to a younger queen.

Tuck

Where does it all go? “Tucking” you-know-where.

An Art and a Lifestyle

Is drag a lifestyle or an artistic outlet? Some drag queens have full-time careers and do drag on the side, while others make a living by performing.

“Drag isn’t easy, it isn’t cheap, and the drag world isn’t exactly an easy one to always be yourself in,” says Von. “You have to have tough skin. I learned that real quick. It’s a lot more detailed than just picking a song and putting a gown on. I have to be feeling the song that I choose for a show, have to be able to emotionally connect to it. This way, I am more than just a boy in a dress, but I’m an actual artist, performing words and emotions on stage.”

Dix, as a transgender and non-binary individual, views drag as a way to express themselves and how they feel they are, without the stigma of going out with drag makeup on. “If I go out in my drag makeup, people go, ‘what is that ‘female’ doing?” says Dix. “This  is how I see myself. It’s an escape without having to take the hormones and have surgery and go through that process. It’s a safe place for me to express my masculinity.”

Drag is an outlet for Dix to portray how they see themselves, and, more importantly, how they want others to see them. Through this art choice, Dix is “me being me.”

Queens are in the scene for their own reasons. For some, the guiding hand of a drag mother pushed them to perform. For others, an affinity for makeup art and costuming led them to this world. And for kings and queens like Dix, drag is an escape from social norms. Whatever the reason for performing, the show proved that drag is growing in Milwaukee.

Drag performers are glamorous, and their performances are over-the-top glitzy, but behind this flashy façade, each queen has endured a personal journey to become the sugar, spice, and everything nice that queens are made of.

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