By Jerome Stuart Nichols
The world of drag is tough. One day you're fierce and the next you're getting smacked in the dressing room by a jealous queen in a bad wig. To survive in the queen-shank-queen world of drag, it takes a lot of grit, dedication, talent and heels high enough to rise above it all.
To become a name known, loved and respected across the country, it takes something a little more: perseverance.
As a little gay boy growing up in Ithica, local drag superstar Sabin, born Tyler Cooper, lived on the stage and wanted nothing more than to stay there forever. While things didn't work out exactly as she planned, she eventually found herself on the stage – and on a journey that would take her from being virtually unknown to once again hosting Motor City Pride June 8-9.
In her past life, Sabin was a dancer. Classically trained, energetic, passionate and talented, she was a force. Unfortunately, a major injury to her knee stopped her cold.
"It was out of my control. It was just a freak accident – and in one night, my career ended," says Sabin, 30.
The injury was a crushing blow for her; up until that point, she'd never thought about anything more than dance. During that time, out of desperation, she tried to end her life.
"I had no idea (what to do) because dance was the only thing I ever felt like I was good at," she admits. "I had no backup plan; I had never thought about a life without dance. I tried to kill myself. I didn't know where else to turn. I didn't know what else to do. Dancing was the only thing I'd ever been good at – and it was taken away from me. I didn't think I had anything else to contribute. I was miserable … because everywhere I turned, I was reminded of dance."
After being released from the hospital, her aunt stepped up and offered her a trip to Orlando to clear her mind. The trip changed her life. Less than two weeks after returning to Michigan, Sabin found herself packing up and moving to Florida.
There she began to flirt with the idea of doing drag. After a standout dance number at an amateur talent show, Sabin had a conversation that would set the heels of her drag career in motion.
"I went in and I danced and I won the contest," she says. "There was a big performer in Florida who came up to me after the contest and she said, 'I know everybody and I don't know you. Who the hell are you?' I said, 'Um… Tyler.' She said, "I don't know who the hell you are but I'm going to make you a sickening queen one day.' I laughed in her face. Drag was so foreign to me; it never even entered my realm of thought.
"About a month later, I was in a pair of platform boots and performing on the amateur night."
Maybe it was fortuitous that her reason for entering that fateful competition was the same one that motivates drag queens around the world: cash.
"I did it because I needed the money," she says, laughing. "It was a $250 grand prize."
But it was also a way to get back to where she felt like she belonged.
"It was a way for me to get back on stage," she says. "I didn't have to dance as hardcore as I always had. It was something my body could take."
Over time she began to settle into life as a burgeoning drag queen, but it wasn't until another knee injury, a knee replacement and then a stage-name change that Sabin moved back home to Michigan and really blossomed.
"I started doing shows and I wasn't very successful; I wasn't sure how to use my dancing to my advantage," she says. "I was doing a show at Spiral (Nightclub) and they didn't have a host. They'd given me the microphone because I'd hosted a couple times in Florida. I started getting more and more comfortable on the microphone. There was one night where we were packed (and) I got up on stage and I started dancing. I kind of forgot to lip-sync but the crowd went crazy.
"I started to incorporate more and more dancing into my routine and stopped trying to be like everyone else. Everything just started to take off."
Calls to book Sabin started rolling in and she eventually scored the Drag Queen Bingo hosting gig at Five15 in Royal Oak. Over time, she polished her now-trademark wit and honed her skills as a performer and seamstress. But for the record, she doesn't wear sequins.
"I wear rhinestones," she insists. "So, please don't cheapen me, just saying."
Unlike many other drag queens, she decided not to take the glamorous route. Instead, she opted for a more club kid-esque appearance.
"I've never really claimed to be a pretty girl," she says. "I've always kind of been the oddity or the freak. I'm comfortable with that because it allows you so much more artistic freedom to do so many things that most other performers can't or wouldn't be willing to do."
Despite her unabashedly wigless aversion to glamour, Sabin was able to win pageants, fans and the respect of her peers. In a world where beauty counts for a lot, that's not easy. Luckily, the dedication, energy and talent that made her such a great dancer also helped her become a well-rounded queen and entertainer.
Over her career, she's won numerous awards and accolades but, for Sabin, the joy of doing drag really comes from her desire to put on a show. Even though she's now in her 11th year of doing drag, she still gets emotional when thinking about moments like the one she had recently after performing a tap dance number at Michigan State University.
"The entire auditorium had given me a standing ovation. I still get goose bumps when I talk about it," she says. "It wasn't because of who I was, it wasn't because of what I'd accomplished in my career – none of that mattered. All that mattered was that they appreciated what I'd done for them, that I had worked my ass off for them. It made me look at why I perform in a whole new light."
At this point in her career, she feels content with her success, but she's still looking for that next thing. Like most drag queens on the planet, she's hoping to see her face on "RuPaul's Drag Race." For her, being cast would be more about shining a spotlight on the Detroit drag community than self-validation.
"I feel it's a really easy way for me to give back to my community," she says. "We have a lot of amazing talent in this city that goes unnoticed. I think Detroit needs some positive light on it and I think we need to prove (it)."
She's also working to make sure Detroit's next generation of queens keep that fire alive with her own drag children and any other girl who needs an experienced helping hand.
"I'm enjoying the success that I have now," she says. "However, I'm also helping to groom the next generation of drag superstars. Why would I not want the next generation to be just as amazing if not better? I'm willing to help whoever's starting out, because I know I can't do this forever."
She's not quite sure when the time will come for her to step down as Michigan's reigning queen of queens, but she's ready for it when it happens. And then, she'll only look back fondly on all the sacrifies she made.
"I have lost friendships. I have lost relationships, I have lost money, but, at the end of the day, was it all worth it? It was. Without all of that, I wouldn't have been anywhere near who I am today," Sabin says. "Do I regret it? Not a damn bit."