A cut-throat industry for small city drag queens

Millar Hill
By Millar Hill April 20, 2018 13:32

Bentley James, a drag queen from Detroit, at Gigi’s Gay Bar on Warren Avenue. Gigi’s is one of two bars in that city to provide drag queens a space to perform. (PHOTO BY/ MILLAR HILL)

By Millar Hill

She commands a room’s attention with her big wig, false lashes, flawless makeup and jaw-dropping outfit.

She pulls out the most artistic, fierce and theatrical ideas from her imagination – creating a confident woman.

She’s a drag queen.

The drag world knows her as Bentley James, Detroit’s “drag princess.”

His real name is Jared Waltrip.

“Not everybody has it. Most people think it’s just lip syncing and trancing around on stage,” he said. “It takes a lot to move your mouth to somebody else’s song and then use your eyes to convey and command an entire room to look at you.”

“You’ve got to earn it and it’s not easy.”

Waltrip grew up in Flint, Mich. and kept to himself for the majority of his childhood and early adolescent years. Not much has changed — his friends would say he is still a quiet guy.

“I just played video games my entire childhood, that’s what I spent my time doing,” he said, sitting on the couch at his home in Allen Park, Mich. wearing a green American Eagle long-sleeve T-shirt and black backwards ball cap.

Despite the unconventional lifestyle of drag, he’s worked at Starbucks in Warren, Mich. for the last three years.

Waltrip had never seen a drag queen until the night of his 19th birthday. He was captivated by their stage presence and it wasn’t long until the plus-sized, vivacious Bentley James slid into a pair of heels.

Bentley James has celebrity status in Detroit, shining a light on the city’s drag culture. (PHOTO BY/ MILLAR HILL)

“I became friends with one of the girls who did drag. She called me and said somebody had cancelled and asked, if I was to be put in drag, would I do a show?”

He said yes.

“I saw what they were doing and I told myself I could do that. I liked how it made me feel. It made me happy and if I can do that for other people, I’m doing something right.”

That feeling motivated him to pursue a career in the world of drag. The evening of his first performance, he called his mom and told her he was going to be a drag queen.

“My parents are so supportive. They come to all of my shows when they can.  I think there are more photos of me in drag throughout the house than me outside of drag.”

“It came very spur of the moment,” he added.

But it didn’t come easy.

It roughly took four years of doing free shows, events and networking to become known and respected in the city.

Waltrip says the industry can be cut-throat, because everyone wants to be the best.  Many queens won’t associate with each other. There is a lot of trash-talking.

To survive in the world of drag – it takes grit, talent and dedication.

“You have to invest time and money into your craft,” he said. “I’ve worked my ass off because I love my city, the people in it and everything it represents.”

There are two bars in Detroit that provide queens an outlet to perform. There is Gigi’s on Warren Avenue and Club Gold Coast on Seven Mile Road. Aside from that, there’s just little gigs around the city.

In Windsor, there are no bars for drag queens to perform, unless it’s an organized event.

Bentley James has been a drag queen in the city of Detroit for the past eight years.  (PHOTO BY/ MILLAR HILL)

“There used to be all of these places to work and now there is not anymore,” he said. “Places are shutting down because there are more things going on in our community, where we don’t have to feel that we have to go to a gay bar to be safe or go out and have a good time.”

“Which is great but it’s kind of signalling towards the death of something that was required for so long.”

“It’s bittersweet,” he added.

President of Windsor-Essex Pride Fest David Lenz says Windsor’s drag culture is nowhere near Detroit’s due to the lack of gay bars.

“A lot of the people here go to Detroit,” he said.

Lenz said in the past, when there were places for queens to perform here, queens from Detroit would come to Windsor.

“There’s about four to five (queens) doing drag performances in the city right now, not on a constant basis but whenever there is an opportunity. Usually, it’s mixed with Detroit drag performers,” said Lenz.

Ryan Boa, known as “Bitch on Arrival” or “BOA” in the drag world, started his career in Windsor but moved to Toronto to pursue it full-time. He doesn’t think he would be where he is today if he had stayed in Windsor.

“I feel like if I were to do drag in Windsor, I wouldn’t be working as much – probably once a month, compared to seven days a week in Toronto. I also don’t think I would have grown as much as I did, because there aren’t many opportunities to perform,” he said.

Despite the lack of bars, Bentley has been able to establish a celebrity status, bringing attention to Detroit’s drag culture.

“We push the shows as hard as possible. We have to keep pushing not only to have somewhere to do our thing but so we can keep going.”

Drag queens have gone mainstream due to Rupaul’s Drag Race, a reality televison series on VH1, where 13 queens compete throughout the season for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar and a cash prize of $100,000.  The show is in its 10th season.

BOA says people will watch this show but won’t go to local bars, especially in smaller cities.  That’s where he says queens need support.

“It kind of sucks, queens who’ve made it on Drag Race will get paid $5,000 to do two numbers and we work so hard to make $150 a night,” he said. “We all have to start somewhere, but people want to see the bigger names and not local talent.”

Some queens rely on drag to make a living while others do it to make a difference in people’s lives. For young kids in the LGBT community, drag queens can be more than just entertainers – people view them as leaders within gay culture.

A pivotal moment in Bentley’s career was when he received a message from a young gay man in the audience the day after a show.

“I received a message from this guy that I had talked him out of suicide that night,” he said. “That was the moment, when I noticed I have an influence in my community. And if I do it the right way, I can change the lives for some people.”

For the time being, he plans to continue pushing Detroit’s drag scene to pave the way for future queens.

Millar Hill
By Millar Hill April 20, 2018 13:32

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