“Ok, go on!” Chimera heard before heading to the stage to perform a lip-sync routine to “Welcome to the Black Parade,” by My Chemical Romance.
“That one performance, it's captured forever in my memory,” Chimera said. “I can still smell the other street food, I can still see all the kids and the people laugh and just jam and out, like the entire crowd was singing the song with me. I couldn't really hear the music as much as I could hear this crowd singing the lyrics to me.”
Chimera, a Boone County, West Virginia native, has been a drag performer for the last 10 years. Chimera’s interest in drag started at 15, playing dress-up at home alone, which was an extension of Chimera’s enjoyment of art.
“Drag is (an) art form. It is not a sexuality or a gender,” Chimera said. “Drag is a tool that we can look at gender through, and reconstruct it and question it.”
Drag is a type of entertainment in which people dress and perform in a particular stylized way, according to the National Center for Trans Equality. Drag commonly includes drag queens, which involve feminine performance, and drag kings, which involve masculine performance.
Chimera’s first experience being out in drag was at 19 or 20 years old at a New Year’s show.
“And everybody was so cool and so nice, (and) was telling me to come and do one of the shows,” Chimera said. “And then I ended up, I think that following weekend we did a show, and I've done it ever since. I haven't stopped.”
As a drag performer with an “Appalachian ghoul” style, Chimera often simplifies performances for audiences to understand.
“I'm a little bit more outside of the box,” Chimera said. “So, more often than not, I have to kind of water down what I do in order for other people to take it and understand it.”
In terms of public acceptance in Appalachia, Chimera said it depends on where performances take place. College towns, such as Morgantown, West Virginia and Athens, Ohio, tend to be more accepting cities. Chimera, however, also said drag performers in Appalachia have a harder time finding opportunities in the region.
“We don't really get a whole lot of the same opportunities afforded to us, whether that be where we're from or just the resources,” Chimera said. “But it's almost like it's even harder to make a serious name for yourself in this business, to come from this area.”
To anyone from Appalachian who wants to start doing drag, Chimera said it’s important to have “thick skin” and know there are no rules when it comes to drag.
“There are no rules; whatever you want to do, do that,” Chimera said. “And that there will always be a space for you, and if there isn't a space for you, don't wait around for someone to give you permission to do something, do it, and make that space.”
Miss Lady Dior, an Athens, West Virginia native, has been a drag performer for the past seven years, and has always had an interest in drag.
“As a kid I liked playing dress up and stuff, (and) I always envisioned myself as like the female character, and then I found out what drag was and it just kind of seemed like it kinda picked me.”
Dior said her performances, such as the ones she does at pride festivals, get a lot of positive reception, despite the occasional protester. However, she has felt uncomfortable in instances when she is stared at, such as stopping for gas after a performance.
“People just are not used to seeing the drag queens and they will stare at you,” Dior said. “You kind of are made to feel like an alien or something just because you have some makeup on.”
Similar to Chimera’s perspective, Dior said the acceptance of drag performances depend on where they take place within the region.
“I'd say definitely more like the smaller towns, it's not,” Dior said. “We were trying to do a show in Princeton, West Virginia, years ago, and the lady that was going to host us ended up canceling my show because she was worried about backlash from some of her clients that held some power around. They were complaining about it.”
Dior encourages others to follow their hearts, regardless of how other people may perceive them.
“No matter what people are saying or what people are doing around you, don't be scared to follow your heart and do what you want to do,” Dior said. “There are gonna be other people out there that feel the same way that you do, and as long as you're not hurting anyone or hurt anyone else, it's not anything to be ashamed of.”
As a former Chicago-area performer, Amethyst Vicious has had a different experience as an Appalchian drag performer than Chimera and Dior. Vicious has performed drag for five years and was pleasantly surprised to find a drag community in Charleston, West Virginia.
“I remember talking to my boyfriend at the time and saying I'm accepting a job in West Virginia, and I guess that means I am done doing drag,” Vicious said. “I was pretty surprised when I came here and there were drag shows, there were clubs, there was a community here, and a well established community, and I didn't know that. I didn't expect that for some reason.”
Vicious was first interested in drag after watching RuPaul’s Drag Race while working late night hours.
“I'd watch the show and kind of think about what I’d do for the different categories or how I would compete,” Vicious said. “It was just something that interested me and, one day, I just got a wild hair, went to Ulta and dropped far too much money on makeup and started teaching myself how to do makeup.”
Vicious’ most memorable experience as a performer was her performance at the Berlin nightclub in Chicago.
“I think the first time that I performed at Berlin nightclub in Chicago and I looked out and I saw a couple alums from (RuPaul’s) Drag Race just in the audience out of drag. That was really surreal to me,” Vicious said. “And, just having the opportunity to share the stage with somebody that you've looked up to for a long time, followed for a long time on social media, and then suddenly, they're a part of your community — that's really, really cool.”
The West Virginia drag community is smaller than the Chicago drag community, Vicious said.
“It's much smaller, it's much closer knit,” Vicious said. “Everybody knows each other. In West Virginia, if you see someone crossdressing you take notice for whatever reason, so I pretty quickly got to know people in the community and started to kind of make a name for myself here.”
Vicious feels discomfort in drag while wearing makeup and being out in public, but it is not related to living in West Virginia.
“Just because you may not see the type of drag that speaks to you, at your local bar, or at your local establishment that hosts drag shows, that doesn't mean that what you're interested in, or what you want to do with drag isn't valid. There's room at the table for everyone.” —Amethyst Vicious
“I don't like sneaking out of my apartment building in full makeup and you know, carrying giant wigs to my car,” Vicious said. “But you know, that's more of a me thing than I would say the setting being in West Virginia. I've never felt any type of way about that in particular.”
