CHICAGO — Chicago drag dates back well over a century.
Today’s vibrant drag scene is thriving as an increasingly diverse group of queens, kings, and other performers take center stage throughout the city.
The rise of outrage, legislation and violence directed at drag performers throughout the country makes the bold, unapologetic art form all the more vital and defiant.
“Chicago drag brings passion and hunger for acceptance in an overwhelmingly unaccepting society this country fails to correct,” drag queen and show host Vanity Unfair said. “In queer nightlife, we create families, and we paint the world we see in our hearts. I encourage and speak to only the LGBTQIA+ community by saying, ‘If you are closer to the person you wanted to be as a child, you’re living authentically and correctly.'”
Meet some of the legends and newcomers driving Chicago’s drag scene.
Chicago-born drag queen Chamilla Foxx, a fixture in Chicago’s drag community, has been performing locally for over 15 years.
“This is how queer people can show their creativity and their artistic side. In drag there are no rules. Drag is the plate you serve your art on. You’re kind of untouchable.”
Foxx is an inspiration to many, including fellow queen, Rah Rah Girl: “Chamilla Foxx is someone I look up to because I’m Mexican. You go to a Chamilla Foxx show she’s so Latina and confident.”
Since winning the first Miss Continental Pageant in 1980, Chilli Pepper has been a fixture in Chicago’s drag community and is considered a legend of drag, although she doesn’t care much for the term, quipping it “sounds too much like the Indy 500.”
“It’s simple. Performing means you can get people happy and motivated to have a good time.”
Chilli Pepper is known for raising visibility for the LGBTQ+ community, appearing on her friend Oprah Winfrey’s show in 1987 to answer questions from the audience in days when the drag community was barely acknowledged. She was quick to take up the AIDS awareness in the ’80s.
Of the anti-drag legislation initiated in other states, she said: “Let them be showgirls. They should concern themselves with taking care of their children themselves. They should try to be nice human beings and do their own thing, and let other people do their thing.”
“Drag is about community,” veteran drag queen Bambi Banks-Couleé said.
“For a long time I felt that drag was just commitment to the art of performance and fashion but currently I’ve noticed a shift in what I find important. It’s important to give queer youth a place to express themselves and be in a safe enough place to experience the emotional toll of what it means to be queer. Being a drag queen is being brave enough to stand in front of people and say, ‘This is who I am.’ And to many that is an act of defiance in itself.”
Banks-Couleé also blasted legislation restricting and attacking drag throughout the country.
“These anti-drag bills that are threatening us actually have nothing to do with us as drag performer and more to do with us as trans people. People are convinced that all of society is thinking about their children specifically. Trans and gay people are not seeking out children. We foster the kids that are not accepted once they decide to live their truth.”
Newer to Chicago’s drag community is 25-year-old Thrussy Galore, who studied art at Loyola University.
Drag is “a culmination of all my skills I’ve learned as an artist and being able to use them all at once. The painting. The performance. Drag lets you do that.”
“It’s also such a great community,” Thrussy Galore said. “I’ve had a hard time finding my people. It’s the convergence of what I’m looking for. Artists who are queer who are people of color. Drag queens are artists queer and lovely.”
Merriam Levkovitz, who does drag story hour, drew inspiration from her mom, Dahlia Cherny.
“I created Merriam Levkovitz in 2016 with the intention of making art that showcased positive Jewish queer visibility and joy. I specifically prioritize ‘evergreen comedy,’ so that anybody and everybody can see and experience Queen Merri. The persona is my love note to the incredible women in the community I grew up in. Drag story is my direct tribute to my mom. My Mom is a fourth grade teacher who is literally famous in Connecticut elementary ed. Part of her notoriety is how she makes kids fall in love with reading. That’s all drag story hour is, it’s helping make reading and books fun.
“Plus, a little glitter never hurts.”
After growing up a Jehovah’s Witness, Rah Rah Girl’s journey into drag started as a teenager.
“Leaving meant being on my own. I started putting makeup on my face to escape someone I didn’t like, which was myself. That was when I was 19ish,” said Rah Rah Girl, now 28.
“In Rah Rah Girl, there’s so much growth. A character who I want to be for people. It’s good vibes that I’m giving and want to be giving. I feel pretty and want people to feel pretty. I want you to feel what I was missing in my experience. I was missing someone who made me feel more confident in myself.”
“Drag allows me to showcase a side of myself that I would never show in ordinary circumstances,” drag king Tenderoni said.
“It provides a creative outlet for me to explore gender, entertainment and a platform to hopefully inspire. Chicago is a great city to be a drag performer because there are so many places and communities that interact with each other and thrive.”
“To me, being an artist is very literal,” Boyj said.
“Art is a way of communicating through many media, mine just happens to be the fabulous language of body movements and drag. I choose to define the art of drag by choosing to accept any form of exaggeration of great detail when it comes to the boundaries of sex and sex appeal! Chicago is the headquarters of drag. Go anywhere in the U-S of A and they just don’t compare to the community that we have. It’s literally a high school cafeteria of drag. Everything is here!”
Mz. Ruff N Stuff has been entertaining Chicago for over two decades and is a member of Chicago’s LGBT Hall of Fame for being “instrumental in raising monies for many causes in the community” and known for a “strong passion for the betterment of our community.”
Jim Flint opened the iconic drag venue Baton Show Lounge in 1969 and started the Miss Continental Pageant in 1980. Home to the longest running show of its kind in the country, the venue was located in River North for 50 years before moving to Uptown.
You can still find Flint at the entrance to the venue most nights.
“My life’s work is the greatest thing you could ask for. When you think of a small boy coming from a small town and people from my pageant have gone on to Ru Paul’s Drag Race.”
Asked what is means to be an artist, Kenya Black Dupree said, “It means you are able to define and navigate your own path to greatness doing the one thing that you love! It means your gift is bringing joy and happiness to someone else! It’s a beautiful feeling!”
Lynzo the Heartthrob and Essence started the Chicago Drag Travel Fund in May. The effort is committed to “making sure that drag performers and trans drag performers are safe going to these events,” Lynzo said.
“The Chicago Drag Travel Fund is an attempt to prioritize safety amongst our drag performers, specifically trans drag performers. Particularly minorities and those who take CTA,” Lynzo said. “We experience harassment. Especially with what’s happening in the USA. We are trying to curb the heightened harassment.”
“Our New BFF” is special because “competitors aka ‘besties’ are all paired with a mentor to help them through the competition because you have an icon in the scene to help guide you and bounce ideas off, etc.,” said Miss Toto, a pillar in Chicago’s drag community who co-hosts. “This also provides a space for a lot of visibility for new entertainers to gain experience and exposure to other producers and the community.”
“Our community is fed lies of inauthenticity and shame every day. It’s my job to help lift that shame and give audience members a few hours without the weight of the world on their shoulders,” co-host Vanity Unfair said.
Miz Thang performed in the second season of the show in mid-June.
“I love it. This is my dream. I’m from Texas and the community isn’t as big or wide or inclusive. And here it’s so diverse. I didn’t even dream of doing drag. I was a theatre kid. It’s been two years. I have a wig and heels and I’m doing it. Being Black, being queer, being a drag queen. This is it. This is Chicago,” she said.
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