CHARLOTTE, N.C. (QUEEN CITY) — Whether many people realize it or not, nearly every weekend in the Charlotte area, there’s a drag show to see.
For some, it is in the form of a midday brunch performance, while other performances take place during the evening, featuring local (and sometimes, nationally known) performers.
The performances themselves bring in crowds in places that may otherwise struggle to fill their space.
For the drag performer known as Buff Faye, her schedule is packed. When we caught up with her, she was performing at an establishment in Davidson.
“Eighty percent of our crowd are straight men and women who just want something different to do,” said Buff Faye.
Why is it popular now?
Shows like Buff Faye’s, which feature multiple performances and acts over the course of a couple of hours, are often ticketed events that mean more money for the establishments, and more exposure for the drag performers.
Even just a few years ago, it may have been difficult for even some LGBT-specific bars and establishments to book a drag performance, but thanks to the popularity of shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” it has brought more people out — straight, gay, or however they identify. The show, which has won multiple Emmys, has drawn in millions of viewers and launched the careers of other drag queens that have been featured on the show.
Establishments across the country have capitalized on the popularity in an effort to draw more attention to everything from library events to the opening of a new bar.
In Charlotte, these shows are primarily seen at bars, restaurants and breweries, along with more LGBT-specific establishments.
What to expect at your average drag show
Not every drag show is the same.
Performers said if they are working at an all-ages drag show, they will commonly adjust their performance playlist to include different songs, or songs without any cursing, along with jokes that may be more appropriate for younger crowds.
If the drag shows are “21 and over” events, many of the songs may wind up being the same, but the performances may include more bawdy humor.
Even then, the average event would have what would be considered a PG or PG-13 rating. No nudity, maybe some risqué humor, but nothing a person does not normally see in a movie or television.
The business of drag
The business of drag is, monetarily speaking, good.
“We have a great turnout; it’s so much fun,” said Stephanie Terry, who works as a bar manager at Davidson Wine Company, which hosts drag brunch events. While all ages can attend, the primary crowd is all-adult.
“We had to do twice a month because people were trying to get their tickets for the first one,” said Cress Barnes with East Frank’s Superette and Kitchen in Monroe. “We had to do it a second time.”
Barnes has credited the shows for bringing more business into her establishment, but also nearby businesses, creating a kind of boom in downtown Monroe.
Terry said she works extra hours for the sheer enjoyment of the performances.
The shows routinely sell out.
“We did quickly realize without shows — we never intended to market them as ‘all ages’, but it turned into that because there are no safe spaces for LGBTQ youth or trans youth in Union County to come,” said Barnes.
The controversy over drag
Drag shows have come with increasing backlash.
Queen City News has reported over the last year about some controversies over such events happening across the area that have resulted in protests.
In Albemarle, a group aligned with the Proud Boys protested a drag show event.
In Monroe, East Frank’s Superette and Kitchen has had protests whenever they hold a show, which they now do twice a month.
Chapters of Drag Queen Story Hour have faced criticism locally. The national organization uses drag performers to read books to children in libraries, schools and bookstores.
The reason? Some groups said that exposing children to drag is a form of abuse, or what they call grooming or sexualizing of children.
“We’re getting complaints from people all over the state where people are taking young children to drag queen performances to groom them,” said Tami Fitzgerald with the North Carolina Values Coalition.
Performers are quick to say that the only people who think the performances are sexual in nature are the ones opposed to them.
“I’m not an exotic dancer,” said Buff Faye. “If you look at me, that’s not going to be me at all. I’m a campy drag queen. I like to celebrate.”
The events themselves have been subject to threats against both the businesses that hold the performances and the performers themselves.
It has gotten to the point where North Carolina lawmakers are considering banishing the shows to “adult-oriented businesses” like strip clubs.
Lawmakers and supporters said the bill is about protecting children.
“What we’ve seen across our state is this rash of drag queen performances and children have been brought in,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s really obscenity and they should be treated as such.”
The legislation does put drag performers in the same category as exotic dancers and as entertainment that appeals to a “prurient” interest — a term that is left vague in the legislation.
Businesses and performers told Queen City News that lawmakers have no idea what happens at a drag show.
“It’s very terrifying because we don’t know what to do with these bills,” said drag performer Erica Chanel. “It’s very vague on what we can and can not do.”
Queen City News spoke with several performers over the last several weeks about the environment surrounding their shows.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s scary,” said drag performer Shelita Bonet Hoyle.
