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Transformation, Entertainment, and Soul: Grand Rapids' Local Drag Scene

Batty Davis, drag queen, MC, makeup artist.

Batty Davis, drag queen, MC, makeup artist.

Batty Davis, drag queen, MC, makeup artist.

Batty Davis, drag queen, MC, makeup artist.

Batty Davis, drag queen, MC, makeup artist.

Batty Davis, drag queen, MC, makeup artist.

Batty Davis, drag queen, MC, makeup artist.

Batty Davis, drag queen, MC, makeup artist.

Grand Rapids has a drag scene? As in drag queens? As in Rupaul? Divine? Men dressing like women? Women dressing like men? In lil' ol' Grand Rapids? Huh?

According to drag performer Batty Davis, that's a common reaction and she tends to be diplomatic, using the term 'female impersonator'.

"But once I really explain to them what I'm doing, they really understand and are like, 'Oh my gosh! They really have this here?' It's something they think they only have in Vegas or a bigger city, but it's really happening everywhere."

Granted, the drag scene in Grand Rapids happens at precisely two bars: Rumors, which hosts a show every Sunday at 10 p.m., and Diversions, host of Amateur Caberet every Wednesday night. But its been growing, nurtured by an increasing openness to this kind of unique expression.

Bradley Briegle, who promotes shows and pageants in Grand Rapids and around Michigan through Power Diva Productions, says West Michigan has been mostly accepting of the scene.

"You'd think that being in Grand Rapids there would be a lot more [controversy], but surprisingly, it's not really that bad. At Pride, every now and then, you get protestors," he says. "I've walked downtown in broad daylight with drag queens. You get people looking and making cat calls or whatever. It's not dangerous."

This kind of acceptance has left room for drag scene to grow, but it mostly comes down to hard work, old-fashioned pluck, and determination. Those are typical lauded conservative values of a conservative community, but it applies to drag queen aspirations as well.

"It's hard to make a living at drag," Briegle says, "but there are people who do, and those are the people who know how to sell. And they know how to make hair instead of buying it. And they know how to sit there for hours and add stones and beads, and whatever else they do. Those are the people who make it a 24-hour-job to be successful."

"In the past five years, the amatuer girls have really started to come out of the woodwork," Davis says. "They are starting to get better with themselves to work themselves up to the professional status, where they are completely comfortable with themselves. Where they can take their act anywhere and not worry about being judged by anyone because they are that clean and consistent with it. That's what I've seen in the past five years: New girls who really want to be something, instead just being a glamour doll."

But you have to start being a glamor doll somewhere. And that is the premise of Diversions Amateur Caberet, or, AMCAB. AMCAB is hosted by local comedian Sarah Jean Anderson. "I Love AMCAB because it gives someone the chance to [perform drag] for the first time," she says. "I've been really lucky to experience their first time performing. I love that drag is such an honest artform, and that it is ultimately about letting something inside of you become what it is. It's about self expression. It's somebody baring their soul."

And what are they expressing, exactly? Bradley Briegle puts it this way: "The whole idea behind drag is changing genders, but its more about art and expression... huge, outlandish costumes. And, then, the obvious fact: the transformation. It's entertainment."

Most drag performers start out are hobbyists who do it for fun and a little cash on the side. A drag performer in Michigan can make anywhere from $40 to $100 on a given night. Tips from adoring audience members are a big part of the show, the ritual of it all. The heart and soul of drag performance is in the costuming, and successful drag performers put much time, effort, and money into them. But all drag performers have that urge to entertain as their inspiration for the dress up and pageantry. Most drag performances are lip synced, but those who consider themselves to be professionals sing, dance, and add that little extra something to their performance. Sometimes, you'll get fire eating or knife juggling. Local performers -- like Jasinya Sanchez, Nikki Chauntee, Battie Davis, and Diamond Denea -- were mentioned most as role models within the community by fresh performers.

Most drag performers are gay. Some are transgendered, while many identify as men in their non-drag, day-to-day life. A drag audience can consist of gays, lesbians, straight couples, and the occasional drag queen fetishest. But sexuality plays less of a role than is expected, according to Briegel.

"There is a big gray area. There are categories. There are people who do it purely for the fun of being on stage. Ninety percent of their lives, they are 100 percent male," he says. "They put on the dress and everything to go onstage and entertain. It's a fun hobby and that's what they do. Sex has nothing to do with it. Then there are people who perform on stage, but feel that they are born in the wrong body. These are transgendered [performers]. They might start to have work done and do drag while they are transitioning. They are very different from those who do it for fun."

Drag performer Nikki Chaunte has been a drag queen for 12 years. She describes the early days of drag in Grand Rapids as difficult, and that most of the flak was from the gay community itself.

"Gays are on the left, drag queens are on the right. It took a whole lot to merge the two," she says. "You never mixed those two, back in the day." Through hard work, though, she says, the scene has gotten a lot better.

Jasinya Sanchez, drag performer for eight years and former host of Dog Story Theater's comedy show Old Lady Monday (which is having a reunion in November), is a little more blunt about the dynamics.

"Once in awhile, you get a couple gay guys running their mouths about drag queens. A.) Think of where you are. And B.) If it wasn't for a couple queens, how do think we got the rights we got? It was queens getting arrested and getting hauled away in paddy wagons, honey, not just the gay men."

Then, there is Corky. Corky, a bartender at Rumors Nightclub, has been a drag queen since 1968 and “lives it 24/7." She won pageants in Chicago in the '70s, lived in San Francisco, and knew Janis Joplin. She first became transgendered when a voting official refused to acknowledge her as a male, her birth gender. It's ladies like Corky, says Sanchez, who paved the way and serve as a mentor to the young ones.

Corky talks fondly about her glory days. "I would have 12 escorts. I would have two Russian wolfhounds. We'd have our shows at the Conrad Hilton. When we did a show, it was almost like a movie premier -- cops with horses, blocking off the streets. We would always have limousines."

Ad what does she think of this little drag scene here in GR?

"It's cute. They put on really good shows. They are professional."

High praise from the former 1973 Empress of Chicago. If you've never experienced a drag show for yourself and want to get in on the glitz and glamor, swing by Diversions (10 Fountain St. NW) on or Rumors (69 S. Division) on . Or, check out Night of Illusions on Halloween, as covered in G-Sync.

Joseph Charles McIntosh is a local poet and an original cast member of Super Happy Funtime Burlesque. He was also a cabdriver in Grand Rapids for 12 years.

Photography by Adam Bird.
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