Arts » Theater + Dance

You better work: Indy's Bag Ladies

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Editor's note: Indy Pride has tons of great performances, players and drag kings and queens. As we're an activism-minded publication, we chose to highlight the activism arm of the Indy drag scene. Head over to to see a complete list of all the outstanding events going on next week.

As the world's most famous drag goddess, Her Holiness RuPaul, once said, "You are born naked. Everything else is drag." At the outset, drag performance is merely a carnivalesque spectacle, where the hair and outfits are only there to dazzle. But there's a deeper artistic component, both in the costuming, which many performers do themselves by hand, and in the careful creation of their characters and the very literal gender, um, bending required to pull off a lycra bodysuit. Barring some specifics, you could argue that it's no different than the gender performance we all do in our daily lives, but concentrated into a few hours a week and exaggerated for entertainment's sake, like baseball players on steroids or basketball players high on their own hype.

But, Indy's Bag Ladies are in it for more than fame. When they put on their heels, all kinds of charities get the funds they desperately need. They've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for, most prominently, HIV/AIDS care and research funds, and to other charities like Step Up, Inc.; Indiana Youth Group; Damien Center; American Heart Association, and Cystic Fibrosis. Last year, they raised over $56,000 dollars and have upped this year's goal to $70,000 in honor of founding Bag Lady Coby Palmer's 70th birthday. And just like Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire, they'll do it more gracefully backwards and in high heels than most people could do it forwards on the flat.

Drag requires a baseline kind of boldness and self-acceptance that most of us suburban normal-ites try to capture in little scraps and glimmers throughout our lifetimes. It didn't occur to me until the group was gathered on the circle, as people collected around the Bag Ladies as we set up for a shoot, that being in drag means being at the center of attention at all times—if you sweat, if you fall, if you're mean, if you're nice. And it also means learning to feel fabulous despite questions and glances from the masses that can be everything from strange to downright ignorant. Spending an evening with the Bag Ladies is like standing in the engine room of the "S.S. Fuck You I Look Amazing" and being delightfully deafened by the roar of the confidence and playfulness buzzing in the room.

Up on a third-floor balcony on the Circle where photographer Michelle Craig shot the Bag Ladies, there was a three-foot ledge behind the railing with nothing behind it but a 40-foot drop onto the pavement. Craig mentioned offhand that she wished they could stand out there for some shots. And just like that, Ms. Aurora Diamonds, draped in diaphanous material that caught every breeze and shod in 4-inch Louboutins that brought her total height to well over six feet, climbed over the railing and began arranging the draping of her gown to show off some leg. There was little thought given to the risk, because we had a job to do: capture the best photos of the Bag Ladies gathered, and they made it happen. Diamonds wasn't the only one to risk a fall, either. Forty feet from almost-sure death, they tossed their hair, arranged ruffles, blotted sweat drops and held their hands just so with the placid calm of a seasoned actor in dress rehearsal: just another day on the job. The point isn't for the Bag Ladies to "pass" for women, but to be bigger and bolder than gender and bodies, to skewer the performance so perfectly as to make the rest of us realize how timidly we live our lives and carry ourselves by comparison, how desperately we cling to just one sitcom lookalike of our sense of self. Maybe they're crazy, or maybe everyone else is. All I can tell you is that while seeing those ladies standing on that ledge cracking crass jokes with gravity and the weather threatening to drag them suddenly to the earth, while my far-away hands shook and my mouth went dry watching, I was awestruck and suffused with admiration. The Bag Ladies' ethos and efforts are the eventual fruit of the iconic RuPaul-ism that's defined modern drag since it was first uttered over two decades ago: "You better work."

Anna Bortion

Origin story: I did drag for Halloween once or twice. People loved my energy in it and wanted to see more. There was a drag show at Greg's starring my favorite drag queen at the time, Sharron Needles, so I decided to dress up. I had to give her a name to match the face .. and that was the night Anna was born. I would like to say you could thank famous queens Nina Flowers and Sharron Needles for this disaster.

Anna's Drag Zen: Drag has given me a whole new perspective on the way I view myself as a gay male and as a big ol' joke. Never in my life did I think that drag would be such an empowering and confidence boosting way to express my art. Drag has allowed me to be whatever I can think of in the moment without the care in the world—except for if my lipstick still looks good. Drag gives me the feeling of freedom to express myself and my feelings in the craziest and [most] exciting ways possible.

Bachelorette parties at drag shows? As long as they tip, I don't mind it! I support the local artists in any way possible! Forever giving lap dances for dollars!

How to have a great first show: BE ON TIME! Be fun and friendly! And most importantly, don't drink too much, nobody likes a sloppy drunk. Do not forget to be entertaining, some queens leave that at home.

