I don’t really know who RuPaul is. I saw the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” once, but only because a girlfriend wanted to. The only shade of lipstick I’m familiar with is “red.” To put it glibly, I know damn near nothing about drag queens, kings and everything inbetweens.
So when I walked into HUB 302 last Friday night and saw the great runway stage set up for the 11th Annual Dragalicious Drag Ball, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew it was a big event co-hosted by Queer Alliance, KUCR, ASPB and the LGBT Resource Center, and was a fundraiser for the LGBT Student Leadership Scholarship Fund. I knew that nearly all the performers at the drag ball were UCR students. But as far as what a drag ball actually consists of — yeah, I hadn’t a clue. However, entirely fittingly, the title and theme of this year’s Dragalicious was “Exposure,” and sure enough, I was about to be exposed to a whole new world of performance and panache.
The room was quickly packed to the brim with students, alumni and more, all of them eager to cheer on their friends who would perform and enjoy the show, and many of them dressed their very best or in drag themselves. Then the lights dimmed, and the speakers boomed with the late ‘90s techno beats of Club 69’s “Drama.” And from the stage emerged a queen, complete with a regal pink gown and gilded bangles. She sauntered across the stage to the beat and moved her mouth to the words, all the while staring out at the audience with fluorescent contacts that made her eyes look like something out of X-Men. “Well let me tell you something, honey,” she mouthed along, “If you want drama / You came to the right place / Because I’ll give it to you.” Now that’s a line that sends chills down your spine. When the song was done, she found a microphone and introduced herself as a professional drag queen and our host of the evening, Mayhem Miller. Mayhem moved the show along with her unending energy and sass, coming right out the gate with, “Now, I have never been on RuPaul’s, so don’t be confusing me with one of those motha fuckin’ bitches.”
And after brief introductions, the show really began with the first performer, Karina Milan. Now being the novice to drag as I was, I had expected something more along the lines of just a fashion show, where the participants would just sort of turn on the catwalk and that’s about it, but the reality was much more captivating and raw. Karina burst forth, dancing and lip syncing to the blasting songs from artists ranging from Beyonce to Cher to Nicki Minaj. At one point she was a dancing silhouette behind a screen, at another she was doing the splits, and in between all points she was snapping, swaying and stamping like fire made into gender-bending flesh.
From there, each performance was just as entertaining as the last. Each performer had their own persona, music and routine — some were edgy and in your face while others were more classy or reminiscent of a princess pastiche. Sutton Rogue’s songs shifted constantly, with music ranging from Nancy Sinatra to hardcore trap music, and she donned a different tutu for every song. Veronica Pop’s face was nothing but huge hair and a cannibal mask, and her set included hanging from the bars leading up to the stage. Hunter Down (the lone drag king of the night) used other performers and audience members to act out the drama of Panic at the Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” All of the performances were undoubtedly fierce in their own right, and fierce is a word I exclusively use to describe the grace and confidence of tigers.
However, if there was anything that was wilder than those on the stage, it was those watching it. With every performer there were huge cheers and applause, with audience members practically leaping from their seats to show their appreciation. I felt like I was in the colosseum, in a crowd roaring like Romans, endlessly cheering on the glamorous gladiators in their attempts to slay the lion that is gender norms and grind the beast under their high heels. Seriously, I’ve been to sporting events less fired up.
When all the performers had done their piece, Mayhem Miller brought them all back to the stage and whittled it down to just two queens, Karina Milan and Naomi Smalls. Mayhem then had the two both work the stage one more time simultaneously, so the two queens dueled with dance, with the crowd constantly shouting and the spotlights seemingly indecisive on who to shine on. But in the end, there could be only one queen of the queens, and Karina Milan walked away with the crown. And after it was all said and done, Mayhem Miller wrapped up the show and revealed that the night had over 300 attendees and had raised over $1,600 — and the show really did deserve every set of eyes that watched it as well as every penny spent on it.
After the show, audience members stuck around like loyal subjects to talk to and nab pictures with their beloved queens. It was honestly difficult to navigate through all these dense clusters of loving admiration, but I was determined to expose myself a little more to the people under the wigs and hear their take on why the night was titled “Exposure.” Poodle Bang Bang, the last of the performers, stated that, “I wanted to expose the darker side of relationships” — an eloquent euphemism for her stunning act, which ended with ripping out fake intestines from a fellow performer to the grinding theme of “American Horror Story” and then draping herself in them like a scarf. But then she opened up about what I thought to be the most poignant point of the performance: exposing another aspect of yourself. “I do this as a creative expression where I can take on a new identity. I create a new character and I can be whoever I want to be.”
Striking a similar note was drag king Hunter Down, who said, “UCR is one of the nation’s top 10 LGBT-friendly campuses and it’s great that it has events like this to keep spreading awareness, but also importantly these kind of events provide a fun and creative outlet. I’m a straight girl, but I’m totally into drag, so it’s really cool to show a side of myself that people don’t get to ever see.”
And I think the show and the sentiments that followed it perfectly embody a huge part of what it means to be in college, because expression and art comes in all forms and figures, and they are all worth exploring. We’re at the age where it behooves us not just to learn about this or that academic subject, but also about different sides of ourselves and different worlds. At the 11th Annual Dragalicious Drag Ball, I was exposed to a world I had never seen before — a world of lipstick, lip syncing and much more — and I’m happy as hell to have experienced it.