LGBTQ

The Diva Dozen: Denver's Top Twelve Drag Performers

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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.

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Keith Garcia is a filmmaker, writer and secret agent looking for love and the perfect slice of pizza. If he looks familiar, it's probably because he introduced a film you watched in Denver sometime between 1996 and 2014.
Contact: Keith Garcia