Three pairs of 6-plus-inch heels peeked from underneath a black velvet
curtain as the sound of a clicking film projector segued into the iconic drum
roll opening of a 20th Century Fox movie. The performers emerged onto the stage
as cymbals and horns led into the introduction of “Big Spender.”
“The minute you walked in the joint, I could see you were a man of distinction. A real big spender.”
The trio of dolled-up cabaret dancers, clad in flashy sequined dresses, stood side-by-side in the middle of the stage lip-syncing the lyrics to the striptease classic as it blared through the ambient nightclub. The blonde, brunette and redhead leaned back and moved their arms and heads in sharp, syncopated movements with the beat. Like clockwork, the chorus hit and body parts were thrown around freely.
“Hey big spender, spend a little time with me.”
They shimmied around the stage as audience members got on their feet, with dollar bills and smartphones in hand, and walked briskly toward the performers to get a better look.
“Wouldn't you like to have fun, fun, fun? How's about a few laughs, laughs, laughs? I can show you a good time.”
At the end of the opening number, #FACE's host, a statuesque performer with killer legs, grabbed a microphone and introduced herself as Shea, adding, “Miss Couleé if ya nasty,” with a playful smile. She was thrilled for her first weekly hosting gig on Wednesday nights at Hydrate Nightclub, one of the most established gay bars in Lakeview's Boystown neighborhood.
The superabundance of sparkly stones, long lashes, big hair, towering heels and glitter can really throw patrons for a loop, especially in a dimly lit club. But the three performers — host Shea Couleé and her two cast members, Ruby Dee and Kelly Lauren — aren’t biological women. They’re a few of Chicago’s hardest-working drag queens.
The Making of a Drag Queen
Although the most popular form of drag is a gay man dressing as a woman, there's more to it. Anyone can dress in drag to impersonate a member of the opposite or same sex. In fact, the act of wearing any kind of costume can be considered drag.
“The way you dress yourself is your design,” said Heinrich Haley, who performs under the stage name Chic Filet. “It is costume. Everything is drag. Like RuPaul said, ‘You’re born naked, and the rest is drag.’ It’s true.”
Haley’s passion for drag developed the first time he dressed as Chic Filet for the Theatre School at DePaul University’s 2011 Miss T*TS competition. He always had wanted to try it, so he seized the opportunity and volunteered to participate.
The voluptuous Chic Filet, who was inspired by the fabulous Southern women Haley grew up around, made her debut — which she appropriately dedicated to “her big guy up in the sky, J.C.” — with a performance to a dance remix of with Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” She pranced around the stage, using two male dancers wearing nothing but briefs as her sexy props.
“Transforming myself into a beautiful woman after being such a handsome man my whole life,” Haley said with a hearty laugh. “You know you’ve got it all!”
An obvious appeal of gender performance is the ability to take on the characteristics and personality of a completely different person, whether they’re real or imaginary.
“If there’s something that you would never be able to do as yourself your drag persona can easily tackle it," said Shawn Hazen, a manager at Roscoe’s Tavern. “It’s the Clark Kent to the Superman. It’s whatever the fuck Wonder Woman’s name was [Diana Prince] to Wonder Woman. That transformation. We always joke about it. We call it the ‘power of the wig.’ You as a person can’t go up and talk to the hot guy, but you put that wig on and you can just walk up to him and stick your hand down the front of his pants.”
Drag is the ultimate combination of self-expression and entertainment. It allows some people to dress and act as the gender with which they truly identify. But for many others, gender performance is just for kicks. Most drag queens don’t actually want to be women. They just want to dress like one and pay homage to femininity.
“It doesn’t matter what’s below the waist,” said Jaren Merrell, also known as Shea Couleé. “What matters is the performance.”
Merrell’s drag queen beginnings were a complete accident. His friend, who performs as burlesque dancer Jeez Loueez, meant to ask him to perform as a cabaret dancer in one of her shows, but she mistakenly sent him an email asking him to perform a solo burlesque number. After pondering the offer, he realized it was the perfect opportunity to try drag, and she gave him a shot.
