What does it take to become a drag queen? A quirky character, knockout look, signature moves — and guts.
by Billy Warden | photography by Justin Kase Conder
The wig is a worry. Dark, tangled, and sky-high, it makes me look like Cher suffering an electrocution amid a tornado. I frown into the mirror.
“But isn’t ‘rock’n’roll’ the vibe what we’re going for?” asks Brandon Moore, also known as drag impresario Kayla LaShay, fluffing the wig to greater heights.
True, the drag persona I’m bringing to life with the expert help of Brandon and Justin Burleyson (aka Emory Starr) is a bad girl. But does the wig make her less like a stormy rebel and more — as my bemused wife suggests — a hot mess?
“Well, remember, you don’t have your face painted on yet,” counters Justin.
True, we still have miles to go — some in death-defying heels — on this possibly ill-advised adventure.
I’ve signed on to create a drag character who will perform at the monthly revue Brandon runs at the Hillsborough Street bar The Green Monkey. As drag rises in popularity around here, I’m going undercover — not to mention layers of foundation and “juicy” padding — to understand the scene and its increasingly wide appeal.
“There used to be one drag show per week, at one location in the Triangle, and a dozen or so queens,” says Brandon, who’s in a financial job by day. “Now there are several shows each week at all different places, and hundreds of queens.”
Brandon, a Triangle drag star for half a decade, signs on as my “drag mother,” as mentors are known in the biz. Justin has offered an assist (my drag aunt, I suppose). With four weeks to showtime, here is how a one-and-done diva is born.
Before committing to such a full-bodied investigation, I scoped out a drag dinner featuring Brandon and Justin at Clouds Brewing. The audience was a rainbow mix of enthusiasts, including a straight couple on their first date, colleagues out for beers, and an 11-year-old who bugged her mom to take her after marveling at a drag character in the Just Dance video game.
Escapism and empowerment had attracted two young women. “It’s inspiring to see people be so fearless about who they want to be and how they want to look,” said Nicole Hall. Added her sister Michelle: “I want to be ‘me’ with THAT level of confidence.”
Hmmm. Fearless confidence? Sounded like a crash course worth taking. “When I become Kayla,” Brandon later confirms, “all my insecurities go away.” Sprouting up in tiny Princeton, North Carolina, young Brandon hung out with family matriarchs in the kitchen while the men worked on tractors. He was drawn to drag, and for a high school talent show made up a male pal as — who else? — Cher. But Brandon didn’t give drag a whirl himself until being gobsmacked by a revue at Raleigh’s Legends nightclub. Soon after, Kayla was born.
Now, he says, “Kayla is fierce and unstoppable.” Not unlike Justin’s alter ego, Emory Starr. “Out of drag, I’m an introvert; in drag, I’m an extrovert,” says Justin, who grew up in Mount Pleasant. “I act sweet, but when you talk to Emory, things get naughty.”
In other words, Kayla and Emory are larger-than-life projections, “characters,” Brandon explains, created by performers “who are not all gay and who might even be women.” Smack-talking superheroes built for the stage, these queens don’t wear their drag rags at home any more than Tom Brady wears his gridiron gear while grilling out. Says Justin, “Most drag queens just dress up for shows — it’s just a hobby or career.”
The first step, then, is to create that outsize persona. I think about all the people I’m mindful to please — day in, day out, professionally and socially. What if I just didn’t care who was happy with me or not?
A character takes shape. I email Brandon: Her name is Debbie D. Lirious. Once a cheerleader and member of her small town’s elite. Then brought down and cast out by vicious rumors — some of which were likely true. She now lives by her own rough-edged rules, while still possessed of cheerleader zest. An agonizing day passes before Brandon replies: Debbie is spectacular! We have a persona. With three weeks until showtime.
To clothe our creation, I head to Brandon’s gleaming mid-century ranch in south Raleigh, where the wardrobe room barely contains the riot of sequined gowns and headdresses he creates on his Singer sewing machine. The colors rival a jumbo box of Crayola crayons. Plus: wigs, bracelets, rings, necklaces, tights, scarves, shoes — a sugar shock of bling.
Brandon has pulled a bedazzled beige jumper ringed by a skirt of shiny royal blue ribbons. “The skirt will give you some flow,” he advises. “And it says cheerleader.’
The dress settled, it’s time for what I expect will be, based on what I’ve heard, a religious revelation: the shoes.
Drag queens achieve a good deal of their majesty by tacking on heels so they tower above mere mortals. Justin — a pastry chef by day — offers a pair of silver, size-11 stilettos. But when I stand, the world is made of Jell-O. I teeter and lurch and pray for deliverance, finally plummeting back into the chair. An ominous silence frosts the room. Brandon perks up, “Let’s try a chunky platform.”
Five minutes and one nearly broken ankle later, it’s clear that heels, no matter how chunky, are hazardous to my health. Facing a crisis, I venture, “You know, Debbie is a former cheerleader …”
Justin catches my drift, “ … and cheerleaders don’t wear heels …”
Brandon completes the picture, “ … they wear sneakers.”
