Drag show dominates Demarest Hall, challenges stereotypes
After a night of exciting performances and emotional stories, Demarest Hall's 2015 Fall Drag Show proved that drag is so much more than lipstick, lights and stilettos.
On Thursday, Nov. 19 in the basement of Demarest Hall on the College Avenue campus, I found a group of folks who definitely challenge preconceived gender roles.
Drag is focused on the clothing one wears and the idea that clothing carries symbolic significance pertaining to gender. To "do drag" is to challenge that conception of gender and role through use of clothing, makeup and hair.
Drag is also a means of self-expression or exploration, and can be largely spiritual. Some find comfort in the way they dress, and others do so to make a statement about society or culture. Regardless of your reason, it is clear that drag is more than just a performance.
Upon entering the building I was completely lost, so I followed a group of women donning high heels and 5 o'clock shadow painted on their faces, through the maze that is Demarest and into the basement. I passed the famous "acid room" on the way down and was ushered into a large room filled with more than 200 people.
Tinsel, streamers and Christmas lights lined the walls and ceiling, conveying the feeling that Christmas had already passed, but the joy and cheer firmly remained. Seats were scarce, so I sat on the hardwood floors, wondering what to expect from my first drag show.
The stage is a simple runway with a backdrop and a single chair placed at the end. A masculinely dressed performer is giving a lap dance to an audience member in the chair, who receives cheers and encouragement from the crowd. Connor Hollis, the night's host, stirs the audience into coming up on stage and an impromptu dance party breaks out once the performer has finished their set.
After a long night of running around and dancing in 4-inch heels, the School of Arts and Sciences junior was relieved to sit down and seemed more than happy to talk about his experience with drag, the future of drag, misconceptions and advice for those looking to get into it.
“Not a lot of people sign up to perform at the beginning and what ends up happening is a lot of people sign up after others have performed already," Hollis said. "So the goal is to create an atmosphere where people feel relaxed.”
It became very clear early on that no one is a mere spectator in this event — whether you are on stage or sitting down, everyone is still a participant.
Katy Perry’s “Peacock” begins playing as the next performer, whose dark black hair created a striking contrast with her hot pink dress, began to dance and lip sync to the song. They floated around the room, expanding the borders of the stage, as she interacted with the audience and other performers. They finished her set with a little strip tease, much to the audience’s delight, and left us eager to see the next performance.
There are many misconceptions about drag, especially that it is only for male homosexuals, Hollis said.
"Granted, I am a gay guy, so I sort of fit the misconception, but plenty of straight guys get up here," he said. "Also, that it is only for guys — there are female identified people who get dressed up. It's a time to break the rules of your gender."
The next performer takes the stage, and I realize that this is the first time I have seen someone dressed like they would at the office party, next to another wearing dominatrix clothing and sporting a whip. The juxtaposition holds your attention, like a bullet found in a Bible, and makes it very clear that by walking into this room, you are no longer going to be at Rutgers for the next three hours.
One of the best things about going to a drag show is that you get to step outside of the box that has been drawn around you, Hollis said.
"I don't have a drag persona, I call myself 'The Man in the Black Dress,' because I don't look completely feminine, I look like this weird bent version that is in-between, and that's done deliberately," he said. "It puts me in neither category."
Some of the performances contained a theme and a message to take away from, outside of the show itself. One montage of songs was focused on missed phone calls and heartbreak, including Carly Rae Jepsen’s "Call Me Maybe" and Erykah Badu’s remix of "Hotline Bling." This and other pieces inspired many audience members to spring up on stage themselves and perform.
Songs ranging from The Black Eyed Peas "My Humps," to the 1975 cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show’s song "Time Warp" played through performances filled with hypnotic dancing, crawling around the stage, table dancing and a large focus on audience interaction. The end of the night concluded with another dance party after the hosts asked all performers and audience members to come on stage.
Hollis's advice for those new to drag? Keep it simple. A small song, a little skit or even a spur of the moment performance is fine for beginners.
Those who have been planning their performance seem to move more confidently in front of the crowd, but nonetheless it is evident that everyone’s performance is enjoyable.
Hollis not only hosted the show that night, but also performed a song and dance along with everyone else. When asked how he interprets his body before and after a performance, he said he has a larger amount of confidence in his body when he becomes "The Man in the Black Dress."
"I've created a new expectation for myself. A lot of the flirtatious things I did on the floor, out on the stage, I never could have done if I wasn't in drag — I'm far too awkward," he said. "People are expecting it though, and I don't care anymore."
This show made it evident how closely drag is tied to emotion and feeling. Some had a look of pure ecstasy on their face, others cried tears of joy when attendance reached 200 people. The night made it apparent how much drag has changed, but also how much of the same values remain.
The Stonewall Riots were a turning point for many LGBTQ communities, and 45 years later we see TV shows like "RuPaul’s Drag Race" looking to find the America’s next big drag performer. This is a huge paradigm shift for the ways that Americans view drag.
As far as the future of drag, Hollis said he couldn't predict anything, but left me with some very profound words.
"I know that back in the 60s and 70s, a lot of drag queens were transgendered folks, but that wasn't how they identified," he said. "Today, the trans movement has some issues with drag because we get away with doing something a lot of Trans folk can't. We switch our bodies, step out of our genders, and people accept us."
There are a lot of transgender individuals who identify the way they are, but they can't "get away" with it — which can cause some tension, Hollis said.
He hopes that drag and the mainstream acceptance of drag would eventually evolve into transgender acceptance.
"I hope that the people who weren't performing, where it's no longer an act for them, would be accepted as much as people who are putting on an act," he said. "Honestly, we have to give thanks to Trans people — they came first. I know that there is tension in the LGBT community, between the 'LGB' and the 'T,' and that's not fair because they have just as much claim to the identity of queerness as we do. So hopefully drag can help in some way."