It's hard to imagine who could outdo Lady Gaga in the shock-and-spectacle department, especially here in casually dressed Madison. As it turns out, there's at least one local spot where ladies give the foxy provocateur a run for her money on a regular basis. That place is Club 5 (5 Applegate Court), the gay bar and dance club just south of the Beltline.
While many downtown venues struggle to pull a crowd on a Sunday night, Club 5's Sunday drag events lure folks from Madison and beyond into a cave of illusion, intrigue and outfits that range from freaky to fabulous. The dance floor transforms into a runway where you might see Marilyn Monroe, Scary Spice or Gaga's doppelgänger, plus lots of new and alluring characters who get fans cheering, dancing and tossing dollar bills onto the stage.
Some of these drag performers are dancers, some are comedians, and some channel RuPaul's wacky je ne sais quoi. Though they are women as they worship the spotlight, most are dudes when they leave the stage.
Madison's drag queens defy easy categorization. But if one thing's for certain, it's that the scene is learning to embrace many different modes of performance, from runway modeling to singing show tunes in a full beard and a Rapunzel wig. That's not the only change. Even as veteran performers endure, newcomers are emerging.
Like most transitions, this one includes some painful and awkward moments, but part of the challenge is finding the beauty inherent in the struggle. For many, that's what drag is all about.
A star is born
Jose Vega, 34, a soft-spoken musical theater buff from Connecticut, never thought he'd be a drag diva. As it turns out, blood is thicker than gender. Family's what brought him to Madison in 2000 and convinced him to step into a dress for the first time. Nerve and talent are what have kept him in dresses.
"My brother had moved to La Crosse, and he started dabbling in drag there," Vega says. "Talking to him about it got me interested. Then he moved to Madison and I got even more into it. I just didn't think I'd be doing it."
Then, one fateful night nearly five years ago at Club 5, he was bitten full-force by the drag bug.
"There was this amazing queen from Milwaukee, and she was doing musical theater. Most queens do popular music - Top 40 and dance mixes - but she was really different. That's when I knew I had to try it."
Now Vega doubles as Broadway babe Kiki Rodriguez. Kiki is part of Club 5's official cast of characters, where she serves as both performer and choreographer for the cast's ensemble numbers.
Kiki serves another important role. By focusing on songs sung by musicals' Latino and Latina characters, such as "Nothing" from A Chorus Line, she adds some cultural diversity to the scene. And along with several others, she's helping Madison grow as a home for theater-loving queens.
For one, she's brought Shane O'Neill, flamboyant front man of theater-punk band Screamin' Cyn-Cyn & the Pons, into the fold. After making his drag debut as Anita Lane Bryant last summer, O'Neill's been leading local fans into a world of über-camp and out-there performance art inspired by coastal performers like Dynasty Handbag and "terror drag" trailblazer Fade-Dra Phey.
"I'm more comedy-driven and ugly than most people doing drag, but the scene's changing quickly. There seems to be a lot more crazy, Trannyshack-style stuff out there," says O'Neill, 27, referring to an important San Francisco drag event, "with punk and performance art and fake blood and whatnot, and that's gotta be making its way to the Midwest."
Do it yourself
Jakob Aebly, 24, a 2010 graduate of UW-Madison's music and theater programs, has taken theater drag in a Disney-inspired direction as Davina DeVille, a vamp who vacillates between villain and vixen.
Though he brings a theater background to his act, it's drag's DIY qualities that keep him coming back for more.
"In theater productions, you have a costume designer, a director, a music director and a huge team of people to get the actors ready for the stage," Aebly explains. "But most of us drag queens, we're responsible for making our costumes, doing our hair and makeup, and [choosing] the creative direction of our acts. I was born with an interest in hair and makeup, but no innate knowledge, so I have to learn like everybody else."
Unlike many other queens, Aebly didn't get his start at a Club 5 show, or through a mentor known as a drag mother. His catalyst was a Halloween costume.
He and a friend planned to be Patsy and Eddie from Absolutely Fabulous for one night only. But pretty soon, they found themselves immersed in the UW's mini drag scene, hosting Indie Queer's HalloQueen event and performing at downtown bars as a pair of rollicking redheads called the Ginger Devils.
Davina's claim to fame is her voice. Most queens mouth their lyrics rather than singing: In fact, on the Logo network's reality show RuPaul's Drag Race, contestants "lip-sync for their lives" to keep from getting booted off the program. Davina, though, belts out her tunes, even while she's exploring the conceptual side of the costume continuum.
At a recent Club 5 show, she appeared as the narrator of a dark, Grimm Brothers-inspired fairy tale, clad in a giant amber wig and a cumulus cloud of black tulle. Lady Gaga would definitely approve.
Crowns and gowns
Drag queens don't live only for club performances. They also compete in pageants, which, like the Miss America pageant, feature interviews, evening gowns and a talent competition. The pageant system encompasses local titles - Miss Gay Madison, Miss Wausau - as well as state and national competitions. Pageants provide a space in which the entire LGBT community can celebrate the art of transformation.
This can make for conflict, both within the drag community and outside it. But Brian Poncé, 33, whose company, Ravyn Entertainment, produces many of Club 5's shows and oversees local preliminary pageant competitions, says pageant drama isn't quite what it's cracked up to be.
