Behind the Seams at the International Drag Festival in Austin —

Sequins, wigs and a whole lot of contouring: Our writer sashays at the SXSW of drag.

“This is an exercise class for your face,” Crimson Kitty explains, moving around the hotel conference room in a billowing white gown, seeing what she has to work with. This is Lip–sync 101 and the dozen of us present are attempting to mouth the words to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” which plays loudly on a portable stereo. “If you don’t know it, don’t worry,” she says, circling. “Just move your mouth and say ‘Watermelon, apple, orange.’”

I’m in Austin for the International Drag Festival, now in its fourth year. Think of it like SXSW, but with wig checks in addition to sound checks. There are more than 20 classes offered over the four–day extravaganza and this one is a lot harder than it sounds. For our second number, we’re asked to add movement to our performance of “Material Girl” by Madonna: “Walk like you’re dripping in diamonds,” says Crimson. I find it difficult to add this layer of storytelling and end up stepping aimlessly around the room, clumsily moving my arms and hands as if directing traffic. But I do better with her third request. Crimson tells us to access our emotions and think of someone who has wronged us. I must be doing something right, a scowl on my bearded face as I lip–sync into the void to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” because I’m greeted with a flurry of snaps and shouts of “Yas queen!” halfway through.

Jun 05, 2018
Portland’s Helvetica Font
Left to right: The bold look of Portland’s Helvetica Font; drag queens put their most fabulous foot forward at the Austin International Drag Festival.

Drag is going through something of a cultural renaissance. RuPaul’s Drag Race, the juggernaut reality TV show where queens are pitted against each other in a series of design, acting and comedy challenges, is now in its 10th year. At my house, each new episode is greeted like Hockey Night in Canada, complete with beer, snacks and yelling at the screen. The show has become an instant star–maker. Add to this the rise of shareable memes, makeup tutorials and more on Facebook and YouTube, and a small industry that was largely local and confined to the LGBTQ community has gone viral. There’s a new hunger for the art form. People are travelling the world for their love of drag, and I’m one of them.

I can think of no better place to hold something this campy than at a Holiday Inn in Central Texas. It has everything you expect from the budget–friendly chain: warm shades of beige and brown on the walls and furniture, white tablecloths draped over round tables in conference rooms, bright fluorescent lighting overhead. Against this sober backdrop, everything pops, including the trail of sparkles and sequins on the plush carpet that leads from the elevator to my friend Matt’s room. We’ve set up a makeshift photo studio and invited all the colourful characters we meet to strike a pose. They’re from everywhere: Melbourne, Berlin, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Portland, Cleveland, Victoria, Toronto. One ethereal–looking queen, Cheddar Gorgeous from Manchester, jokes, “They’ll be vacuuming up the glitter for months.”

A pair of queens
A pair of queens watch the performances from the sidelines at the Sidewinder.

Downstairs in his room, Canadian Chris Pelrine lets us watch him transform into Kristi Davidson; on the bathroom counter, a tool belt of makeup brushes, pigments and foundation. Back in Halifax, Kristi just celebrated her 10–year drag–iversary, but here in Austin she’s unknown. Chris hopes to change that tonight by breaking out one of Kristi’s characters: Patti Mae, a Bible–thumping church lady who fears for her gay nephew’s soul. It’s a rousing, tambourine–shaking mash–up of a gospel song and a monologue from The Big Gay Musical. Makeup done, Chris puts on the rose–flowered velvet dress he’s sewn himself as his partner David attaches a shimmering bracelet. “I don’t know what’ll come from tonight,” he says, adjusting his rust–coloured wig in the mirror. “The ultimate goal would be to travel more, to show off Halifax’s talent.”

A non–profit, Austin’s drag festival is less concerned with celebrity and more with providing a platform for artists to further their careers and perfect their craft (classes include Survival Sewing, Audition Tapes and It’s Not Drag, It’s a Business!). There’s also incredible diversity, with almost as many drag kings as there are queens, as well as bearded queens and lady queens, pageant queens and spooky queens, burlesque acts and non–binary performers. And then there’s the audience.

Southern belle and electric plumage
Left to right: Southern belle Symone N. O’Bishop, from Beaufort, South Carolina; the electric plumage of Brooklyn’s Goldie Peacock.

I watch as a woman in a hijab gives a dollar tip to Viola DeGradable–Debris as she flits around the hotel ballroom on a hoverboard, wearing a teal bubble–wrap dress and lip–syncing to Olivia Newton–John’s “Xanadu.” Children watch with their parents, enthralled by the antics on display. I spot three teenage girls at the front and ask them why they’ve come. “It’s such an accepting community and a great way to express yourself,” 15–year–old McKenna says, herself made up with a smoky eye. “And whoever says makeup isn’t art is wrong. It’s beautiful.”

