Becoming Johellen, Part 3
It's two hours to showtime and Josiah Brown is in his room finishing up his transformation into Johellen Burns, his drag queen persona.
He dabs at an 88-hue makeup pallet and applies the finishing touches to her deep purple eyes and lips. He positions her intentionally saggy breast paddings at the bottom of his rib cage, raises her six foot frame an extra three inches with a pair of black heels, and packs a roll of duct tape to ensure his nether regions stay out of her performance. He's spent the last three weeks organizing, costuming, and fashioning Johellen's presentation as The Emperor’s New Groove's Yzma for tonight's show, a process that will soon culminate with him leaving the director's chair as the Disney villianess.
On his desk are an assortment of hand blades and paint cans he used to make his props, two styrofoam balls representing the sun and the moon and a box for each. With Brown in his bedroom are his female backup dancers – a pair of friends from college dressed up as black cats – making final adjustments to the boxes which will end the show smashed by a large mallet Brown carved himself. A little after 9pm they rehearse the choreography for a final time and begin to pack up. Brown walks around his apartment snapping his fingers nervously as they transport the show to his car.
“Keep those keys from me, I've lost them in the car so many times,” he blurts out as he continuously runs in and out of the house to grab forgotten props. After everything's accounted for, Brown takes a second to catch his breath, flip around the jacket he'd been wearing inside out, and throws on Solange for the journey downtown. “Just pray my car behaves,” he says as the crew departs for Castro's.
The bar is not as busy as it was for the Day of the Dead show, with about 50 people showing up for tonight's round of the competition. Brown goes to the small red curtained corner that serves as the dressing room, snaps on his long purple nails and completes his metamorphosis to Johellen Burns. As is often the case with drag shows the initial starting time has been pushed back, leaving Brown backstage with his good friend Jeffery Fulkerson who has filmed each of Johellen's performances so far. The two work on planning the drag shows together, with Fulkerson helping frame the structure and Brown filling in the gaps from there. “There are no traits about Johellen that are foreign to me,” Fulkerson says of the disparity between Brown's on and off stage personalities. “It's not like he becomes a different person, Johellen just acts in a different way.”
Much in line with this observation, Johellen begins to walk around and fidget with her hands nervously as show time approaches. She interacts with the audience a little bit, but for the most part hangs out in the dressing room on her phone as she waits to be introduced. Finally Nadine Hughes, tonight's host and a stalwart veteran of Austin's drag scene, grabs the mic almost an hour past the scheduled start time and welcomes Johellen as the night's first act. She comes out to the front of the stage with a feline walk and her chin high, the black cats taking their place in line behind her as the music begins.
In her black heels, the slim purple ankle length dress, and a large feather protruding from the top of her purple turban, Johellen begins to saunter about the stage. Her voice is impressively close to Eartha Kitt's and the performance is well choreographed, but it is still clear that she has work to do stylistically to engage the audience. The gears can be seen turning in her head as she travels around the stage, and her movements are a bit rigid. All that said, she gets positive reactions from the crowd and most importantly is dancing on stage instead of standing beside it. There are now new faces leaning on the stage's red columns, watching a former pillar-flower in full bloom.
“She's finding her inner charisma,” says Cupcake, one of the evening's judges. “She has a lot of energy, but needs to find power in stillness.”
“Out of the box. She's a very unique performer,” host Nadine Hughes says to describe Johellen's style. “She has a lot of natural talent that we haven't seen yet.”
The show goes on for a little while longer as the one dollar bills begin to come out. Johellen's performance builds in energy with no notable hitches in the performance aside from a few amateur snafus here and there. The song crescendos to a climactic end with Johellen taking the mallet and smashing the sun and the moon on a TV tray, and she walks to the back of the stage before taking her bow. Overall it has been a successful night for Johellen and she ends up taking second place in the evening's competition, losing to the Hunchback of Notre Dame. After the show, the performers return to the stage, and a mix of drag queens and audience members dance to club hits deep into the night.
It's a chilly Saturday a week and a half after the performance, and Brown is sipping hot chocolate at Dolce Vita wearing a knit sweater beneath a pale green windbreaker. He had another drag show two days prior, but it turned out to be the last of the competition as the event was cancelled because of low attendance. He's grown comfortable in the scene, and is even picking up on lots of drag-specific lingo, such as the term 'busted' used to describe a young performer that's in over their heads, or to say you're 'gagging' when watching an impressive drag performance. From dealing with the vulnerabilities of performance to learning about the family dynamics within the drag scene, it was a very successful first thrust into the culture for Brown.
“Hopefully if I do this for years to come, I can be one of those people that mothers other queens,” he says. “I'd do it right now if I had any standing.” For now, however, it is back to the books for Brown, whose studies are ramping up with only a month left in the first semester of his senior year. There will be lots of time to reflect over the next few weeks and into winter break, with Brown already looking forward to Austin's Next Drag Superstar, the city's premier amateur drag competition.
“It's quickly become part of my identity, one that I'm quick to share,” Brown says of his experience performing and involvement in the drag scene. “It's pretty much where I belong in the gay community.”
This is Part 3 of a 3-part feature. Parts 1 and 2 ran Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 24 and 25.
Read more Drag stories at austinchronicle.com/gay. The Gay Place’s 5 Days of Dragmas! runs online Monday-Friday, December 23-27.