"Drag is full of big personalities, especially when you get to the competitive level, so the drama can seem a little more pronounced. But really, it's everywhere," says Poncé, who used to appear as the Contessa Piranha but is mostly retired from performance. "People sometimes forget the [LGBT] community doesn't just magically get along. There are different cultures, different races and all different kinds of people, so we've got quirks and misunderstandings, just like any other community."
Competition doesn't come cheap. "For one national pageant, my drag mother spent at least $20,000 dollars just for her gown, her fur that matched the gown and her jewelry," says Desiree Mathews, 41, a local drag queen who's held multiple pageant titles and who creates jewelry and costumes for other performers. "For her talent number, she had 12 backup dancers that probably cost her another $20,000."
Both sides now
Cass Marie Domino, 37, one of the local scene's best-known performers, is no stranger to transitions. Until she had sex-reassignment surgery four years ago, living on the margins was a way of life, as her gender identity didn't match her biological reality. Dressing as a woman and vamping it up onstage helped her find herself in more ways than one.
But there was a dark side: The same drag scene that coaxed Domino out of her shell sent her spiraling out-of-control when she didn't set limits.
"For years, the onstage Cass was the offstage Cass, too," she explains. "I didn't realize that until 10 years ago, when I started recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Now I just try to be me. I'm a nursing assistant at a hospital, and I have a house and a dog.... Those things matter just as much as being sexy, witty, theatrical or entertaining."
For some drag queens, deciding whether to maintain separate identities onstage and off is a tough call. Either way, keeping track of two selves is hard.
Jose Vega has found that no matter how much he tries, some people want to talk to his character, not his offstage self. "I like being Kiki, but I also like to separate the feminine and masculine," he says. "When I go out to the club, I want to be Jose."
Vega's wish refutes one of drag's most prevalent stereotypes: that all queens are transsexual dudes yearning to become women. As Vega puts it, "It can be hard to get a date if people think you want to be a woman."
Of course, not every drag performer is a man impersonating a woman. Madison's drag scene also includes drag kings, like the members of the MadKings troupe. Generally, but not exclusively, drag kings are women who impersonate men.
There even is room in the scene for men who imitate...men. One of the newest Club 5 performers is Lolito, who takes elements of drag and go-go dancing, adds Steven Tyler's swagger and Trent Reznor's edge, and spins them into a deviant performance art he calls boylesque. But in this case, the dude doesn't look like a lady: He's a pretty boy with a potty mouth and pink eyelashes.
Garrett Kotecki, 22, Lolito's real-world foil, imagines Lolito as raised by drag queens, but rebelling against them. He says his subject matter is so provocative that it automatically creates a line between his persona and his personality.
"Lolito's someone completely different from who I am, and someone I'm afraid to be," says Kotecki. "He's all about sex and glitter and hedonism, but I'm not."
Along with Domino, Joel Duffrin, 40, has spearheaded many of the charitable activities that have come to define Madison drag. "I love to use my craft and my persona in a positive manner," he says. "Using drag as a teaching tool gives me a sense of purpose." Duffrin, a drag veteran of 17 years who performs as Josie Lynn, recently made the top 25 on RuPaul's Drag Race.
AIDS is the issue that transformed Duffrin into a force for good. Twelve years ago, when Duffrin discovered he was living with HIV, the forecast looked bleak. He might have wallowed or given up, but instead he turned his focus back to those who need him: his fans and the many other people facing adversity.
"When I was first diagnosed, I went through a destructive stage where I used drugs as an outlet," he says. "But then I realized I'd lost so many [HIV-positive] friends to drugs, and that killing myself like that was a real disrespect to their memory. I had to become the person - the queen - I wanted to be, HIV or no HIV."
Madison drag queens perform at benefits for cancer research, heart patients and many other worthy causes. But the issue nearest and dearest to many queens' hearts is the HIV-AIDS epidemic. Many performers use charity work to honor the memory of Felicia Melton-Smyth, a local queen who was murdered while vacationing in Mexico two years ago. She worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the disease.
These days Josie Lynn raises money for a lengthy list of charities, from homeless shelters to hospice centers. This work takes her far beyond the gay club circuit, into rock clubs and radio stations, where she does duets with Kermit the Frog and transforms from Liza to Reba to Marilyn in a snap. This work even brings non-LGBT fans to places like Club 5.
That has a flipside. "It's important that the places built by the [LGBT] community are for the community and remain a safe space for them," says Aebly. "When the gay clubs start to become 90% straight, with a circus-like atmosphere where people are expecting to be entertained but have no understanding of what the community is, that can become damaging."
Duffrin gets the message, but he says that learning to tolerate others isn't just for straight folks. "There are so many opportunities to use it for good that doesn't make sense to tuck it away in the gay community," he says. "Drag really is for everyone."
We are family
Wisconsin Capitol Pride, Madison's summer LGBT fiesta, is a fine opportunity to see drag queens in action.
Pride Kickoff Party
Club 5, Friday, Aug. 20, 9 pm
Performers from across Wisconsin, and from season two of RuPaul's Drag Race, usher in Pride weekend with glitz and gusto.
Alliant Energy's Willow Island Center, Saturday, Aug. 21, 11 am-11 pm
Entertainment includes drag shows, DJs, Chicago's dance rockers Dot Dot Dot and hip-hop act God-des and She.
Josie Lynn's Pride Drag Show
Club 5, Sunday, Aug. 22, 10 pm
Following a beer party and picnic, Josie Lynn, Miss Gay Wisconsin USofA 1997, will lead a revue featuring queens from every corner of the state.