I’ve only done drag a handful of times (mostly with friends, or on Halloween) but I’ve never felt beautiful. I find myself lingering by a table that offers a makeup session done by a pro, and I’m tempted, then decide against it. I’m here as a fan. And with my beard and arm hair, I’m nowhere near as glamorous as the others in the room.

Femme fatale
Left to right: Femme fatale and star of the reality TV show Dragula, Loris; winner of the 2018 Miss Pink Flamingo Pageant, Viola DeGradable–Debris.

Later that evening, Matt and I head downtown for the evening showcases. We all pile into the hotel shuttle, queens and kings first. We’re strangers to everyone, but so is everyone else. Names are exchanged, jokes are cracked – none I can repeat here – and large hands with acrylic nails take out phones for pictures and the exchanging of numbers.

The shuttle drops us off in Austin’s Red River Cultural District, where close to 200 performers will take to the stage at three neighbouring dive bars in 10–minute intervals over the coming nights. These aren’t gay clubs, and you can’t tell the sexuality of those in the audience. It doesn’t matter. Everyone here is an ally, including Holly and Katura, besties from Hawaii and Alaska, respectively. Holly has been coming since the festival’s first year. Back on the Big Island, she is a speech–language pathologist, but tonight she remains transfixed by the motor skills of those on stage. “They’re living my dream,” she says. “Souls bared, and aren’t they beautiful?”

Getting dolled up
Getting dolled up at the festival’s Drag Village, in the Holiday Inn’s main ballroom.

She’s right. There are all sorts of crazy, beautiful things happening in this bar. Like all movements that become mainstream, alternative offshoots sprout from the roots and I find myself in awe of the edgier, counterculture performances. A queen from Providence named Complete Destruction has me smiling over a sweet pop–ballad whose saccharine chorus has been possessed by a demon’s voice. Dressed all in black with a large red wig, she ends the number as Nosferatu might, howling at the audience. Then there’s Loris from Switzerland, who takes to the stage in a black bodysuit, a blond wig and a green reptile mask to perform to Nine Inch Nails. Her lizard lips are working overtime under the silicone, but she’s not missing a single word.

Shyanne O’Shea
Left to right: The UK’s Shyanne O’Shea sings live for the crowd; stilleto life in Austin.

But I’m most moved by Symone N. O’Bishop, from Beaufort, South Carolina, who says a few words after her performance of Jill Scott’s empowering “Hate On Me.” Her silhouette is a perfect hourglass in a bright yellow dress with red knee–high boots and an afro wig. “I used to get my butt kicked for playing with Barbies,” she says, microphone in hand. “And I thought, if I’m going to get beat up for playing with Barbies, I might as well become one.” The crowd roars in support, and she smiles. “Now I know I’m right where I belong.”

On the last morning of the festival, I see how exhilaratingly tired everyone is. People are coming back to the hotel from breakfast, still in last night’s drag. Others are checking out, traces of mascara visible. “See you next year,” I hear someone yell to a friend, as if it’s the last day at camp. And soon, the halls of this Holiday Inn are quiet. The life and colour are gone, save for the remnants on the carpet. I find myself wishing I had taken advantage of the makeup session. I may not have the aspirations to be the next drag superstar, but that doesn’t mean I can’t pretend.

Drag On!

Walk in someone else’s shoes at these international drag happenings.

Laila McQueen
Laila McQueen, one of the stars from season eight of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Austin International Drag Festival

November 15–18 Austin,

Broken Heel Festival

Walk the Broken Hill main drag in drag when the New South Wales mining town made internationally famous by The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert hosts its yearly festival devoted to the cult classic.

September 7–9 Broken Hill, Australia,

RuPaul’s DragCon

See all your favourite TV queens like BenDeLaCreme and Alyssa Edwards in one fabulous room at this event – like a Star Trek convention but with better costumes.

September 28–30 New York,

Queens Overboard

Legends Heklina and Peaches Christ captain this Caribbean cruise, promising a boatload of high seas hijinks with Broadway–calibre shows and drag bingo.

February 2–9 Departing from Miami,

Travel Essentials

Austin Motel
Left to right: Welcome to the revamped Austin Motel; Halifax’s Kristi Davidson gets ready for her close–up.

Austin Motel

The 1938 motel was given a kicky new up–do last year by all–star Texan hotelier, Liz Lambert. The fully refurbished 41–room motor court pays homage to its mid–century heyday with vinyl tufted beds, red–lipped telephones and bold wallpaper.

What we loved Lounging the day away by the motel’s 1,100–square–foot kidney–shaped pool (the quirky pool toys certainly float our boat, too).