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Trans Drag Performers Discuss What the Art Form Means to Them

By |2018-06-06T16:10:18-04:00June 6th, 2018|Guides, Pride Guide|


Everyone has heard of drag, but drag queens and kings are not all the same. Drag is so much more than gay men dressing up as women for entertainment purposes. The art form is practiced by people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and styles vary.
Pride Month is underway, and as drag performers hit the streets, BTL spoke with four Detroit-based trans drag performers – Michael Christian, Cierra Dior Malone, Hailey Charles, and Paige Michaels Chanel – to better understand their experiences as they break down gender stereotypes and gender rules.

The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Michael Christian

What does the average person not know about what it takes to be a drag king?
It takes a lot of time and investment. We don’t just magically appear on stage looking the way we do. There are hours and hours of behind the scenes.

What does being a drag king mean to you?
It’s freedom. It’s the place I can go to play dress up and live out my best “lost boy” fantasies. It’s a completely tangible and accepted neverland for adults.

We hear a lot about drag queens, but not drag kings. Why do you think that is?
Drag kings still aren’t as respected by some drag queens. They don’t want to give a chance to the kings. For a long time there was a “jeans and wife beater” stigma on kings. There wasn’t much make up or costuming. Times have changed though. Make up and costuming is much more creative. We spend a lot of time and money on our art form. Things need to start changing on the local level. People need to step out of their old thoughts. Especially in venues that are sort of catering or advertising shows to the straight crowds. Why not throw a king in the mix? It can be just as much of a “wow oh my are you serious!?” moment from the crowd.

Can you explain being trans and doing drag?
For me drag began as a comfort. It was the only place I could see myself comfortably in a mirror. Today, drag is more of a self expression. I manage a Starbucks during the day. I make lattes and smile at the world that passes thru and isn’t even awake enough to see me.
Once or twice a month I get to dress in rhinestones and hear the crowd cheer. They see me.
To be honest though. It’s still the place I’m most comfortable in my skin. With the overly made up masculine features and costuming to enhance it.

What do you think are some of the misconceptions about drag in general?
That it is easy. It isn’t easy to get on stage in front of all those people and perform. Also, that our characters are all that we are. Every single one of us washes off the make up and lives a life in the daylight.

Cierra Dior Malone

Is it hard to be successful in the drag world?
Yes and no. It can be challenging as to what kind of drag you want to do according to how people look at drag. They think you should be this type of performer or look this type of way. But drag has evolved throughout the years where you don’t have to be this certain type of a drag queen. You can be whatever type of performer that you want to be … “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has really shown us that drag queens come in all different shapes, forms and sizes.

What does it take to be a drag queen?
It takes a lot of determination, patience, drive, consistency, and being humble. And knowing what your audience loves and what you love as well.

What is it like to perform drag as a trans woman?
Some people feel like trans women have an advantage over cis men because we have breasts and hips and ass that are not detachable. But some of the cis men who get into drag are very passable as women as well. I think people look at the trans women as being more of a female figure. The girls can get naked and not have to feel bad about a titty falling out or hip slipping or something like that. It’s a little bit easier and faster to get dressed as a trans woman than it is as a regular drag queen.

What are your thoughts about being a trans woman and doing drag?
There are drag performers, female impersonators, and we’ll call the trans women female illusionists. Some people don’t understand because they still consider some trans women drag queens. We all perform. It’s just a little technicality between us. One of us, when we take off the makeup and hair, we are still women. The other one, when they take off the hair and makeup, they are men. But in society they group us all in the same boat anyway though.

What does drag mean to you?
Drag is being fabulous, darling. It’s just being fabulous. It’s just putting your best foot forward and just being fabulous.

Hailey Charles

When did you know you had arrived?
When I won Miss Gigi’s in 2008. It felt pretty amazing to know I was one of 43 people – at that time – who had ever won, out of all of the people. So it was like I had finally accomplished something.

What are some of the titles you’ve held?
I was Royal Junior Miss Michigan and I was Miss Malebox before winning Miss Gigi’s. Since then I’ve won Miss Gigi’s Classic, so I’m the first performer at Gigi’s to win Amateur, Miss and Classic. As of now there’s nobody else who’s had all three.

