Becoming Johellen, Part 1
A pair of 5-inch heels strut their way through a cool November night in downtown Austin. It's the Sunday after Halloween, and the weekend's drunken energy has settled to the point that the liveliest sounds on Fourth & Guadalupe come from the shoes' click-clacking echoes.
In those heels are a long pair of legs shimmering in golden capri-length spandex tights, a torso wrapped in a thrifted red and blue flannel-patterned jacket, an hour's worth of makeup constructing a mask of feminine colors, shadows and lines, and short brown hair styled into small curls. In an outfit befitting a burgeoning drag performer, 21-year-old Josiah Brown is on his way to Castro's Warehouse. His objective for the evening is to attend the gay bar's Latina-themed Day of the Dead drag show and take as many mental notes as he can to assist his budding foray into the art of female impersonation.
“I consider it studying, basically,” Brown says as he nears the entrance, “and I like to go and tip the performers, let them know I'm there.”
A senior at UT-Austin whose scholastic studies focus on sculpture, Brown first became interested in drag after watching the reality series Ru Paul's Drag Race, a show widely credited with carving out a place for the performance art in pop culture. “I was arrested,” he said of his fascination with the show, and soon after began to take the necessary steps to become a performer himself. Currently in the midst of Castro's three-month long karaoke competition between amateur queens, Brown is one of the newest additions to Austin's drag scene. “This is part of what you want to do, even if you don't know why,” he says of the moment he acknowledged his attraction to drag performance.
Entering the scene with a TV viewer's understanding of the drag experience, Brown has unexpectedly found Austin's culture to be hospitable towards its new performers. “I do think that Austin's scene is a very nurturing environment,” he says, “I've heard from a couple people that elsewhere, it's much harder for young performers to get a break.” Though he's never performed outside of Austin, Brown has been told of many scenes around the country having far more rigid seniorities and hierarchical structures in place. He imagined the culture to be markedly aggressive and “bitchy,” but here, he's found a place where those traits were more often than not left onstage. “Even some of the hosts and the people who are higher up, they've just been very warm and accommodating. I guess I was surprised,” he says. The ability to skirt some of the initial intimidation helps Brown grow comfortable within the world of drag as a whole, and also gives him the freedom to explore the scene on nights like this one at Castro's.
Despite the womanly regalia wrapped around him, Brown is still clearly attending this particular show as a man. The evening's goal is not to play around with his developing drag persona Johellen Burns, but to simply explore and exist within the culture both on and off stage. He's here to see and be seen, to examine the fluctuations in stage personas and attitudes, and to get a feel for the femininity of more experienced performers. There's a lot to learn for a performer who can count the number of times he's taken the stage on one hand.
“Do you know what a bitchy resting face is?” Brown asks rhetorically, annoyed with the expressions he sometimes exudes when distracted. It seems like a personal annoyance, but this kind of self-awareness is key to becoming a successful queen. Drag is different from many other performing art forms in that the you're often interacting with the audience in character before and after your on-stage performance. Learning to understand and control these individual quirks is part of Brown's introspective development as a drag queen. Another part of that maturation process begins with learning as much as you can from the examples set by veteran performers.
The show Brown is at tonight is top notch production-wise, as the Day of the Dead theme brings out plenty of enthralling additions to the drag queens' lip-synched performances. Puta Kahlo, the first performer of the night, feeds tacos to willing audience members while a local stripper “makes it rain” one dollar bills on her throughout the performance. Another queen, Avalisa Davenport, performs her entire song with a young man behind her trying to free himself while gagged and tied to a chair. The most striking display of the night comes from a performer named Serotonin, who comes out in skull make up, a see-through lace top, tall reflective black heels, and halfway through her performance empties a mouthful of synthetic black blood all over the her bright red outfit. Unlike what most people imagine when they think about “drag,” these queens are not trying to impersonate celebrities, but are instead using their music and words to fuel an array of original performances.
As each performer takes their turn upon the dynamic lights pulsing from beneath the intimate floor-level stage, Brown watches quietly while leaning on one of the four red columns around its border. He calls himself a pillar-flower on these nights, a reserved observer of the show, gently holding out dollar bills for the performers whenever they come near. During the brief intermission between the two groups of performers, he steps out onto the stage to practice some moves by himself. With his eyes on the ground, his steps tentative and the handful of others on the stage in small groups, Brown looks very much to be the new kid on the block.
However in line with the spirit of the surroundings, he slowly becomes engaged with an older couple dancing wildly on the other end of the dance floor. They all begin to dance together, and Brown cracks a smile as his body struggles to find a balance between the energy of their movements and the constraints of dancing to club music in heels. After another song or two, the show begins again and Brown retreats back to the pillar to watch a couple more performances before calling it a night.
On his way back home, Brown admits that he still can't completely explain all the factors that draw him to drag, but every outing helps him grow more comfortable with his place in the scene. Over the next 11 days he will be preparing for the his next drag show in the Disney-themed round of the karaoke contest. He knows there are a lot of people on the outside that see drag as simply men wanting to channel some fetish by dressing up as women, but there's something magical about the art form and community around it that Brown feels intrinsically tied to. “I see myself as kind of an evolving thing,” he says of his brief experience with drag thus far. “I know in my head it's me.”
This is Part 1 of a 3-part feature. Parts 2 and 3 will appear over the next two days.
Read more Drag stories at austinchronicle.com/gay. The Gay Place’s 5 Days of Dragmas! runs online Monday-Friday, December 23-27.