As lights dim and music starts, a statuesque figure materializes out of the ether. Ra Oblivion’s outfits change; her hair may be two-toned, blunt cut, put up into geometric buns or blown out like the best beauty queens. But the heels remain high, the corset stays cinched and the confidence never wavers. She has the makings of a monolithic performer, and she doesn’t exist. At least, not without sophomore Saneel Sharma.
When Sharma first thought he saw drag, it was as the butt of a joke. On the “Kapil Sharma Show,” actor Krushna Abhishek donned a chestnut wig, bright red lipstick and an apron and became Sapna Sharma, a gross caricature of a woman existing solely for ridicule. Sharma said he remembered the character as “ditzy and clumsy and stupid.” Abhishek announced his departure in August of this year, but his depiction of women, and “drag,” sticks with Sharma.
Sharma only began to understand drag as a modern art form in his Hayward, California high school art classroom, bedecked with large posters of queens and home to a teacher that allowed him to explore drag free of judgment.
From there, Sharma took to practicing his new passion in and out of the classroom, taping his bedroom door shut in his conservative household and practicing new looks alongside queens in Youtube tutorials for hours. Quickly falling in love with the transformative power of powder and gloss, he arrived at school two hours early, despite his countless sleepless nights in between, to don his developing drag persona.
“I actually went in drag my first third day of junior year,” Sharma said. “Teachers were like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ And then some of the teachers are supporting it. Because I couldn’t do it at home, I was trying to find other spaces to practice my drag.”
Once Sharma moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, he says his drag career began to really take shape. The annual drag show put on by USC’s Queer and Ally Student Assembly, the subsequent Pride Fest, and the monthly Queer Asian/Pacific Islander Drag Party hosted by entertainment service Send Noodz are just some of the gigs he has performed in as recently as December 2, 2022.
Participating in AAPI drag showcases was especially important to Sharma, who treasures his Indian identity and the representation of the community through drag.
“I’ve met many other queer, specifically, many other gay Indian people, and they’ve come up to me and they’ve just appreciated how confident I am in my work,” Sharma said. “And I want to show that you can be as confident as this too. You can start doing drag too, because many of us Indian kids, we don’t see ourselves being hyper-feminine. We don’t see ourselves expressing our femininity.”
Though trying to find 18+ venues to perform at, since Sharma’s not yet 21, balancing school and drag and handling the overall cost and personal toll that it takes can be difficult, he says the feeling of donning drag and showcasing his art remains unmatched.
“The drive just comes from me wanting to see myself in drag and how confident or just how amazing I feel in drag and how I feel, a lot of queens say this, but how invincible,” Sharma said. “Drag is almost like an armor. It almost becomes like you have this like presence to you. And we walk into a room all like eyes stare at you and you just have a control over a space and all this power just that I don’t feel out of a drag.”
Though Sharma’s drag is ever-evolving, some of his greatest inspirations come from the popular drag competition series, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Priyanka, the series’s first-ever Indian winner, and Raja, the only Asian-American queen to win the show so far, are some of his biggest inspirations. Their representation even inspired him to envision a drag club for those of all identities to appreciate and find community in the art form.
While the legacy of drag stretches back arguably to the 16th and 17th centuries when men would don feminine regalia and perform as women in theater, RPDR has inspired a whole new generation of drag queens, kings and even enthusiasts from its inception in 2009.
Now entering its 15th North American season, RPDR has come a long way from the modest runway, and by today’s comparison, the prize money, of its first episodes. While the winner of season one walked away with $20,000, the pot more than quadrupled to $100,000 by season four. Season 14 made history as the first regular season to not only give the winner $150,000 but the runner-up $50,000 as well. The awe over the swollen check of season 14 didn’t last long. The seventh season of RPDR All Stars made waves as the first all-star season to feature only winners of previous seasons. The prize money, of course, reflected this, with winner Jinx Monsoon walking away with $200,000 and the title of “Queen of all Queens.”
The reach of the series stretched just as fast. Over 13 years, RPDR has expanded to include franchises in Thailand, the UK, Canada, Holland, Australia, Spain, Italy, France, the Philippines, Sweden and Belgium. As the popularity of RPDR continues to grow, the contestants themselves are only getting younger. Four of the past five seasons of RPDR have had 21-year-old contestants; RPDR UK’s recent season had one as young as 19, Krystal Versace, walk away with the crown.
