Beyond Drag Race: Miami's Drag Queen Culture Runs Deeper Than RuPaul
Lola St. Lords
All photographs by Carolina del Busto
The round bulbs illuminate the large mirror as Luis Alvarez-Schacht stares at his reflection for inspiration. He cocks one eyebrow up, moves his head from right to left checking his angles, and takes a deep breath.
Looking down at the organized mess of make up overflowing from Ziploc baggies and an even larger canvas makeup bag, Alvarez-Schacht picks out the right tools for his craft, and then gets to work. He spreads latex glue on his eyebrows to keep them from moving. It's all about the eyes, so as the glue dries, he plays around with eye shadow palettes and chooses the right brushes. As he paints his eyes and adds color to his face, his body movements become more fluid, and his transformation from Luis to Lola is in full effect.
Two and a half hours later, Lola St. Lords emerges, and she is beautiful.
Alvarez-Schacht is a drag queen, loud and proud. But this queen is unique, because she belongs to the House of Lords here in Miami.
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If you're a fan of RuPaul's Drag Race, the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, or have friends within the drag communities, you probably know a little bit about drag culture. But there are plenty of misconceptions out there: that drag queens are just men who want to be women, or that everyone who is a member of a drag house is a drag queen. Not true. Not all men who do drag want to be a woman (some do, yes, but the majority don't), and one doesn't necessarily need to be a drag queen to be a part of a house.
So what is a drag house? Sometimes, it's literally a house where drag queens live together, but more often it's more of a group support system. "They're called 'houses,' but they're seen as families," Alvarez-Schacht says. "It's support. The foundation is pure support."
Drag houses tend to keep to themselves, and fame earned in the drag community can sometimes stay very much within the group. Alvarez-Schacht explains how houses can breed local celebrities. TP Lords, House Mother for the House of Lords, is well known and respected among the drag queens here in Miami, and out of state, too. If you were to name-drop the House of Lords in New York City, they would ask if you know TP Lords.
Before he met his drag mother, Estephania St. Lords (one of TP's "daughters"), Alvarez-Schacht attended Florida State University, and used the drag queen alter-ego Lola Lautrec. At the time, her mentor was Serena Chacha (Myron Morgan). Yes, that Serena Chacha, from Drag Race season five.
Alvarez-Schacht recalls the first time Serena helped him create Lola. It was his first time ever doing a drag performance, and he needed help. He was 18 years young, studying away from home. "I have always been interested in drag and the idea of gender illusion," he says, "so when I went to college, there was this one FSU drag queen that everyone knew, and it was Serena Chacha."
Alvarez-Schacht ran into Myron one day on campus, expressed his interest in joining the alluring world of drag, and told him about his upcoming show. Myron asked for a day, time, and dorm room number, and showed up that night and did all of Luis' makeup. "It's because you're pretty," he told him.
"It's so much easier when you're a pretty boy," says Alvarez-Schacht with a laugh.
When Alvarez-Schacht moved back to Miami after college, he met Estephania St. Lords. Estephania took Lola under her wing, and one day said she could take on her last name. Not every member uses the house name as part of his stage name. However, having that connection means something -- "It shows that you're experienced, you're experienced enough to have a big name," says Alvarez-Schacht. Along with the name come certain expectations and associations; if you know of TP Lords or Estephania St. Lords, you're going to know that Lola St. Lords will be just as fierce and fabulous.
Part of being fierce and fabulous is performing and showing off those sickening moves. One way that drag queens perform is within house competitions, or balls. Typically, the house that hosts the ball doesn't perform - unless you're the House Mother, then by all means, walk. One of the most creative styles of competition at these balls is voguing.
"Every drag queen tries to vogue every so often, but, girl, with this arthritis," says Alvarez-Schacht with a quick snap and bend of the wrist, "I can't!"
Voguing can best be described as a style of dance featuring sharp, graceful movements. No sloppy twerking here. We've all seen Madonna's 1990 video for "Vogue," but the style has evolved significantly in the past two decades. The goal is still the same, though: Voguing is an amicable yet aggressive form of competition. Like Malcolm McLaren says in his 1989 single "Deep in Vogue," "Instead of fighting, you take it out on the dance floor."
"In the clubs, [voguing] is more an impromptu, fun sort of thing to do, as opposed to in the ballroom, it's very much a competition" with a strict set of rules, says Daniela Montoya, a resident Miamian and graduate student at the University of Manchester, U.K., living overseas and working towards her thesis about drag queens, drag houses, and voguing -- all with a South Florida focus, of course. Montoya's research has her delving into the subculture while she tries to make sense of the underlined family values within the house communities. One way she describes her work is, "Looking at vogue as a channel into further examining the mobility of identity."
Vogue is a dance that has evolved into different classes: old way, new way, vogue femme, and vogue femme dramatics, says Montoya. In other words, it's all about style. "In drag, there's not that much competition," says Alvarez-Schacht, "but voguing is a competition. If you don't know what you're doing, people aren't going to respect your work."
The whole idea of the ballroom and its categories is that you compete within a certain category and if you win, you gain a certain level of respect and status within and among the houses and in the community. "The more status you gain almost moves you up within the house," says Montoya, with the ultimate goal being to become "legendary." Once you get to that degree, you can become what they call a "house mother" or a "house father."
Though Alvarez-Schacht isn't a "voguer" per se, girl can work it in a gorgeous evening gown. After the makeup portion of his transformation was complete, Alvarez-Schacht, Montoya, and I hopped into a car together and headed out for an impromptu photo shoot. The road stretched for miles and the grass was high enough to see it blowing in the wind. Lola got out of the car and wearing three-inch heels, walked down the uneven gravel as if she were walking a runway. The wig, she assured us, is the last piece that brings puzzle together, but Lola looked gorgeous even without it.
Striking her best poses, Lola St. Lords looked as if she could be on the cover of a vintage Vogue magazine.
As part of her research, Montoya is reaching out to the Miami community to gain insight. She wants to know what locals think about ball culture and voguing. Using the hashtag #MIAvogue on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, Montoya asks Miamians to post pictures or quotes of anything that reminds them of the subculture. It's always interesting to see how a lifestyle is viewed by people who aren't a part of it, she says. She's looking for the perspective of "people in the house community, people in the gay community who aren't part of houses, people outside of the gay and drag communities, and even tourists."
She's even plastering stickers around town, reading, "Let us know what you think Vogue is," "Are you legendary?" "What does vogue mean to you?" and "Show us what you know about vogue, runway child."
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