What is it like to perform drag as a trans woman?
I think that it’s a little bit easier because you don’t have to do all the padding and the breast plates and all that. So I think it’s both good and bad because I think a lot of people don’t feel that trans people should compete in drag pageants against people who are not trans. So it definitely has its challenges.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t understand the difference between a trans woman and a female impersonator?
My only answer for that would be women do various things. That’s like saying women shouldn’t be construction workers, but we have plenty of women who are cops and construction workers and people who are female impersonators … You still transitioned to become female. It wasn’t a God-given situation. You still put the work in.

What does drag mean to you?
I can’t answer that for everybody, but for me I think drag is just an individual’s right to be creative. It’s just a way for people to express themselves and be creative.

Paige Michaels Chanel

What was your first entry point into the drag world?
Honestly, I started watching some of the older girls in the scene and I was really intrigued by it … Once I started watching pageants I really liked the shows. The pageants are what really motivated me within that. I teach competition dance and I’m very competitive so the competition in the pageants helps build character. It gives me energy. Once I started doing it I started getting booked for shows at a lot of different places and bars.

What does it take to be a drag queen?
Diligence, discipline, dedication. You have to put forth all of you plus some. Drag is like Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce. It’s you but it’s you projected in a different format. You’re really just putting your alter ego forward and things that you may not actually do in person, you’ll do on stage. The person you want to be on the inside has to be projected 100 percent. If you’re not giving the people all of you, they won’t give you all of them. So to be successful you have to be true to who you are and you have to be willing to learn from others. There are so many other people who have paved the way for amateur and newcomers to be here.

How would you describe the relationship between your drag performance and your identity as a trans woman?
It is different. I think that for myself I have to learn a lot of times I don’t do enough drag because I’m so used to being naturally feminine. So a lot of times I don’t do enough and I’ve been told in pageants before you’re not drag enough. And that’s because I live my life as a woman so I just assumed for a drag show me putting on makeup and costumes would be good enough. But in the drag scene it doesn’t discriminate. Drag is drag and you have to over exaggerate your makeup, your body, your movement. So I had to learn to drag myself a little more. I thought that being pretty and putting makeup on would be enough. But they’re like, ‘oh no girl, you’re eyelashes need to be 301s. You need to have a glitter eye.’

Have you ever faced or witnessed any kind of bias against trans women doing drag?
For us trans woman it’s almost like a night out on the town for us. We get to embellish what we already have whereas cis men have to invent things. We are already women who are embodying our femininity a little bit more. It may be a little harder for a cis man when it comes to drag because they almost have to try to be feminine where we’re naturally feminine. So a lot of the movements come naturally to us. But I will admit I’ve seen cis men who have done a really good job, almost better than trans … I got my butt kicked by a cis man because I thought I didn’t have to do as much. I still have to work just as hard to give the illusion when it comes to drag.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t understand the difference between a trans woman and a female impersonator?
I will be honest: I was one of those people once upon a time. I felt if you were transitioning and you were taking hormones and steps to be a woman that maybe drag was not something you should be doing. But I’ve grown and I’ve learned that a part of your transition is to appreciate where you’re going and to pay homage to your past. If it wasn’t for your past you wouldn’t be who you are today … If I never saw some trans woman doing drag I’d never be the woman I am becoming today … I am growing everyday as a woman and I have to be able to appreciate the person that I was. I also encourage younger trans woman to not completely give up on who you were before. A lot of the strengths you had before can help you.

What does drag mean to you?
Drag is like my alter ego. It’s my inner person shining through and allowing me to be fully me. Allowing me to project my insides to my outsides as loudly as flamboyantly as I’d like to. There is no limit to drag. Drag is up to your imagination. Drag is creative. It’s a sense of oneness, a sense of being comfortable and being proud and drag, for me, is being a leader. When you see these drag shows on stage it takes so much for them to do it and get in front of me and be as vulnerable as they are. So drag is strength. Drag is empowerment. Drag is me.

Cierra Dior Malone will perform during Happy Hour at The Woodward Bar & Grill, 6426 Woodward Ave. in Detroit, on Thursday, June 14.

Hailey Charles performs on Saturday nights at Gigi’s Cabaret, 16920 W. Warren Ave. in Detroit.

Paige Michaels Chanel will appear on Sunday, June 10 at Motor City Pride at Hart Plaza in Detroit.

Michael Christian will perform at the Drag Show Afterparty following Great Lakes Bay Pride on Saturday, June 30 at The Red Room, Dow Event Center, 303 Johnson St. in Saginaw.

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael has been with Pride Source since 1999 and is currently senior staff writer. He has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author for his authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," released on his own JAM Books imprint.
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