For Denver native Yvie Oddly, winner of this season’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” June has been a trans-Atlantic drag race. Pride Month has seen her triumphing on VH-1, performing in Denver, then London, with a brief stop back in Denver to “swap out my bags,” before heading to New York’s World Pride festival this weekend.
For Denver fixture Bettie Pages, member of the longstanding International Court Council, June has meant walking in the local Pride Parade, hosting an all-ages drag show and preparing to be at the celebration at Stonewall in New York City, for the 50th anniversary of the June 28, 1969, rebellion that sparked the gay-rights movement.
The two — one age 25, the other 64 — reflect the evolution of the art form through the decades. Drag has advanced from winking parody to proud performance art, from underground cult status to national primetime sensation.
“It’s not easy to be a drag queen in your 60s,” Pages said this month in Denver.
“It’s been surreal,” Yvie Oddly said by phone from London this week, after winning the reality-TV contest. Oddly, who grew up as Jovan Bridges and learned the craft while managing Tracks, Denver’s enduring gay nightclub, will travel the world for a year as the latest drag superstar.
While the two Denver queens have met on the local drag circuit, they have little in common other than a respect for the art of transformation.
Classic drag, as understood by Pages, is about paying tribute to the glamour and beauty of feminine icons. Pages prizes her clingy, red “Jessica Rabbit dress,” her massive powder-blue Cinderella gown and hoop skirt, and her several wigs lining the shelves. Out of her drag persona, she is Chuck Rozanski, a 64-year-old bisexual man with a long ponytail. He has been married to a woman for 43 years, has four daughters, and owns Mile High Comics, the country’s largest collectible-comics retailer.
Modern drag, as interpreted by Oddly, means provocative, eccentric stylings, whether she’s presenting as an alien or some other freak character. She calls herself “a work in progress,” intentionally unpolished, and an “authentic weirdo” whose style ranges “from high-fashion glam goddess to dirty street punk.”
Pages hosts monthly “all-ages” drag shows at the gigantic warehouse that is Mile High Comics on Jason Street in Denver. Kids as young as 7 have participated.
By contrast, Oddly would never consider her shows suitable for children. “The kind of drag I’m into will never be all-ages, it will never be for everyone. It’s supposed to be subversive.”
The history of drag
It’s all about so much more than dressing up.
In the beginning, cross-dressing was an accepted part of theater, where men and boys played women’s roles (see Shakespeare and Japanese Noh). It figured in religious ritual (see certain American Indian and other indigenous people’s practices, some of which honored what was considered a third gender.)
Depending on which drag history you read, female impersonators and cross-dressers are distinct from drag queens; drag is distinct from transvestism (a term no longer in popular use); some drag is based on parody and misogyny; some drag pays tribute to the feminine ideal; and all drag is rooted in homosexual culture.
Once drag made its way out of underground gay bars, into bohemian clubs and vaudeville, it edged closer to mainstream pop culture. Even then, the performer maintained a sort of Shaman, Fool, court-jester role. In that role, the drag queen could say things from an ironic distance, things they couldn’t get away with saying out of costume.
That ironic distance, the outsider’s perspective, is what marks drag as rooted in gay culture.
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Queer self-expression made its biggest mainstream splash in 2009 with the TV hit “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which took this ironic look at gender and sexuality to a national audience.
Hallmarks of drag culture include the drag houses, led by a drag mother, in which gay and trans kids disowned by their families formed families of choice and competed in ball culture.
This first gained wide attention in the landmark 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” chronicling New York’s ballroom scene. More recently, creator Ryan Murphy has said “Pose,” his musical drama on FX, intentionally features the ball community, the trans community, and the African American and Latinx communities.
“An exploration of the human experience”
The evolution is ongoing.
“Classic drag was for celebrity impersonators,” Oddly said from London. That was then, she implies, it is so not now. “We’ve developed — all of those lines have been smashed. Now, drag is for club kids, for kids at home in their room. … It’s an exploration of the human experience.
“It’s been a natural progression. Classic drag was there to provide a space for gay men and trans women, a way to have expression, specifically the expression of what is feminine. Now it is becoming a queer expression across all genders and sexualities. That’s what I stand for.”
What Pages prefers to stand for is “joy.”
For meet-and-greet events, “I go with a very gentle, soft approach. I represent an entire constituency. I want to make them aware Queens R Us. There’s nothing wrong with elegance.”
