If it wasn’t for the flyer advertising the drag show “Let’s Have a Kiki: Love Shack” resting on the green parallelogram bar, someone walking into Partners Cafe might assume it was a slow Friday night. The New Haven bar is a predominately gay club that boasts theme nights, karaoke, dancers, and a mural of Anne Frank covering the back of the building. At 9:15 p.m. the atmosphere is chill. There’s a comfortable silence between the handful of men muttering drink orders at the bartender while music from an ambiguous decade fills the gaps. A neighbor comments that one of the sweater clad men across the bar, in full wire glasses and bowl cut glory, resembles a young Jeffrey Dahmer. Conversation deviates from the happy hour special to what serial killers people find attractive, until Kiki Lucia enters the bar. Everyone’s attention shifts to the drag queen.
She carries a Styrofoam wig head in each hand, a bright blue wig pinned onto her head. The illusion of feminine curves is created by a fitted dress cinched by a belt at the waist. Although she appears flustered she is the first to initiate a hug, pulling you in against her firm padded bra.
After casually telling one of the owners she’s leading the group to the basement bar for a chat, she descends the stairs at a pace that would prove dangerous to someone not practiced in maneuvering through life in dancing pumps. The dimly lit bar is surrounded by grey couches that might make you think twice before kicking your feet up and getting comfortable. Their real purpose is to house the several outfit changes Kiki’s laid out. “Kiki is a character. When I take this off I’m very shy.” Kiki paints a picture of a multifaceted drag queen as skillfully as she’s painted her own face. Her voice leans towards masculine, but is still melodically androgynous. She rests her hands flat on the dark wooden counter and begins to glue on fake nails. She’s opted against French tip CVS press-ons—for the girl on the go—instead gluing on long dramatic rectangles that hint at everything but functional.
I think you’re cute. I’m gonna grab your butt because I’m a drag queen.
“I would never go up to a random person I don’t know and start talking to them. But as Kiki I’ll go up to anyone and everyone in the bar and be like, ‘I think you’re cute. I’m gonna grab your butt because I’m a drag queen.’ Which Patrick would never do. That’s my boy name.” Patrick has a degree in business, and manages nonprofit organizations. Although he may be more reserved than his drag persona, they both have an affinity for fundraising and raising awareness. The torch of activism in the drag and LGBT community was lit after Stonewall, and it burns bright in Connecticut.
Kiki proudly announces that she is the new Crown Princess of the Sovereign Imperial Court. “It’s predominately a queer organization that raises money for other queer organizations. And we have a chapter in CT. They are like a fraternity or a sorority. It’s based on the British Monarchy. So there’s a female line and a male line and because it’s a queer organization, there’s lesbians on the male lines and drag queens on the female lines.”
There’s a notion you can only thrive as a drag artist in big cities like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. The sounds from the growing crowd that escape whenever the basement door opens suggests that’s not exactly the case. Mia E Z’Lay enters the basement, as if the noise was her own personal backing track. “We were just talking about you,” Kiki greets her fellow queen.
In or out of drag, it’s clear that Mia’s not afraid to grab attention. With multiple face piercings and blue hair, Mia’s face is painted as a woman, but she’s still in her street clothes as she sets down her bags. Kiki and Mia are roommates, but Mia’s full-time gig is drag. Before Mia walked in, Kiki was explaining how hard it can be making a living off drag if you haven’t been on the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race competing for the title of America’s next drag superstar. “Because you have the RuPaul’s standard suddenly you’re getting 5,000 dollars to book instead of fifty dollars. So it changes the game for those of us who haven’t been on the show. It’s the first thing that’s asked in the drag community when the announcement goes up.” Kiki playfully pokes fun at her drag sisters, gesturing mock excitement about auditioning for Drag Race. “‘Are you going to audition? If you’re auditioning, I’m not going to audition.’”
While Kiki’s never auditioned, Mia has made it far in the process. Kiki was even asked by a mutual friend of Drag Race winner Sharon Needles, if Mia was going to be on the show after a fake cast list was leaked. To put this into context, Sharon Needles is to Drag Race what Carrie Underwood is to American Idol, if the year 2005 never ended. There’s a certain weight to mentioning Drag Race’s Marilyn—Monroe and Manson—and it’s an honor if your name is passes through Needles’ collagen pumped lips.
For someone less familiar with the art of drag, watching Mia pull on layer after layer of pantyhose in preparation for the night finds an easy comparison to theater. Drag queens rehearse and dress their parts to perform an act.
Despite drag’s drift towards mainstream, there’s always classic questions every drag queen will get. Kiki knows the litany too well. “How long does it take to do my makeup? I get asked how I tuck, which I don’t answer because… why do you need to know that? ‘Where does it go?’ My answer is usually the winter cabin.”
In front of the mirror, Mia pipes up, “I get asked if my ass is real.” Kiki’s laughter is followed by Mia’s deadpan reply. “It is.” Mia grabs a large foam pad and stuffs it under the layers of tights to create the illusion of curves.