Craziest thing you've ever seen: I [have] seen just about anything a performer can or can't do on stage. One of my most remembered was a Chicago queen who shall stay unnamed who was drinking heavily between songs. Her last number finally came up and she was so wasted she couldn't walk, grabbed onto the stage curtain and took a dive off the stage. She had to be carried away ... and she was opening for one of RuPaul's queens! This was not cute, unless it was part of her act.

How Anna gets her drink on: I converse with everyone ... and people force me to consume alcohol! I just can't say no to free generosity.

Aurora Diamonds

Origin Story: Aurora came to life during a fundraising drag show at Ball State University in 2005. At the time, I was slightly obsessed with Moulin Rouge and my first performance was "Sparkling Diamond". So I became Aurora Diamond, but I felt the name still needed a little more. Every girl wants more - more diamonds that is! So I made the name plural and the rest is history! Aurora is very classy, confident, hard working, creative (I make 95% of my garments) and sassy! I look up to and try my best to be like the great Bag Ladies before me. All of this plus a great set of legs! It's Aurora!

Advice for Drag Babies: Be original and stay away from drama! Don't just be good, be GREAT! I like to encourage new Bag Ladies/drag queens and to help do so, I started the Aurora Diamonds' Little Drag Closet event where you can purchase gently used drag clothing and accessories as well as get tips on makeup and other essentials! The next LDC will be held on Sunday September 14, 2014.

Aurora's Drag Zen: Be true to yourself! Let no one put you down! Own your craft!

Bachelorette parties at drag shows? Slightly annoying. As a Bag Lady, I personally do not deal with bachelorette parties. As a customer in a bar, I see them all the time! They always want to be upfront and in the way with zero dollars, expecting a personal show from the entertainer on stage! By now, everyone should know to bring dollars for tipping!

How to have a great first show: Take your time with your makeup. Have a complete outfit and have new outfits in rotation. Never take a tip by biting on the dollar! Everyone is watching so be polite to patrons, even the drunk ones!

How does Aurora get the bartender's attention? Catch his eye and bat my lashes. Smile or smirk and order my Cosmo and then pay for my drink and tip him well. I always take care of the bar tender. You never know when someone else will ask the bartender what I'm drinking. I want him or her to remember me!

Aurora Diamonds, spokeswoman for: Shoes! A well made designer (preferable Italian leather) shoe! I believe in style plus comfort. Can't be a good queen in bad shoes that make you hobble and fall down!

Cadillac Barbie

Origin story: The first time I performed was at a private New Year's Day party in January 1993. My friends begged me to do a number. At the time, I worked for a local Cadillac dealership as the Executive Assistant to the owners. Thus, the name "Cadillac' and my friends said that I was like Mattel's Barbie: the "bitch that has everything!" Thus, Cadillac Barbie was born! In terms of influences, I would have to say "Lady Bunn" – she is a beautiful full-figured Queen with a wonderful sense of humor who doesn't take herself too seriously! I only do drag to raise money for good causes – mainly in the LGBT community (HIV/AIDS, Indiana Youth Group, etc.). To me, drag is all about giving back to the community by entertaining people. Bottom line – if you are a 'hefty' queen you better be funny and able to make fun of yourself!

Cadillac Barbie's Drag Zen: Being Cadillac Barbie has given lots of self-confidence both on and offstage. Being able to put on some make-up, a wig, a dress, and shoes and entertain people (making them laugh) and convincing them to give back to the community by donating tips has given my life purpose and has made me a better person. I love being a former Bag Lady Queen and I enjoy serving as Bag Lady Coordinator, a position I have held since 2006. This leadership position is sometimes challenging but it has given me a chance to grow as a person and to hopefully, mentor others.

Bachelorette parties at drag shows? I feel sorry for the "regular" performers at Talbott Street & Zonie's Closet who have to entertain their mostly drunk, obnoxious women at some bachelorette parties who barely tip yet want the performers to pay attention to them. I would respect them more if they would tip the performers and show the same respect that they do other entertainers.

Advice for Drag Babies: Watch and learn from others. Don't be afraid to move on stage. Smile and have a great time! Don't get involved in the drag drama. If you can't say something nice – don't say anything at all and definitely don't post anything negative on Facebook!

Most Tragic Performance: The most "tragic" performance was probably the night I was crowned Bag Lady Queen 2002 and proceeded to fall off the stage (at least I fell on another drag queen). We both got up off the floor, found our wigs that had fallen off and tried to pretend it didn't happen! I don't think my crown has been the same since.

