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More than glitz and glamor

Drag performers in Juneau have a higher calling in doing community good

Posted: September 29, 2013 - 12:01am
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Vanessa LaVoce-Kellie, aka Devyn Reece, performs during Drag Queen Bingo Wednesday night at the Rendezvous.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Vanessa LaVoce-Kellie, aka Devyn Reece, performs during Drag Queen Bingo Wednesday night at the Rendezvous.

Girls just want to have fun, Cyndi Lauper famously sang, but sometimes the girls are men, and sometimes there’s more to it than just having fun. Enter the Imperial Court of All Alaska: the oldest and largest not-for-profit, all-volunteer organization representing the LGBTQ Community of Alaska, with the mission of “We do what we can to help others less fortunate than ourselves.” Just with a lot more pizzazz than your average group of do-gooders.

Femme Fatale is a popular annual event in Juneau, with local queens and kings — sometimes just for a night — dressing up, dancing and lip synching alongside visiting queens from Anchorage. Split into three shows to accommodate as many audience members as possible, the proceeds from the shows benefit the Southeast arm of Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association (Four A’s), a non-profit dedicated to being a key collaborator within the state of Alaska in the provision of supportive services to persons living with HIV/AIDS and their families, and in the elimination of the transmission of HIV infection and its stigma. This annual fundraiser falls in April, but ICOAA Duchess of Juneau Vanessa LaVoce-Kellie, aka Devyn Reece, wants to give Juneau more.

Reece has set a goal of increasing the presence and influence of the ICOAA in Juneau by his involvement in community organizations, and also by hosting more drag events in Juneau, including a brand new offering: Drag Queen Bingo.

The first night of Drag Queen Bingo was Wednesday, Sept. 25, at the Rendezvous bar. An audience of supporters and curious strangers grabbed bingo boards — and maybe the event’s signature cocktail “The Kellie” — and played bingo for prizes donated by Night Moods, with performances by Vanessa LaVoce Kellie, with Gingi Vitis, aka Todd Rushing, and Ataraxia Jones, aka Nicholas DeHart, calling the numbers and making jokes.

Though the main goal of Drag Queen Bingo is to provide a fun opportunity for drag in Juneau, there will be regular charity nights, in which proceeds from the signature drink will be donated to Four A’s of Southeast Alaska.

Reece first dipped his toe in the glimmering waters of drag for Femme Fatale in 2012, performing as Jessa Belle. It was a life-changing experience, he said. He was crowned duchess of Juneau after his 2013 performance, though he had found opportunities to perform in Anchorage between the Femme Fatale events, thanks in part to a mentorship relationship developed with Alexis Kellie, aka Mario Hyre, an Anchorage drag queen.

“She took me on as a drag daughter and gives me tips ... and gives me a place to stay every time I’m there. In turn, I help her with outfits, and I always have to reassure her that her face looks good after she’s done painting it,” Reece said of Hyre. “Probably, outside of my family, it’s the most important relationship that I have with anybody right now.”

Reece said he and Hyre clicked immediately, from makeup and performance style to personality.

“She said, ‘You know, I like you, you’re a Kellie,’” Reece explained.

And there began a drag-mother and drag-daughter relationship that Hyre described as “pretty much a very tight friendship,” adding that “We talk on a daily basis. He lives in Juneau and I in Anchorage. I believe that he is an individual and want him to succeed in his choice of drag. There are many types of drag and it’s really hard to define it. Never let anyone tell you what you can wear, what you can perform, or how crazy you want to be.”

Of course, Hyre said, they also talk about makeup techniques, outfits, event ideas and music choices, but, for him, “being a drag mother is to be there and support him in his choice of ‘drag.’”

Hyre first performed in drag for a fundraiser in 1997 to help raise for medical funds for a community member in need, and it really took off from there.

“Drag is a very important role for me,” Hyre said. “It allows me to sort of get away from real life, and I’ve found that I truly enjoy raising money for our community. I enjoy the theatrics of it.”

Hyre has been involved in the ICOAA since 2009 and was recently crowned The Aurora Arctic Flaming Ruby Dragon Empress 41 — that’s empress of all Alaska.

“We’ve been doing this since 1972,” Hyre said of the ICOAA. “Our title-holders are passionate about the commitment they give to the community.”

According to the International Imperial Court’s official website, in 1965, Jose Sarria proclaimed herself the Empress of San Francisco and laid the foundation for the formation of the Imperial Court de San Francisco. Today, the International Court System (ICS) has more than 65 chapters in the United States, Canada and Mexico, making it the second largest LGBTQ organization in the world. Sarria, Empress Jose I, often called Mama Jose, died Aug. 19 at the age of 90, leaving quite a legacy — he was a WWII veteran, the first openly gay political candidate and a revered civic organizer and activist.

