Clique and Drag
Mr. And Miss Gay Maryland Discuss The Local Drag Scene
“[People] might think that it’s strange, but it’s not strange at all.” Michael Collins is talking about his chosen vocation: dressing up as a lady. It’s early one Friday evening a few weeks before he’ll take the stage at Baltimore Pride’s Block Party, and he’s struggling a bit to be heard over the steady stream of prostate-thumping beats pumping from the bar at Mount Vernon’s Dizzy Issie’s. “It’s all about entertainment—it’s an art form. It requires a full range of abilities: art, costume making, makeup, musical theater, drama.”
“I still am [nervous], every single time.” Je’mia Thomas is talking about her chosen vocation: dressing up as a man. Friday club night has turned into sleepy early Saturday afternoon, and the numbing bump of house music has blessedly given way to soft jazz percolating in background of a neighboring coffee shop. “I’m nervous the entire time, getting to the stage. But as soon as I step on the stage it’s a whole other feeling. It’s an adrenaline rush. This is four or five minutes that are the best time in my life, every single time.”
Everyone’s got a stereotype about drag performers—unsurprisingly perhaps, considering the art is built on stereotypes, whether subverted or exaggerated. When most think of drag queens they think loud and brassy, an idealized vision of femininity that precludes the dowdy librarian. Hair becomes sculpture. Heels that would break the spirit, let alone the stride, of an actual woman are the standard. “The only thing I know for sure,” Thomas says of the difference between drag kings and queens, “is that it takes the queens a lot longer to get ready.”
Drag kings may be less in your face—often playing with the cliché of Marlboro Man-esque stone-faced masculinity—but they’ve still got to rip it up wildly enough onstage to win over a wary crowd. “Maybe they’re not quite as glamorous [as queens], but [kings] definitely have to be theatrical, they definitely have to get people involved,” Collins says. But whatever the accuracy of these stereotypes, the music, the lighting, the sequins, the rich history of camp, the hoots and hollers of the crowd—drag is not a haven for the shy and retiring.
Collins and Thomas are better known to drag fans and Baltimore’s queer community as Andora Te’tee and Romance. This year, the two whipped the competition at separate (and unaffiliated) competitions at the Hippo to become Miss and Mr. Gay Maryland. With the crowns comes the responsibility of being Maryland’s drag ambassadors; later in the year both will compete in (again, unrelated) national competitions.
But when the makeup is stripped off, the costumes are on their hangers, and the audience is gone neither would strike you as a male or female glamazon. Collins, 26, is a tall, lithe blond in a striped shirt whose somewhat shy demeanor seems at odds with being any sort of performer, let alone a man who strides onstage in full femme regalia. His responses are uniformly brief, though not in a terse or unfriendly way. “You definitely have to prove yourself,” he says. “You don’t have to prove yourself to the other drag queens; you have to prove yourself to the crowd. And they just want to see someone who’s going to stick it out and give it their all every time. And then they’ll start to like you.”
Thomas, 28, is a compactly built African-American in a blue men’s button-up and braids, whose good looks are more baby-faced than necessarily boyish. Her specialty is a young Michael Jackson. “I do kind of feel a pressure, being around other kings, that I’m the baby of the group,” she says. “In my performance, I think I make up for it.” Like Collins, she seems more reserved than one might expect, but she smiles often, and when she does you can see the youthful charm that endeared her to the judges.
Collins grew up in Carroll County and discovered the drag scene shortly after both coming out and moving to Baltimore five years ago. “A friend of mine at work was a drag queen as well—he was actually the very first Miss Gay Maryland—and he said I would look good in drag,” Collins says. “I didn’t even know it really existed except maybe on TV, as like a Jerry Springer type weirdo thing.” That first year he started performing he entered the Miss Gay Maryland competition, coming in third.
Thomas, who grew up in Catonsville, began her drag career almost 10 years ago. “It was a performer who had just started, her name was Simplicity, and she needed another person for her set,” Thomas says. “And she was like, ‘You’ve got the look I’m looking for, just come out [onstage], it’s really easy.’” She performed locally for two years before a career change and then a four-year stint in the Air Force as an aircraft mechanic forced her to give it up. She returned to Baltimore in February of 2005 and only started performing again about three months ago.
