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How Do I Get to Provincetown?

September 20, 2017 5:00 am0 commentsViews: 292
RuPaul and 10 year old drag star Desmond Is Amazing cut the ribbon opening DragCon.

RuPaul and 10 year old drag star Desmond Is Amazing cut the ribbon opening DragCon.

A Trip Up and Down the Pink Carpet at RuPaul’s DragCon

by Steve Desroches

It’s hard to think of anyone who has changed the face of drag more than RuPaul.  While there may be a tendency to take drag queens for granted here in Provincetown, as they’ve been a part of the town’s performance scene for almost 100 years, with the popularity of the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race drag is increasingly receiving long overdue credit as a specific art form. Here in Provincetown drag is quickly shifting from a peripheral entertainment offering to a main attraction in its own right with visitors coming to town specifically to see a drag show or a certain performer, many of them former cast members of the show. The world is changing fast, especially when it comes to sexuality and gender identity, and a whole new perspective is coming from those 40 and under. Nowhere was that more evident than at RuPaul’s DragCon in New York City where over 35,000 people gathered over two days for all things drag. What was also obvious is that Provincetown is in many ways the drag capital of America.

Provincetown Magazine associate editor Steve Desroches and RuPaul

Provincetown Magazine associate editor Steve Desroches and RuPaul

RuPaul’s DragCon began in Los Angeles in 2015 where it has become an annual spring event. On September 9 and 10 World of Wonder Productions created the first New York incarnation at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, the massive glass building in Hell’s Kitchen right on the Hudson River. Attendees gathered to visit the booths of almost 200 vendors selling everything from $350 tiaras to makeup to breastplates and wigs. In addition, there were almost as many drag queens that set up shop to sell merchandise, sign autographs, and take photos with fans willing to pay between $10 and $60, and wait several hours, to meet their favorite queen. The diversity of the crowd was remarkable in every aspect, with at least two-thirds of the crowd assembled being under 30 and having traveled from all over the United States and Canada, with at least one bus load from Japan.

What became abundantly clear was this was not an LGBT event, but a decidedly queer occasion. Many may not feel comfortable with that term with its longstanding connotation as a slur, but the younger generation has grabbed a hold of the word and redefined it. In short, it represents the outsider now, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. The heterosexual people at RuPaul’s DragCon were every bit as queer as those that identified as LGBT. In many ways the pink carpet that ran down the main thoroughfare looked like Commercial Street, it just had many more young people, there was no “stroller panic” when a family passed by, and it was way more economically diverse, a feat worth noting in these increasingly stratified times. Perhaps the most striking feature of the crowd was the number of children – ages 7, 8, and 9 – in drag. RuPaul opened the whole affair by cutting a ribbon with the help of Desmond Is Amazing, a popular 10-year-old drag queen, in fact.

Fans waiting for RuPaul’s DragCon to begin. Photo courtesy of World of Wonder Productions. 

Fans waiting for RuPaul’s DragCon to begin. Photo courtesy of World of Wonder Productions.

“My queens: we are all ambassadors to these young, gorgeous kids who are going to walk through this building today and tomorrow,” said RuPaul at the opening of the first day. “With what’s happening politically and socially, they are the promise of America’s future. And that’s why DragCon is so important.”

A 23-year-old man from Maine in black shorts, a full face of makeup, and silver glitter in his hair, wearing a t-shirt with his favorite drag queen Detox on it, begins to jump up and down as he sees Raja, his other favorite. A 32-year-old women from New Jersey waited four hours to meet Milk, a fashion queen whose booth is sponsored by Marc Jacobs, and she is shaking and a bit star struck. And there is a man and woman, both 25, best friends from Toronto, crying because they just met Bob the Drag Queen. All of those drag queens have been to Provincetown and performed on the town’s fabled stages. But none of these young drag fans had ever heard of Provincetown—not an uncommon reaction with most having only a vague awareness.

Acid Betty and a fan 

Acid Betty and a fan

Throughout the crowd you saw the occasional t-shirt from Hook or Tim-Scapes, and there was a healthy percentage of older attendees who frequently visited Provincetown. But when it came to those 40 and under, the town suffers from a lack of name recognition to a striking degree. It just isn’t on their radar. Once the town was explained to them—that on any given night in the summer they can choose from about a dozen drag shows or that on any given day of the year they can parade down Commercial Street dressed however they like—their faces lit up. This crowd was not only interested in drag, but art, theater, Broadway, anything that encourages imagination. And truth be told, the prices of Provincetown didn’t scare them away considering what they’d paid for a weekend in New York City. Once they heard about Provincetown their immediate question was “How do I get there?” That was true whether they were LGBT or any other letter in the modern day alphabet soup of identity. Again, all of these people were on the outside, even the gay men and lesbians in attendance were on the outside of mainstream gay life.