At a statewide level, Hyre said, ICOAA supports the community with scholarships, as well as through raising funds for community organizations and charities including the Four A’s, the Brother Francis Shelter, Identity, Inc., United Way and various Alaska GSA organizations.

What are Hyre’s hopes for Juneau’s queendom? “The current duchess, Vanessa, aka Devyn, has been very active in his city,” Hyre said. “I want to see it thrive and grow. He is very passionate about what he does and I love that about him. I would like to see the next duke and duchess follow his steps and seek mentorship from him. He has done an awesome job by starting Drag Queen Bingo and I believe this is just one way to open the door.”

Drag Queen Bingo serves multiple purposes. Reece sees it as an opportunity to raise money for Four A’s, as an opportunity to hone his craft and, additionally, as a safe place for community members to come and have fun.

“It’s open and welcome to everyone ... this will be a safe zone for Juneau,” Reece said.

There’s no requirement to dress in drag to participate. Any attire is acceptable for Drag Queen Bingo, Reece said, with the disclaimer “if you wanna come butt-naked, that might be questionable...”

Reece was inspired to build up the community in Juneau after visiting Anchorage, which has a flourishing drag community.

“Coming back from Anchorage the first couple times I was up there, I’ll be honest, I was so bummed,” Reece said. “I was always so sad to come back home. (I’d say), ‘I’m going to move to Anchorage, I’m so outta here, I’m going to go where there’s a community and people like me,’ then one day it just clicked that this is my queendom and if I’m unhappy with it, then I need to figure out why I’m unhappy with it and start to make changes. That’s my whole purpose and that’s really when I just threw myself at it, 110 percent.”

One-hundred-ten percent is what Reece is putting into the community and also, it seems, what goes into getting ready for a drag show.

DeHart, for whom Wednesday night’s Drag Queen Bingo was his first time calling bingo, and his first time in drag outside of Halloween or a costume party, said “I like to put 110 percent into it. I really enjoy costumes, it doesn’t have to be drag — any costume. Over the years we’ve done angels and devils, The Wizard of Oz... I was Dorothy, so it was kind of drag themed.”

DeHart may not perform as often as Reece, but he’s committed to supporting drag and other LGBTQ events in Juneau. He’s also been dubbed “the official seamstress of the house of Kellie,” Reece said.

“I did make a couple costumes for Alexis Kellie, (Reece’s) drag mom: one she wore to Pride and one was for coronation. It’s kind of fun. Carolyn (Brown) gave me her old sewing machine, so I’ve taught myself how to use it, it’s kind of fun. I’ve always been into arts and crafts,” DeHart said. “I’ve been making my own stuff since sixth or seventh grade, not necessarily clothes, but pillows and curtains, and I’ve been altering costumes for a long time, to change them to fit me. Sometimes you have to add some fabric in or take some out to feel comfortable stepping outside in it.”

The first time DeHart dressed in drag was probably eighth grade, he said, “for Halloween, it was a Halloween thing for a long time. ... I didn’t do it at school, I was babysitting so I answered the door in a wig and a dress.”

Now, whether he’ll be a performer or an audience member, DeHart said, “I really am excited about people doing drag shows in Juneau. And winter’s coming, it’s depressing, anything you can do to be fun. I enjoy being a character. I think that’s the greatest thing I get out of it. I like that Devyn’s young and trying to get stuff going, there’s always been one drag show, but not really that much else.”

Reece also wants Drag Queen Bingo to be a no-pressure opportunity for anyone new who might want to try drag. “We are open to anyone and everyone who wants to participate,” he said. “And there are such things as faux queens, where biological women dress up like drag queens, I would welcome anyone and everyone who’s interested. If you need help learning how to do it, we’ll help you. Myself alone, I have a trunk and half a closet of drag clothes, wigs and makeup.”

It’s not easy starting out, but all involved think it’s worth the time.

“It took me six hours, I think, the first time I got into drag, as busted as it was,” Reece laughed. “Now I would say I prefer to have at least three hours, my face taking up the most of it.”

Makeup may take the most time, but the hardest thing about being a queen might be relieving oneself.

“It’s difficult. It’s difficult because there are so many layers. I think at any given time I probably have three pairs of pantyhose on, that doesn’t include tights and the dress or buttons or zippers ... to go to the bathroom as a drag queen usually takes a team,” Reece said. “You need someone to hold your shoes or hold your dress — it’s a lot of work. I usually try not to go to the bathroom, even if my kidneys are going to explode.”

The next opportunity to check out a drag event in Juneau will be 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 2, for Drag Queen Bingo’s second run at the Rendezvous.

Fans can also look forward to a show planned for December, “How the Queen Stole Christmas,” which will feature local and visiting performers and raise money and collect toys for local children in need.

“I want people to see that drag is not just glitter and glitz and sex and energy,” Reece said. “I mean, it is and it’s all fun, but we have a purpose and a mission to help people and do things.”

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