Collins has spent five years chasing the title of Miss Gay Maryland. “I think it was just consistency,” he says of this year’s win. “Each year I get a little bit better, thank God.” Thomas clinched it the first time out. The winner of last year’s inaugural Mr. Gay Maryland contest, Dutch Ticklestick, was an appointee, which also makes Thomas the first Mr. Gay Maryland to win the title based on the kind of competition and judging that Baltimore’s queens have enjoyed (or not enjoyed, the losers might say) for years now.
This points out the key difference between drag kings and queens: visibility. Even if you ignore a wobbly history that stretches from the Shakespearean-era ban on female actors up to Milton Berle, drag queens are a familiar sight in 2006 for most Americans. But even within the scene, as a widespread phenomenon drag kings are relatively new. “We just got a drag king show at the Hippo two years ago,” Collins says.
“It is really growing,” Thomas says. “Within the last year, there’s just been more kings, more shows. With the USA [competition] system, it’s been a few years, but it’s still not household yet. It’s still something that’s different, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know women did that, too.’”
Collins and Thomas agree that the relative lack of crossover between the drag queen and king scenes in Baltimore comes down to gender: For the most part, queens perform for men and kings for women. There’s no dedicated venue for drag kings in Baltimore yet, though Thomas says the scene is looking to build one. But this has also led to some positive alliances. “We did a show at the Hippo last night, and it was the Misters and the Sisters,” Thomas says. “That’s really like joining a close-knit family even closer.”
When asked what the biggest misconception about their profession is from those outside the scene, both immediately come back with the same response. “I think one of the main misconceptions would be that, because I’m a male impersonator, that I want to be a man or that I think I’m a man,” Thomas says. “No, I know that I’m a woman. And I enjoy being a woman . . . who is a damn good-looking man.”
“I don’t want to be a girl, I just like to play one on the stage,” Collins says. “When I do drag, it’s like . . . really big hair. It’s not like I want to be a real girl. It’s the illusion of a girl, the fantasy of a girl.”
On the other hand, Thomas isn’t adverse to a little help from those actually born with penises. “I really love the response that I get from women,” Thomas says. “But with the guys it’s like [voice deepens], ‘You’re really good at your job. You really had me going there.’ I appreciate that much more. And of course they offer me more criticism than a woman could. I don’t do a lot of facial hair, and [men] actually like that. They’ve told me that it’s OK not to overdo it.”
Both agree that the hardest part of the Miss and Mr. pageants isn’t the facial hair or makeup or singing or dancing—it’s the questions. “You’re not wearing a mask,” Collins says of the question-and-answer sessions where kings and queens are interrogated while out of costume. “It’s not something you’ve practiced 400 times. The judges are fair, but they’re hardly cheering for you.
“No one really likes being judged,” he continues. “The minute you walk through the door they’re judging what you look like, the suit that you’re wearing, how your suit fits, what your hair looks like, if you make too many hand gestures, if you say ‘um’ too many times. Everything.”
When asked if things have changed for him after winning, Collins says, “I hope not. Because I tried to get out there a lot before I was Miss Gay Maryland. I was definitely going to win, whether it was this year or 10 years from now. But I wanted to be very visible, I didn’t want them to say ‘Miss Gay Maryland, Andora Te’tee, who’s that?’”
The biggest change for Thomas is being looked at as a spokesperson for Baltimore’s drag king scene. “Suddenly there are so many more people [interested in drag kings]. And OK, I’m now Mr. Gay Maryland, and now I have people who are interested in it, but don’t know much about it, looking to me.”
A Gay Old Time (6/13/2007)
City Paper’s Fourth Annual Queer Issue
Raising a Glass (6/13/2007)
Baltimore's Oldest Continuously Operated Gay Bar Turns 50
Baby Mine (6/13/2007)
For Interracial Same-Sex Couples Becoming Parents Means Confronting Issues Of Identity
Keeping Up (12/2/2009)
Nearly 20 years after his death, Arthur Russell finally gets the biography he deserves
Human Architecture (7/29/2009)
The protagonist isn't the only one obsessed with capturing life in two dimensions in Asterios Polyp
The Unseen (11/5/2008)
Catherine Pancake and Jai Brooks Capture a Slice of Black Baltimore Lesbian Life in Jay Dreams
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201