Recently, I hung with some young queens in the Bay Area who showed me how a new generation of drag is evolving, and the lovely Teen Witch took their portraits along the way. Grab your glitter and come with! —Caitlin D.
Marcelo Gutierrez, a 19-year-old performance artist based in San Francisco, has never worn a dress onstage, used prosthetic busts or hips in his costumes, or given his stage persona a punny alias. In fact, strictly speaking, Marcelo isn’t a drag queen—he prefers to tweak gender in oh-so-subtle ways. But in his videos and photos, you can see evidence of how drag as has always morphed and evolved, and hints at how a new generation of artists is interpreting the art form. Marcelo regularly attends drag nights around the Bay Area to soak in the “showmanship, love of showbiz, and talent queens have for giving and creating—for setting up an experience and feeling,” he says.
Marcelo packages his ongoing performance art series, Pink: A Debut Album, as a pop record made up of multimedia pieces that he presents as the album’s “singles.” The first, “Solo,” took the form of a five-and-a-half-hour-long live web broadcast set in a pink, über-kitschy room in the famously camp Madonna Inn. For Pink’s second single, “Scam,” which comes out in June, he covered his naked body in four pounds of black glitter and lip-synced to Lana Del Rey, Madonna, and Britney Spears through a pink chiffon curtain.
In keeping with the grand history of drag, Marcelo subscribes to the power of shiny things. When the cameras are turned off, he’s rarely seen without his signature layers of rhinestone necklaces, which he wears over neat collared shirts buttoned to the neck, although he opted for a statement silver chain on the day we hung out. “There’s a braiding of femininity and masculinity in my work,” he says. “But that’s part of my personality. I don’t really think too much about gender or race.” He will allow that even in 2014, there’s something subversive about a boy dripping with rhinestones and glitter: “I’m interested in how audiences read my work/ But I try to create my pieces in a way that [suggests] gender, race, sexuality don’t exist—where there’s no distinction.”
“People around my age are looking at drag as the beginnings of gay performance art,” Marcelo says. “We want to translate it to something more universal—more of a human-condition kind of thing. My generation is less and less interested in being distinguished as ‘gays,’ and more into being seen as just people.”
When I ask Trevor Wisnieski, the alter ego of Jem Jehova, about jem, the 22-year-old performer says, “I don’t know what Jem Jehova is. She’s constantly changing. Gender identity is very complex. I was raised with very strong male and female figures in my life, so I never thought it was bad to be one or the other. I always thought it was OK to have both. I’m totally OK with throwing a fabulous brunch and a football.”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race is trying to cater to an audience that only knows one style of drag,” says Jem. But in underground clubs around the world, drag kings, faux queens, and abstract, amorphously shaped forms have always stalked the stage.
Only one San Francisco queen, Honey Mahogany, has ever been on Ru’s show. That’s abnormal for a city with a drag scene this big. But then, San Francisco has always been a bit offbeat when it comes to drag—this is the city that gave birth to the Cockettes, after all—a trippy musical theater troupe founded in 1969 that featured bedazzled, bearded divas. “The Cockettes did something with the energy in San Francisco that never went away,” says Jem. “SF drag has an old-school rebellion that has never changed. I still feel it when I’m shopping for my looks and doing my show.”
Jem moved to the Bay when she was 18. “I didn’t know anybody. I was struggling with housing and I had a horrible job. I wanted to meet people, but I wasn’t in school or anything, so it was hard.” This changed when she set out to a local club one night: “I threw on a David Bowie–androgynous kind of thing—not ‘drag,’ just a look.” She was a social hit, and suddenly she felt like she had a place in the world.
Her outfits became more and more extravagant until, finally, she was Jem. Nowadays, she’s one of San Francisco’s rising drag stars, hosting her own parties and performing at some of the town’s most renowned drag shows. “It was like ‘I’m popular!’” she says. “I was never popular at the redneck high school where I grew up.”
“It’s about always maintaining glamor,” says Jem. “My icons are Grace Jones, and, of course, local drag celebrities like Gina LaDivina, who, to me, is the epitome of high glamour. I look at them to get that drive: I’m going to be a glamorous bitch when I go out because of them.”
In one of her performances, Jem throws water balloons into the audience. At a recent political benefit, she graduated to using a water cannon. “I sprayed the entire audience. They were all politicians. I did it to remind people that I have the stage and I have the power, and that drag queens are here to deliver whether you like it or not. And there’s nothing you can do about it!”
As a kid, Mitchell Erickson dressed up as Ginger Spice for Halloween two years in a row. Now, the performer, who’s 22, has a new persona: Laundra Tyme. One big positive influence in that transformation: the aforementioned RuPaul’s Drag Race. “Watching Drag Race sparked this fascination with the fantasy,” Laundra says. “It’s playing dress-up and make-believe as an adult.”
Laundra started practicing her look at home with dollar-store makeup. One night, a queen she’d met at a drag night in the Castro asked her to take the stage, and Laundra became hooked on the adrenaline she got from being onstage—and the freedom she found there. “The moment I started doing drag, I knew it would change my life,” she says. “It’s the only performance art where there are absolutely no rules. There’s no boundaries, which is addictive. You can’t shock these crowds!”
I ask Mitchell to describe Laundra: “Enormous hair, enormous looks. She’s pretty.” A pause. “I haven’t really conceptualized her aesthetic beyond the shape of her hair. She’s a little stupid, but she’s an awesome person. I aspire to be like her. Laundra is the kind of person where, if she sees someone sitting alone in the corner, she’ll go over and talk to them.”
A career in drag takes a village—many performers credit their success to helpful peers and elders. “When I used to watch [Drag Race], I got the impression that people [in the community] would be very catty and exclusive,” Laundra says. “I was shocked when everybody embraced me with open arms. Everyone reached out and said, ‘What can I do to help you to get better?’”
Enter “families”: collectives of like-minded queens who look after one another. They exist to provide community and support for their members in the form of makeup tips and getting gigs—and providing safety to the queens in their fold.
Laundra was recently adopted by Jem into the House of Jehova. “I saw a lot of me in her, but she wasn’t exactly like me,” says Jem. “I mean, I don’t want a clone. I want everyone to feel mighty and powerful, like they own the world. There’s still people out there who want me dead because I’m gay. Having that sense of community is important in a world that is trying to eat you up and spit you out.” ♦
Andrea Sonnenberg, aka Teen Witch, is 25 years old. She was born and raised and is currently living in the beautiful city of San Francisco, California.