Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

'Can We Say Penis at the Mall?' My Drunken Afternoon at a Shopping Center Drag Show

Image: Getty
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Some of my earliest memories are of watching MTV footage of Tiffany Darwish on her 1980s mall tour of America in my middle of nowhere Louisiana living room. She sang from balconies to hoards of screaming teenaged fans in far-off, exotic sounding places like Paramus, New Jersey, red mane fluffed to a feathery, ginger halo, collar of her jean jacket popped to the gods. This is glamor, I, for better or worse, decided at four years old.

It was an epiphany similar to the one I’d have 12 years later, when a neighbor and I snuck into my first drag show with fake IDs. Our town’s one gay bar was in a former train station, and dark creaky stairs led up a back hallway to a disco ball-lit room about the size of a train car with a tiny, mirror-backed stage.

No this is fucking glamor, I finally understood, as I saw my first evening gowns cinched to Dolly Parton proportions on queens who towered over me, hair high enough to get them closer to Jesus than any bouffants I’d ever seen in Baptist church pews.

I haven’t been to church in two decades, but the morning I was invited to see Violet Chachki, Ginger Minj, Bob the Drag Queen, and Kim Chi at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, I woke up while it was still dark to iron a Laura Ashley for Urban Outfitters dress before my weekend Jezebel shift with all the care I used to save for putting myself together on Sunday mornings when the Lord and all his earthly agents would see me in the aisles of Cypress Baptist. On the way out the door, as an afterthought, I grabbed an oversized denim jacket covered in pins I’ve collected from hipster record stores and weed shops—this was a mall tour after all.

I’d never been to the Beverly Center, but I knew it from Clueless, and inside, it was just as absurdly huge and mercilessly white as I’d seen on TV. Sun streamed through a glass roof. There weren’t many people around. It felt like a sitcom joke about dying and going to some capitalist heaven where Ralph Lauren was god all along, and I reminded myself that after the drag thing, I needed to swing by Bloomingdale’s and look at sale panties.

A week before, I’d been shunted to blogger hell, at the back of the press line for the MTV TV and Movie Awards where organizers seemed annoyed I’d even bothered to show, but in the glowing, empty mall, the hosts of this event were excited to give me my press credentials.

“Where do I go?” I asked, same as I had asked the harried MTV crew member the week before.

“Anywhere you want,” said a person in head-to-toe black with the sort of angular haircut that makes me hyper-conscious of how very uncool I am. Inside it was just me, a few rows of white couches, cater waiters, and an open bar. I drank a glass of white, listened to Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” on the mall speakers, and read Lady Bunny’s thoughts on capitalism commodifying pride and drag while I waited to watch TV-famous queens perform inside a mall. When a waiter offered me some yellowfin crudo, I hate it with a full understanding that I am part of Lady Bunny’s problem.

For about 30 minutes, I was mostly alone. To my right, the “red” carpet was actually a square of white rug with a tiny step and repeat. On a giant LED screen in the center of the atrium, huge letters assured me that the Beverly Center celebrates Pride, in partnership with World of Wonder, which produces RuPaul’s Drag Race and The Advocate.

It was a Kiehl’s, not a Sunglass Hut, but the point stands.
It was a Kiehl’s, not a Sunglass Hut, but the point stands.

At noon, fans started to trickle in: teenagers in high heels and full faces of glitter makeup trailed by fathers who looked scared to touch anything, couples of every configurable gender combination holding hands, groups of twenty-something-year-olds in 90s throwback sundresses. Guys in their finest Klien, Epstein, & Parker. Relentlessly blonde L.A. women in Real Housewives jewel-toned daywear. There was a churchgoing formality to everyone as we sat straight-backed on the white leatherette pews, wondering when the service would begin. Fifteen minutes after the “cocktail hour” was supposed to start (and well into my second cocktail), I heard someone gasp, “There they are.”

And as if descending from heaven, three queens were slowly conveyed to us via escalator, flanked on all sides by baffled-looking mortals clutching plastic Macy’s bags. Sunlight through the glass ceiling met Ginger’s (the self-described “Glamor Toad) pond-hued sequins, dazzling those of us waiting below, Kim Chi’s sherbet-colored marabou feathers rippled in a breeze that seemed to find only her. Madonna’s Vogue ponytail wishes it could reach the summit of Bob’s cascading queue de cheval.

Image for article titled 'Can We Say Penis at the Mall?' My Drunken Afternoon at a Shopping Center Drag Show
Image: Getty

We pressed against each other, camera phones out, on the non-famous side of a rope dividing us from the queens on the cramped step and repeat. The atrium was like a greenhouse, and I could feel my armpits leaking into my Laura Ashley. Sometime after the other queens had already begun meeting and greeting, Violet appeared on the carpet like an apparition, wearing sunglasses indoors as if her own glow was too much for weary eyes.

