By Andrew Henderson, Point Park News Service:
Cindy Crotchford started her performance coyly, sitting on the bar with her legs crossed, in a modest green gown. By the end, her dress and wig were on the floor, and the performer now stood, over six feet tall and hefty, even for her height, in a black corset and panties, upending a Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy over herself in a wretched shower of suds and sweat.
“She spilled her beer, and now she’s mopping it up with her dress!” Bambi Deerest, this evening’s emcee, said with a mixture of amazement and enthusiasm. “And that’s what? Sickening!”
Of course, the spill was intentional, “sickening” is a compliment, and the actress in question isn’t really a woman at all. Welcome to the weekly drag show at Blue Moon in Lawrenceville, Pa.
It’s all part of the gig here, in the heart of Pittsburgh’s surprisingly vibrant drag community, set in a once-gritty, working-class neighborhood.
I readily admit that my reaction was one of amazement as well. My own experience in the drag world has been limited, even as a gay man living in this drag-filled city. I’d seen it on TV and I saw a local show once as a young student, but I was unprepared for this level of uninhibited passion. As I watched Ms. Crotchford perform, I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of world I was about to dive into, and who the real-world people were behind these masks of foundation and lip liner.
In reality, the story turned out to be about more than I realized standing there that night, watching the show, and wiping flecks of stale beer off of my forehead. It is a story of not just a few performers, or of one bar, but of a city, and the rebellious culture it contains.
The eastern end of Pittsburgh has seen a grand revitalization in the last few years, with an influx of technology and medical science industry leaders moving into the area, bringing money and young professionals along with them.
This urban renewal has had its darker side, as many older residents and storefronts have been forced to move out due to rising cost of living – according to Pittsburgh real estate records, median housing prices in the neighborhood have shot from $188,000 to $298,000 in three years – and a lack of patronage from the new demographics of the area. But Blue Moon, one of Pittsburgh’s many thriving gay bars, seems to have made the transition with ease, thanks to its legendary cast of characters and amazingly successful track record. The bar is a proven ground for drag performers, with numerous globally recognized queens having first broken in their XL heels there.
The origins of the bar have slid into the territory of legend rather than actual memory. As I speak with performers, patrons and bartenders alike, I get wildly varying stories.
“It started as a safe space for trans youth,” one of the performers said.
“When it first opened, it was a lesbian bar. I don’t know where they all went; you know how lesbians are,” the bartender said.
“I moved here a few years ago, so it was here long before I was. In my mind, it’s just always been here,” a bar patron said.
Regardless, in the present day, a public that is enamored with the idea of drag queens easily sustains the bar, filling it to capacity and overflowing nearly every week. The patrons of the bar don’t fall into any neat category.
“Make some noise if you’re a gay man!” Bambi screamed to her audience. A massive cheer. “Now make some noise if you’re a lesbian!” Another significant, if noticeably smaller shout went up. “Any straight girls?” Shrieks. “How about any straight guys?” One guy was brave enough to respond. Later in private, Bambi confirmed that the bar caters to just about everyone. The bar’s patrons range anywhere “between underage and basically dead” she said.
The art of drag has gained immense popularity in the last few years thanks to Logo Network’s wildly popular reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” For those unfamiliar, the show is equal parts parody and imitation, echoing the style of The CW’s “America’s Next Top Model” as drag queens compete in various challenges in hopes of becoming “The Next Drag Superstar.”
The show has enjoyed enormous popularity, with the finale episode of the 2016 season reaching nearly 550,000 unique viewers. While that doesn’t compete with mainstream reality shows – “America’s Next Top Model” ratings topped at over 6 million viewers in its peak – it’s a significant number for a cult gay-themed show airing in deep cable. Logo’s next most popular show, “Finding Prince Charming,” brings in barely a quarter of those numbers.
The show has taken the art of drag out of fringe society and into the mainstream, introducing the general public to the intricacies and styles of the drag world.
Drag-culture education is readily available for those who want it. From documentaries like “Paris is Burning” and “Pageant,” to books and memoirs written by experienced queens, an interested reader can dive into the intricacies of the drag world with little difficulty. However, for those with less time, allow me to present a very brief summary.
Drag is less standardized than the typical outside observer may assume. Drag queens are as diverse and individualized as the women they impersonate. There are glamorous pageant queens, focused on elegant looks, with big hair and glittering makeup. These contrast with comedy queens, who are focused on performance and sight gags. Queens can be more cartoonish, or they can be fishy – drag slang for a queen who appears to be a real woman.