Cast of Lips, a nationwide chain of drag queen cabarets

Cast of Lips, a nationwide chain of drag queen cabarets

“You know Provincetown,” says Tommy, a 27-year-old gay man from Atlanta to his friend Clark who claims he’s not familiar. “It’s where Robbie goes each summer. Remember, he said how fabulous it was and how much better than Fire Island it was and we all need to go?”

Clark finally remembered and said, “Oh, yeah. That’s in Rhode Island, right?” Everyone laughed as he shrugged off the geographical error that’s typical of Miss Richfield 1981, who he absolutely knew. And when he was told that it was the summer home of Varla Jean Merman he simply replied, “I’m going.” The fame of drag superstars is not at all limited to those cast on RuPaul’s Drag Race. In fact, Miss Richfield, Varla, and Dina Martina might as well be the holy trinity of drag, as when their names came up during a panel titled “Camp Counselors: Comedy Queens’ Idols,” the room of 800 burst into applause.

There was a demographic who knew exactly where Provincetown is and what it’s all about: the drag queens themselves. Time and time again if Provincetown was mentioned within ear shot of a drag queen they’d hunt the voice down and ask, “How do I get there?” but in an entirely different context than the young adults from Toronto, Maine, or New Jersey. While it is true that many drag performers want to get cast on RuPaul’s Drag Race, just as many, if not more, want to land a summertime gig in Provincetown. Many told stories of how hard they’d been trying to find a venue to book them. Jaymes Mansfield, a delightfully quirky, campy queen with a penchant for puppetry from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, says she been trying for years. Ginger Minj, a hilarious performer from Orlando, Florida, with the ability to belt like a Broadway diva, who made the top three of season seven of RuPaul’s Drag Race, also says she’s been trying for years, and it hasn’t gotten any easier even after she appeared on the show.

“Totally,” says Trixie Mattel, when asked if it’s easier to get cast on RuPaul’s Drag Race than to land a gig in Provincetown. “I think it is. How many have been on the show? About 120? How many slots are available in Provincetown? Ten? Maybe twelve? Everyone wants to get a show in that town.”

Jeffree Star

Jeffree Star

Trixie, otherwise known as Brian Firkus, just finished his second summer at the Post Office Cabaret. He was lugging giant trunks and suitcases on to the Bay State Cruise Company’s ferry to Boston as he left Provincetown the day before DragCon. And upon arrival Trixie was met with lines of excited fans. Firkus echoes every drag queen who has performed in Provincetown—there is no place like it in the United States. Not even close. When it comes to supporting drag performance Provincetown elevates it to a fine art and allows the queens to take risks, he says. It also puts big demands on them to create a completely new show each summer, asking more for a theatrical experience than what most across America expect from a drag show. Firkus says he gets asked all the time how to land a job in Provincetown and to let them know if he decides not to return, which he says he’d never do as he is completely in love with the town that he says, hands-down, has the best of the best of drag each season. Provincetown is the Ivy League of drag, with the Crown and Anchor, the Art House and the Post Office Cabaret as the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

What of RuPaul? Without question he’s the most famous drag queen of all time. What are his views on Provincetown and is he aware of the effect he’s had on the town? It is no exaggeration to say trying to get an audience with RuPaul was a bit like trying to meet the Wizard of Oz. After waiting in line on the pink carpet and then approaching a display of RuPaul’s gowns and colorful suits, as well as the Emmy Award he won in 2016, which now has a twin as he won another the Saturday night of DragCon, there is a multi-walled enclosure where he sits in a room lit to look like heaven, with big pink letters behind him that read “RUPAUL.” As soon as the word Provincetown is spoken he drops his shoulders and in an incredulous tone says, “I’ve never been there!” Work and shooting schedules ever since he had a hit with “Supermodel (You Better Work)” in 1992 have prevented him from ever appearing in Provincetown, and he has been asked many times. His smile grows wider and wider as he hears about all that the show has done for both the town and one of its major artistic expressions, noting that that’s been the goal all along. That he wants to leave the door he opened as wide as possible for everyone who loves drag. And he’s tickled as pink as the carpet that leads to him that Provincetown is continuing its century-long legacy of being home to the best of drag, with a wink and a hope that someday soon he, too, will join the long list of queens who’ve graced our sequined shores.