The art of drag, as depicted in pop culture phenoms like “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” often conveys a sense of glamour, refinement and knowing cheekiness — qualities not often associated with a city as gritty as Baltimore. In truth, Monumental City has had a monumental influence on contemporary drag performance.
Look no further than one of the city’s defining personalities: Divine, the star of several classic John Waters films like “Pink Flamingos." Besides street art and beer, Divine’s outsized personality and ribald antics live on in Baltimore’s current drag scene stars. For instance, Betty O’Hellno acknowledged Divine’s impact on her campy style, while Brooklyn Heights said that the late icon’s penchant for “doing the most crazy things you could possibly think of” established a standard for what audiences can expect at many (though not all) shows.
Drag performers in greater Baltimore now enjoy a fandom and public visibility that didn’t exist in Divine’s time, when it was primarily the interest of LGBTQ communities, who turned it into an artform, and the ’60s/'70s counterculture. Drag brunches draw crowds of all tastes to restaurants across the city and surrounding counties. Performers balance these with recurring showcases, “Rocky Horror Picture Show”-esque movie screenings, private corporate gigs (some of which can net as high as $2,000) and special events like the annual Baltimore Drag Awards.
Chris Jay, whose identity as a drag king speaks to the scene’s broadly defined diversity, attributed drag’s popularity to the overall “change in social acceptance of queer people” in the last 20 years.
“You see more drag in other spaces than you do in our own spaces now,” he said. "It’s just really fascinating to see that because, especially with our spaces closing as rapidly as they are for many, many reasons, but when you see that, you see drag really expand past the dive bar and the gay nightclub.
For those not in the know about one of the area’s most underrated and self-sustaining art forms, start with this list of notable drag stars:
Story: Devon Mitchell, who performs as Evon Michelle moved her way up the ladder (and up the East Coast from Florida, where she started performing) over the last half-decade to become one of greater Baltimore’s busiest drag queens. She’s organizes and hosts the recurring Sundays are a Drag...Brunch in Hanover — billed as “Maryland’s largest monthly drag queen brunch” — among other monthly and weekly drag shows that showcase veteran and emerging drag talent throughout the area. Along with frequent collaborator Brooklyn Heights, she recently organized and co-hosted “How the Queens Gave Christmas,” which featured over a dozen drag queens. That show benefited The LGBT Health Resource Center of Chase Brexton, a major community health institution.
“They provide therapy, and doctors are trained and have spent time researching the LGBTQ community, as opposed to maybe a regular family doctor without the outside perspective,” she said.
While many drag queens (her included) transfix audiences with high-energy lip synchs, Evon Michelle took it a step further at that holiday show by singing “Mary Did You Know?”:
I've received so much positive feedback from my live singing number, Mary Did You Know, here's a longer clip. I was always hesitant to sing in drag because my comfortable singing range is a lower register and I didn't want it to throw people off. But then I remembered it's drag and that I'm a man in a dress that happens to look like a lady, so f*CK people and their negative opinions. Thinking about getting it professionally recorded.... Thoughts?
Thoughts on Baltimore drag: “A lot of times, when we’re doing our shows, it’s the first time people have experienced drag. So it’s our job to show them what what to expect [and] promote proper drag etiquette: always tipping your entertainers, making sure it’s their time to be on stage. It’s a learning experience for everyone."
Angie’s Seafood Drag Brunch (every third Saturday), 12:15 p.m., Angie’s Seafood, 1727 E. Pratt St., Baltimore. $45. tickettailor.com.
Sundays are a Drag...Brunch (usually the last Sunday per month), 1 p.m., Cancun Cantina, 7501 Old Telegraph Rd., Hanover. $15-$33. cancuncantina.com.
Drag Queen Bingo (w/ Pariah Sinclair). (every second and fourth Tuesday), 9 p.m., Golden West Cafe, 1105 W. 36th St., Baltimore. $5. goldenwestcafe.com.
Story: Another of Baltimore’s busiest drag queens, Ryan Butler, who performs as Brooklyn Heights, is one of few full-time drag performers in the area. To make this work, she hustles six out of seven nights, performing between Baltimore (where she co-hosted the most recent Drag Awards with Betty O’Hellno) and heralded D.C. venues like The DC Eagle. The artist is known as both a stellar performer and producer of drag events, and co-developed the “How the Queens Gave Christmas” benefit with Evon Michelle. This breadth means that she has some solid tips for how people should prepare for their first drag show, which she recites before every show: bring $1 bills to tip performers; “get drunk, have a good time;" obtain consent if you want to touch or take a picture with an entertainer; and “if we say or do anything to offend you, we don’t give a f*** about your feelings.”
Thoughts on Baltimore drag: “You can watch drag on any major [TV] platform now, and if you love the city you live in, you’re going to want to know that artform as well as the national platform. Drag is very respected in the city of Baltimore.”
“Most people don’t realize how much commentary drag has on gender and has [had] for many, many, many years,” he said. “[It] opens up the door for all types of drag performers to commentate."
Jay makes this commentary through a performance he described as “a lot of sexy."
“There’re a lot of performers who are really funny and very creative, and that’s not me,” he continued. “You’ll get a slow song and me body rolling and taking my clothes off.”
That’s all on display, along with a varied array of drag kings, at Jay’s monthly “A Deep Lez Dance Party” show.
