Austin Festival Aims to Be South by Southwest for Drag Performers
By Ali Killian
Drag artists from around the world will descend on Austin in May to participate in the first Austin International Drag Festival, another sign of the city embracing drag culture.
About 200 artists are expected to perform at eight venues during the May 1 to 3 event, which organizer Jamie Bancroft calls the “South by Southwest for drag.” The final day includes a Drag Film Showcase with screenings and Q&A sessions, including one with Holly Woodlawn, a who became a drag celebrity as star of two Andy Warhol movies in the 1970s.
Drag artists typically impersonate the other sex, wearing extravagant costumes and exaggerated makeup, to perform or in competitions. For instance, drag queens, or female impersonators, are men who wear female attire and take on female stage names. Many drag artists belong to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
“It just feels like society as a whole not only has grown to understand the GLBT community but also has grown to embrace drag artists” as actual artists instead of a “sideshow act,” said Bancroft, who heads the Austin International Drag Foundation, the nonprofit organizing the event. Before cable shows such “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and local events increased drag artists’ visibility, drag performers were targets of fear and discrimination, scholars say.
Austin’s festival-friendly infrastructure and wealth of prospective volunteers are key reasons for organizing the festival here, Bancroft said. Bancroft, 45, said his first outing to a gay bar at 17 introduced him to drag. His interest intensified while he studied theater at St. Edward’s University.
Bancroft created the foundation in 2014; it won IRS nonprofit approval in February. The foundation’s mission is to “educate and support the drag artist community” as well as the general public, according to its page on the Austin Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Bancroft, an IRS customer service representative, said he does not receive a salary from the foundation.
The Austin International Drag Festival is one way the foundation supports drag artists by exposing them to large audiences, Bancroft said. He said he expects the first-year event to only break even, but hopes future festivals will raise money for charity. Local companies are sponsoring the event, and Bancroft said ticket sales will pay for the performers, some of whom agreed to appear at a discounted rate. The festival has sold 220 tickets so far, and Bancroft said he hopes to double that number by May.
Austin has a thriving drag culture, said Isaac Sanchez, 58, a former drag queen who will take photos at the festival. Some local bars regularly host drag shows, and about 60 drag artists consistently perform in Austin, he said.
While it’s milder now, prejudice against gays and drag queens was rampant when Sanchez began performing 40 years ago in McAllen, where he grew up.
He remembers stepping into a body suit, to cover his hairy arms and legs, and into a drag show for the first time in 1975, as a recent graduate of McAllen High. Then 18, he nervously lip-synced a song to open a tavern’s drag night. Realizing that the audience wasn’t responding, he switched to comedy instead of musical performance. It worked.
“It was terrible,” at first, Sanchez said. “But I actually turned it into comedy, and that’s why they liked it.” His stage name became Sashay Sanchez.
Sanchez said he became a local celebrity in the Valley before moving to Austin in 1997, where he reconnected with Kelly Kline, his former makeup artist, who had moved here seven years earlier.
“We’re from the original school,” Sanchez said. “We go way back, from the day when it was so hard.”
Kline is a professional makeup artist, director of entertainment at Oilcan Harry’s, a gay club on West Fourth Street, and former Miss Gay Universe.
“I think everybody has a drag queen inside them. We’re just afraid to let her out,” Kline said. “I always say it’s a superhero costume, because when you’re in drag, you feel more empowered. You can be anybody you want to be.”
But drag performances didn’t resonate with mainstream audiences until RuPaul, a drag queen whose fame began with a modeling contract with M.A.C. Cosmetics, came along in the 1990s, according to Jackie Huba, an Austin drag performer who is writing a book on drag queens. RuPaul’s success was vital in changing attitudes toward drag nationally, Huba said.
His reality show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” debuted in 2008 on Logo TV, a Viacom channel that targets gay audiences. The show is a pageant-style competition that “peels back the curtain” of drag performances, Huba said. It broadcasts the entire process of performing, from making costumes to applying makeup to hitting the stage.
The show has been crucial in attracting mainstream audiences to drag, said Huba and Domenick Scuera, a drag queen and theater professor at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa.
“RuPaul somehow made America see drag queens as attractive and beautiful and worthy of their attention,” Scudera said.
On May 16 and 17, RuPaul will host the first-ever DragCon, a convention celebrating “the art of drag, queer culture and self-expression for all,” in Los Angeles, Calif., according to its website. Bancroft said he hopes to add a conference component to his Austin festival next year.
Sanchez, now retired from drag, said he hopes the Austin event will succeed.
“I want it to be good, because it would look good … for the gay community as a whole,” Sanchez said.
Like SXSW, Bancroft said, the Austin International Drag Festival has billed known headliners to attract audiences, but the focus is on up-and-coming performers.
“A lot of them are underappreciated and don’t get seen by a lot of people,” Bancroft said. “Hopefully, this will be a good stepping stone for them.”
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