He performed to Beyoncé’s “Suga Mama” in a tuxedo jacket, fedora, white shirt, bowtie and a silver bra and panty set. Although the audience was initially apprehensive to see a drag performance, it warmed up as soon as Shea Couleé took the stage.
“I came out and these old ladies saw my legs and they just went up,” Merrell said. “They were screaming so loud … I couldn’t even hear [the beginning of the song].”
That night, during his debut as Shea Couleé, he achieved the ultimate reception from the crowd, the first standing ovation he had received in more than a decade of musical theater performance.
“There’s something about applause and hearing people scream,” Merrell said. “That reaction of so genuinely enjoying what it is that you’re presenting to them is such a thrill.”
An often-misunderstood art form, drag is about the creation of a persona and the maintenance of its individuality through both aesthetics and performance. As Merrell said, it takes a lot of hard work to be a good drag queen.
“It’s such a combination of so many different types of media because you have to think of yourself as an artist in the way that you do your makeup, learning all those techniques—we call it painting for a reason because you are literally transforming your face—styling wigs, creating looks,” he said.
Applying drag makeup, aptly coined as “painting,” requires time, patience and artistry. Most queens spend two to three hours highlighting, shading, contouring and redrawing facial features to achieve the perfect faces for their particular personas.
Many begin their transformation by applying several coats of Elmer’s glue over each eyebrow, and then cover them completely in powder.
“I take pink cream makeup and cover all of this to hide the five o’clock shadow, and then I set it with neutral powder,” said Sang Shin, who performs as Kim Chi. “Then after that, I put white over my eyebrows to hide them, set it with white powder again, and then I cover everything in foundation and layer it on so everything is like completely gone."
After masking masculine facial qualities, then comes countless gentle brushstrokes of neutral-colored cream to add definition to the nose, jaw line, cheekbones and temples. The finishing touches are eyes and lips, which include painting eyebrows, eye shadow, eyeliner and full, pouty lips.
“That’s such a cathartic, meditative experience in and of itself, going through this slow process of transforming yourself because you slowly start to feel the character come out as you’re doing your makeup,” Merrell said. “It doesn’t all come together until you put those lashes on at the end and you’re like, ‘Ah! There she is!’”
Drag queens learn how to apply their face in a variety of ways. Some of the performers with theater backgrounds, such as Merrell and Haley, took a couple makeup classes in college. Others have to educate themselves, either by watching YouTube tutorials or asking a friend for help. But still, a lot of it is trial and error.
After a drag queen’s face is complete, most performers put on two to four pairs of tights, a girdle, body padding, multiple wigs, shoes and accessories.
But the beautification process is only half of the battle. Every successful drag queen needs a distinct niche. They can set themselves apart from the hundreds of other local girls either through special traits in their looks or the way they perform.
Some queens, such as Kim Chi, are best known for their aesthetics. She consistently presents an innovative look from head to toe through her makeup and outfit, including her signature headpieces, at each show.
“If I’m going to dress up as a woman and go out in public I might as well be grand, and I want to hopefully look like one of those girls that are walking on the runway,” Shin said. “So it’s basically me living my runway fantasy through drag.”
At a recent show called the Queen of Hearts Party that Kim Chi hosted at Hydrate, she took the “Alice and Wonderland” theme to the next level by choosing an obscure character to emulate.
“When it comes to parties with a distinct theme, I like to highlight a character that's very stylized and yet people tend to forget about,” Shin said. “Growing up as a kid, I always felt bad for the oysters in the Walrus and the Carpenter poem, so I figured I'd bring that character to life for this party.”
Kim Chi wore a billowy gray dress that was reminiscent of the ocean and a homemade headpiece that looked like an oyster shell. She’s a visual genius, but it will likely be difficult for her to top the time she wore a birdcage containing a live bird on her head.
“My favorite thing about drag is being able to become whoever I want to be, with the help of makeup and costumes,” Shin said.
Other drag queens, such as Shea Couleé, set themselves apart through their ability to perform. As many of her drag sisters say, she is a “sickening” dancer. She is one of the only performers in Boystown who can truly do Beyoncé justice, which is fitting because she was one of the initial and recurring inspirations of Merrell’s drag persona.
