Webster University’s annual Drag Ball turned 17 on March 24 as performers, both amateur and…
A zombie apocalypse
Photography by Jennifer Meyers
Webster University celebrated its 19th annual Drag Ball with queens, kings and blood—zombie blood, that is. The “living dead” theme drove the night as audience members were entertained by professional and student performers. The show, held on March 28 in Grant Gymnasium, drew nearly 500 people to watch performers take the stage.
The event was hosted by Siren and Rydyr, professional drag performers in the St. Louis circuit. The gym was packed with zombie props, food, loud music, smoke machines and flashing lights. But for the performers, drag is about more than just eccentricities.
Drag as an art form
Lana Williams, president of Webster’s LGBTQ Alliance, has been in charge of Drag Ball for two years and has performed for the last five. She said she sees drag as an expression of all emotions through song and performance.
“You get to perform and be someone new and great, and show full emotion. It’s a pretty big part of my life. I used to perform all the time at nightclubs,” Williams said. “Everyone is very supportive at Drag Ball, and the love in the room is amazing. No one is ever not cheering for you.”
Kevin Hamilton, a junior dance major, has performed twice at Drag Ball—once this year and once his freshman year. He said drag is a means to express oneself without any judgements.
“Performing drag is such a brave thing to do. You don’t always know what everyone’s reaction will be, but at the same time, you don’t really care,” Hamilton said. “It’s not only a way to express myself, but to acknowledge that I am an African American, gay male in this world, and I’m just living my life and doing my thing. It’s like a celebration for me.”
Hamilton said he has no words to describe the way he feels, knowing how much love and support he has from his peers and the audience. He calls Drag Ball his “wedding day” because it means so much to him, and also because his “bridesmaids” helped him get ready.
Video by Sierra Hancock
Planning and preparation
Drag Ball is an event that involves months of preparation. The gym is booked a year in advance for a set date, and planning for the theme begins in October. Budgeting starts in January, professional drag performers are contacted by the end of February, and March is spent holding amateur auditions.
“We try to get six or seven professionals to perform and around seven or eight amateurs that are either students at Webster or any other college around,” Williams said. “By spring break, we have to order all the decorations and cupcakes. We order 300 cupcakes, and the day of Drag Ball we buy all the other food.”
Williams said the budget for Drag Ball is $6,000. Each organization involved, known as “co-programmers,” give up to $2,000.
The day prior to and the day of the event are the most work. The day before is spent setting up the gym with decorations.
“There’s a lot of renting of equipment from other places. The day of Drag Ball is a lot of running around town, getting lights and fog machines,” Williams said. “We had to get a speaker system and hire a (disc jockey). There’s a lot of setting up.”
Along with the basics, Williams makes a point to find an organization that will provide students with free HIV testing at the event.
“It’s a free test, and you get your results in 15 minutes,” she said. “I made sure we had it there just in case someone wants to get tested. If they want to, then it’s there for them.”
Behind the veil
In drag, Hamilton goes by the name Carmen, and to him the name feels sassy, fierce and classy. He found the dress he performed in at Goodwill for $15, and he bought his wig from a beauty supply store for $20. But the day of Drag Ball, he only had the dress.
“I couldn’t find a wig or shoes, and I was stressing out. This was three hours before the show. And I wasn’t even set on my music yet,” he said. “I finally got everything that I needed, and I finalized my music, but I didn’t have anything choreographed either.”
Because he finalized his music choices last-minute, Hamilton had to choreograph his performance in his head while listening to the music in the car over and over again.
“Plus, I hadn’t even danced with the shoes on yet, so I didn’t know how that was going to turn out either. I was just going to wing everything,” he said. “My friend was painting my nails while I was shaving 30 minutes before the show.”
Hamilton spent a serious amount of time finding the perfect songs to perform to, which he said is his favorite part about drag. He chose a mix of songs, drawing from artists like Whitney Houston and Beyoncé.
“For me, the music tells all. You can get into a costume and do a show, but the music tells the story. If the music’s not right and you’re not getting a story across, then what is the purpose of performing in drag?” he said. “When I perform in drag, I try to pick out songs that leave people feeling great about themselves and that get across a good message: to love and respect everyone and acknowledge that I am a human.”
Unlike Hamilton, Williams said she normally does not prepare her song until the show starts. For her, the process is improvisational.
“I’m a conservatory student, so I’m used to performing and improvising. So for me it’s not a lot of preparation, but I know for the drag queens it can be. They have to paint to put their faces on,” she said.
On stage, Williams performs as Lil Wayne. She said her preparation is mostly just grabbing a marker and drawing on her face to mimic his facial tattoos.
“My favorite thing about performing drag is being Lil Wayne and people asking me if I am really him,” she said. “It happens multiple times every year. It’s fun.”
Last year, Drag Ball faced criticism from the Westboro Baptist Church. According to Williams, the group threatened to come to Drag Ball and boycott. The group ultimately ended up changing its mind.
“They didn’t go through with it because I invited them after they threatened to come. Once they said they were going to show up, I was like, ‘Yeah, feel free to come in.’ I guess they realized it wasn’t going to work, and no one was going to listen to their boycott. And that was not what they wanted,” Williams said.
Besides controversy, drag performers face many misconceptions. The most common misinformation Hamilton hears is about drag being dirty, nasty and always sexual.
“Drag performers can get really sexual and feed into that stereotype, but there’s also so much more to drag and different ways of performing it,” Hamilton said. “I feel like a man putting on a dress can read wrong, but it’s more than that. It’s about you as an individual trying to say something.”
Williams said she believes people assume drag has to look a certain way, but that she invites all types of people to perform at Drag Ball.
“People think drag is always a guy dressed as a girl or a girl dressed as a guy. Our main host, Siren, has a full beard and didn’t shave, yet he was dressed like a woman,” Williams said.
Williams said the crowd turnout and participation at Drag Ball has grown immensely. For the past few years, between 300 and 400 people attended the show, but this year the crowd reached nearly 500.
“I’m very happy with how many people showed up to watch and support,” she said. “I hope Webster can continue to have a growing crowd and that more people become interested in attending or even performing.”