Welcome to the Queendom
Six-inch heels, spotlights and sequins are some of the main tools in a drag queen’s arsenal, but lightheartedness, poise and charisma are essential too.
“We take what we do seriously. We want to put on a good show. We want to entertain. But, we also laugh at ourselves,” said Brooke Collins, Charleston’s premier drag entertainer who honed her skills over the past 38 years in the industry.
“We know what we’re doing and know sometimes it can be ridiculous, but that’s what makes it fun,” Collins told the Charleston City Paper. “Ultimately, if somebody’s coming to see a drag show, they want to release what their day was like or what their life is like. [A drag show is] a short time to forget and just have a good time and laugh at the ridiculousness, the glamor — all the good things.”
Collins, who grew up on James Island, said she first fell in love with drag entertainment in her college years when she was a ballet dancer.
“It was so glamorous, and it was just intriguing,” she said. “I found out that [the performers] chose their own songs and their own costumes. Their choreography — everything — was done by them.”
Collins has poured her energy into developing the local drag scene over the past four decades as a performer, show director and talent developer at various venues, including Dudley’s on Ann, her current domain.
She said audience etiquette can be reduced to one thing: “Tip the entertainers.”
Drag show goers need only common sense and some dollar bills to enjoy a show. Queens don’t take their clothes off, but they interact with audience members and may choose songs with vulgarity if the shows are intended for viewers who are 21 and older. Establishments clearly label their events as general audience or adults-only, so be sure to check ahead of time if needed.
Charleston’s drag entertainment scene is bursting at the seams today. There are at least a dozen local establishments hosting shows, brunches and bingo, including Deco Nightclub and The Lucky Luchador downtown, Tin Roof in West Ashley and North Charleston’s Madra Rua Irish Pub and Holy City Brewing, to name a few.
“Now you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a drag show in Charleston,” said iconic drag queen of the Carolinas Patti O’Furniture. “There’s a lot of drag in Charleston. That wasn’t the case in the early 2010s.”
While drag performance has become a national powerhouse these days, Collins said, it’s also a subject under media scrutiny.
“[There are] a lot of misconceptions out there about drag, and usually it’s coming from people who have never in their life witnessed a drag show,” she said. “Just educate yourself before you start talking about something you don’t know.”
Charleston’s drag history
Charleston, though small and Southern, has always had an LGBTQ+ presence and drag has consistently been a part of that community, said historian Harlan Greene, who published a book last November on Charleston’s LGBTQ+ history titled The Real Rainbow Row.
“Charleston drag queens in the 1950s and after were doing exactly what their peers were doing elsewhere in this country,” Greene told the City Paper. “In the eyes of some, it was transgressing, but in others, it was trans, period — either a manifestation of identity or invoking a transcendent experience through art.”
Greene said he’s seen news reports of men cross-dressing in Charleston in the 1850s, as well as an account of a local Revolutionary War soldier who was found in women’s clothes.
“[Historians] also know of Charleston city police in the 1970s giving drag queens rides in their cruisers, making sure they arrived in bars safely,” he said. “It’s part of the human story.”
Drag performance catapulted as a social response in support of LGBTQ+ individuals who did not have access to professional entertainment, Collins said.
“Drag came to be at a point in time when no one of any stature — celebrities, vocalists whatever — would come and entertain in a gay bar,” she said. “Drag came about as a way to bring entertainment in the gay bars. We created our own entertainment and in doing so, we created stars and people in our community that people can look up to.”
The art and heart of drag
Diamond Giovanni, Charleston’s only bearded drag queen, said people may not recognize what drag entertainers mean to those in the LGBTQ+ community who grew up unable to fully express themselves.
“When I was growing up, it was absolutely a no-no,” Giovanni told the City Paper. “When I tried to show my femininity, I would often get chastised or even beat up because of the way I walked — I never really had a chance to be my authentic self.”
Giovanni started performing drag in 2016 at the former North Market Street restaurant Tabbuli after frequenting its Tuesday night drag shows. She said her drag persona gives her a voice.
“It’s important to have that voice, to be able to show people who may be dealing with the same things that they will be okay one day, and they will be able to express themselves in the way they want,” she said. “We live in America, and it’s supposed to be the home of the free.”
Greene said he sees “a lot of yearning” in the art of drag.
“The yearning for a voice, the yearning to entertain — sometimes to imitate and flatter entertainers who served as inspiration and role models and maybe sometimes just to have fun,” he said.
To Giovanni, love is at the heart of drag entertainment.
“Love is what the world needs the most right now,” she said. “Being surrounded by like-minded individuals who just want to love each other is a feeling that’s unmatched. We have a chosen family.”
For local queen Medusa Chaos, who hosts drag on Mondays at Dudley’s, the essence of drag is to tell the human story, to represent a shared experience.
“Drag entertainment is so important to me because it highlights a whole different perspective of queer life, and it explores gender in different ways,” Chaos said. “It’s an amazing way to create art whether it be campy or serious — there’s just so many different avenues. Drag is so different for each performer; it’s a view into someone’s brain, in my opinion.”
Chaos, a cosplay enthusiast, started performing drag regularly downtown in 2019 at El Jefe Texican Cantina on King Street and the former Tabbuli location. She said it was a natural evolution that came from her love of the elaborate dress-up that cosplay requires.
“It’s space to get away,” she said.
Drag queen philanthropy
Many who do drag espouse and advocate for social justice issues important to them and their community, Greene said.
“Like any role one assumes or mask one puts on, it gives you a different way to be in the world,” he said.
One such queen is O’Furniture, a lauded drag entertainer who got her start in the industry 24 years ago in Columbia and became involved in Charleston’s scene circa 2006. She calls herself a “community queen” who has centered her career on lifting up LGBTQ+ organizations.
“Every dollar I’ve ever taken in on stage has turned right around and gone back out — almost $1.6 million,” O’Furniture said. “That’s why I do what I do. It makes me feel good to know that in some small way, that has been my impact on the Charleston drag community.”
Today, O’Furniture remains a fixture in South Carolina drag, living between Charleston and Columbia, and she continues her work with community organizations such as Charleston Blockade Rugby Football Club, Charleston Pride, Alliance for Full Acceptance and We Are Family.
One of the most powerful nights in O’Furniture’s 24-year career was a Dudley’s show she did just 24 hours after the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in 2015 as helicopters still circled in the air and residents were in a collective shock.
One of the bar’s regulars asked her to say a little something about the tragedy.
“I spoke from the heart, and I talked about how resilient the Charleston community is and how when anything threatens us, we come together. … To know that my community needed me and I was able to be there for them — that is why I do what I do.”
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