Queens of the stage
Stepping onto the stage, Janessa Jaye Champagne commands the room’s attention. It’s not her large stature but rather her larger-than-life personality that at first stuns the audience and then sends them into uproarious laughter. Wearing extravagant gowns, colorful wigs and dramatic eye makeup, Janessa flawlessly lip-syncs to Katy Perry, Amy Winehouse and Ke$ha. Dancing down the steps, she follows dollar bills waving in the audience and graciously accepts them with a kiss on the cheek or a special dance.
She is big, beautiful and glamorous, and when the song ends, she opens her mouth and her raw personality breaks through in an unexpected juxtaposition.
Making sexual innuendos and crude jokes about the audience and her favorite celebrities, she sends the crowd into laughter. She then introduces the next queen and disappears behind the curtain, where just hours earlier her alter ego, Chris Stoner of Grand Forks, donned a baby blue bath robe as he transformed into the dramatic drag queen.
Stoner has played a fundamental part in the evolution of the Grand Cities’ drag scene, developing a well-known character and helping to establish a regular show in the area. He described drag as “people who use elements of gender in a way that is larger than life in order to perform and … engage with how we think about gender.”
A star is born
Stoner’s queen was born in the late ’90s, shortly after he moved from Bowbells, N.D., to Grand Forks to start his undergraduate degree at the University of North Dakota.
“It was like moving to the big city,” Stoner said.
No longer in his small hometown, Stoner was finally able to discover his true identity.
He got involved in the 10 Percent Society, known as TPS, and chose to study gay culture and literature as part of his honors program. It was in that literature that Stoner discovered drag.
His interest in theater pushed him to try this new art form. There were no drag shows in the area at the time, but that didn’t stop him.
He chose a play on his favorite ’80s name, Vanessa, and started developing a character. “Janessa is there to be seen and cause a scene,” he said.
Dressed as Janessa, Stoner would make spontaneous appearances throughout town, mostly at friends’ parties.
His character became known in the community and eventually landed him a gig. In December 2000, TPS held its first organized dance with host Janessa Jaye Champagne.
“We just threw it together,” Stoner said, adding that the dance attracted a huge crowd.
Local scene evolves
From there, the drag scene in Grand Forks quickly evolved from spontaneous appearances to scheduled dances, and eventually to full-blown drag shows.
The TPS shows started at the Highlander, moved to Sensations and are now held at the VFW in East Grand Forks, Minn. Along the way, the drag community grew in audience members and performers.
Jorja Petersen, co-coordinator of the shows, said there are now about 10 queens and six or seven kings involved, including her. She recently started performing as drag king Ryan Silverado.
“Nobody had done ‘Same Love’ by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and I really like that song, and I knew all the words, so I’m like, ‘I don’t care I’m going to do it,’ ” she said.
She performed the song for the first time in September with Janessa. While Ryan is new to performing, other drag queens have been around for several years.
Prada Dior is known for her sassy attitude and her Celine Dion impersonation. Sally Bowles is known for her big Broadway acts. King Mik Andersen is known for his country-only performances. And King B.J. Armani is known for performing comedic pop songs.
Sarah Galbraith of Grand Forks said her alternate persona, B.J. Armani, was born on the TPS stage about eight years ago.
“I did the song ‘Falling in Love’ by UB40, and the audience went nuts,” Galbraith said. “I was bitten by the bug. And I was like, ‘Alright, if you’re going to do this, be legit.’ ”
Just last year, B.J. started a second monthly drag show in downtown Grand Forks. He hosts B.J. Armani’s Cabaret the second Friday of every month at Level 10 downtown.
Together, the two shows include drag kings and queens from cities throughout North Dakota and Minnesota, including Grand Forks; East Grand Forks; Fargo, N.D; St. Cloud.; and Minneapolis. And they attract a wide variety of people from the community.
Another form of entertainment
While everyone has their own reasons for attending or participating in local drag shows, Petersen said they give people of the GLBTQ community a safe place to go and enjoy live entertainment.
Regular attendee Jay Albaugh of Grand Forks said, “It’s just part of the gay culture.” He has attended shows in the Grand Cities and Twin Cities, and said he goes for the entertainment and to show his support for the community.