Through this television-fueled revival, Pittsburgh, and Blue Moon in particular, has risen as a force of drag excellence. In 10 seasons of Drag Race (including two “All Stars” seasons, with fan favorite contestants returning for a second shot at the title), Blue Moon has fathered not one, but two contest winners, Sharon Needles and Alaska, both of whom brought a unique perspective to their seasons and ultimately took home the show’s signature glittering crown.
While most of the world was first introduced to these characters as they made their reality TV debuts in the hot pink workroom of RuPaul’s Drag Race, regulars at Blue Moon know the real backstory, and the legend of the Haus of Haunt. Ask any of the performers or bartenders, and they will tell you with passion and color, just as Bambi Deerest told it to me. The story goes something like this:
In the late 2000’s, interest and patronage of Blue Moon was declining, thanks to a changing atmosphere in Pittsburgh’s East End. Gone were the days of street fights and high crime. Instead, the area was becoming populated with students, young professionals and the urban bohemia, none of whom were too interested in the local amateur drag acts.
So Sharon Needles, Alaska and fellow Pittsburgh drag veteran Cherri Baum rebranded themselves as the Haus of Haunt, introducing a revolutionary new take on drag. The girls were spooky, punk rock and unrefined. They brought a carnal energy to their shows, fueled by a desire to be different and new. In a lengthy Facebook post published in October of 2012, Alaska described the formation of the group.
“We girls of the Blue Moon needed to find a way to brand ourselves and make ourselves marketable to a larger audience. Bonding over our love of blood, the macabre, and our overall punk-rock sensibility, the family known as the Haus of Haunt was born,” she wrote. The Haus took off at the Blue Moon; with Saturday night shows bringing in audiences like never before.
When RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 premiered in January of 2012, Blue Moon patrons were thrilled to see their own Sharon Needles competing on the newly popular show. The excitement only grew when Sharon was crowned the winner by the end. Throughout the course of the season, Sharon had spoken openly about the Haus of Haunt and what it meant to her as a refuge for outcasts and weirdos. The Haus of Haunt was catapulted into a global spotlight, and people from around the world, gay men especially, found that they related to the message of acceptance and individuality.
“The Haus of Haunt has since become not an exclusive club, whose members are strictly dictated by a discerning group of legendary founders, but it has become open to anyone who wants to claim their own inner spookiness,” Alaska continued later in the same Facebook post. “Open to anyone who feels like they don’t belong. Open to the freaks, the weirdos, and the outcasts of the world. To the Haus of Haunt, all are welcome, and none are turned away.”
While the girls from the original Haus have moved on and up to a larger stage than the 6-foot-by-10-foot wooden one at the Blue Moon, the bar still boasts an impressive cast of regular performers, who seek to fill the massive heels of those who have come before.
I wanted to get to know these people and explore what it is about this bar that makes it such a proving ground for young performance artists. How does this small hole in the wall bar in a Pittsburgh suburb become one of the most successful drag incubators in the world?
Fortunately, the openness of the original Haus of Haunt still lives within the cracked walls of the old bar, and I was able to spend a couple weeks inserting myself into the spooky and spectacular world of Blue Moon. I was able to eat, drink and be very, very merry with some of the bar’s most up and coming performers. The Haus of Haunt and the story of Blue Moon’s past may be legend now, but these performers are building their legacies now. And the story of Blue Moon’s future will be irreversibly intertwined with their stories. So how do you walk in the shadow of greatness? Answer: by being even better.
Part I: A Pittsburgh 10 but a Real World 6 – Bambi Deerest
Blue Moon’s formidable speaker system was pulsing with the beat of Pharrell Williams’ 2013 smash hit ‘Happy’:
“Because I’m happy/clap along if you feel like a room without a roof/Because I’m happy/clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.”
But Bambi Deerest wasn’t clapping along. Clad in a black mini-dress and matching heels, she scowled down at the audience, all but baring her teeth at the tune.
Bambi is the creation of Brandon James White, heir apparent to the Haus of Haunt throne.
This night was Spice Night, Blue Moon’s annual tribute to the Spice Girls, and Bambi was impersonating Posh Spice. The intentionally ironic contrast between the set music and the attitude of this drag version of Posh was only the first indication of the wickedly vicious sense of humor that is signature to White’s work.
A Spice Girls themed drag show may seem unsubstantial in terms of performance art, but there were complex layers of character work at play. This was no mere parody; this was Brandon White as Bambi Deerest as Victoria Beckham as Posh Spice – a veritable triple layer cake of character impersonation. Her set was a compilation of audio clips from pop songs and movie monologues, assembled deliberately to sell this concept as believable.
