Make way for the queen


Junior Laura Shelly prepares for her onstage performance as Marilyn Monroe. Shelly is what is often known as a “faux queen,” which is a female impersonating a man impersonating a woman.


Robbie Turner dries his nails while the owner of Julia’s posts the show’s schedule up on the mirror.


Robbie Turner (left) performs as Kylie Minogue at Julia’s weekly drag show.

Being a drag queen is not such a drag … except for the hosiery

Sean Paul opens the show with an acknowledgement of the difficulties of panty hose, “Heaven forbid if you fart and your ankles buckle!”

Paul is the emcee of Julia’s on Broadway’s “Le Faux” drag show every Friday and Saturday night. From that exclamation begins one of the few regular Seattle drag shows. It is a hyper-feminine affair: one part flashy staging, one part excellent acting and “singing,” one part spot-on costuming — and none of these parts are really what they seem to be.

While the drag queen scene in Seattle is far smaller than those in Los Angeles and New York, there is still a thriving community of performers. Venues like Neighbours night club, Julia’s on Broadway and R Place, all of which are on Capitol Hill, frequently put on shows. But while some believe that drag in Seattle is doing well, others don’t see it as the tour de force it could be.

Isaac Scott*, a performer at Julia’s, thinks that this is a result of the Seattle lifestyle.

“Nightlife in Seattle is concentrated on weekends,” Scott said. “In Vegas, you’d work five, six times a week.”

Some know exactly what Seattle’s drag shows need.

“Seattle isn’t thriving [in its drag community] to me; it’s hanging on by the seat of its pants,” wrote Barbie*, a drag queen of 20 years, in an e-mail. “Seattle needs old-fashion cabarets in their gay clubs with a real spotlight, a stage, curtains, awesome costume designers and a budget to put on some real shows. Yes, occasionally, there are some good shows here in Seattle, but I don’t think the gay clubs are willing to invest.”

The choreography and elaborate costuming, makeup and staging that go into a show make being a drag queen an artistic endeavor.

Isaac Scott performs Friday and Saturday nights as Gwen Stefani in “Le Faux,” which features celebrity impersonations and cabaret. Despite only performing for two nights a week, doing drag still takes a lot of prep work offstage. He begins getting ready for the show four hours before the performance begins, which doesn’t include shaving all visible body parts before he arrives at the show location.

“It takes a lot of time to put on my face,” Scott said. “It’s very artistic for me.”

Scott trained for six months for his role as Stefani, studying the singer’s mannerisms and choreography. He still spends some time before the show listening to the songs he will perform and mentally adopting the role he will play.

While his role may not require the elaborate costumes and wigs of Cher, or Madonna’s pole dancing abilities and flashy props, it does require an intimate knowledge of his character’s behaviors. For example, the way the real artist licks her lips or points at the audience is a small character trait but infinitely important in building the illusion of reality, Scott said.

Knowing exactly how to behave on stage to give the best possible effect is something that Barbie also prepares for extensively.

“It’s all about facial expressions, body movements to tell the story,” Barbie said. “I learn every single solitary syllable, every breath, every ‘s,’ every ‘t,’ every pause of that song, because if you don’t know your words, what’s the point? It’s like watching a foreign film where they dub in English voices; you just look like a fool.”

UW junior Laura Shelly, who also appears in “Le Faux,” has a slightly easier physical route to preparation than the other queens. She performs a gender bender, where she takes on the role as what she refers to as a “female impersonator,” and what is widely known as a “faux queen.”

“I might be the only female trying to be a man trying to be a woman in a show [in Seattle] as far as I know,” Shelly said. “That’s the art of it — there might be more out there.”

Shelly, who appears under the stage name Cookie Corsettee, said that the audience is always surprised when she reveals her gender; for a majority of the show, she appears alongside the other drag queens with no discernible differences in appearance. Her gender only becomes blatantly obvious during her solo performance as Marilyn Monroe toward the end of the show, as she reveals a bit more than the audience might expect.

“I always notice the whispering [when I reveal my gender],” Shelly said. “People are asking me from the moment I walk out if I’m a woman.”

She only recently got into the faux queen business, starting as a backup dancer at the show at Julia’s on Broadway in early 2007 and soon worked her way up to the Marilyn Monroe character role.

“I watched the show twice and finally got the balls to go talk to the producers and schedule an audition,” she said.

The way Shelly started in the business is common. Becoming a drag queen requires a little bit of aptitude for stage arts and a willingness to perform.

“In this kind of show [Le Faux], it’s like almost nobody is professionally trained,” Shelly said. “We were just born the way we are; we can pick up the dancing, pick up the look.”

Most drag queens aren’t professionally trained, and especially in Seattle, most don’t make a living in it. Or, as Barbie put it, “God bless the queen who can do it in this economy in Seattle and still have money to eat at the end of the week.”

A dream of monetary riches is not usually one of the reasons people get started. Longtime drag queen LaVage* fell into drag via a mascara addiction, and saw being a queen as an artistic release and an act of empowerment.

“LaVage is part of me and needs to express herself in her own way. She is what I call a good witch,” LaVage said. “Because I feel it is my mission as her to make everyone feel beautiful ... How many people do you know who have the courage to be someone else?”

Scott was convinced by one of the Julia’s producers to start doing drag, and admits that drag for him is more than just a hobby. In fact, he said it is addicting for just about everyone who does it.

Barbie has been hooked ever since she lip synched to “I Will Survive” but views drag as more of a hobby.

“It’s expensive to look pretty, and honey, who wants to see a queen wearing the same old thing time

after time?” Barbie wrote. “...so, since ‘that ain’t cheap’ and ‘they don’t pay well’ go hand in hand, that equals hobby in my book.”

Arnaldo!*, a night club singer, started out as Madonna for the Seattle Men’s Chorus and does all his own singing for his shows. His performance is cabaret style, which allows him to have a different sort of contact with the audience.

“As a drag chanteuse, I get to connect with people who are normally not exposed to the gay lifestyle,” wrote Arnaldo! in an e-mail. “When people come to my shows, they appreciate the music and the theatrical element ... and then they realize that I am a guy in drag performing. So in my own small way, I hope that I am opening hearts and minds.”

Reach contributing writer Haylee Morse-Miller at features@dailyuw.com.

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