Denver's history with drag is as long and wavy as a new lace front wig. After the Stonewall riots of 1969, a national wave of gay bars became safe zones for the LGBTQ community, places where its members could commiserate and enjoy performances by poets and musicians. And drag performers, of course, who paid tribute to the female music idols of the time by donning make-up, dresses and heels, then lip-synching the hell out of a Top 40 hit — all because it was their God-given right to do so. Denver bars like the Door, with its side-entrance space the Back Door at Broadway and Colfax, began to feature entire drag revues and even pageants to show off the newest beauties. Drag soon became a way for many to express themselves: Some men wanted to explore their desire to transition between genders, while others simply were ready to sing out as gay men.
In 1973 the Imperial Court of the Rocky Mountain Empire was founded as a nonprofit that could hold functions celebrating drag and also raise funds to strengthen the LGBTQ community; the Court began electing an Emperor and Empress every year to lead those efforts. A few stores, including the now-38-year-old Studio Lites on Broadway, opened as an alternative to the women's section of department stores for performers who needed just the right wig or large-size heel; at these shops they met a staff of encouraging friends skilled with a brush, a shoehorn and an eye for how to shape a sequined gown on a male form. Through the '80s and '90s, performers with now almost-household names — Montaldo, Sommers, Peters, Edwards, Sexton — kept the stage lights burning. And then RuPaul turned up the spotlight across the country.
Where there were once only a few places to catch a drag show in the area, the local scene has come to resemble the Vegas strip today, with a performance almost every night of the week. Charlie's hosts Denver Divas every Sunday and Felony's Cellblock every second Saturday of the month; Hamburger Mary's hosts Dreamgirls, the longest-running revue in the city, every Friday, along with scores of other drag shows. There are also performances Wednesday nights at El Potrero and Thursdays at Broadways. And the Drag Race-centric revolution has truly exploded at Tracks, with its Drag Nation (formerly Drama Drag) — an extravaganza held the last Friday of every month that pulls out all the stops, with guest drag artists, massive stage theatrics and a troupe of backup dancers — now one of the most talked-about shows in the country. The variety of performers at those venues runs the gamut, covering every man (and woman) you see every day: waiters, makeup artists, retail clerks, social workers and actors, all with varying levels of experience. Some have been in the game for a decade or more, some are still wiping the green makeup from behind their ears — but they all do it for the love of the scene. Says Victoria Sexton, "I want to see where my drag can take me that can bridge the gap of the gay and straight worlds." Janessa Befierce recalls a gig late last year that perfectly represented a world where gender can be looked at as a talent to play like a song: "I was booked to work the holiday party for the wives of the Denver Broncos with some of my best friends. That was an unforgettable moment."
My personal interest in drag was reawakened one snowy night in 2008 while watching the fabled Vivid show at Charlie's, the first Denver drag performance I'd seen in many years; I fell in love with the electricity. Those talented performers inspired me to create a documentary this year, and to tell their stories and share a lesson or two I've learned from their gumption. The drag community is huge and growing all the time, and it was tough to narrow my favorite performers down to the following dozen divas (presented alphabetically, because "no T, no shade, mama"). These top twelve movers and shakers of the past year blend a variety of styles and attitudes to reflect both the history of Colorado's drag community and the promise of its ever-evolving future. As Nina Flowers exclaims at the finale of every Drag Nation show, "This is the top of the nation!" Keep reading for Denver's top twelve drag performers.Bootzy Edwards Collins A prince in the relatively small world of drag kings, where women don't let men have all the fun of swapping genders and pay tribute to the male form by strapping down their feminine assets and injecting their personalities with a healthy dose of machismo, Bootzy Edwards Collins (aka Bo Richardson) is ready to snatch the crown as a true master of his domain. Doing much more than just adding some swagger to his steps, Bootzy embodies the charm, wit and style of a true fella; you'd be hard-pressed to find a woman or gay man who doesn't get a little overheated by his illusions of Usher, Bruno Mars, Andre 3000, Lil Wayne or, in one fevered performance last year, Ruby Rhod from The Fifth Element. "My biggest influence has been my friends," says Collins. "They have encouraged me to step out my box for several different events. They kick my butt, cuss me out when needed, and pick me up to keep on keeping on."
Catch Bootzy at Drag Nation at Tracks every month, and on any other stage fit for a king.Daniella DeCoteau Like a bolder, bewigged version of Shelley Long's Phyllis Nefler in the film Troop Beverly Hills, Daniella DeCoteau (aka Todd Peckham) teaches the drag children of the world that all you need to get by is focus, fashion, fun and a few thousand rhinestones. Whether she's hoofing in her own independent show, Drag-Stravaganza at Club M (attached to Hamburger Mary's), with her drag daughter Daphne and sister Zoe O, or hosting an event for charity, DeCoteau has all of the drag merit badges at her disposal for an awesome new year. "I plan on continuing to grow my show and hopefully find other groups or venues that would take this crazy girl on," says Daniella. "Helping other queens get started in drag or giving friend queens a show to perform in is my main goal. It's been a fight to claw my way up the hierarchy of queendom in Denver and to get people to understand the value of being a queen. I just hope I'm leaving a trail of cotton candy-smelling glitter wherever I go."
