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How I Became a Drag Ambassador at 61
I love everything that drag stands for. That's why I decided to start performing it
On my 48th birthday my girlfriends took me to Lips, a campy restaurant in New York City where the waitresses are drag queens who perform throughout dinner. When our waitress asked our rowdy table what we were celebrating, I joked, “We all just got divorced!” (It wasn’t true!)
As the meal and show concluded, the MC asked, “Is there a crazy lady here?” I thought she was introducing the next act. I turned to the friend next to me and said “that’s so funny, my kids –”
“—Is there a crazy lady here?” I realized the MC wasn’t introducing an act.
“Oh. That would be me.” I raised my hand sheepishly.
“Your daughter called to wish you a happy birthday and to say she loves you.” The restaurant broke out in “ahhh.” Our waitress queen came over and led in singing “Happy Birthday.”
Crazy Lady was the endearing nickname my kids gave me when they were in their early teens. I loved that they embraced me for all my anxious energy and authentic, unabashed weirdness instead of being embarrassed.
This Christmas break, 12 years later, my daughter, now 29, and I binge-watched RuPaul’s Drag Race — of note, this is the only reality show I watch. Everything that drag stands for — loving oneself for who we are, living fiercely, acceptance and inclusion — resonates with me.
“If you can’t love yourself, how yah gonna love somebody else?” RuPaul says at the close of every show. “Can I get an amen up in here?!”
“I’m going to have my drag debut at Gayle’s birthday party,” I announced to Sally, inspired by the series.
Our friend Gayle was turning 50 and having a party. She told her guests to bring the best version of themselves, whether it be in jeans or a gown, and share a talent — if so inclined. One friend was going to do pair dancing while another was to serenade us with Sinatra.
During the pandemic I made silly lip sync videos with my college BFF who lives in upstate New York. It was a way for us to stay connected, have fun, and temporarily escape the dread of the disease. We would lip sync 15-30 seconds of a popular song. Then I would edit and post to social media.
I gravitated to the male characters like Sonny in “I’ve Got You Babe,” Tony in “Summer Nights” from Grease, Frank-N-Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show.
With a boyish, flat-chested, hipless, athletic figure, I’ve never identified with the feminine full-figured va va voom body type. I would order the appropriate wig and wardrobe from Amazon and impatiently wait the two days for it to arrive.
I’d never done a live drag performance nor acted beyond chorus. I can’t carry a tune and I don’t have a natural aptitude for mastering dance moves. I watch TikTok dance videos in awe. In Zoomba, everyone goes left. I go right. I once took an intro to burlesque class and my shimmy looked like a spasm. However, risking not being good wasn’t going to stand in my way. I’ve always been someone willing to accept rejection as an outcome versus not trying.
I wanted to do an androgynous, gender-bending man. I decided to lip sync and dance to a David Bowie mash up of Rebel Rebel, Fashion, and Changes. The lyrics were in sync with my midlife journey and easy to master when bite-size.
Besides memorizing the lyrics, I had to create a dance routine. I studied other drag performers for tips. “Vogueing” is a dance style that came out of the LGBTQ ballrooms in Harlem in the late ’80s. I learned that there are five disciplines: the catwalk, the duck walk, arm movements, floor movements, and… the death drop.
I was going to attempt to do them all. Just with chutzpah more than grace. My routine would end with the death drop. That’s the move where a performer instantly falls to the ground with one leg contorted in a pose of someone who has been shot. It’s a crowd pleaser because it has the gravity- defying shock and — if done wrong –- can hurt.
I’m not sure how many 61-year-old women would attempt this, but age nor gender has never stood in my way — for better and for worse. I practiced a couple of times on my bed with a cushioned landing. But I was going down flat with my head hitting first — “clunk.” I wasn’t sure if I had the flexibility to do it properly. Due to tight hips, I felt a tug in the connective muscle and would never be able to fully contort my leg backwards with my knee flatly down — that was the least of my concerns.
My birthday was a week before Gayle’s. My daughter bought me a Ziggy Stardust–like jumpsuit. I was touched that she embraced and encouraged her old mare mom to publicly perform drag.
The night of the party, I took a deep breath and entered the carpeted area doing the catwalk as “Rebel, Rebel” started.
“You’ve got your mother in a whirl. She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.”
The party guests cheered. That was when I disconnected from my conscious self and performed my routine. It wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t matter. “Changes,” the finale, was finishing,
“Pretty soon you’re gonna get a little older. Time may change me, But I can’t trace time.”
I said to myself “you’re doing this” to psyche myself up, accept the results and possible physical punishment.
I jumped in the air and scissor-kicked my legs as I leaned back to land on my back on the carpeted floor with my leg contorted at the knee…
In that moment I realized I’d stuck the death pose landing and it didn’t hurt.
Mike, my husband, cheered with the other guests. With a big smile he uttered under his breath, “crazy lady.”
NOTE: Drag is under attack in many states right now. It is a form of performance art — self-expression and artistry. It helps, not hurts, many in the LGBTQ community and beyond. I’m proud that I have been chosen to be a Drag Ambassador for Drag Out the Vote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works with drag performers to promote participation in democracy.
Caytha Jentis is a multi-hyphenate writer, director, and producer of film, television, storytelling events, and theater. Her play Sex Work Sex Play will have its Off-Broadway premiere in September. A version of this essay is in her memoir Off Script, which will be published in early 2024.