“Not so long ago, we were a red state,” she continues. “I think with people transplanting here, and the population growing, and the times changing, we’ve moved to a much more progressive state. Now we have the first gay governor in the country, the first person ever elected to state office that identifies as gay. That shows us that we’re a progressive state, so with all of that, drag has evolved more into becoming mainstream.”
Mainstream, but still diverse — as evidenced by the 72 very different drag performers from around the state who are featured in Colorado Drag Excellence, a lip sync performance video that will debut during Pride. Drag queen Jessica L’Whor produced the video — a lip sync performance of CeCe Peniston’s “Finally” — with a roster of entertainers that reflects the drag scene of today as well as through the decades.
Because drag performers were accustomed to being outcasts and fending for themselves, they also became the driving force behind many of Colorado’s queer outreach organizations. “Through drag, many things have happened,” explains James. “The Metropolitan Community Church of the Rockies, the building the MCC sits in — the seed money was raised by drag queens. The Matthew Shepard Foundation — that seed money was raised by drag queens. The Colorado AIDS Project was started by drag queens. Colorado Pride was started by drag queens. So we have a deep-rooted history in the advancement of the community.”
And the advancement of drag outside of that community, too. James, who used to perform exclusively in gay nightclubs because that was the only option, says that 90 percent of her bookings today are private events, such as bachelorette parties, or brunches at venues with a primarily straight customer base.
Ophelia Peaches, have a fresh perspective on what drag can be. “Drag is a wholesome thing,” says Peaches. “Drag isn’t really taboo. It’s not just in a bar or a basement, and it’s something that’s glamorous and beautiful and loved by all different races, genders and sexualities.”
Dante Virgil, a nineteen-year-old alternative drag king based in Denver, has also been pleasantly surprised by how welcoming the scene has been to all kinds of performers. “The community has been really accepting, and we have a great alternative community. People generally seem to like all different kinds of takes on drag,” he says. “We do have our problems, like any community does, but from my personal experiences, I’ve had people of all sorts reach out and want to collab with me on things. It’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t want to leave the state: The drag scene here is pretty great compared to what I’ve heard of a lot of other places.”
The evolution of modern Colorado drag was inspired in no small part by Drama Drag, a live drag show started by legendary Denver drag queen DJ, and RuPaul’s Drag Race season one alumni Nina Flowers over a decade ago. Drama Drag was later transformed into Drag Nation, a monthly show that gave performers of all styles and levels a platform from which they could perform publicly, alongside internationally famous guest entertainers.
While Flowers was not able to make the Colorado Drag Excellence shoot, she did record an introduction for the video, which was shot on the stage where Drama Drag and Drag Nation were born, at Tracks. At the time of the April filming, it was unclear if Drag Nation was going to make a comeback, so L’Whor and her crew found the original Drag Nation sign in Tracks’s prop house and included it in the video in order to pay homage to that vital part of Denver drag history.
But like that sign, Drag Nation has been resurrected. It’s returning to Tracks on June 25, and Colorado Drag Excellence will premiere during the show.
Bootzy Edwards Collynz, a drag king who has been performing in Denver since 2004, watched as Drama Drag and Drag Nation reshaped Colorado’s scene. “I would have to say the caliber of talent and performances has gone up, especially with Nina bringing Drama Drag to Tracks, and then Tracks taking it over as Drag Nation,” he recalls. “It’s been a good microscope to see how far you’re willing to have your imagination take you for a gig.”
The platform also gave drag kings unprecedented visibility in Denver, which pushed them to up their game. “There’s so many different varieties of drag kings out there. I think the kings are still kind of finding our own elevation in drag, because it’s still growing for us. Especially with our trans brothers coming out and performing, it’s changed the scene for the guys in that way,” Collynz says.
Another game-changer has been L’Whor, the makeup artist and educator who’s been doing drag for eight years — full-time for the past four and half — and been named Colorado’s Entertainer of the Year, Producer of the Year, Emcee of the Year and Lip Sync Assassin of the Year by the organization she founded to recognize outstanding performers, venues and shows annually: Colorado DIVAs (Drag, Initiatives and Variety Awards). She’s also produced countless shows and performances — most recently, Colorado Drag Excellence.
Chicago Drag Excellence, released by RuPaul’s Drag Race season thirteen star Denali Foxx in January, L’Whor set out to make a performance video highlighting as many Colorado drag performers as possible. “I feel like in the back of my head I’ve wanted to do a project like this, but I never took the initiative,” she says. “Denali kind of kick-started a whole trend when she did this wonderful Chicago Drag Excellence video, and it kind of broke the internet, and then she made a post that was like, ‘I want to see other cities do this.’” Drag communities in cities ranging from Houston to Copenhagen quickly followed with videos of their own.