Saved! My trusty Converse will do. Now the transformation heads north. Hours earlier, I bought my first bra from a purse-lipped woman at Belk who avoided small talk. After fastening me in, Brandon fortifies each 38-D cup with flesh-colored bean bags. So equipped, I feel like I’ve tightened on my boldest tie for a business pitch. I’m battle-ready.
Finally, that electrocuted-Cher wig. After hashing out its merits and demerits, Brandon reaches for a high box in the wardrobe room closet and gently lifts out an alternative, a sassy half-black, half-blond bob that we all agree is deliriously right for Debbie. We’re still in business. With only two weeks until showtime.
The all-important song we’ve selected for hellraiser Debbie to lip-sync and jive to is Joan Jett’s poundingly primal “Bad Reputation.” I’m pretty sure I have moves — I’m built wiry, prone to bursts of pogoing energy, and have performed with glam band The Floating Children for 30 years. But are they drag moves?
Observing some sample steps at home, my wife offers a gentle critique: “You look like you’re trying to start a fight. You’re hulking around like a caveman.” Testing my routine in full regalia for my drag family in Brandon’s living room, I remain as graceful as a neanderthal.
“Try to elongate,” ever-patient Justin suggests. “Stretch out your arms.” “And don’t forget the audience,” coaches Brandon. “Stop and interact.” The reward for a little eye contact, a wink, or a seemingly surreptitious smile is tips. A drag show is a kind of Rotten Tomatoes in real time, with the audience signaling its appreciation by waving dollar bills (or fives! Or even tens!).
It’s all a lot to figure out. And just when I think I’m getting it, Brandon queries, “So what’s your finishing move?” Justin chimes in, “Cartwheel? How about a split?” “Bad Reputation” being a power chord-studded rock anthem, I windmill on an imaginary guitar. For the first time, my drag family seems not to be suppressing panic. “Oh,” says Brandon. “I think I might steal that.”
He better not. With mere days before showtime, it’s the best move Debbie’s got.
As drag fans fill the cozy confines of The Green Monkey, I cram into a storage area-turned-dressing room separated from the crowd by an olive curtain with three professional drag queens — Kayla, Amazing Grace, and Amanda LaRouxx — plus a volunteer valet. The glamour!
Justin is busy getting ready to MC his own extravaganza up the street at Legends, but texts his well wishes: “Debbie is gonna turn it out!!!” No pressure.
Maneuvering into gowns, plumping their padding, and touching up their faces, the pros gleefully kvetch, bemoaning money matters and body aches, dispensing gossip and salty wisecracks.
Three hours earlier, Brandon, a former cosmetologist, sculpted on my makeup in thick, pore-suffocating layers. “We all need piles of the stuff,” he reassured me. “That’s why we call it painting.”
Glancing into a plastic stand-up mirror now, I’m startled by a stranger, a fetching one at that. My normally wide nose is as thin as an arrowhead, my cheekbones sharp enough to cut a gash in Angelina Jolie’s self-esteem. It’s not me, it’s Debbie D. Lirius.
An hour later, Brandon, now transformed into Kayla, introduces me. I wait on the shadowy sidewalk while he fills the front door leading into a narrow performance corridor carved straight down the middle of the standing-room-only mob. “If you like Debbie’s look, give her a tip,” Kayla declares. “If you don’t like her, give her more so she can look better next time.”
“Bad Reputation” jackhammers through the sound system. Finally, it’s SHOWTIME! “Don’t go in too fast,” Brandon whispers to me. “Make them wait. Anticipation, then revelation.” But Debbie flies into the room like an errant missile. I try to slow down and think. Time for a shimmy. Remember to flow. Sell the lip sync.
Dollar bills spring up among the hordes. Maybe Debbie is doing something right? The thought makes me so happy I lose track of the lyrics. The crowd cools. I break out the windmills. More dollar bills go up and then — OMG — a ten.
I bend in to bat my false eyelashes at the big tipper and see that it’s Justin, taking time out from producing his own show, in full Emory Starr finery. Talk about a supportive family!
I duck-walk through the final chorus, nail the climactic vocal exclamation, and tumble out the door into the cool, spacious night. Four weeks of intense prep, played out in three manic minutes. Overinflated chest heaving, wardrobe pinching, I hardly feel regal. But with this unlikely mission accomplished, I do feel like, yes, I can do anything.
A few weeks later, I’m at a refined little party free of wig worries, comfortably outfitted in a suit (J. Crew, men’s) when Sam Adams, a friend who was at the show, approaches. “I have a video of someone who says she knows you,” he grins, brandishing his phone. “Debbie D. Lirious? You better take a look.”
Not wanting to relive the mad scramble of my performance, I decline. “It’s very hard work, that’s for sure,” I note by way of changing the subject.
“Yes!” Sam exclaims, turning serious. “You know, 10 years ago, I avoided associating with drag queens. I didn’t want other people — ‘normal’ people — to think I was with the fringy folks. But then I went to one of Brandon’s shows. And I was amazed. By the skill he puts into it. By how the audience loves it.” He shrugs. “Now I go to all his shows — and I’m proud to carry his bag afterward. You know?”
Thanks to Debbie, I do know. The most important move in a drag queen’s repertoire is the leap of faith. Drag queens believe not only that they can be anything they want, but that the world will embrace them… eventually. Drag is optimism — in all its fabulousness.
This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine