Queen-being

Queen-beingQueen-being

E yebrows are glued down, painted over and redrawn higher on the forehead. Skin is covered in foundation and sculpted with dramatic contours and beaming highlights. Eyeliner, eye shadow, lip liner, blush and false lashes are applied, plus towering wigs, dramatic dresses, sparkling jewelry.

It’s a Saturday night in the green room at 168 York Street Cafe, and the twice-monthly Robin Banks Show is about to start. Shawn Miller (pictured first) is painting on an exaggerated pout, preparing for an evening as his drag persona, Dandy Lions. “I’m the only girl in the biz that draws on a frown,” she says as a cop car, siren blaring, passes on the street below. “Your ride is here,” she calls out over-shoulder to her friend and the night’s emcee Robin Banks (pictured second), who, out of drag, goes by Shawn Bodey.

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Banks, who also sometimes performs at Lions’s quarterly show Ladies of Illusion, snorts. Banter is their bread and butter, as I learned the week before, when I met up with the pair, plus Patrick Dunn, who performs as Kiki Lucia, and Robert Crowley, who deadpans of his stage name Mia E Z’Lay: “It’s a religious reference. I was raised Roman Catholic. We spent a lot of time on our knees.”

Friends, colleagues and muses, the four of them found their way to New Haven’s drag scene, which is how they found each other. Bodey says he “started doing drag watching Dandy,” while Dunn says a Mia E Z’Lay performance skewering Kim Davis—the Kentucky county clerk who gained notoriety in 2015 for refusing to recognize same-sex marriages—changed the course of his performances, making him aware of the power of his alter-ego’s voice. “No one gives Patrick a microphone,” Dunn says. “But they’ll hand it to Kiki.”

While their performances are effervescent and irreverent, campy and electric, the art of drag is dead-serious. For Dunn, who came to America from the Middle East and was burdened by “masculinity issues,” drag performers made him “feel at home,” while Crowley says, “It’s a way for me to express myself and all that cheesy stuff… I suffer from a lot of shit. Drag keeps me from dark thoughts.” Bodey cites drag performances as his method of financial “survival” when he first moved to town, and Miller sees their shows as integral to the health of the gay bar scene in New Haven and beyond. Gay bars, he says, “have always been a sanctuary for people who aren’t accepted in society. It’s important to keep the culture alive.”

Dunn, whose Kiki hosts the monthly show Let’s Have a Kiki at nearby Partners Cafe, agrees. “Drag has been and always will be the art form of queer culture. The only thing that survives history is art.”

Back in the dressing room, a performer who goes by Pastiche is preparing for her first-ever drag show, adjusting a black beehive wig that recalls Priscilla Presley’s wedding day, while an established queen, Lucy Lockwood, emerges in a custom skin-tight latex bodysuit and six-inch heels. Dandy Lions has finished drawing her lips and goes to work gluing thick fringes of fake eyelashes. “I draw my eyebrows on way up here,” she says. “I’ve got hair bigger than a Buick… I’m an old school camp queen.”

Bodey’s Robin Banks channels Judy Garland with a rosebud pout and a ginger wig. He says she doesn’t fit into the two mainstream categories of drag queens: fishy (hyper-feminine) or campy, but instead thinks of her as a “business queen… I just love money so much, you’d think I’d have more of it,” he says.

Downstairs, a crowd waits for Robin Banks to appear. When she does, she’s lip-syncing the sweet and sour “Popular” from the musical Wicked. “Whenever I see someone less fortunate than I / And let’s face it, who isn’t less fortunate than I?” she mouths, twirling around on ruby slippers and accepting dollar bills. Next, Dandy Lions, resplendent in red, performs a scathing, hilarious lip-sync of Julia Sugarbaker’s cult-classic Miss Georgia monologue from Designing Women: “You probably didn’t know that Suzanne was the only contestant in Georgia pageant history to sweep every category except congeniality, and that is not something the women in my family aspire to anyway.”

The combination of glamorous outfits, omnivorous pop culture references, funhouse femininity and old-fashioned showmanship makes drag shows like Robin Banks’s impossibly entertaining. Drag is an art form created in the pressure cooker of marginalization, and it’s stronger, funnier and stranger for it.

New Haven’s scene is unique, according to Dunn, in part because it still reflects and embraces its origins, unlike what he’s seen in New York and Boston, where the audience, primarily “straight white women,” leaves him with the “frustration of looking around and not seeing anyone like me in my own space. But when you come to a Robin Banks show or go to Partners, it’s still very gay, which is nice… While straight people still come in and enjoy it, it’s not pushing out the queer culture side of it… Artists are coming to New Haven because they still feel that sense of home.”

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook. Image #1 depicts Shawn Miller on the way to becoming Dandy Lions. Image #2 depicts Robin Banks.

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