New Jersey helps fledgling drag performers be who they are

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Drag performers at Montclair University event
Drag performers at Montclair University event

Montclair venue provides an accepting environment whether on stage or off

The lounge where a pizza place once stood is not where you’d expect a full on drag performance to take place. There’s no bar, no booming speakers, and no mood lighting. It’s all tables and tiles, with a worn-out piano in the corner by the snack table. And the crowd is small, mostly friends and roommates, but they’re excited for what’s to come. After all, this is a performance.

Drag performers at Montclair University event
Drag performers at Montclair University event

But for first time drag performers, this is an exciting venue to mark new beginnings and to be who they are both on and off stage. Surrounded by friends, in an accepting environment, and a small crowd to workshop ideas and routines to…and of course no real pressure.

Drag as an artform is older than one would expect. From the plays of Shakespeare, to opera, to the ballroom culture of the 1920s and its major exposure in the 90s, it’s something that has been part of culture ever since culture existed. And yet, it’s gained mainstream popularity only recently from shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, and drag performers like Trixie Mattel. Typically, when one wants to go to drag brunch or see a show, they think of New York City.

And New Jersey is as welcoming a place for drag performers as New York City. In fact, the performance venue of Montclair State University is the alma mater of drag queen, Olivia Lux, who was part of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13. It should be noted, that in a survey by College Consensus the school was in the top 25 for most LGBTQ accepting campuses.

It was in this lounge where Eartha Klitt first performed. Eartha Klitt’s the drag name of Jade Denton, a student at Montclair State University who had her first performance.

“Obviously she’s derived from [actress and singer] Eartha Kitt. I was obsessed with her as a child, I’d roll my r’s and found comfort in the fact that as a woman she has a deeper voice just like me. She was delicate and cat-like, but also had this darkness about her. All things I see in myself, and I wanted to exaggerate that through my drag. I love a good reference and find myself often dressing the character in something to do with cats, whether it’s my signature cat claw gloves or full cheetah print — there is always some reference no matter how small or big,” said Denton.

It should be noted Eartha Kitt was one of the original actresses for Catwoman in the 1960s Batman television show. Denton’s first outfit featured the cat claws, tipped in gold and razor sharp.

“What stood out most to me was the freedom in performance and creating art through clothes. I grew up in a strict Caribbean household which meant go to church on Sunday, respect your elders, and don’t you dare be queer. However, obviously having disobeyed that, I have never felt more free. Drag isn’t only done one way; you don’t have to be a pageant girl to be loved,” added Denton.

Denton was one of a handful of performers that night, where she took the crown and title of Montclair State’s best drag performer. Full disclosure, I was one of the contestants as well. Even if it’s been months since the performance, there still is a community being built.

Joe Allen, a performer who at the time of the performance used the name Crowley Häagen took the time to workshop and use the experience to adopt a new persona and to learn a bit more about themself.

“I am reworking on my drag persona from when I did drag for the first time. I did more fem drag, and that gave me some dysphoria. So, I am switching to a more drag king role. But my new drag persona is a realtor named Mr. Penn Tucky, which is a play on the slang word of Pennsyltucky. He is a demon who lands on Earth in the 70s (more specifically Pennsylvania) and he is trying to take over by being a realtor,” said Allen.

Allen, who uses he/they pronouns, recognized the power of drag as it helps to shape one’s identity.

Drag performer
Drag performer at Montclair University event

“What inspired me to do drag was the need to be more extreme with my gender expression, because by day I am trying to blend in with the society at large as a trans person myself. My style out of drag is like a punk version of Adam Sandler; baggy but punk,” added Allen.

But there was one thing you noticed on each performer that night. A red felt heart, the kind where you peel the back of it off and it sticks to things. They came in red and pink, colors like a Valentine’s Day card. Each performer had it on that night. It was a tradition that Prima Love, last year’s winner, and that night’s hostess, brought with her based on an exchange she had at a pride event.

At the time of this writing, I reached out for comment from Prima, but was unable to reach her. She also was repping The Stonewall Inn in NYC, on the weekend of June 24th. Yes, the Stonewall Inn where drag performers Stormé DeLarverie and Marsha P. Johnson made their mark on history 53 years ago on June 28th, 1969. Prima graduated college in June.

The red felt heart was a small gesture that meant more than words could describe. After all, when you’re on stage alone, it’s natural to be scared even amidst a sea of friends and found family. But the heart helps remind one they’re not alone, no matter what happens.

New Jersey’s one of the most accepting places to live in, even as the rest of the United States seems to push more towards homophobia and transphobia. But sometimes it can be hard to find a venue to perform, especially one that doesn’t involve a bar or a club.

Allen, who was a New Jersey resident during their time in college, is from Pennsylvania. “I would say New Jersey does not have a lot of venues to do drag due to being close to the hub that is NYC. Plus, the only venue I know in North Jersey is in Stanhope. There are some tri-state queens I know that bounce around,” said Allen.

Even if New Jersey isn’t quite the bustling hub for drag performers like New York City, it’s still a place to start and to take wing. It’s a place to find a house, a found family for drag performers. It’s where great things can take root, no matter what corner of the state you’re from. Even in a small little meeting room in Montclair State, where students once ate pizza can turn into a place where someone can be who they truly are.

“I feel as though New Jersey is more often than not supportive of the community. Of course there may still be areas or people who are still closed-minded. But I hope we can take a little at a time,” said Denton.