“Honestly, like every single booking agent in town wants Shea at their show because she’s such a good performer,” Shin said.
Sang Shin skillfully applies eye makeup
before he takes the stage as Kim Chi at Hydrate Nightclub. Watch the slideshow.
Jaren Merrell, also known as Shea Couleé, prepares for his weekly show, #FACE, at Hydrate.
Kim Chi showcases her famous
tongue-in-cheek humor while dancing to a K-pop song at Hydrate.
Kim Chi dons dramatic makeup for her final number at Scarlet Bar's monthly Trannika's Most Wanted show.
Drag can be a lucrative business for performers who have established themselves enough in the thriving scene in Boystown through frequent appearances. Depending on how popular their performances are with the audience, they can usually rake in a fair amount of tips, on top of the booking fee.
And those fees can vary greatly, depending on demand, venue and audience.
According to one performer, a drag queen will will usually make $60 to $75 for three songs in a Chicago show. More established performers will make $100 to $150 for three songs. Some pageant queens won't perform for less than $300 even in their hometown. Tips can range from $50 to $80 a night for perfomers, and hosts sometimes get paid from the door and the bar.
Although Chic Filet became quite popular, Haley moved to San Francisco for several months to explore new opportunities, and when he returned to Chicago he had a hard time getting booked. Now he rarely performs, but hopes at least to continue to keep Chic Filet alive through photography.
Such is the case with a lot of the more seasoned performers, who have seemingly faded from obscurity because of a new drag revolution, due in part to “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which popularized and ultimately increased the interest in drag.
Within the past year or so, an unceremonious passing of the torch has occurred in the Boystown drag scene. A new group of queens has taken over many of the weekly shows at local gay bars. They’ve helped to foster a more modern version of gender performance, which is less about female impersonation and more about the presentation an original character.
“Before Chicago’s drag was all about female impersonation and looking like a woman or celebrity impersonations, like Beyoncé or Rihanna,” Shin said. “But nowadays the Chicago drag scene is less about not necessarily female impersonation, but more about being a persona. So like establishing a brand: this is what I’m known for; this is what I do.”
This new generation of drag queens is made primarily of creative 20-something gay men who have strong backgrounds in art or theater. They look at drag as a performance art and take their craft very seriously.
“I’m always thinking and researching about what it is that people want to see,” Merrell said. "I feel like I’m a curator of pop culture in a way.”
Their fresh attitude about the act of drag also translates into other important aspects, such as the business behind it.
“The old girls kept showing up late, and not being professional and giving bookers problems,” Merrell said. “People started taking notice that there was this group of really hungry drag queens that were really all about putting on a good show, and putting out quality work and trying to improve consistently as drag queens and as artists.”
Benjamin Bradshaw, better known as Trannika Rex, helped pave the way for many of his peers, such as Merrell and Shin, in Boystown. He frequently hosts events, which he describes as part drag show and part “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” but he’s definitely not a typical drag queen.
“I don’t like performing,” Bradshaw said. “I’m not good at dancing. It’s really hard for me to remember lyrics. But if you need me to go be myself for two hours and give you one-liners and get drunk on the mic, I can do that.”
He has successfully branded Trannika as an offensive party girl who looks like she’s about to get eliminated on “Rock of Love” and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She commands the mic, venue and audience with her shameless jokes.
At the Berlin Drag Matinee on March 15, she called out the only bachelorette in the audience.
“How old are you?”
“You’re not pregnant are you?”
Trannika Rex is notorious in Boystown for her foul mouth, quick wit, crude sense of humor and her ability to throw one hell of a party.
“She is the best comedy queen I know in the city,” Hazen said. “She is hilarious on a microphone.”
A small handful of local drag enthusiasts, including Bradshaw and Merrell, are able to sustain their incomes entirely on their alternate personas, Trannika Rex and Shea Couleé. They took on drag full time because of the success of those characters.
“Shea Couleé is my product,” Merrell said. “But it’s something that’s intangible. I’m selling an idea to people. I’m selling an image, a persona, something that doesn’t exist. She’s a complete figment of my imagination that’s just manifested in the way that I present myself to people and they buy it.”