RPDR’s contestants have gone on to achieve much beyond the show. All Stars season three winner Trixie Mattel created her own makeup line, Trixie Cosmetics, launched a music career and has made multiple television appearances, including on her own Discovery+ show “Trixie Motel.” Shangela made history this year as the first drag queen to compete on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” after finding success alongside season eight winner Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka O’Hara on HBO Max’s Emmy-winning show “We’re Here.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race show continues to inspire, with some queens like Will Yeaman, who goes by Willconique in drag, beginning at just 18 years old. Yeaman, currently a freshman, was so young when he first began drag that he submitted a tape of himself as Willconique as part of his application to USC’s theater program. Rupaul’s Drag Race was not only Yeaman’s first time being exposed to drag, but, like Sharma, one of his greatest influences.
“I actually really thought it [RuPaul’s Drag Race] was very weird [at first]. Our culture teaches us to fit into these norms of gender. And so seeing these different gender expressions was very foreign to me,” Yeaman said. “And I realized, oh my God, people do this and this is what I am. And then, since then, we’ve [Yeaman’s and his mother] always watched the show together. It’s kind of like our little tradition, actually. We both bought these kimonos on Amazon, and we would wear them and we would have our drag race nights on Friday when that would air.”
For Yeaman, making the leap from superfan to drag performer was gradual, starting with his experimentation with hair and drag makeup in his home. Having a background in theater, he had plenty of experience in the cosmetic aspect of drag well before he debuted as Willconique.
Willconique’s persona, Yeaman said, came from an elevated version of his authentic self and allowed him to “come to terms with” aspects of himself that he had fought before. He compared Willconique to other personality queens, or those known for their overall essence rather than fashion or pageantry, like his idol RPDR queen Alyssa Edwards, who he got to meet at her one-woman show that he attended while back home in the Bay Area.
“Now I can say that I’m pretty darn authentically myself, and I think that’s what makes me special, is that I really embraced who I am and that’s what I’m proud of,” Yeaman said. “And so getting to be that is really important to me, and I think that’s why I look to her [Alyssa Edwards] for inspiration, she’s someone who’s owned who she is.”
Only recently did Yeaman premiere his drag persona to the world, saying, “drag is meant to be shared.” Willconique performed for the first time at QUASA’s Pridefest alongside queens like Ra Oblivion. Though he had performing experience to fall back on, Yeaman shared how nervous he was before his very first performance in drag.
“I think there’s still a sense of vulnerability because it’s this part of your identity that you’re sharing with the world, it’s part of your identity that’s not as well known usually and culturally not as well accepted,” Yeaman said. “I had mistakes. Hopefully, no one even noticed. But immediately off the bat, I flipped my hair, my nail flew off and I was like, ‘Oh, whatever.’ But you keep going, and I wouldn’t have changed my first performance for anything.”
For now, Yeaman seeks to gain more experience on stage as Willconique, hoping to perform in venues around campus before eventually breaking into the local L.A. drag scene when he feels ready. At the moment, Yeaman says he’s just grateful for the support of not just his immediate family but the drag community that he’s already had the opportunity to be a part of.
Being a part of the drag community, and the LGBTQIA+ community in general, Yeaman shares in the joys and devastations that come with both identities. He shared his frustration at the demonization of drag, most recently shown in the mass shooting in Colorado Springs LGBTQ+ nightclub, Club Q, where five were killed and 18 injured in the targeted attack. Though Yeaman said he didn’t have enough experience publicly in drag to speak personally on the danger queens face, he wasn’t any less angry about the reality.
“Of course, I’ve been bullied and everything in the book, but I’ve had it pretty easy as an LGBTQ+ individual,” Yeaman said. “It’s [drag] just putting on these clothes and these cultural norms and sharing that with the world and playing with that, playing with gender. And why is that so demonized? It makes no sense.”
Preparations for USC QUASA’s 2023 drag show on January 28, 2023 have already begun, with Yeaman and other student drag queens rehearsing every Sunday for hours leading up to showtime. Though juggling the show, academic commitments, theater productions and extracurriculars takes a lot of time management on Yeaman’s part - he’s still working on punctuality, but getting better, he says - he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I already feel like as a queen and as a person, I’ve grown so much because I’m getting to work with USC drag queens and kings like Daisy Darling and Ra Oblivion,” Yeaman said. “And I’m at the beginning of my career, but I already feel like I’ve learned so much, and I am so open to continuing to learn and grow. And I really want to inspire people.”