When I met White, he was sitting in the backmost corner of a downtown coffee shop, his lanky legs folded under the tall stool he sat on the edge of. The pose made his thin body seem small, almost demure – a stunning contrast compared to his character, who often feels as if she is seven feet tall.
Meeting at that specific shop was his idea, but when I got there, he hadn’t ordered anything. Out of drag, his look was simple. Black jeans and a faded denim jacket gave him a bohemian, if minimal, appearance. Only his tousled mop of shock-bleached hair broke the simplicity.
White first started performing as Bambi Deerest about four years ago. The character grew as a reaction against the constraints of his collegiate theater education – a system he felt didn’t afford him the artistic license to be as creative as he could be.
“Drag gave me the opportunity to be whatever I wanted to be,” he said. “I could take that vacation from myself.”
And what he became was Bambi Deerest, a caustic, irreverent beauty queen.
“She’s a Pittsburgh ten, but a real world six,” he laughed. “She’s a yinzer supermodel.”
White takes obvious inspiration from past Pittsburgh queens, Sharon Needles especially, and although he would contest Blue Moon’s reputation for being a “spooky bar,” he is mindful of the role that Haus of Haunt plays in both the bar’s history as well as his own development as an artist. As Sharon, Alaska and the rest moved on in their careers, it was an opportunity for him to distinguish himself.
“I sort of took over where they left off there,” he said. “I see their lipstick on the microphone every week.”
Watching a Bambi Deerest performance is an exercise in caustic wit. As she plays the part of emcee during Blue Moon’s weekly open stage show, Deerest is quick to throw a friendly, familial jab at the many, often less experienced performers.
“I call myself your Drag Dad for three reasons,” she announced through the bar’s many amplifiers. “I drink a lot, I’m not always around, and it’s hard to get my approval.”
Despite Bambi’s tough-girl grit, real-life Brandon is much softer. He’s quick to smile and offer a positive word. No performer goes without encouragement.
“YASSS!” he screamed after nearly every song.
Even off stage, he is aware of the responsibility he is taking on, as he becomes something of a local celebrity.
“Queens have more of a voice now,” he said. “I’m always trying to give back to the community.”
Whether that means giving an old wig to a younger queen or hosting a fundraiser for The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh is just a matter of what day it is.
He designs his show to be a place where anyone can feel safe and welcome, regardless of gender, sexuality, race or opinion on Britney Spears.
“I think that’s so important as a gay person,” he told me, leaning back against the wall behind his coffee shop stool.
As we got up to leave, I realized that he never did order anything.
Part II: Punk Ethos – Jerry Riggit
Jerry Riggit is a man’s man. He likes Yuengling and Nickelback. He wears a dirty white button down dress shirt tucked into gray sweatpants. He revels in his own swagger and is quick to prove his machismo by smashing beer cans on the forehead of his Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap.
“Uncle” Jerry Riggit exudes straight guy bro-normal. It’s almost surprising to learn that he doesn’t actually exist.
Jerry is the creation of Garfield resident Katie Powers, a member of the ever-forgotten club of drag kings.
With the meteoric rise of RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag queens the world over have been enjoying a rise in attention and notoriety that their male-impersonating friends have not, Powers said.
“I think it’s partly because the grand transformation isn’t there,” she said. “It’s hard to find those different ways to be a drag king.”
While drag queens have the luxury of being able to transform through nearly unlimited variations of wardrobe and makeup, drag kings have a more limited scope of what they are able to do. Despite this, Powers said that she likes to explore the carnal, more masculine side of herself. She describes her character as a “gross yinzer dude” – an exaggerated amalgamation of every crass and grotesque part of stereotypical masculinity – complete with beer stains and unsolicited catcalling.
“Drag queens are a hyperbole of what femininity is,” Powers said. “I wanted to create the same sort of thing about masculinity.”
She said that Blue Moon has allowed her to explore some of that madness, because of the bar’s affection for the original and avant-garde.
“You can do that really weird stuff there. It’s a very Pittsburgh place in that way.”
She thinks Blue Moon’s unique ability to create successful performers out of creative weirdos is inherently related to Pittsburgh itself, and something she refers to as the city’s “punk rock ethos.”
“Why don’t we just go back to my place?” she asked me as we stood outside of the inexplicably closed lounge we had arranged to meet at. “Her place” turned out to be a mid-sized house on a small city plot just a few blocks from Liberty Avenue in the heart of Garfield’s arts district.