Vicious’ advice to aspiring drag performers is to find something that makes you happy and do it well.
“Do whatever it is that makes you happy (and) that really gets you excited about drag, but just really focus on the details,” Vicious said. “Focus on the small elements, really polish what you're doing, and that will get you recognized.”
Vicious added that all forms of drag performance are valid, even if one cannot find shows with a particular type of drag performance.
“Just because you may not see the type of drag that speaks to you, at your local bar, or at your local establishment that hosts drag shows, that doesn't mean that what you're interested in, or what you want to do with drag isn't valid,” Vicious said. “There's room at the table for everyone.”
Alexandria Gem, who hails from Hurricane, West Virginia, has been a drag performer since 2019. Gem credits her interest in drag performance to having a big personality and a passion for advocacy.
“I've always loved being a bigger personality,” Gem said. “I want to have the platform to be like an advocate for things, and this lets me have a platform to speak up on things and let me have fun performing.”
Gem’s first drag performance was a “Drag me to Brunch” event hosted by Huntington Pride.
“And even though maybe I looked a-fool, that was my first real taste of having fun while also doing some sort of advocacy,” Gem said.
Gem has also found close bonds with others through drag.
“There are a lot of close sisterly bonds, because the drag sisterhood thing kind of came from the culture of the New York scene where people got kicked out of their homes for being queer and had to form their own families,” Gem said. “And even though I, fortunately, have a family who supports me, I still have my drag sister.”
In her experience, Gem found both positive and negative aspects of the drag community. In certain aspects, she noticed more of a drug culture within drag communities that has made her uncomfortable.
“Seeing people who have to use before going out there in order to either settle their nerves and even just getting so drunk to the point where you can't host properly, not only is it unprofessional, (but) it's kind of troubling,” Gem said. “And that kind of worries me where it's like, you know, I'm just trying to be here, have a good time, and I feel like it is unprofessional and just dangerous.”
Gem believes there will always be a culture of hate when it comes to the way drag is received by the public.
“All of my peers have been called the F-slur from a moving car from around the town,” Gem said. “And we've kind of gotten to the point of embracing it and that doesn't make it okay, but there's so much support that makes it kind of easy to ignore that.”
Gem’s advice to anyone in Appalachia wanting to start doing drag is to find relatable people.
“Find people that you can relate to, because living in Appalachia there are drag queens, but it's hard to find them a lot of the time,” Gem said. “I would say find a support system and don't be too resistant to critique but also don't tolerate people down-talking to you.”
Dyla Ride, a comedy queen, has also been performing since 2019. Ride, who is also a West Virginian performer, got her start after being asked to perform at the Huntington Pride drag brunch.
“I'm on the Huntington Pride board and we needed someone to host our drag brunches, and I said, ‘Well, I'll give it a try,’ so that's pretty much why I got started in it,” Ride said.
Ride is known as the “Bearded Lady of Huntington.”
“I am a bearded woman. I don't shave when I get in drag,” Ride said. “I do my face up and then put glitter in my beard, and yeah, that's my drag.”
Drag performances are a hobby for Ride, so it is less stressful than performing full time. One of Ride’s favorite memories from past drag performances is last year’s drag brunch.
“Last June, we did a big drag brunch at the Ritter Park Amphitheater and they had about 700 people and a dozen performers,” Ride said. “And I was able to be the hostess and MC for that one. That's got to be my favorite show so far.”
Ride’s drag persona is often met with love and excitement. She also said most people who come to drag shows are aware of what they are.
“If people are coming to a drag event they kind of know what they're getting into,” Ride said. “We have had some protesters at some of our Huntington Pride events. But you know, I'm at a point in my life where that does not bother me one bit. It just gets us more exposure in my opinion.”
Ride’s advice to prospective performers is to just start.
Drag Queen Plenty O' Smiles performs during the Drag Show at Baker University Theater at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, On March 21, 2022.
“Don’t try or expect to be perfect your first time out,” Ride wrote in a text. “Don’t worry about looking like all the other queens. If you’re feeling the fantasy, the crowd will too.”
AJ Spanks, a drag performer who started performing in 2020, is an Ashville, North Carolina native. Spanks also performed for a drag show at OU in March.
After encouragement from a friend, and a long-time interest in theater and performing, Spanks decided to give drag a try.
“I've always wanted to do drag and they were like, you should perform and then basically, from there, it's just I did a few virtual things and then a few in person things and it kind of just took off from there,” Spanks said.
Spanks has found their performing experiences to support their mental health.
“It's been fun getting to know performers all over the country and the world and then doing local things, in person just like feels like being a part of a community because so many queer people really gather around drag and people in general,” Spanks said.
At first, Spanks performed as a drag king, but over time, they found a space to play with gender.
“My drag at first felt a little binary where like, I was just performing as a drag king like as a man, but now it just feels like drag is a place for me to play and also play with gender,” Spanks said. “So I'd say my style sometimes is more realistic, where I'm trying to look like a man but other times it just feels like I'm just playing with the way that gender is kind of not binary and can include lots of different expressions.”
In their time so far, Spanks has not had any negative encounters.
“Luckily, I haven't had any negative experiences,” Spanks said. “I think Asheville and Athens both are known, I think, for being queer havens a little bit, so I'm definitely grateful for that.”
Spanks encourages others to learn about the history of drag and recommends interacting with drag performers online and going to drag shows for anyone who wants to start performing drag.
“If you're interested in doing drag, go to shows like get to know the people who are already in the scene,” Spanks said. “And also, just have fun, like practice in your room, just get makeup — I didn't really know anything about makeup really — and just look up YouTube videos. You can learn a lot on your own, but definitely get connected with people who are already doing it.”