L’Whor, who’d worked with Foxx, contacted her to inquire about the logistics of producing such a video, and determined that she could create a Colorado version in time to have it debut during Pride. With Foxx’s blessing, L’Whor began the daunting task of casting drag performers from across the state, keeping in mind that the goal was to incorporate as many of the different styles, gender identities, ages, races and sexualities as Colorado drag encompasses. “What I think makes Colorado drag unique, as much as people would disagree with me, is the acceptance of individuality,” L’Whor explains. “People want to stand up and support the drag that’s here, and I wish it was less divided, as it has been for many years, but ultimately what makes this scene unique is that you can see anything and everything.”
About 115 entertainers expressed interest in the Colorado Drag Excellence video; 95 were scheduled to film in small groups, and 72 (including L’Whor) turned in the required negative COVID-19 test in order to participate. L’Whor had originally planned to call the video A Taste of Colorado Drag, to recognize that the result shows only a sample of what the state has to offer, but ultimately changed the name because the project kept getting confused with the Taste of Colorado festival that takes place in Denver over Labor Day weekend.
L’Whor also wanted to be sure that the video paid tribute to those who set the stage. “This is bigger than highlighting who is currently active,” she explains. “This is like a time capsule of who has touched Colorado drag. So the first set of people I reached out to were out-of-state people who had retired, people who helped build our drag scene, and I offered to fly in as many people as I could afford to, because I wanted the history to be a part of it.”
As a veteran drag king, Collynz agrees that the progression and expansion of Colorado drag was important to document. “It’s cheesy — I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Troy, with Brad Pitt, but he says, ‘We are etching our names in time.’ And that’s something I thought about with this video,” he says.
Younger performers like Virgil and Peaches see Colorado Drag Excellence as an opportunity to expand public perceptions of drag, introducing people to variations they don’t often see in mainstream media. “As an alternative performer, I feel that a lot of us aren’t projected in the mainstream as much as we should be,” Virgil says. “When people think of drag performers, most of the time the general public thinks of drag queens, or Bingo drag, or they think of the pageantry. But they don’t get to see a lot of the alternative — the face paint, clown-based, more intriguing sides of things. So when I was given this opportunity, I was like, ‘Hey, why not put myself out there?’”
Virgil says that Colorado Drag Excellence video is proof that more can be accomplished collectively.
“Sometimes you have to kind of bring people together and remind them what this community is, and what we can all do together collaboratively,” he explains. “This video can display not only so many different types of drag all coming together to fit into one piece that works so well, but also that there may or may not be people you’re working with that you’re not fond of, but we can still make a great art piece together.”
James hopes that the video not only expands the vision of drag beyond RuPaul’s Drag Race, but convinces local producers that they don’t need to outsource talent when Colorado has so much to offer. “RuPaul is a double-edged sword,” she says. “What I mean by that is, RuPaul has platformed drag into mainstream media, and that’s great, because it is an avenue and a tool to help people understand alternative lifestyles. But these RuPaul girls, their booking fees are like $2,000, $3,000, and these bars, pre-COVID, were booking those girls like crazy and not booking local entertainment. Now the local entertainment is obviously much more cost-effective, so I’m just hoping that as we move out of COVID and as things go back to whatever the new normal is, the bars and clubs and restaurants that so many of us worked through the pandemic don’t forget that.”
Listen Colorado, as well as a photo taken by Brian Degenfelder. “It separates a melting pot of 72 people, where everyone gets just the smallest highlight in the video, and gives them five minutes of something just for them,” says L’Whor. “Everyone gets their own head shot as well, so it’s not only building people’s visibility with how they can allow the community to get to know them, but it’s helping them promote their own brands, styles and aesthetics.”
The point, after all, is “to be seen,” adds L’Whor. “When this comes out, I want people to be shocked by the faces they see, and intrigued to learn more about who is in the video, and maybe book them more.”
For those who are shocked by the faces they don’t see, L’Whor admits that her casting process was imperfect. “There were at least one group and two people that I really wished I would have reached out to: Scottie Carlyle, who is the second Empress of the Imperial Court, and the Denver Cycle Sluts, because they’re such a huge part of the fundraising and foundation of this community,” she notes. “And I wish that I had reached out to more entertainers in Grand Junction and Pueblo. Not seeing that representation in the video is disappointing, because when I say this is ‘Colorado drag excellence,’ it doesn’t feel as ‘Colorado drag excellence’ as much as I had planned it to be. I realized that the day of filming, and I need to own up to it in some sense.”
Colorado Drag Excellence premiered during the return of Drag Nation on June 25; the video will be available online. In the meantime, you can see the “Meet the Entertainers” video series on Jessica L’Whor’s YouTube channel.