“That’s Luna,” she told me, gesturing to an animated dog playing in the yard. “And that’s Nick,” this time pointing to a distinctly less active young man sitting on the porch. Nick, a musician and apparent friend of another roommate, turned out to live in a van parked in the house’s backyard. The group has converted their basement into an informal entertainment space that for legal reasons cannot be called a “venue.” They host regular, paid-admittance parties at which a few dozen of their closest friends can watch touring punk bands thrash through a few numbers before the 11 p.m. noise ordinance.
The drag scene and the punk scene are inherently linked in Powers’ mind.
“It’s very DIY,” she said, a trait that she finds to be traditionally Blue Moon. “It’s one of the big treasures of Pittsburgh.”
Part III: Who would do something like that? – Dixie Surewood
Reigning Miss Trash Pennsylvania, Dixie Surewood said she isn’t afraid to get a little weird.
“If the audience is being entertained, then you’re doing your job – no matter what you’re doing,” she said.
Dixie, the creation of Michael Zito, hosts Blue Moon’s weekly “Open Stage” show with Bambi Deerest every Wednesday. The show allows basically anyone to showcase just about anything. If you’re willing to stand on a stage and do it, the Blue Moon audience is typically willing to cheer you silly for trying.
“We set a precedent,” Zito said. “Don’t ever be ashamed of what you do.”
When not in character, the performer gives off an air of nonchalance. Clad in a casual collared shirt and a slouched gray beanie clinging to the very back of his head, he bore little resemblance to his over-the-top character. Yet he still got an excited glint in his eye as he debated various methods of drenching himself in prop blood for an upcoming performance.
“I don’t want to do the bucket thing,” he said. “Maybe something with blood packets stuffed into my dress.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Zito has ventured into edgier territory. Past acts have included everything from drag renditions of the ill-fated gorilla Harambe to Jacqueline Kennedy – complete with blood splattered pink blazer.
Zito describes his character as the answer to the question “Who would do something like that?” (“Ms. Dixie Surewood”)
But that’s not to say that the character has no standards.
“I really don’t like to do anything that has to do with race,” Zito said, “anything that really makes fun of a group of people.”
He is hesitant to put a label on what drag performers “should be,” but in his mind, the point is always to entertain and surprise the audience. During a recent villains-themed show, Dixie dressed as Darla from Finding Nemo and viciously swung a bag-bound Nemo toy around her head while lip-syncing to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.”
During the Spice Girls show, she walked the audience through the many stages of grief (via pop-song lip-sync) as she acted out the story of Ginger Spice deciding to leave the group.
Like White, Zito studied theater before becoming a drag performer, but he agrees that being a Pittsburgh drag queen has allowed him more creative freedom than he would have otherwise had. He described Pittsburgh’s drag scene as “more underground” than in other places, but that it also has a community of “mutual respect.”
Like many of the performers I spoke with, Zito said that there is sometimes a disconnect between what he wants to perform and what the audience wants to see. An edgier or more erudite, reference-based piece doesn’t always get the positive reaction that simply putting on a blonde wig and dancing to “Oops! I Did it Again” might do.
The style of drag performance in Pittsburgh can vary, though, and like much else in the town, types of queens are often tied to specific neighborhoods. More glamorous and polished queens perform Downtown. Younger queens who impersonate modern divas like Ariana Grande tend to perform in areas with a younger population like in Shadyside or the Strip District. But at Blue Moon, the style can shift drastically from performer to performer, even in one night.
Zito said that being in Pittsburgh and at Blue Moon has affected him as a performer and a person. The lack of homogenization has allowed performers here to try really unique things and become a special voice.
“We’re like a rainbow,” he said. “We all still have our own stripe, but somehow it blends.”
Part IV: I’m Reserved, but I’m a Rebel – Karmageddon
Karma Sangye Lama knows exactly what is expected of him, but he’s teaching himself to not let that bother him. Still, the first time I saw Karma, he was literally running down the sidewalk, apologizing profusely for running only a few minutes late.
The Nepalese-born makeup artist and performer has a self-awareness that is rooted in his evolution both as an artist and as a person. Lama has spent the last five years living in the United States, but was first introduced to drag in Australia, where he also lived for two years. He was blown away.
“I started to wonder, ‘How would I look in that hair?’ or, ‘How would I be in heels?’” he said.
Despite his curiosity, it took Lama a while to feel comfortable enough to begin acting the part of the drag performer.
“It’s hard to be someone who is more reserved or who isn’t as outgoing,” he said. “When I perform, it’s not really me. I’m 90 percent outside of my comfort zone.”