Thoughts on Baltimore drag: “I see great things. I see these kids are coming out ...and do some amazing things with their makeup. And having the resources to get help with makeup and costuming and learning how to perform. They’ve got so much of a head start because of the internet and because there’s so many more places to perform. It’s only going to evolve into something that I don’t think any of us can see yet.”
A Deep Lez Dance Party (every third Saturday), 10 p.m., Night Shift 2.0, 1725 Ponca St., Baltimore. $10. nightshiftnightclub.com.
Story: Bambi Galore, who declined to provide the name on their birth certificate, also challenges multiple stereotypes about drag queens. One of the area’s most prominent assigned female at birth (AFAB) drag stars, she’s performed at several family-oriented gigs, including a new drag storytime with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—a group that mixes drag and religion.
“There’re so many different styles and varieties of drag, and all drag is valid in its own form, and anyone who has that passion can pursue it," she said. “So often people have tried to gatekeep it, and one thing with more vocal, assigned female at birth drag queens in particular, is we’ve said: ‘you’re not going to gatekeep us from this art anymore.’”
She made an even greater claim to this art by receiving this year’s Queen of Pride crown.
Thoughts on Baltimore drag: “Baltimore has a unique advantage that, if it’s taken, could be amazing, because there is a lot of support here that falls outside of the normal assumed audience...there is this wide [breadth] of styles that’re being exposed to people who otherwise wouldn’t because venues are willing to take a chance on us.”
Drag Me to Brunch at El Bufalo.(every first and third Saturday), 11 a.m., El Bufalo Tequila Bar & Kitchen, 2921 O’Donnell St., Baltimore. $20. elbufalobaltimore.com.
Drag Queen Story Hour with the Sisters.(every second Sunday), 1 p.m., The Children’s Bookstore, 4717 Harford Rd., Baltimore. Free. thecbstore.com.
Story: After seven years of performing, Jeremiah Nieves, who performs as Iyana Deschanel has figured out a special niche not typically associated with drag: “hypeman.”
“Typically, when I’m in any show, they put me first, because I want to set the party level right,” she said. “I don’t want it to feel like you’re not part of the show...when you see me, you know it’s hype.”
Thoughts on Baltimore drag: “It’s like a roller coaster, up and down...but right now, the shows are doing well, because there aren’t many.”
Story: This veteran drag performer, who frequently performs with Brooklyn Heights and Iyana Deschanel throughout the DMV, describes herself as very “bubblegum pop.”
“I think my drag persona is always perceived, because I have a very large chest and am particularly fond of blonde hair, that I’m not that smart," said Ferrah, who declined to provide the name on their birth certificate. “I’m that Britney Spears, ’90s-esque dumb blonde situation, and it comes with that bubblegum pop genre.”
She’s also known for her physicality, using her gymnastics training to amp up crowds with daredevil antics.
“Every bar I’m in, for whatever reason, I have to climb furniture," she said. “We’ve been at Bookmaker’s about a month now, and they know: don’t put anything on the bar for my second number, because I’m probably going to walk on it.”
Thoughts on Baltimore drag: “Brooklyn, Iyana and I have done wedding anniversary parties, which is the oddest thing for me [after] doing this for a decade. At the beginning of my career, you weren’t getting straight people who even wanted to look at you when they crossed the street and you were standing outside. Now, they’re inviting you to their 65th wedding anniversary to perform because they love drag queens."
On stage at: Baltimore’s #1 Drag Brunch. (every Sunday), 12:30 p.m., Bookmaker’s, 31 E. Cross St., Baltimore. $35. bookmakersbaltimore.com.
Story: Pariah Sinclair, who declined to provide the name on their birth certificate, first learned to leverage her theater and stand-up comedy background into drag performance while studying at Towson University. Back then, she was putting together shows through the school’s LGBTQ student group and learned what goes into performances.
“Baltimore is very different than a lot of scenes because there’re so few gay venues and there’s not as much of a system here where you have drag bars,” she said. That forced her to be more active in getting gigs and marketing herself.
Through that time, she, like other performers, also figured out how to thrive outside of any specific niche. “Doing one style of drag, to me, is a little boring, and if you want to perform as much as you can, you should be as versatile as possible.”
Thoughts on Baltimore drag: “We are definitely in a really good place. We have a lot of performers that are very motivated and very creative. And we’re all just trying to get it out to as many people as possible...I’m very excited for the future."
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Of Love and Regret Drag Brunch. (every third Sunday), 12 p.m., 1028 S. Conkling St., Baltimore. $30. olardragbrunch.com.
Story: One of the area’s most famous drag queens — in no small part thanks to her glorious mug on the cover of Baltimore magazine’s Pride issue — Aaron Barlow’s, who performs as Betty O’Hellno, near-decade-long career invokes the old-school glamour of Divine and the Two-O’Clock Club.
“I’m definitely a vintage burlesque queen, that’s my forte, my love,” said the performer. “It’s campy but can also be super glamorous, sparkly, body-positive, that’s what I love.”
She calls back to that nostalgic imagery with “Grindhouse,” her recurring burlesque show that celebrates women-led exploitation movies from the ’70s.
Thoughts on Baltimore drag: “We’re a weird family, because we’re all hustling together and trying to figure out how to survive off make-up and sequins...Brooklyn and I host the Drag Awards every year, and that’s when you feel the love the most, when everyone comes into one room and celebrates each other."