“It’s also a business, you buy tickets for it and with the popularity of ‘Drag Race’ and the popularity of drag, drag brunches are doing really well,” said Buff Faye.
“They want to say that what we do is of a sexual nature, but they have never attended a drag show in their life,” said fellow performer Nova Stella.
The context of drag
No matter what you may think of drag or drag performed, you have to know the facts around the culture — and it’s a culture that extends to ancient times.
Ancient Greeks would have men play women’s roles in Greek plays. Drag in China goes back centuries.
In the time of Shakespeare, women were not allowed on stage, meaning the original Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” was performed by a man.
During World War II, American soldiers would dress up in drag for the entertainment of the troops.
Drag has also been a source of entertainment for decades on television and in movies.
Milton Berle dressed in drag on his variety show. Dustin Hoffman performed in drag in the movie “Tootsie.” Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon dressed in drag in “Some Like It Hot.” Robin Williams played the title character in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Nathan Lane played a drag queen in “The Birdcage.” Tom Hanks dressed in drag in the television series “Bosom Buddies.” Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes dressed in drag for nearly the entirety of “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.” Martin Lawrence dressed in drag in “Big Momma’s House.” Tyler Perry’s synonymous with his Madea character.
A reporter recently asked Fitzgerald from the Values Coalition why the state should interfere if a parent wants to take their child to a drag show. She responded, “If a parent wants to take their kid to a strip show, the state already says that’s illegal.”
“I think it’s bizarre that it became a thing,” said East Frank’s Barnes, calling it something that some anti-drag groups have latched on to. Barnes noted what is being portrayed in some realms of the media –including social media — is “not true.”
“It’s wild to me that there are way bigger issues here, but this is where their focus is,” said drag performer Vanna Vanity.
Support for the drag shows outweighs the negative. However, the negative has been significant.
“I’ve received messages anywhere from, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself for being a pastor’s child’, and being from the South to, ‘I wish your mother had aborted you because of the way you’re grooming kids’,” said drag performer Nova Stella. “We’re giving a safe space to people who have never been able to openly be themselves and feel welcome.”
“We’ve had people call and say crazy stuff, and we say, ‘thanks for calling’,” said Barnes.
“I know they want to say it’s about kids coming to the shows, but people choose to bring their kids to the show,” said drag performer Erica Chanel.
“Let’s not pretend this is new, that this is something that’s harmful to our young people,” said Buff Faye. “Bugs Bunny dressed up in drag.”
Support for the shows, while decidedly quieter than the protests, comes in the form of the money spent on the events by consumers and the popularity at the establishments that hold them. Buff Faye has months of performances lined up.
Drag performers are also quick to say that they believe they are being targeted as a way for others to attack or otherwise marginalize the trans community. Numerous bills nationwide focusing on transgender youth in sports was one highlighted instance, along with bills banning dressing as the opposite sex in public.
Some said it is also to deflect from other issues.
“If it’s really about the kids, then I need to know that every single child that walks into a school is going to make it to recess and then make it home safely,” said performer Shelita Bonet Hoyle. “I need to know that every single child will have enough to eat at their meal at school and that they will return home and have enough to eat there. I need to know that every single need is being met for these children that are coming to my drag shows. Until that happens — no, it’s not really about drag. It’s a last-ditch effort to try and control something you don’t want to fix.”
Where things stand now
Businesses have said any type of ban on these shows would affect their bottom line and a community’s tax base.
The performers themselves also said the laws violate their freedom of expression, and noted the importance of spaces and shows for LGBT people of all ages, or for those trying to figure out who they are.
“It’s just sad that there are people out there that have so much hate and don’t understand what we’re doing here,” said performer Vanna Vanity.
“It’s a war over costumes, over singing and dancing,” said Barnes. “I mean, that’s what it is. Or reading to children. And then my come back is, ‘Oh wait, you’re trying to get books taken out of the library because you don’t want your kid to read it.’ Then don’t check it out, but my kid can check it out.”
“If you are really wanting to ostracize the outskirts of the gay community or the drag community, or the LGBT community — good luck getting a haircut,” said Shelita Bonet Hoyle. “Good luck finding someone to plan your wedding. Good luck going to the dog groomers. Good luck having dinner with your neighbor.”
North Carolina’s bill restricting drag performances to adult-oriented businesses has been filed but has yet to come up for debate.
For now, the show will go on.