Chelsea Nicole Parker

(CNP if you're buying me shots)

Origin story: I was a theater kid that loved being on stage and entertaining people. I started my career performing in charity events at my undergraduate school and made the transition to pageantry and competition. My name came from sheer panic. I was about to hit the stage for my first show ever and I didn't have a name. So, I combined my childhood dog name, my mother's maiden name and threw Nicole in there because I thought it was classy. My look was influenced by the legends of the Indianapolis scene that I observed for almost 8 years before ever attempting it myself. Watching performers on stage gave me insight on what I did, and sometimes didn't want my look to be. My mannerisms come from watching the greats, or my idols. People like P!nk, Kelly Clarkson and others inspired me to be pretty, and sexy and edgy.

Chelsea's Drag Zen: When I started, I was desperate for everyone to like me to the point of self-deprecating and pandering. As I have gotten more experienced in the craft, I've let that go. Now, I don't care if you don't care if you don't like me, my look, or what I have to say because there are enough people that do, or I'd be lip-syncing to a hair brush in my bathroom mirror. It has definitely made me grow into sort of a coy sexiness in and out of drag. I feel that drag has given me such a strong hyper feminine outlet for my soul that when I'm out of drag, my hyper masculine side can change his car brakes and enjoy playing football.

Advice for drag show virgins: Before the show begins, remember two important things. 1: Most often we are paid a small stipend, called 'show pay,' for our time and efforts, but the majority of the money we intend to make comes from the generosity of the audience. I always say, show me you can tolerate me with one dollar, that you like me with five dollar, or that you love me with a $20. So toss us a few bucks if you like what we're serving. 2: Unless you are specifically approached, do not think that you can sing or dance my number better than I can while I'm in the middle of it. Do I come to your work and tell you how to salt my fries? No. So don't tell me how to do my job. It's embarrassing and awkward. For you.

How Chelsea gets her drink on: Oh, sweetie, that's what the boys are for. Now, run along and get this diva a cocktail ... pretty please.

Jessica Montgomery

Origin story: I've done 31 years of female impersonation. My drag name is a combination of one of my drag sisters named Jessica and one of my favorite actresses Elizabeth Montgomery. As far as my mannerisms, etc., I learned a lot about who I am and the way that I am from my actual drag mother Katie Alexander Montgomery who was the one that got me hooked on Bewitched and Elizabeth Montgomery. Also I had my VERY GOOD drag sister Ashley West paint my face and she told me "One day you are going to be someone these queens WILL respect." I went on to compete and win Miss Capitol City America 1998.

Advice for Drag Babies: Be yourself and you'll go far but always accept a helping hand where needed.

Jessica's Drag Zen: Drag has taught me that, yes, you may not succeed when you first try, but you should keep trying. When I first began I was what we call a booger wasnt very talented and knew nothing about drag or even drag make-up.

Most Tragic Performance Ever: When I started doing drag I wanted to be on stage so bad, I used liquid make-up and ya know what they say "Cover Girl doesn't cover boy." During my performance I fell off the stage. Yep, I was a mess.

How Jessica gets her drink on: If I were in a club, I would learn and know the bar staff's names because that's just being professional. And I would call them over by name because I think that's the way it should be done. You want to have positive influence on your club including the bar staff, including the owners.

Jessica Montgomery, Spokeswoman for: I would be the spokeswoman for MAC make-up and Jim Beam bourbon, simply because MAC has GREAT eye shadow color and gives you flawless coverage and Jim Beam bourbon, well what can I say? ... Having a cocktail while you're painting your face goes hand-in-hand.

Lola Palooza

Origin Story: Lola was an obvious choice for a first name because there were so many songs that sang her name. When I first started I loved Carmen Miranda, the headdress and the loudness of her look. I loved it all. So I originally was Lola Miranda. Later I had a benefit show and I called it "Lola Palooza," as in a "festival" or "show of me." Everyone commented on how they loved the new name. I would look back confused at the idea of a new name. Finally my eye caught the poster and I began to think about it ... and EUREKA! Every time I work on my presentation of Lola, I think about what I would find entertaining. Lola is always changing and evolving based on my moods and experiences. It is exactly like developing a character for the theater. Because this process has been s long term effort, Lola has become a rich three dimensional character.

Advice for Drag Babies: Always remember to separate you from your character. Drama, ego, and attitude are fun on stage but taking that attitude into your personal life and on Facebook just burns bridges and hinders friendships. At the end of the day, we are glamorous clowns and should be more focused on being entertaining than being important.

Lola's Drag Zen: When in drag it is easy to be confident. It is a mask that we wear. It protects us from the opinions of others so that we are free to be outrageous and break social norms. Before Lola was created, I would not say that I was shy but I was much quieter. I also didn't know how to express my anger towards the prejudice I would witness and be a victim of on a regular basis. Lola gave me a voice and a mission to be not just an entertainer, but be an entertainer that benefits our community.

