Charles/Ava • Drag Entertainer • Age: 24 • Charleston

It’s Friday night at Pantheon, the central hub of gay nightlife on Ann Street. Come midnight, the lights dim, the techno music stops thumping, and the audience cheers as Ava Clear appears, resplendent in a bright, feathered headdress, and revealing gown. Ava has been one of Pantheon’s regular drag performers for just over a year, and she loves what she does.

Ava’s all about the outfits. By day she’s Charles, a mild-mannered student at a major metropolitan college. By night she transforms into a super queen, gracing Pantheon or Patrick’s Pub with her presence.

It wasn’t always thus. “I was not a public speaker,” she says. “I was a shy person. When I look at pictures of myself from a year and a half ago, I can see how much I’ve improved.” Charles’ straight colleagues would tease him, joking that all gays were drag queens. He vowed never to do drag or dress up — until a friend convinced him to try it.

“He kept wanting to put me in an outfit,” Ava recalls. “So one night he spent three hours putting makeup on me, doing my hair, an outfit. In all that time I did not get to look in a mirror at all.” Once his friend was done, Charles looked in a mirror and thought, “Damn I look good.” Ava Clear was born. The friend present at the birth — veteran performer Crystal Clear — is now affectionately referred to as Ava’s drag mama.

Right after that, Ava performed at a Patrick’s Pub benefit show, the perfect place for a first-timer to try out an act. That led to talent competitions and a spot as one of Patrick’s drag entertainers. After a couple of months there, Ava became a Rising Star at Pantheon. The Rising Stars are a second string squad of performers who back up the main cast, learning the ropes as they go.

“The first couple of nights I was shaking backstage,” says Ava. She had every right to be nervous — Pantheon’s a big place, with a 5,000-square-foot dance floor, cabarets, and smaller dance floors. But now she looks forward to each show as a full cast member. “I throw on makeup, run out onstage. My confidence level has gone up so much,” she adds. “That spills over into everyday life.”

Ava suggests that would-be drag entertainers try Patrick’s on a Friday night. Once a month, newbies can test their skills in a kind of open mic for lip-synching divas. “That’s great for locals who want to get involved,” she says. “They might get paid a little bit. They might just get a tip.”

Ava plans to take her stunning outfits to more cities around the Southeast. “I’d like to start getting year-round, full-time work in North Carolina, Atlanta, Savannah, Columbia,” she says. There are plenty of opportunities, it seems, for Charles to unleash his alter ego. “Some people don’t recognize me at all when I change,” Ava says. “It’s fun to make that complete transformation.” ­— Nick Smith