Some may disagree on whether there’s an agenda behind the shows, but everyone seems to agree that drag is just another genre of performance.
“When you go to a play… you see costumes, hard work, dedication,” Galbraith said. “To me, this is no different because it’s a production. It’s theater. It’s live entertainment.”
Petersen agreed, saying a lot of people do it because they like performing and being in the spotlight.
Galbraith said she thinks of B.J. as a character that she slips on like a costume.
“I think of him as an excuse to be a little bit more gregarious, a little bit more flamboyant,” she said. To her, it’s all about creating an entertaining show for the audience.
Performers arrive early and head to the dressing room, where they transform into their characters with hair, makeup and costumes.
Sitting in front of a mirror in his bathrobe, Stoner starts with a glue stick, which he runs over his eyebrows before covering them with powder. He applies a second coat, and then he’s ready for foundation.
Stoner said he first learned to do makeup during high school theater productions, but he also received a formal education at UND when he took a course in general theatrical makeup.
“The theatrical class helped a lot with the contouring,” he said. “Since I have a fairly large face, it’s good to know how to make things recede with shadows.”
After applying a theatrical cream foundation, he makes a thick line on the jaw and then blends down, which creates the appearance of a slimmer neck and more defined cheeks.
Once the base is set, Stoner adds color and personality to his look. And for Janessa, the more color, the better.
He applies rainbow-colored shadow to the eyes, dark glittery red lip gloss and big fake eyelashes. And, one application at a time, Stoner is transformed into the bodacious beauty known as Janessa.
When the makeup is done, Janessa selects a dress, wig and pair of heels to complete the look. Stoner said the heels are the one element he’s never 100 percent confident with, but his big feet — size 14 or 15 — make it more bearable. Underneath the dress, queens wear tights and silicon breastplates. They also shave their legs and tuck their genitals with underwear and duct tape to create the most realistic illusion possible.
Drag photographer Raquel Smith of Grand Forks said the kings and queens all have drag moms and dads, who helped them get started and learn the ways of drag.
Challenging gender roles
“Good theater should challenge you and push you to new boundaries, and that’s what drag does,” Stoner said. “It pushes people to openness.”
The big painted lips, sequins dresses, dramatic eye shadow — it’s not natural, Stoner said. None of it is natural, and putting it on a body that isn’t supposed to have it calls out the unnatural.
Stoner said drag is about being willing to go to new places and be uncomfortable, and in turn, reflect on that discomfort.
Kathleen Dixon, director of women and gender studies at UND, said further reflection is the ideal, but it doesn’t always happen.
“(Drag) could cause someone further reflection, but it doesn’t have to,” she said. “People can go to a drag show… and not be in any kind of reflective mode at all. It’s full of possibilities for more knowledge, but it doesn’t necessarily happen that way.”
She added that most people need a little bit more than a performance.
“If you walk away from it with a little bit more knowledge, well, we sneak that in,” Galbraith said.
Although she may look at the shows as pure entertainment, Galbraith said she first got involved with drag because she wanted to prove something. After attending a drag show in Minneapolis, she and a friend received a survey with the question, “Why do you do drag?”
“Mik had written on there, ‘I want to prove we’re not freaks,’ ” she said. “When I read that, my heart shattered in a million pieces because to me nobody who has ever been gay, straight, trans, bisexual is (a freak).”
She set out to show that the GLBTQ community is full of love and that drag is just another form of art.
“It’s never been about gay, straight, bisexual, trans … it’s been about the audience, and through that we’ve been able to make more allies,” she said.
People of every sexual orientation and gender participate in drag and attend the shows. Petersen said there’s a misconception that it’s just transgender people or cross-dressers.
“I don’t really think of it as cross-dressing at all,” she said. “I think it’s just a really cool culture that gets overshadowed by the stigma.”
Dixon agreed, saying anyone can find joy in wearing clothes made for the opposite sex.
“Playing around with sex and gender is fun,” she said. “And for little kids, it’s very typical.”
When we get older, Dixon said we often lose that playfulness, but she thinks it’s healthy to remain a little playful as an adult.
“We’re not scary,” Galbraith said. “We have jobs. Some of us have 9-to-5s. We have lives. We have rent. We have families. There are performers who have kids … underneath all that sequins we’re just like everyone else.”