The Frederick Divas take Glitz and Glamour to Campy Heights for Charity
“Who Doesn’t need a little drag in their lives, hmm?” It’s a wild night at the lodge on U.S. 40, and this rhetorical question, posed to the crowd by a sequined, 6-foot-tall man in a dress that would make Liberace seem sedate, signals the start of an evening of unstoppable, campy, glitzy, glamorous fun. The Frederick Divas, a group of drag performers from Western Maryland and beyond, are hosting their yearly Deadliest Diva Contest and mistress of ceremonies Nicole James gets a decidedly non ladylike reaction that clearly communicates that the question is rhetorical.
The Deadliest Diva Contest is an evening devoted to drag queens lip-syncing to pop songs and camping it up on the dance floor. Nicole calls them “entertaingerous,” as in, “Our next entertaingerous is our reigning Deadly Diva, Ms. Chastity Vain!” Ms. Vain, an aloof figure, deigns to enter the room as Nefertiti, on a litter carried by four, bare-chested young men. She is a he, though you’d have to know it to know it. She cuts an impressive figure, with her retinue of dancers around her, bowing and dancing in vaguely Ancient Egyptian fashion.
The show is part contest, part show, with very serious judges at a table with little lights illuminating their faces from beneath. They do not smile while judging, as the performers dance and act out parts from movies with innuendo-laden camp. The audience is wildly diverse. There are men dressed (badly) as women, there are women who may be men (in a darkened club, one uses context clues and from across the room, there isn’t enough context to tell and it would be rude to stare). There are straight couples, gay men and ages ranging from 21 to 81, all of whom appear to be having a great time amongst the pageantry.
Merriam-Webster defines “cognitive dissonance” as the “mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information.” To experience this show, made up of men being more woman than the actual women at this log cabin gay bar that, for the most part, exists peacefully near one of the more popular biker bars on the East Coast … well, the level of cognitive dissonance creates a head-spinning C.D.U. (Cognitive Dissonance Universe) all it’s own, whose laws seem only to be based in fun, entertainment and enough glitter to choke a horse.
After the show, the Divas met up in the narrow kitchen of The Lodge for a chat about the meaning behind it all. For these divas, this is both a hobby and a way to help others while engaging in an admittedly different kind of art form.
“I started doing this in the 1980’s when AIDS was really first starting to kill people.” Nicole sweeps an elegant, glittering arm through the air, taking in all the sequined, mascara-ed pageantry sitting in the kitchen: “I was asked by some folks to help out in a benefit they were doing. They asked me to dress up as a girl and lip-sync to music. And I said, ‘Uh, OK, that’s different.’” That first show led to many others, and, to date, The Divas have raised tens of thousands of dollars since forming their group at The Great Frederick Boat Float in 2007. “From then on, it was all about the fundraisers we were asked to perform at. We raised money for hospice care, for [Hurricane] Katrina victims, for breast cancer, children’s homes, church benefits, and we were able to do that while competing in national competitions also.”
Ashley Bannks is the current Miss Gay Maryland and is representing Maryland’s sisterhood at the national competition in St. Louis. Her costume is a slinky, black number, festooned with white, fluffy rat toys that bring out the white and black streaks in her elaborate pageboy haircut. “We all want to be the best, and we mess with one another sometimes. We’ll sabotage another performer’s costume or whatever, but when it comes down to it, we defend one another. We work as a family unit, even though we compete against one another, too.”
The Frederick Divas do their wild thing at The Lodge once a month, an effective way of letting off steam, and leaving your troubles in your old kit bag. Especially if that old kit bag is a sparkly purse full of glitter and sequins, carried by one with a big, big heart.
According to Nicole (drag performers, in the main, prefer to be called by their female names when dressed in costume, to the point that their male names were never even revealed) the Frederick Divas are “just a group of guys looking for a way to share their art form with the world while making a difference in people’s lives at the same time. Even if it’s just making them smile or laugh for a few hours. We need that in today’s world where every day seems to be filled with negativity in the news. It also helps us to forget the problems we face at different times.”
One drag performer that the troupe knows even tours with Reba McEntire, having first performed as Reba in a stage show visited by the county legend. “Hired her on the spot! The next day she was flown out to join Reba’s tour as the illusion of Reba onstage,” Nicole says.
But it’s not all glamorous fun and big wigs. Nicole gets a unanimous murmur of disgusted, resigned agreement when she points out, “I’d have to say my overall pet peeve is the question, ‘Do you do this for sexual reasons and why do you wanna be a woman? My answer is, I don’t and I don’t.’”
“We come here as guys, and we leave here as guys,” adds Nicole, “We are not transvestites, we are performers. We dress up and raise money for charity.”