Bachelorette Parties at Drag Shows? I am of two minds on this. First, any person that comes to a show looking to be entertained and have a good time is welcome. All I ask is that you show the performers the respect you would want on your wedding day. I have only once had a bride-to-be try to pull a wig off and she got married with a black eye. Most of my experiences have been positive and I haven't slapped anyone in a long time. Second, it doesn't matter what kind of party you are with, if you come out to a drag show to act like an idiot and treat me like trash then you have two choices. You can hit the bricks or I can introduce you to the bricks. There are a rare occasions when individuals come in and feel that we (the performers) are to be treated like trash. They act as though they are beyond us and can not be bothered with showing anyone respect. If you don't want to be here then go away, and for everyone else, let's drink!

Scarlette O'Hairy

Origin story: I used to live in Virginia and the first drag show I participated in was a holiday fundraiser where I dressed as Kenny Rogers in a red velvet tuxedo to do a live duet with a friend dressed as Dolly Parton. They originally gave me the name Scarlette Letter when they saw the red coat, but then the announcer saw me getting dressed and changed it to Scarlette O'Hairy, because I am very hairy all over. The actual look has evolved; I don't like trying to do a standard thing where I appear the same every show or appearance.

Advice for Drag Babies: Find a friend your size who is already involved and borrow. This stuff gets very expensive and their experience with make-up, hair, etc. is always helpful.

Scarlette's Drag Zen: It takes a very big village to make this work and so many people give of themselves. It is humbling to recognize the amount of effort this takes and those who do it extremely well like Cadillac Barbie, Latrina Bidet and Aurora Diamond deserve all the praise they can get.

How to have a great first show: Respect your peers, be on time, stay professional, keep your numbers less than four minutes, work the whole audience and have fun. The bottom line for us (the Bag Ladies) is raising money for charities, not outside or personal glory.

How Scarlette gets her drink on: I usually send my husband!

Scarlette O'Hairy, spokeswoman for: I wouldn't hawk a product, but I would definitely be the spokesperson for ANY charity; especially veterans, AIDS, cancer or education.

Tonya Campisi

Origin Story: I was invited to go on the Bag Lady Bus Tour by Blossom Bagladyqueenmother aka Coby Palmer and Ed Walsh, founders of the Bag Ladies. This was in October of 1983. Later in 1991 I became a Bag Lady Queen. The influences for the name came about by a roommate; we were always called Rhoda and Tonya like "Laverne and Shirley". The Bag Ladies are campy drag queens so I took my roommate's last name of Campisi. My introduction used to be ... "She's easy, She's sleazy, She's Tonya Campisi." I'm a little more sophisticated now, not sleazy like the earlier days. A good reference would be earlier days I was like a cheap wine, today I'm like a fine champagne. Please don't ask any of my Bag Lady sisters they would lie to you about my character change. I say this most lovingly most of them, however, haven't changed.

Advice for Drag Babies: Choose what you want to be: a campy queen or a true female illusionist, and carry it through in developing your drag character. Have a mission for your new persona. Have fun with it. There are many examples of both; unique in many ways. One thing to remember, characters a like snowflakes, no two are the same. Don't try to duplicate. Another thing: remember your audience they are the ones that help to make you who you are.

Tonya's Drag Zen: I am very confident with myself. I know who I am and what I want. I think gender performance has taught that I can have two completely different personalities and still be confident with each of them.

How Tonya gets bartender attention: Tonya always gets the attention of bartenders just her presence at the bar, how could they not notice her. They usually take care of my drinks. When I start digging in my bra and breast for my money or charge card they just say no problem it's on me.

Tonya Campisi, for: Make up ... it's the finishing layer for your drag persona. I do what I do as a man in womens attire to raise money. That's what we are: a fundraiser.


Drag dos & don'ts

Pride Week is the perfect time to dip your toe into the drag pool of possibilities. Never been to a show? No problem. We threw together some drag etiquette tips to make sure everyone enjoys the show.

• DO bring cash for tipping. Singles are fine, but larger bills tell the ladies you like what they're servin'.

• DON'T tip them like you would a stripper. Hold out your tip and let the performer take it with her hands. Keep it classy.

• DO get rowdy for the ladies you love!

• DON'T take the party vibe as an invitation to get up on stage and try to sing along. It's a performance, not karaoke.

• DO have a few drinks, of course!

• DON'T get sloppy. No one likes a sloppy drunk.

• DO be respectful as you would to any other performer: drag performers perfect their art over many years, just like actors and musicians. Treat them with the same respect.

• DON'T forget: everyone's there to have a good time. Enjoy the show in that spirit.


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