All Hail The Drag Queen

How Your Favorite Girls Are Giving New Life To Detroit's Bar Scene

By Tony Lowe
Originally printed 7/31/2014 (Issue 2231 - Between The Lines News)

As a young gay man just starting to hit the scene, it was common to see a drag queen. Then, I had barely even heard of RuPaul, let alone known of her accolades. I had seen "To Wong Foo" only once and, at the time, was oblivious to big drag cameos from queens like Candis Cayne and CoCo Peru. I knew drag queens were a gay-club culture staple, but that was really the extent of it.

Going out to metro Detroit clubs, I realized something: DJs had their home bar, or their "night," but drag performance was a mainstay. The girls that I saw regularly were some of the names we still see running around town - names like Sabin, Trixie Deluxxe, Natalie Cole, and, of course Nickki Stevens. Drag, though, was still very much an underground scene then, reserved for gay clubs and communities. Fame and recognition as a drag performer or entertainer came most often from doing pageants regionally and nationally, hosting or running popular nights or casts, or, for some, being a traveling performer.

As time went on so, too, did the evolution of mobile phone technology - much to the eventual outcry of gay bar owners and promoters. With "smart phones" and the development of social apps, a new social environment for gay men was introduced. Meeting gay men was more convenient than ever, and the middle man - the bar - wasn't the only way to mingle with our kind.

Then, in the midst of this social upheaval in Detroit and across the country, "RuPaul's Drag Race" debuted on Logo. It was a smash, presenting a guilty-pleasure mix of gays, their girlfriends and aspiring stars - in drag or otherwise. As each season of "Drag Race" crowned a new queen, a phenomenon took hold of gay bars and nightclubs all over the U.S. These queens had become gay royalty, and the scene, to some extent, had been revived.

Viewing parties fill bars with fans that would normally be sitting at home watching their primetime shows, having a glass of wine and heading to bed. With a newfound patronage for RuPaul's girls each season, there is undoubtedly a new and continuously growing fan base for drag like never before. People want to see them up close, performing on stage and snapping selfies with them. The hype surrounding these queens has mounted, and so has the interest of nightclub owners in booking them.

Take Sharon Needles, for instance. After taking the Season 5 crown, the star who broke the proverbial glass ceiling of drag had her first performance in Detroit. A fan favorite known for her ghoulish looks and non-conformist attitude, who stands for all the weird kids in the world, Sharon was attracting locals in droves. People had started waiting in line as early as 4 p.m. that afternoon in downtown Pontiac, where she'd later perform to a sea of screaming ovations.

And not just from gay men.

The crowd that night crossed culture spectrums, attracting underdogs, emos, punk rockers, the gays, the straights - anyone that felt that Sharon had stood for them.

From Courtney Act and Adore Delano to Bianca Del Rio, this continues to be the case with each passing season of the "Drag Race," as their various talents attract sellout crowds to bars, nightclubs, stages, theaters and Pride. For the bar scene as we know it, RuPaul and her girls are helping to keep gay nightlife alive

Tony Lowe is a Detroit-area photographer and drag ambassador.

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