They have created the demand for their personas in Boystown through a fairly traditional business model, consisting of networking and self-promotion.
“Every comment on a photo or an event page on Facebook through Trannika is a conscious business decision,” Bradshaw said. “Every time I say something on the mic it’s a conscious [business decision] … and that should be with every drag queen because you are your business. So every time you’re an asshole … people can’t give you a bad Yelp review. They just don’t book you anymore. So every single thing you do is a conscious business decision.”
He has always had an entrepreneurial spirit inside of him, which he credits to his grandfather, who never finished school but became a successful art dealer.
“I’m a better foreman than I am a worker bee,” Bradshaw said. “I always knew I wanted to work for myself, just like my grandpa did. He raised me like that. That’s just how my brain works. I have a job where I get drunk and I’m in charge and I like it and it’s like theater-related. I always knew that I was going to work in something that wasn’t 9 to 5. I just didn’t know what it was. And once I hit drag it was like, ‘Ding!’ and I loved it, so it was like, this is easy.”
He said once he set his sights on drag, he made goals for himself and made them happen. Within a just a couple years, he was hosting two of the shows he really wanted.
“I just kind of had my eye on the prize,” Bradshaw said. “I knew what was going to happen. I knew I was going to have this show and I knew I was going to have this show eventually.”
Bradshaw hosts a monthly show at Scarlet Bar, Trannika’s Most Wanted, which is presented by Fireball Whiskey. He said his cast members — Shea Couleé, Kim Chi and Ivory — are a few of the best drag queens in Boystown.
“They all show up on time, they’re respectful, and that’s a big thing about my show that everyone notices," Bradshaw said. "It’s like no fucking around, don’t be a dick, because I’ve been a part of shows where people are fighting and crazy. Our rule is to be respectful. You can be as disrespectful on stage to each other as you want but when you go back to the back it’s, ‘Girl I love your makeup tonight,’ ‘Bitch that was so sickening.’”
Merrell and Shin also agree that the new group of drag queens is much more supportive of one another. They said they help each other in the areas they’re best at. Shea Couleé shares dance moves, Kim Chi helps other girls with makeup and costume ideas and Trannika Rex gives other performers tips on how to talk on a microphone.
“I feel like we try to be more inclusive than a lot of girls in the past have [been],” Merrell said. “But if we don’t vibe with you and feel like you cause a lot of drama or are unprofessional then we’re not really making an effort to book you. But it’s really about the quality of the show that we’re concerned about more so than, ‘I just don’t like her.’”
Boystown’s most successful queens in the drag scene today have established themselves through their distinct, raw talent. Shea Couleé is the performer, Kim Chi is the artist and Trannika Rex is the comedian.
Their drag personas are an extension of the person they are behind all of the hair and makeup. In a sense, they accentuate pre-existing characteristics. Shea Couleé is a fiercer version of Jaren Merrell. Kim Chi is a sweeter version of Sang Shin. Trannika Rex is a cruder version of Benjamin Bradshaw.
They each have their hopes and dreams of where drag will take them in the future: products, traveling, notoriety.
“I would love to be as commercially successful as RuPaul,” Merrell said. “If that’s my tea then I will ride drag until I can’t do it anymore. If there ever becomes a point where I feel I’ve plateaued and I’m not growing anymore as an artist, and I’m not improving and getting better and better and better each and every time, I would say that would probably be the time for me to consider hanging up the heels.”
This story was produced in Amy Merrick's magazine writing course at DePaul University's College of Communication
Posted: Friday, June 13, 2014
Shea Couleé turns up the attitude on the Hydrate stage during her performance of an Azealia Banks song.
Couleé is my product ... I’m selling an idea to people. I’m selling an image, a
persona, something that doesn’t exist."
- Jaren Merrell on his drag character
Host Trannika Rex calls a random audience member onto Scarlet's stage with all of her performers at the end of the Trannika's Most Wanted Whig Party.
Shea Couleé collects tips from the audience at Scarlet Bar.