When she steps out in a wig, makeup, jewelry, gown and heels, “it’s as if I enter a different world. Me being the real me in a way the world hasn’t allowed me to be my whole life.”
Rozanski has been performing as Bettie Pages for about eight years. “I’m in the process of crossing over.”
With a nationally respected business of about $200 million in comics and a huge swath of farmland in Boulder County — not to mention a museum-quality collection of American Indian pottery — Rozanski is well known.
(Recent news stories tracked the arrest of a former Mile High Comics employee in the theft of $49,000 worth of collectors’ comic books from the warehouse.)
That notoriety has made it more challenging for him to “cross over.”
“Think of another person in any industry who is not only out, but who says, ‘Hi, I’m gender fluid.’”
It will take time, Rozanski says, but “my gender is moving to feminine, my sexuality is bi-, but in a committed relationship.”
A new business card still bears Bettie’s name but Chuck’s email address. The 120,000 people on the mailing list are learning that “this is not the Chuck you thought you knew.”
Rozanski figures he’s lost about 5% of his customer base due to his unconventional personal evolution. “But 10 years ago, I might have lost 50%.”
Growing popularity, growing fame
The first all-ages show Rozanski hosted was “a miracle,” he says.
The most recent was attended by about 150 people. Rozanski started doing foundation — the taping and all that is involved in the transformation from Chuck to Bettie — at 3:45 a.m. “The older I get, it takes longer, more prep time.” The gown came off at 10 p.m. “I was in face for 17 hours. I’m still tired.”
Pages posed for umpteen pictures during Denver’s pride parade.
Inevitably, the pronouns are slippery, varying from “he” to “she” as Rozanski rises from his desk to show a visitor the drag room — upstairs from the Mile High Comics warehouse — where special lighting and mirrors are installed at Bettie’s makeup table. He can be all business; she can be fantastical.
“When I’m walking down the street as Bettie, super glam’d out, I’m not in theatrical drag. I epitomize 1940s glamour drag, not RuPaul drag.” Holding the blue Cinderella gown, she says, “and that resonates with — ready for it? — little girls! I am a princess!”
Oddly tends to be more spontaneous about her presentation. “I don’t care what people call it, because it’s ever evolving. Sometimes I’m a serious performance artist sometimes a campy cross-dresser. I never really know (before a show). I like going in blind. It’s about using the art of illusion to break gender binaries.”
Her win marks an opening of drag to people of color, who have largely been absent in the TV depictions.
“People of color are held to a different standard just like we are in every other facet of society,” Oddly said. “If you’re a black girl, they expect you to come out and do Beyoncé. The experience of people of color is a lot more complex.”
In her promo for VH-1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Oddly says, “drag is the artistic voice for our queer community right now. We’ve been told we’re too effeminate, too sissy — all these stereotypes are so built in to what we have as a social identity. Drag pokes fun at all of that. And when you’re a joke, you get to speak whatever you want to say. Also, it’s f—ing fabulous.”
Oddly says her goal is to spread her art to more people. Pages says she and the International Court Council, a GLBT advocacy group established in 1965, “do this for charity.”
The senior drag queen claims that today’s kids, unlike the old-school queens, are all about “appearance fees and monetizing the brand.”
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Rozanski says he has raised $1,000 for scholarships each month and takes money from his own pocket to provide police protection at every all-ages drag show. “I can’t change the world, but I can make it better for kids in Denver.”
As a kid, Oddly had almost no exposure to drag culture until “RuPaul’s Drag Race” launched a decade ago.
She started doing drag at Tracks. “Denver is such a cool place (to grow up) because there was a really good mix of the new queens, enough respect to also book the classic queens. I’ve had a really nice interaction with where drag has come from as well as where the kids are taking it.”
Across the generations, prejudice is a constant. Rozanski regularly gets death threats. A gang of self-styled Nazis showed up to protest the all-ages show but was kept at a distance by security guards.
“When you become a symbol that a hate group focuses on, you have to make your peace with that,” Rozanski said.
Did Oddly hear about the Nazis in Denver at the all-ages show? “No, but I think it’s super punk if the queens went on regardless.”
Oddly is resolute about the haters: “An integral part of what it means to be a drag queen in the first place is that it pisses people off because it challenges the rules. What people don’t understand, they hate.”