Among the drag queens and kings that Yeaman met on campus is his “drag big sister” Daisy Darling, or junior Hannah Gardiner. Gardiner is pushing their own boundaries in drag as a bioqueen or a cisgender woman who participates in drag. While Gardiner uses she and they pronouns, they do identify as a bioqueen.
RuPaul’s Drag Race, an inspiration to Gardiner as well, has also somewhat pushed the idea of what drag can be and who can participate. The first straight, cis-male contestant, Maddy Morphosis, appeared on season 14, as well as five trans contestants: Kerri Colby, Kornbread Jeté, Bosco, Jasmine Kennedy and Willow Pill. English bioqueen Victoria Scone, previously the first cis woman to ever compete in a RPDR franchise, wore the first drag king ensemble ever on the RPDR runway on RPDR Canada vs. the World in just this month.
For Gardiner, her Daisy Darling persona represents the hyper-femininity that they like to experiment with. Even their stage name draws inspiration from classic feminine characters like Wendy Darling of “Peter Pan” and Daisy Buchanan of “The Great Gatsby.” Draping themselves in knee-high stockings, pink, lace and other traditional trappings of femininity, Gardiner describes their drag as a Barbie-Esque, cutesy femme fantasy inspired by queens like Violet Chachki.
“Her [Violet Chachki’s] whole thing is that she doesn’t want to be a woman. She wants to be a drawing of a woman,” Gardiner said. “And I really resonated with that. I was like, I don’t want to be a woman when I’m in drag. I want to be like this hi-femme gender artist.”
This experimentation with gender is by no means effortless. While their theater background makes performance easier, the preparation and adornment that goes into creating Daisy Darling juggle cost, style and loyalty aesthetic. Gardiner said they typically look to thrift stores, eBay and Depop for new outfits, often struggling with things not fitting correctly or not appearing as they had in photos.
“It is a lot of work. It’s more fun, though. I can kind of look around for stuff. But then I buy something, like I bought this dress that I was like, it’ll come as a cupcake dress. It was kind of ugly, but in a way that I liked,” Gardiner said. “And it came in the mail, and I was like, ‘This does not fit.’”
Daisy Darling also found a stage at the USC QUASA drag show and beyond, including at Ground Zero Cafe, when it still existed, and local bars. However, since they’re under 21 years old, like Sharma, Gardiner finds it difficult to break into the drag scene that orbits gay bars and other over-21 venues. They performed briefly in a bar, but when the venue found out they were underage, they were prevented from doing so again, despite already being fully dressed and made up.
Though that experience was difficult, Gardiner says the community they found in the venue was wonderful while they had it.
“When I first performed at that bar, I made so many friends. I met like ten different queens there who were performing, and we all got ready together in the back. And I was like, ‘This is amazing. I can’t wait to do this again,” Gardiner said. “But I kind of feel like I’m on the outside of that now.”
While Gardiner uses their drag to explore femininity, Morgan Roberts leans into their longtime proclivity for a tomboy, masculine aesthetic. As a musician and drag king, under the clever name Robert Morgans, they combine their passion for performing on stage and their love of “gender fuckery,” as they call it.
Though they don’t identify with the hyper-feminine portrayal of drag on RPDR, they remain a fan of the show nonetheless. Introduced to the show by their high school friend, they saw it as a way to explore queer culture while living in Texas at the time, where they said there were very few opportunities to do so.
Upon moving to L.A. to attend USC, Roberts went to live drag shows, only solidifying their appreciation of the art form, but they didn’t see their first drag king performance until artist Chad Chad took to the USC QUASA stage. Roberts then realized as an underclassman that it was possible to do drag outside of the femininity typically showcased. From there, they scoured Instagram and Youtube for any and all drag kings they could follow as a way to explore the community.
“I’ve always leaned a little more tomboy. Masculine is where I kind of live, and I didn’t want to be hyper-feminizing myself,” Roberts said. “I’ve never really wanted that. So it just kind of made a lot more sense for me to go the [drag] king route.”
They didn’t consider performing as a drag king themselves until 2018 when QUASA announced that Shangela would judge the upcoming drag show.