The purposeful nature of Karma’s personality is easy to see. He chooses his words carefully and deliberately, even inside of the completely empty restaurant where he chose to meet me.
“I haven’t spoken to my parents in three years,” he said. “Not since I told them I wanted to be a makeup artist.” In Nepalese culture, being a makeup artist isn’t considered a viable profession for a young man. Despite this, he said that he knew from a young age that his passion was for makeup.
“I would watch my mom do her makeup,” he said. “The minute she walked out of the house I’d be running around like, ‘Where is it?’”
The connection between makeup artist and drag queen came later.
“I saw a poster for Drag Race when I was living in New York,” he said. “I saw RuPaul and I was enamored.”
It was a friend at the time that told him that RuPaul wasn’t actually a woman, but a drag queen, a revelation that led Lama to begin watching Drag Race for himself.
With encouragement from his long-term boyfriend, he began to experiment with doing drag himself, but he immediately began to struggle with his own more reserved demeanor.
“I would go out and do my makeup, but never perform,” he said. Still, he felt the pressure to get on stage and put on a show.
Lama’s character, Karmageddon, is unlike Bambi, Jerry or Dixie in the sense that there is not a definite style or singular voice. Looks vary from day to day, sometimes coming across extremely avant-garde, other times, more fishy.
“When I do fishier looks, people think I’m actually a girl,” he chuckled. “Guys try to hit on me.”
For Lama, the concept of identity seems to be a process more than anything else, a continuously moving train of evolution and change.
“I sometimes don’t even want to call myself a drag queen anymore,” he said. “It’s almost like there is no gender to my character. It’s a completely open aesthetic.”
His looks range from amazingly natural to wildly eccentric. He starts showing me pictures from his Instagram feed, obviously proud of his work.
“What’s on your head?” I asked.
“Its old plastic cups that I painted black, and that’s a paper towel roll pushed through it.”
The photo looks like something out of Vogue.
Despite his softer demeanor, Lama is not unacquainted with the signature Blue Moon “punk ethos.”
“I am punk rock,” he said. “I’m not supposed to be doing anything that I’m doing. That’s full on rebellion. I’m just making myself proud. There are no rules, especially here.”
Lama’s lip-sync playlist backs up those punk rock ideals. Songs by Metric, Goldfrapp, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and especially Garbage are go-to performance pieces – a distinct departure from “traditional drag” classics like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera.
Throughout my conversations with Lama and the other performers, I got a sense that these people identify most strongly with the club of the outcasts, the weirdos and the punks.
“I do identify with the punk movement,” said Lama. “I’m reserved, but I’m a rebel.”
Part IV: All Are Welcome – Blue Moon
So how does a hole-in-the-wall gay bar in the heart of the rust belt become a cornerstone of the global drag community? The answer seems to lie inside of that specific mindset, that punk ethos: do what you want and do it with pride. Don’t let anyone tell you who to be. If you commit to being yourself and being yourself fully, this community will love you for it.
“By doing drag, I found my tribe,” White said. “That’s why there’s never a cover at Blue Moon. I would never charge someone to be themselves.”
This air of acceptance at Blue Moon is no farce. Even in writing this very article, I found myself subject to its positivity, as many of the performers took time to tell me how well I was doing and how much they appreciated my work. Keep in mind that not one of them had actually read a word I wrote.
“Thank you for being here,” White said in full Bambi Deerest getup, after bending nearly in half to hug me. “You’re doing really good work.”
“Hey, thanks a lot for today. I appreciate your time,” read the text I got from Lama, only a couple hours after our meeting. “You didn’t give me a reason not to open up. Thanks for making it easy.”
These performers naturally know how to bring out the best in each other through encouragement and friendly competition. I want them to read this article and be thrilled with it, because I don’t want to let this group down, this family that I am not even a part of. It’s a method of peer-to-peer development that happens seemingly without the awareness of those people participating in it. But that emphasis on wholesome rebellion, on individuality and on being proud of what makes you different flows through the heart of not only Blue Moon, but also the city of Pittsburgh itself. And from the success of the artists coming out of this space, it’s a process that works.
“I’ve grown in a different direction at Blue Moon,” Lama told me. “It’s broadened my art. I try to not follow rules, not follow trends. Doing drag at Blue Moon is all about breaking rules.”
The approach allows for infinite variations upon the same theme of drag, which means that Haunt doesn’t just have to mean “spooky.” It just means “different.” And if Haunt just means “different,” then all are welcome.
“I have no idea what Pittsburgh drag will be in two years,” Brandon said excitedly. It occurs to me that he may genuinely not realize that the answer to that question is up to him.