Ascending from the basement, Kiki and Mia are ready to work the room, taking shots and talking to customers before the show. For the most part, the customers remain seated on their bar stools. Approaching the bar, Kiki recalls her comment about being inherently shy and how it keeps creeps from approaching her. Following a laugh, she gives a pointed look across the bar towards a gelled haired man in a windbreaker who’s just told her he’s an “artist” who favors body paint and believes sex is more than just a physical thing.
This doesn’t deter her from going back to meet the masses, however. “I think I’m quoting Mia here when I say ‘If you’re a professional queen you mingle’.” Kiki said this in the basement as she effortlessly tightened her roommate’s corset despite the long nails she had glued on. “That’s how you make your money. The more people that decide they like me now the less people I have to convince to like me when I’m on the stage. Because it’s all a business.”
A business that began its boom in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Light was first shed on the drag scene in the 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning. The film was a close look at the Harlem drag ball scene, an expansive culture including pageants, parties, club kids and drag houses. The film created the sense that you could only get that kind of community living in a place like New York. When RuPaul’s Drag Race gained popularity on Logo TV, winning an Emmy in 2016, drag was brought into people’s living room. It’s going into its ninth season, without any sign of slowing down.
Tonight it’s brought to life on the third floor of a New Haven bar, where four queens are eager to put on a show. It is so dark and mirrored that the illusions created by the colorful lights give you no other option but to believe you’re in 1980s Manhattan discovering coke. The queens dance in the corner of the mirror before the show starts. The growing audience itches to join them, but wouldn’t dare shatter the fourth wall. A heart-shaped backdrop dangles from the ceiling with the words “The Love Shack” curled across in yellow.
Kiki commands the stage the second her heels touch it, and there’s no need for the “I’ll be quiet until you’re quiet” tactic beaten to death by every schoolteacher that’s held an assembly. A painted smirk begins to spread as she uses humor to get the audience reaching for their wallets. Between playful digs at the other queens she reminds everyone to tip. “If you don’t like what you see, give us a five. We might do something different.”
After being introduced as so skinny and so beautiful that they all hate her, Loosey LaDuca steps on the stage in full 80’s wedding fantasy. Her white lace ensemble is so extravagant—corset, gloves, veil, gaudy jewelry, and tutu—that it could easily wear her instead of her wearing it. Not leaving a single beat for doubt, Pat Benatar’s voice accompanies Loosey as she struts down the aisle in the Holy Church of Bonnie Tyler. “We’re running with the shadows of the night! So baby take my hand, it’ll be all right!” A group of men stop regarding Loosey with the expectant wonder of a child just long enough to reach out and catch her from slipping on a spilt drink in her impossibly high tall white pumps.
What’s the point of doing a Love Shack themed night? While you run the risk of the audience only recognizing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” from a Fiber One commercial, you also bring people back to a time when the president wasn’t tweeting about his own reality show instead of dealing with foreign relations. People want to live in a world where “It’s Raining Men” and not 68 degrees in February.
The room is captivated. The audience hangs on every lip-synced word. The bills waving in the air are signs of appreciation, thanks for being able to grab the outstretched hand of a performer and escape reality for– if only for three minutes.
Casey Fitzpatrick, a transgender drag queen who’s performing “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record),” ignores a drunken guy as he encroaches onto the section of the floor that is reserved for the queens to sing and collect tips during the act. Flushed faced and oblivious, it’s clear this man’s drag show etiquette is as awkward as the bopping and gyrating of his body. Kiki’s quick to the mic. “Honey, this isn’t about you. Get off the stage.” The queens continue to support each other by showing the audience how to really tip, their outstretched arms poised and proud. During the short break between sets, sweaty men rush to buff, black t-shirted bartenders so that they can break their bigger bills.
Back on stage Mia E Z’lay breaks out her splits, a classic drag show staple, while lip-syncing to “Love Shack.” Giving it her all as the song comes to an end, she lets tips fall over her curvy figure and onto the floor. The bills haven’t been on the floor for a minute before they are scooped up by fans. They scramble to return them; to have a moment with Mia. Kiki points out that Mia’s been given a five-dollar bill. Circling back to what she told the audience at the beginning of the show, she chuckles. “Girl, you got a five, they wanted something different.” After Mia chases Kiki for the mic, she gets in a harmless jab about her age, and the show wraps up.
Downstairs in the main bar the atmosphere has shifted around the parallelogram bar. Those who hesitantly regarded the drag queens are now crowding around asking for pictures. It could be the liquid courage, but that alone couldn’t compel grown men to fawn over the queens as if they were Disney Princesses. Kiki is taking picture after picture, images headed straight to social media, but she finally pulls away from her new groupies. Buzzing from the attention, she recommends watching the Real Housewives because she’s doing something based off it in tomorrow night’s show. The specifics aren’t heard because a bouncer is kindly but firmly asking everyone to get the hell out. Outside Partners, smoke from quick 2:00 a.m. cigarettes mingles with the huffs of the cold February morning. As the Anne Frank mural shrinks in the distance, catcalls from men loitering the bars across the street drown out the requests for one more picture with Kiki. She’s happy to pose for one more.