In broad daylight, under the weight of wigs and gowns on a snatch of carpet laid on mall tile in front of a store selling athleisure wear, the queens seemed just as confused as the rest of us about what was supposed to be happening. And after a bit of awkward posing apropos of any mall photo session, a short Q&A with Carson Kressley was a little bit about drag and a lot about how great shopping is (which I assume was on behalf of the nice mall that let the drag queens have a party in their atrium). All the queens seemed aware of the double-edged bitch of a day drag mall show as a strange sort of progress:

“Fifty years after Stonewall, and I’m doing drag in a mall, right across from a Sunglass Hut,” Bob said at one point, and in the audience, we laughed and cheered, though the victory seems complicated.

“I think there are gay people here,” he continued, and we legitimately cheered that.

In response to another question, Violet alluded to the penises beneath the gowns and pads, “Can we say penis at the mall? I’ve never done mall drag.” Carson didn’t seem to know, and neither did the curious shoppers who’d begun to line up along the balconies above us.

At the close of the Q&A, Bob said that the point of Pride (and maybe the mall show) was to “Bring it out of the darkness and into the sunlight and say this is who I am and what I do.”

“In the sunlight,” Violet reiterated. “At a mall.”

But when the drag show began, we left the mall and went into the dark train car, perhaps because at that point, we were drunk enough for 11 pm even though it was early afternoon. When Bob stripped off her short black cocktail dress to reveal a rainbow gown during a spot-on lip-sync to Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” the audience leapt to our feet, hollering like we were at a tent revival. And when Violet did a striptease to Lemaitre’s “Closer” the congregation on the white couches, not to mention the two stories of people who’d gathered along the sides of the balconies to see what the commotion was about, turned into a bunch of 1980s teenagers, driven to religious ecstasies in the presence of a star on another stop in their mall tour. It was every bit as glamorous as I’d imagined Paramus must be.

Violet Chachki performs burlesque in front of a Zara
Violet Chachki performs burlesque in front of a Zara

I forgot to look at sale panties, but I did get a chance to speak with Kim Chi and Violet. Here’s what they told me:

JEZEBEL: I met Trixie and Katya last weekend.

Kim Chi: I’m so sorry.

I asked them about the New York rankings of the drag queens, so I wanted to ask y’all. How do you feel about your rank?

Kim Chi: I mean, luckily, I was in the top 17. However, I feel like each of us have a different talent, and we bring awareness to so many different issues. I feel like it was very unfair for them to rank us. It was very obvious that it wasn’t well-researched. It was clickbait to get more hits, so I feel like they owe it to the gay community to redo the list. Not rankings but celebrating each queen.

The article I’m working on is clickbait. This whole interview.

Kim Chi: Perfect. Write Kim Chi is actually a racist.

Do you think the popularity of Drag Race, among other things, has changed the dynamic of Pride? I don’t think we’ve always had big drag shows in the middle of the mall.

Kim Chi: Thanks to Drag Race we’ve found a bigger audience. So the more allies the better.

Do you think the popularity of Drag Race is changing not just the way people are appreciating drag but the way queens are doing drag?

Kim Chi: Drag is originally an art that started in theaters, and now it’s evolving towards a moment where drag can be used as activism. So I feel like because drag is a form of art, all art should evolve. And the direction that we’re moving now is toward mainstream.

Thank you for talking to us, and thank you for being racist so people will click on this.

Kim Chi: Of course.

Hi Violet, I’m Emily I’m from Jezebel.

Violet Chachki: Thanks for coming.

Thanks for having me. Nobody invites Jezebel to anything. I have a question specifically for you. Why didn’t people pay enough attention to your Met Gala outfit?

Violet: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I have so many questions that just have to go unanswered. Carson would know better than me. I lived my fantasy. That’s all that matters.

I now have to ask you how you feel about the New York rankings of the drag queens.

Violet: That is a loaded question. I could list off my favorite vegetables in order but would anybody really care? Anybody can make a list of anything. It’s really trashy of the New Yorker, especially during Pride season.

Finally, we get to the big question: can you rank your favorite vegetables?

Violet: I like carrots. Are potatoes a vegetable? We should not be ranking anything. It’s unfair. They’re all special and delicious in their own way.

What are your favorite things about Pride?

Violet: Honestly, for me, Pride is for straight people. Pride for me is all the time. It’s like Santa Claus Christmas season.

I’m from Louisiana, and it is kind of like if Mardi Gras smelled better.

Violet: Yeah, it’s like if I lived in New Orleans and somebody asked me how Mardi Gras was.

What do you think we could do to bring Pride beyond June?

Violet: The biggest thing I’ve noticed this season is the brand ambassadorships and the collaborations, and it’s like these could be a year-long conversation. It’s a double-edged sword because I’m grateful that there’s inclusion happening, but at the same time we need to talk about what’s going on the other 11 months. And what we can do year-long. For me, it’s like “Are you going to do anything for Pride,” and it’s like, I do things for Pride all the time. That’s all I do. I’m fucking gay. My life is Pride.

As a straight person, I’m glad you have a month specifically to include me.

Violet: Exactly. It’s a double-edged sword, but I’m happy it exists.

I’m happy you exist.

Violet: Well, I’m doing drag at a mall. You’re welcome. Happy Pride.