“I was like, I could probably do drag, that’d be fun, and to perform in front of Shangela, what an opportunity. She [is] from Texas too, she’s the first drag queen I ever saw on TV, thanks to Dance Moms. So I was like, ‘This feels like a full circle moment,’” Roberts said. “And then I ended up really loving it, finding an entire[ly] new part of myself and a whole different community that I just absolutely adore.”
Roberts began performing at gigs on and off campus, including the QUASA drag show, Akbar, the Nice Jewish Queers show, and under their own production company Femme Fatale Productions, started with their friend Carey Diaz. They even put on their own virtual drag show on Twitch at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That was fun for me to be a promoter and to be able to put other talented drag performers on the stage because I really just love the art form of drag. I’m such a fan,” Roberts said. “And that was really where I fell in love with the USC drag community, and I was like, ‘Wow, these are my friends and like my little drag family.’”
After the virtual show, Roberts didn’t return to drag until a year later, having graduated in 2020 only to juggle the pandemic and a time-consuming job. When they did, they realized that their drag persona was not only a “deep part” of them but that their musical and drag personas, separate up until that point, could be fused together.
Once they became more comfortable with allowing more of Robert Morgans into all their performances, they started booking local gigs again using their community of drag kings and queens that they had found over the years. Though they have lingering insecurities about their drag, the quality of their makeup, for example, their love for the craft outweighs any negative aspects.
“There’s just something different about the art form of drag that you really cannot find anywhere else, and I find myself craving that a lot,” Roberts said. “There’s just so much artistry in it, and even though you might be lip-synching words you didn’t write, you can still feel them very deeply, and just conveying that to an audience and them being like, ‘Oh, I loved I ate that up,’ I love that.”
Having more experience performing in general, Roberts has faced the danger of drag firsthand. Roberts recently looked into gigs back home in Texas, where they were visiting family, reaching out to local promoters as they would in L.A. In the midst of their search, they heard about a system created by far-right organizations to alert locals of drag shows happening nearby. Created by Austin-based right-wing nonprofit the Texas Family Project, the “Defend Texas Kids” alert system not only lets people know about local drag shows but encourages Texas residents to report on those happening nearby.
“To me, that’s not protecting, that’s a target list. And that’s scary, especially [since] we just had another mass shooting at a queer club. I mean, it’s terrifying, it really is,” Roberts said. “It’s not going to stop me. I love to perform, the queer community is my heart. I love the queer community. So resilient, so much history. I don’t know, it’s weird because I’m scared, but I’m also not going to stop doing it.”
While those like Roberts, Gardiner, Sharma and Yeaman see longevity in their drag career, some students use it as an exploration within the queer community, leading to other outlets entirely. Junior Caleb Flenoury performed in the 2022 USC QUASA Drag Show, his first time ever performing the art form.
While Flenoury remained lukewarm about RPDR initially, he turned into an enthusiastic viewer rather quickly.
“At first, I did think that that lifestyle of, not being queer, but doing drag was very cringy, and I was really uncomfortable with it,” Flenoury said. “But once I started watching it and getting into it, I became a fan. So I definitely think RuPaul’s Drag Race is what got me.”
So when the opportunity to perform in drag presented itself, Flenoury took it. Using the money given to him by those planning the show and pooling together funds earned through internships, Flenoury presented himself as Satin Ringz, a glittering, roller-skating queen. Complete with a dark afro wig and bright orange outfit, he made the most out of his one, and maybe only, performance.
While donning this persona for the first time wasn’t easy for Flenoury, he said the repercussions from family presented a far more difficult challenge.
“The worst part was having to, unfortunately, deal with the repercussions from my immediate family. My mom and dad love me and are very supportive, but they’ve definitely grown a lot with my sexuality and expression in general. So from coming out in high school, early high school, to going and dating, and then like drag,” Flenoury said, “and they were like, ‘No, but you don’t have to, you don’t have to, it’s a choice,’ and all this and I’m like yes it is a choice I am making it.”
In spite of this, Flenoury expressed gratitude for his QUASA drag show siblings and those that helped assemble the show, calling the newfound community diverse, inviting and fun. While he didn’t guarantee another drag performance, he said this experience has encouraged him to explore other queer, creative outlets like the ballroom scene.
“I think it’s just important to be a fully realized person as far as creativity goes, that’s my mindset,” Flenoury said. “I feel like, go out there and do whatever the fuck you want because it’s not going to matter if you’re actually passionate about what you’re doing.”