By Emmy Serviss
The first time I saw a drag show was in Portland, Oregon sometime around 2009. I can’t remember the club or specific performer’s names, but I do remember two of the performances. One was a comedic routine to the Tom Jones song “What’s New Pussycat?” that featured a peek-a-boo cat cutout as part of the costume. (Use your imagination…) The other was an incredible dance routine to the song “Be Italian” from the musical Nine.
Since this was my first drag show, I was shy about interacting with the cast members. But after watching that mesmerizing dance performance, I couldn’t help myself. (I can’t remember this particular drag queen’s name, so I’ll call her Saraghina.)
I fished a dollar out of my purse and crept up to the stage. When Saraghina saw me approaching, she crouched down and smiled at me. Now, I’ve met (and interviewed) numerous Broadway stars and celebrities, but I’ve never been tongue-tied before. As I held out the dollar, I stupidly babbled, “You’re beautiful.”
I don’t know if she heard me, because the smile on her face didn’t waver as Saraghina gracefully took the dollar bill and glided offstage. I scampered back to my seat, slightly embarrassed but also in awe of this new world I’d found.
That was over 10 years ago, and I’m still in awe.
Sometimes, I even wish I were a drag queen. Not because of the clothes or the makeup or the hair, although all those are fabulous and I could definitely use an upgrade.
No, I wish I had the confidence of a drag queen. I wish I had the confidence to walk into a room and command attention. The confidence to know that I am not cute, I am not pretty and I am not beautiful––I am drop-dead gorgeous. The confidence to be plus-sized and have my body celebrated. To know my self-worth and not accept anything less.
I wish I could be like that.
When I moved to Boston in 2011, I spent the first six months trying to find a new job. Needless to say, there was a lot of down time. One day while channel surfing, I discovered RuPaul’s Drag Race. It was the tail end of Season 3, so after they crowned Raja the winner, I went back to the beginning of the season and binged it from the beginning. Then I went back to watch Season 2. (Raven was ROBBED!) It was a while before I could find the oh-so-elusive Season 1 in all its soft-focus glory, but I got there eventually.
Point is, I was in awe all over again.
Season 4 premiered and I tuned in every week to root for my favorite queens. I was on #TeamLatrice, #TeamSharon and #TeamWillam. When Sharon was crowned as the season winner, I celebrated alone in my living room and booed my TV screen in glee. (According to the newly crowned Queen of Halloween, “If anyone boos you offstage, that is simply applause from ghosts.”)
The turning point for me was when Jinkx Monsoon appeared in Season 5. Jinkx was a quirky, musical theater-loving oddball with an affinity for old Hollywood and theatrical characters.
And yet, she didn’t quite seem to fit in with the flawless pageant queens who underestimated her every step of the way.
When she won Season 5, I cried happy tears. I can’t find the right words to express the amount of SHEER JOY I felt in watching this beautiful weirdo be unapologetically herself, work hard and against all the odds win the crown.
I saw so much of myself in Jinkx Monsoon. I still do.
She could have listened to the voice in her head that says, “You’re not good enough” and believed it to be true. But she didn’t. She could have succumbed to the peer pressure to conform and be more like the other queens. But she didn’t. She could have been plagued by self-doubt and thrown in the towel when things got too hard. But she didn’t.
Instead, she dug in her heels and believed in herself, and the entire world fell in love with her. What I would have given to have had a role model like Jinkx Monsoon when I was younger! When I learned that Jinkx would be coming to one of the Boston clubs to perform AND there would be a meet ‘n greet, I jumped at the opportunity.
I arrived at Guilt Nightclub early and was second in line to meet Jinkx Monsoon and Ivy Winters. I was inexplicably nervous. I had so much to say and I didn’t know how to say it concisely in a 30-second window. I honestly don’t remember what I babbled to them before our picture was taken and I was ushered out of the way for the next fan.
I wanted to say, “Thank you for standing strong in the face of bullying and never losing your sweetness. Thank you for being different and showing everyone that it’s okay for us to be different. Thank you for being true to yourself and showing everyone that we can be accepted as we are. Thank you.”
After that night, I didn’t just want to watch drag queens on TV, I wanted to be a part of it. I started visiting the Boston drag clubs on a regular basis. I loved meeting the various alumni from RuPaul’s Drag Race as they came through town, but I also loved getting to know all the amazing drag queens right here in New England.
I got to witness pure joy as Sapphira Cristal and Lili Whiteass performed with Dan Aykroyd while he was promoting Crystal Head Vodka.
I frolicked in the fake snow and magic that Bang showered over the crowd in Provincetown.
I couldn’t help giggling when Violencia Exclamation Point turned Mrs. Doubtfire into drag.
And Kira Stone gave an emotional performance that I felt with every fiber of my being.
I’m not a member of the drag community, but I love this community with all my heart. The amount of creativity is plentiful and the freedom of expression is abundant. Each queen lets that creativity shine in different ways. Whether it’s through fabulous hair and makeup, gorgeous handmade costumes, impressive dance routines and acrobatics or hilarious comedic performances – every drag queen brings her own unique flair to the stage.
There was one brief moment in 2015 when I came this close to having my drag debut at a quasi “open mic night” for amateurs in the Boston area. In the end I didn’t follow through with it. Mostly because the night owl life of a drag queen didn’t mesh with my toddler teacher lifestyle. (Most drag shows don’t BEGIN until 11 p.m. or later, and I was the opener at the school I worked at, which meant a daily 5 a.m. wake-up call)
But also because…I chickened out. But in case anyone is curious, my performance would have been a mash-up of dialogue from Raiders of the Lost Ark and the campy title song from Snakes on a Plane.
As the years went on, I became more involved with the Boston comedy scene. I began getting cast in shows, and then I started directing shows. Nights I had previously spent at the drag club, were now occupied by rehearsals.
But when the world shut down in 2020 and I was suddenly faced with an ocean of free time after getting laid off, my first thought was “Oh, now I can start going to the drag shows again.” (I didn’t, of course, go back to seeing drag shows, because all the clubs were closed and performers were in lockdown.)
Instead, I rewatched old seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race and The Boulet Brothers' Dragula online. I watched performances over Twitch and makeup tutorials over Instagram. At the height of my depression, and desperate for a creative outlet, I even started creating videos of my own. I wouldn’t necessarily call them drag, but they did have costumes, makeup and lip syncing. So, let’s say they were drag adjacent?
Maybe I’ll never be a full-fledged drag queen, but that’s okay. The world is slowly opening back up, but I’m not quite ready to go back inside a club yet. And that’s okay too. Like so many others whose lives were turned upside down in the last 18 months, I’m trying to find my way back into the world. Some days are harder than others, but I try to remember all the important life lessons I’ve learned from drag.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Don’t waste energy on people who don’t appreciate you.
Don’t be afraid to learn from your mistakes and start over.
In the immortal words of RuPaul, “Everybody say love.”
Emmy Serviss is a Boston-based writer, actor and video editor. Once it is safe to return to live theater, you can find her performing with ComedySportz Boston and the sketch group SUZZY. When not on the stage, Emmy enjoys indulging in her new pandemic hobbies, laughing way too loudly and counting the days until Halloween.