The Once and Future Queens: Vignettes From A Season of Seattle Drag

Johann Van Niekerk
Posted on November 13, 2014, 9:21 pm
20 mins

A Sunday morning in June. A man with a microphone is loudly evangelizing homophobic Biblical interpretations to an increasing crowd of LGBT Seattleites gearing up for the annual pride parade. His message seems to be directed to one group of participants in particular, the group of drag queens acting as hostesses for the parade. Things get heated and the police form a barricade between the two opposing groups. The hostesses, Sylvia O’Stayformore, DonnaTella Howe and a toweringly tall Mama Tits lock arms and form a human wall.

Mama Tits preaches love at Seattle Pride

Mama Tits preaches love at Seattle Pride. Picture by Nate Gowdy Photography

Mama Tits instantly starts delivering the spontaneous speech of a lifetime that will turn her into a viral sensation in the coming weeks:

“…they use the Bible to spew their hate, when actually, if they followed by all the teachings of this book that they use to hate, they themselves are sinners. They are wearing cotton-poly blend. That is an abomination. Did you kill your daughters if they had sex out of wedlock? Do you sleep with your wife if she happens to have that time of the month? You’re not even allowed to share the bed with her. Should we stone you for that? Why don’t you read your own book and actually follow the teachings to the letter of God, and learn to support and love. You need to drop the hate. You are a sad, sad, excuse for a human being. Once you learn to drop the hate, you too can find happiness, because we will welcome you with open arms if you learn to open your mind. Not today, Satan. Not today.”

After this biblical lesson she gears up for the big finale: “You have no power here—be gone before someone drops a house on you!” A few feet away an astounded George Takei, Grand Marshall for the parade, looks on. A video clip of the event titled “Mama Tits is a Crusader!” is broadcast online and quickly garners over a million views on YouTube, with articles appearing worldwide in multiple languages.

Four months later Mama Tits is on the street again—this time outside the Unicorn on Pike Street, where her long-running drag variety show Mimosas with Mama is about to start. She greets every passer-by, invites them to the show or merely makes small talk.

“I miss greeting the people here. It’s become so busy, but I’m happy to be back out here. Capitol Hill is changing, we are moving out at a rapid pace, so it’s important to stay connected. We made this hill, the misfit toys; we are the Bohemians.” She is very excited as she just received news that the show Mimosas with Mama is in the running for first place in the “Best of Western Washington” Theatre category. (It was announced this week that they won.) In an unexpected turn of events, she was also nominated as “Woman of the Year.”


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Ben de la Creme in a fabulous monochrome ensemble by Jamie von Stratton.

Century Ballroom on a Monday night in April. It is only 6 PM and the line has started forming for the 10 PM live screening of the popular RuPaul’s Drag Race. The evening is hosted by Seattleite and contestant in the current season, BenDeLaCreme and his side-kick, the female “bio queen” and The Stranger Genius Award-winner Sarah Rudinoff. During the screening, the atmosphere is akin to that of a football game—collective gasps, laughter, shouts of disbelief, the calling out of ‘opponents’ and an overwhelming sense of shock when the ‘home-team’ gets eliminated after reaching the Top 5. The sense of support and community is palpable as the crowd of around 300 collectively rises to their feet and raises a toast the defeated queen.

Five months later BenDeLaCreme is back at Century with the one-man show Terminally Delightful. It begains with an audio-clip of her moment of elimination from Drag Race and she goes on to deliver high-intellect humor, tongue-in-cheek burlesque, and satirical nods at the type of LGBT subculture resultant from shows such as Drag Race. She is flying high. Her departure from Drag Race has created the kind of buzz that artists could only dream of and her authenticity has earned her that show’s “Miss Congeniality” award. The Terminally Delightful show has just had two extended off-Broadway runs in New York City and she is happy to be back in Seattle.

“I am so happy to be back, albeit briefly” she shares from the stage. “There is no other city in which I feel this supported.”


Drag King Ernie Von Schmaltz. Photo by Meneldor Photography

Drag King Ernie Von Schmaltz. Photo by Meneldor Photography

A late-September night and a line is forming in the alley outside of Neighbors nightclub. The anticipated event, Banned! Books in Drag, is hosted by the Seattle Public Library, and the patrons supporting the event is not the young crowd typically seen at Neighbors—grandparents and millennials and everybody in between are patiently waiting to be entertained by some of Seattle’s most in-demand drag performers,such as Aleksa Manilla, Robbie Turner, La Saveona Hunt, Amora Dior Black and Atasha Manila. Their routines, inspired by books that were banned, range from renditions from My Fair Lady to highly energized and sexualized performances of music by Rihanna and other pop contemporaries. With the exception of one or two obviously less-than-impressed patrons, the crowd is visibly entertained, and the seemingly incongruous combination of fierce drag queens with the bookish and older audience nearer to the stage feels almost ‘normal’ by the end of the night.