Catch Daniella hosting Drag-Stravaganza at Club M.Felony Misdemeanor With a heart and spirit as big as her Texas roots, Felony Misdemeanor (aka Theariale St. Cyr) has spent eleven years in Denver building a reputation for sweetness, tenacity, beauty and sex appeal — all with a hearty wink. Embodying the likes of Aaliyah, Janet Jackson, Missy Elliott and really, anyone she wants to, Felony features moves and makeup that are almost effortlessly on point. She also has an eye for new talent that led her to develop her own show, Felony's Cellblock, in which some inspired up-and-comers get a chance to take the stage where her talents have paved the way. Says Felony, "What has inspired me the most this year would be the audience. I can always tell when they are really feeling me or just there for the ride. When I try something and it doesn't work, I learn how to adjust and deliver what I think is needed to get those smiles...and dollars! Sometimes you have to fail in order to succeed." One recent success came when Felony finally performed for her mother, who had never seen her on stage during her fourteen years in drag, and the support and love that filled the room was a testament to how far drag has come as a form of self-expression and art. Says Misdemeanor, "To have her see me perform for the first time ever is a moment that I won't soon forget."
Catch Felony in Dreamgirls at Hamburger Mary's, Denver Divas and her own Felony's Cellblock at Charlie's.Ginger Douglas (aka Briceson Buck-Ducharme) has spent nearly half her life performing; over the past fourteen years she’s won crowns, conquered stages, mentored young queens and raised over $100K for the Colorado Aids Project and the community with her yearly fundraiser, the Apocalyptic Ball. That hard work garnered Ginger an Out Front Power Award in 2014 alongside Colorado's biggest legislative honorees and history makers. But 2015 should prove her biggest year yet, as she flies from our nest to sunny San Diego, where she’ll offer that city a taste of Colorado spice. "I can finally say that I'm secure in my performance as an artist and what I have done, and can continue to do in the years to come and anywhere I may go," says Ginger. "You can be a part of every show and know every performer and you can still stay yourself. I've proven that by building my name without having to be part of a certain clique. Drag evolves and people evolve. Seeing the things that the new and upcoming girls have to offer is so exciting. These last few years in Colorado have proven that there isn't just one cookie-cutter style of drag. There's never going to be a right way or wrong way to express your art in drag, and there's nowhere to go but up."
Catch Ginger this summer when she returns to host the sixth installment of her Apocalyptic Ball; she’ll also be a special visiting guest at a Drag Nation show sometime in 2015.
Janessa Befierce When your name is Janessa Befierce (aka Josh Lucero), you can't help but live your life, well, fiercely. In just a few short years, Janessa has dug her nails into a comet and ridden that sucker right to the top. This confidence may have startled some folks, who at first balked at such a new talent moving at such a clip, but the young performer has put in the time and, more important, allowed for change and reflection. In 2014 she created a face and style that was all her own, and became the new director for Dreamgirls, the longest-running show in Denver, while maintaining a polished and professional persona at just about every other stage in town. "Life has been my biggest influence," says Befierce. "Things always change, and I embodied that concept and put it into my drag. I stopped putting a box around my ideas and creativity and strived for the best! People notice the small details, and in good time it will always pay off!"
Catch Janessa just about everywhere in 2015, including Dreamgirls, Denver Divas, Drag Nation and as a mentor at Tracks' Ultimate Queen Competition in February.Khrys'taaal Most Denver performers work their way up to the massive stage at Drag Nation — but some seem to pop out of thin air and land there, feet first, ready to rock and roll. Khrys'taaal is one of those wunderkinds who emerged like a goddess in 2014, painted up and prepared to rule the world. Her monthly Drag Nation gig never disappoints, as she infuses every number with a meticulous set of moves that keeps the members of the Denver Dance troupe behind her thoroughly on their toes. "Most folks pay homage to the legends — Fred Astaire, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis Jr. — as do I," says Khrys'taaal, "but my grandmother is and continues to be my number-one blueprint in the way that I perform. From a very young age she has and continues to instill in me the foundation of what real dance art is. For me, it's not just about the moves, but more the feeling of becoming the music. The feeling of the bass, the strings, the horns, the 808s and so forth. More than anything, she has taught me that if I cannot meet the same standards of those pioneers who have come before to the next level, I have no business performing."
Catch Khrys'taaal every month at Drag Nation and at the Whiskey and Astoria bars in Fort Collins and El Patron in Greeley.Mariah Spanic Celebrating a strong Latin heritage is one of the many angles that Denver drag has on lockdown, and no one has a firmer grasp on it than Mariah Spanic. Tearing up performances like a phoenix, she commands the stage with a fierce look, a stunning outfit and some massive choreography. Her talents are international; in 2013, she shared her now world-famous Jenni Rivera impersonation on Sabado Gigante. Setting herself apart as an out-and-proud transwoman, Spanic elevates the art of drag by using all of the tools in her belt. Does being a true queen put Mariah two steps ahead? Regardless, she doesn't rest on her laurels, and she continues to experiment with her craft and surprise us every time she sets a steady foot in a comfortably worn high heel on stage.
