It takes about two and a half hours for Kenny Lear to become Sherry Blossom, from the pillow-padded rear end to the last fake eyelash.
“When you’re right in front of the mirror and you pop that first lash on, it’s like ‘Oh, she’s a woman,’” said the 22-year-old. “And it clicks. Everything clicks after the first lash.”
In day-to-day life, Lear said, he’s shy and soft spoken. But dressing in drag, a different persona emerges. As Sherry Blossom, he becomes she — loud and oozing with confidence.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Sherry Blossom, a 10-pound prosthetic bust filling out the curves of her flowered sundress, flounces around Trinacria cafe in Mount Vernon, lip-syncing the words to Hairspray’s “Big Blonde and Beautiful” while people stuff dollar bills into her bodice.
I am not afraid to throw my weight around
Pound by pound by pound
Blossom grabs audience member Courtney Dyson’s head and clutches it to her bosom. Across the table, Dyson’s friend Dora Carroll throws her head back laughing, taking pictures.
Trinacria cafe on Centre Street began hosting drag nights a few months ago, said cafe owner Vince Fava, and has since added drag trivia nights and a regular Sunday brunch. Fava, 55, said he had never seen a drag show before he was approached to host one but has quickly come to appreciate them.
“These girls put a lot of time and effort into it,” he said. “It’s an art form.”
The entertainment has ruffled some feathers, Fava said, including among members of his family.
The cafe is a spin-off from the Trinicria food store on Paca street, whose roots date back over 100 years and is one of the oldest Italian delis in the country. Fava said he’s heard from some patrons who feel a drag brunch isn’t appropriate for a shop that they associate with old-world tradition and Catholic values. It seems to Fava that some steer clear of the cafe during the drag events, which are held every two weeks.
But he has been unmoved by criticism, even posting an impassioned defense of the performers on the cafe’s Facebook page.
“God loves everybody,” he said. “If people have problems… they can go somewhere else.”
Elsewhere in Baltimore, drag is becoming as ubiquitous a brunch feature as eggs Benedict. Hotel Indigo in Mount Vernon hosts one, as does El Bufalo in Canton and Points South in Fells Point.
“We’re kind of in a drag renaissance,” said Brian Thomas, who until recently put on a show at The Eagle, a now-shuttered Station North gay bar. He came to Trinacria to check out the competition.
“There’s many different types of drag that appeal to many different types of people,” Thomas said, including some that are edgy — and even grotesque. One performer he knows incorporates a dead rat into shows.
Thomas and others attribute the growing popularity of drag to the VH1 television show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a competition show for drag queens that recently completed its 10th season.
The show “changed everything,” in terms of bringing drag to wider audiences, said Tyler Zeck-McFall, a performer who was visiting Trinacria. “As you can see, we’re in an Italian cafe.”
The movement has encouraged experimentation. No longer is drag simply about drag queens — men dressing as women. Drag kings, performers dressed in masculine clothes, are gaining visibility.
Several kings are on the lineup at Trinacria. One is Alexander Lane, a 23-year-old transgender man who performs as the androgynous Sasha Mann.
“There are not a lot of kings,” Lane noted.
On a barstool sits Lane’s fiance, Maggie McCleary, 23, wearing a tank top that reads: “Don’t assume my gender.” McCleary is genderqueer, a term for people who don’t consider themselves either strictly male or strictly female. Together, McCleary and Lane are often mistaken for a heterosexual couple. For them, drag brunches offer a chance to embrace their LGBTQ identities in a safe place.
“I think things like this drag brunch are amazing in gaining acceptance for queer culture,” McCleary said.
Many performers find a level of acceptance at drag shows they don’t experience with relatives.
Jessica Crouse, 33, an Eastern Shore native who performs as drag king Alex Mac, said she has a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” with her family regarding sexual orientation. She said her hometown in Caroline County is “not particularly accepting” of lesbians like herself.
But Crouse and others say they have found a supportive and accepting family at Trinacria — and a surrogate grandmother by the name of Anita Sauter.
“Grandma!” Crouse exclaimed when Sauter, 65, appears backstage, out of breath; she couldn’t find parking anywhere close, she said.
Sauter handed her grandson, performer Michael Sauter, a shoe box filled with jewels and stockings for his costume.
“She never misses a show,” said Michael Sauter, 18. “When I first came out, she was the first person I told.”
Grandma Sauter said she considers all the performers her grandchildren, and it’s her duty to show up as their audience.
“I know what every one of them are going through,” she said. “If we’re happy and they see smiles, they know that. That’s support.”
As the drag queens and kings give the final touch of hairspray, Sauter sat with a pack of cigarettes and a stack of one dollar bills. The cash is for tips; she has more in her pocketbook, and makes change for the waiters to give to patrons.
From behind the curtain her grandson, dressed as the vampy Ariel Von Quinn, struts out in high-heeled boots, a studded black bra and corset and diamond choker.
Ariel lip syncs the words to “Take Me or Leave Me” from the Broadway show Rent, shimmying and collecting handfuls of cash from diners.
Take me for what I am
Who I was meant to be
Then the former cheerleader climbs on the bar and leaps onto the floor, landing in a split.
Grandma gasps and clutches her heart, loving every minute of it.