The Stranger’s David Schmader concurs in his speech: “I could not think of any other city where their public library would host an event, utilizing the talents of drag queens, in a night club, to celebrate the freedoms of press and expression.” He is followed by the antics of drag king Ernie Von Schmaltz, a used-car-salesperson-meet-Elvis impersonator who soon has the crowd in stitches with the pithy depiction of the stereotypical overweight male couch potato.


Cherdonna Shinatra photographed by Eugenie Frerichs

Cherdonna Shinatra photographed by Eugenie Frerichs

It is almost Halloween and the audience at Velocity Dance Centre is waiting for the start of the final sold out show of Seattle’s “drag-queen-who-isn’t-a-drag-queen,” Cherdonna Shinatra. Velocity Dance Centre’s Artistic Director Tonya Locker steps onto the unusual stage, which is covered by floor-to-ceiling blue-and-white floral print linoleum. She comments on the support of Seattleites for out-of-the-box artists such as Shinatra: “Artists need to have a safe space to try unsafe ideas in order for anything to ever happen.”

Shinatra and three other actor-dancers proceed to deliver a one-of-a-kind experience that is difficult to explain. The jingles and catchphrases of the night stay embedded in the mind long after the show has ended. Allow me one laughable attempt nevertheless: perhaps Einstein-on-the-Beach-meets-Kubrick-meets-Ligeti-meets-Diane-Keaton extravagant minimalism?


It’s press opening for the touring cast of the Broadway favorite Kinky Boots, and the lines outside of 5th Avenue Theater are buzzing with excitement. Once inside, patrons are posing for pictures with a tall, beautiful drag queen towering over them in red sequins and extraordinarily high heels. The sight is a curious one; folks of all kinds pose behind a cardboard cut-out of the iconic red boots and a general sense of laughter and frivolity pervades the foyer.

The cast of the First National Tour of Kinky Boots. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The cast of the First National Tour of Kinky Boots. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The show starts and the audience reacts exuberantly to the storyline of a drab men’s shoe store and its even drabber owner. The company and its employees are transformed when they decide to start manufacturing heavy-duty high heels for drag queens. The audience’s reaction is overwhelmingly positive. They even seem reluctant to leave the auditorium after the umpteenth standing ovation. Even for a Seattle audience, this level of appreciation is astounding. (Read more in our review of Kinky Boots.)


A full bus on a crisp fall morning in October and a headline in the Seattle Times reads: “Brace yourselves, Seattle Rep patrons: The Vaudevillians have arrived.”

Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales in The Vaudevillians. Photo: Nate Watters.

Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales in The Vaudevillians. Photo: Nate Watters.

The warning from theatre critic Misha Bershon is an apt one. That evening Jinkx Monsoon walks down the stage as Kitty Witless, a vaudevillian starlet dressed in an open night slip with some lacy lingerie.

“What?! Not what you expected?” she asks the audience, which is mostly older straight groups and couples. She proceeds to harass audience members, sitting on their laps and delivering a brash baptism-by-fire into cabaret performance through a drag lens—which magnifies the personalities involved and smashes the fourth wall. Kitty’s antics are to the chagrin of her ‘husband,’ Vaudevillians co-creater Richard Andriessen as ‘Doctor Dan Von Dandy,’ who plays a brilliant ‘straight’ man.

Jinkx Monsoon is played by the extraordinary actor and Cornish-alum Jerick Hoffer, whose star is burning bright. She won the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race (a fact quite possibly unbeknownst to this evening’s particular audience), and the success of The Vaudevillians—which has had a multiple extended runs on Off Broadway—is establishing her ‘theatre cred’ in drag and non-drag circles alike. Her first album isn’t doing too bad either. Despite initial discomfort at Kitty’s entendres and less-than-ladylike behavior, the crowd is soon won over by the sheer musical talent of the Hoffer-Andriessen duo and the familiar Lucille Ball/Carol Burnett humor.


A warm Friday night in summer and Julia’s on Broadway is packed for their long-running drag impersonation show Le Faux. The narrow tables are laden with food and drinks and seem to be centered around a few specific women celebrating their bachelorettes parties.

Le Faux at Julia’s

Le Faux at Julia’s

Kristie Champagne steps on stage and the whooping and hollering is deafening. “Who is here to celebrate something special?” she asks. The bachelorettes—some obviously inebriated—step to the stage and share the reasons for their celebration.

“Where are my straight women at?”

Champagne asks from the stage—the room erupts in cheering.

“Where are my gay men at?”

A short ‘whoop’ from a handful of men answers an awkward silence.