Catch Mariah every month at Drag Nation and weekly at El Potrero.Nina Flowers And then there is Nina. The first seismic shift in Denver's drag evolution came when Nina Flowers (aka Jorge Flores) stomped her stilettos onto our landscape in 2008 — and we've been experiencing aftershocks ever since. Her punk rock take on drag: unique wigs that highlight a bald head beneath gender-bending costumes that don't fence her in, and that legendary face that has yet to be duplicated. "My take is, wow, we have come such a long way," she says. "So many fantastic entertainers have emerged in just 2014 alone." Last year was a banner year for her, too; Flowers celebrated the fifth anniversary of the historic premiere of Drag Race, with her season-one castmates flying in to toast her on the Drag Nation stage. Flowers's intercontinental career has exploded as well; she now flies around the globe to perform on a drag stage or get people moving as world-class song spinner DJ Flowers. "Music by Florence and the Machine, Lenny Kravitz, Kiesza, Tove Lo and many more," says Nina. "Music is always the highest source of inspiration." And Nina herself continues to inspire us.
Catch Nina at performances around the world in 2015, including gigs in Australia and Mexico City; check her schedule at ninaflowers.com and watch for her monthly appearance at Drag Nation.Keep reading for four more Denver divas. Nina Montaldo The grand dame of Colorado drag, the legendary Nina Montaldo (aka James Martinez) hit a massive milestone in 2014, when she turned 65 years young. Ever since she started putting on a face in the late '60s, her performances have been known for their class, elegance and glamour. The children of today may not know what it was like to risk arrest for your craft, but they definitely acknowledge the power that Montaldo brings to every heel stomp, sashay and rhinestone: She's fought hard for everyone on this list to be exactly who they want to be, whether it's in a gown or not. "I do wish the girls today would put more into their outfits. I want to see costumes: sequins, feathers, capes, not just something they got off the rack at the mall. That's what drag is to me," says Nina. "The queens today call me Grandma, and that's okay. I just want them to know their history and appreciate that they don't live in a time where they had to wear men's clothing under their outfits or risk being arrested." Time has given Nina a regal air that complements her already overflowing heart. "I've looked up to Nina my entire career," says Ginger Douglas of her mentor. "She's got a razor-sharp wit, but if you need her she'll be there in a second. She's one of the most caring and genuine personalities in this community."
Catch Nina Montaldo, well, anywhere she wants to be. She can walk onto just about every drag stage in town, and you can often see her at Denver Divas and Dreamgirls.?Scarlett Red For the last few years Tracks has held a competition of its own to find the best new (and often very young) talent in Denver, eliminating one challenger per week until one performer emerges as the Ultimate Queen. The contest puts the girls through a drag boot camp of sorts, testing them on their newfound skills and helping them develop to be all that they can be in the world of drag. One challenger who rose to the top was Scarlett Red (aka Sebastian Cabral), whose diminutive stature looks like it could barely contain the fiery queen within. Scarlett paints, hoofs and works a Louboutin like a pro, though, and that's because she is one. After taking some time off in 2014, she returned to the Denver stage ready to take it by storm, delighting audiences with her brash signature color and taking on personas as wild as Shakira or as gentle as Marilyn Monroe.
Catch Scarlett every month at Drag Nation and El Potrero.Victoria Sexton Another former Ultimate Queen killing the stage is the fierce Victoria Sexton (aka Anders Sedersten). A natural beauty, Sexton keeps it real by breaking a drag taboo: She doesn't need padded hips to deliver the illusion of a real woman. But maybe there's no illusion implied: She spends her time working her face into the real art and letting the bodyodyody, with silhouettes both female and glam David Bowie male, take you to the next gender-bending level. No one wears heels, skirts or eyelashes higher than Victoria. As she says, "I always have to push myself to do something new and noteworthy, because I hate doing the same thing twice. I hate being put into a box and having people know what they're going to get from me. I don't even like knowing what I [will] do next."
Catch Victoria at El Potrero, Drag Nation and Felony's Cellblock.Yazmeen Staxxx Last but certainly not least is the newest belle to the ball and the newest Ultimate Queen, Yazmeen Staxxx. She first competed in 2013, and she took the notes her mentors gave her to heart. When Staxxx returned to the competition in 2014, she turned up the heat, making every other contestant up her game and turning every challenge into a one-night-only extravaganza of youth in revolt. Her take-no-prisoners attitude is shared by her fellow Staxxx sisters, Mia, Gia and Andrea; together they form a Voltron-like team of fabulous ferocity that embodies the future of drag, with a passion and style that won't be held back. Says Yazmeen, "I feel like the drag world in 2014 exploded. So many young queens have blossomed and have become great entertainers." There's no turning back now.
Catch Yazmeen at Drag Nation, Broadways and El Potrero.