Speaking to some of the queens outside, they concur: “Seattle has embraced us fully. It is a great night of entertainment, and who doesn’t love seeing their favorite pop stars, impersonated or not?”

They are right. The show is a whirlwind tour of celebrity impersonations and the lip-syncing divas are in their element. Gaydom’s demi-goddesses Cher and Madonna get a warm reception, but it is the impersonators doing Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry that get the most overwhelming response.


It’s a Sunday evening in Pike Place, and Robbie Turner is hosting her own musical revue—a “dream come true!” for the local darling. The revue is dazzling, inspired by the variety shows of the sixties and seventies. Turner shares stories about her own southern Evangelical upbringing and sings a vast array of songs, ranging from African-American spirituals to medleys consisting of Supremes songs and hits from the disco era. A sizeable cast of singers and dancers support her and the amount of preparation is evident in their choreography and tonal blend. Her comical sketches cause sidesplitting laughter from the audience, especially the character of Shari, an…ahem…aging diner manager who doesn’t take any nonsense from her customers.

Turner looking resplendent in an outfit by Michael Cepress. Photo by La Vie Photography.

Turner looking resplendent in an outfit by Michael Cepress. Photo by La Vie Photography.

After this skit, she changes gears once again, and guests are treated to a vision of movement as they see a reenactment of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers number, with her flowing emerald gown glowing just-so in the blue and green lights of the Hard Rock Café. (Read our showcase of Robbie Turner.)


If the full-length old-school variety show revue at Hard Rock Café’s comes as a surprise, the scenery around the corner is even more surprising—a full mural by Anna-Lisa Notter featuring Seattle’s “international gender-blending queer lady boylesque performance-art stripping sensation” Waxie Moon.

Anna-Lisa Notter's Waxie Moon mural photographed by Genevieve Pierson

Waxie Moon photographed by Genevieve Pierson

The location of the the larger-than-life mural is significant, picturing Moon athletically dangling from a chandelier while sporting high-heels and a beard and spilling champagne. It towers over one of Seattle’s most visited landmarks: Pike Place and the “original” Starbucks store (not really the first, but the tourists think so). Much like Moon’s talent, this mural is impossible to ignore. Moon has achieved a loyal following in Seattle and has starred in cult-comedy films, a documentary about Moon’s life, director Wes Hurley’s latest project Zolushka and in the web series Capitol Hill opposite Robbie Turner.

Families of seeming tourists approach the mural. A little girl points to the wall. “Who is she, mommy?” she asks.

“I have no idea,” the mother responds. “But I really want her shoes.”

 


 

Catch all of these acts in the coming season. Below is a list of scheduled performances in November and December.

The Robbie Turner Revue

Features: Robbie Turner. The Turner Classics (Jordan Jackson, Bo Mellinger, Justin Ramsey, Tori Dullenty & Katy Tabb)

When: Sunday, Nov. 16, doors at 7 PM, show at 8 PM

Where: Hard Rock Café (116 Pike St.)

Tickets available through www.ticketweb.com

 

Julia’s “Le Faux”

Host: Kristie Champagne

When: Sunday afternoons, 2 PM

Where: Julia’s (300 Broadway E.)

 

“Mimosas With Mama”

Features: Mama Tits, Tipsy Rose Lee, Felix Manchild, Isabella Extyn St. James

When: Sunday afternoons. Line starts 12:45 PM. Finishes approximately 3 PM.

Where: Unicorn/Narwhal (1118 E Pike St.)

Tickets available through www.mimosaswithmama.com

 

The Atomic Bombshells Present “CAKE! A Decade of Dazzling Decadence”

Features: BenDeLaCreme, The Atomic Bombshells Burlesque, Perle Noire, Kitten De Ville

When: Fri, Nov. 21, 7 PM; 10 PM; Sat, Nov. 22, 7 PM, 10 PM

Where: Triple Door (216 Union St.)

Tickets available through www.thetripledoor.net

 

DeLouRue Presents “Homo For The Holidays”

Features: BenDeLaCreme, Cherdonna Shinatra, Kitten LaRue, Randy Philips, Ilvs Strauss, The Luminous Pariah, Schott Shoemaker and Josh Harvigson.

When: Sunday afternoons. Line starts 12:45 PM. Finishes approximately 3 PM.

December 11, 8 PM

December 12-13, 7PM; 10 PM

December 14, 8 PM

December 17-18, 8 PM

December 19-24, 7 PM; 10 PM

December 26-27, 8 PM

Where: West Hall, OddFellows Building (915 E Pine St.)

Tickets available through www.strangertickets.com

Johann Van Niekerk
Johann Van Niekerk is a writer, conductor and collaborative artist based in Seattle, WA. He holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Washington where his research focused on the role that music has played throughout history in effecting social change. Van Niekerk covers performing arts events in and around Seattle.

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