The stage at South Salt Lake’s Dented Brick Distillery is an airy space decorated with exposed barrels of spirits — and its muted grays and tans are no match for the Technicolor wonders about to step into the light.
Backstage, one performer, dressed in a full bodysuit that’s yellow speckled with blue, white and pink paint, is trying to decide on what shoes to wear. The trailing skirt/cape of the outfit will show them off. There are two choices: one boot has laces, the other is entirely leather. They both go up to the knee.
The performer, Tara Lipsyncki, asks one of their colleagues which one she should pick.
Ana Lee Kage, who’s wearing a long red sequined dress, gives an answer that aligns with a larger theme within the group: “Go with what makes you most comfortable.”
Around the area, there are other performers, each supporting their own, carefully curated looks. There’s London Skies, dressed in a newspaper print outfit she created from leggings at Walmart. Poppycock Visqueen is a vision in lilac. Sophia Azul has blue hair, but dons a wig with a lime green and black fur hat. Edgy sports a wig so voluminous it adds six inches to her height before cascading beyond her shoulders. Finally, there’s Lilia Maughn, with winged eyeliner applied with the precision of an architect’s pencil.
These performers are drag queens from Artel Talent, a collective that hosts and books drag shows across the state, and they’re gathered together for a promotional photoshoot. The makeshift dressing room is full of glitter, sequins, feathers, exquisitely executed makeup. There’s a yellow wig on the table. A box of acrylic nails, too.
There’s more to this group, though, than glitz and glam.
In the collective’s first year, they have performed more than 200 shows, with 100 different performers, at more than a dozen venues. It’s one of the few drag groups in Utah with an all-ages show. They bill themselves as “Utah’s largest and most diverse LGBTQIA+ professional performance collective.”
Lipsyncki, who is not only a performer but Artel’s president, said, “we kind of just grew from the little engine that could in Park City to what we are now: Big, amazing, gorgeous performers you see in front of you today.”
Utah, in spite of its conservative reputation, has a flourishing drag scene; there’s even a Yelp page dedicated to the top 10 best shows in Salt Lake City.
But, the queens at Artel say, there are misconceptions about the art form..
“Everybody has the idea in their head that the generic drag queen is a cisgender man in a wig,” London Skies said. “When they come across non-binary people or transgender entertainers, they assume [this], and that they can make the same comments.”
The queens Artel books, and the types of shows the company performs, are aimed at tearing down those misconceptions. Half of Artel’s performers are people of color, and at least 30% are trans, nonbinary or gender nonconforming.
Several of Artel’s queens have been involved with other shows in Utah — and they said they have had negative experiences, such as being cut because they don’t fit a certain mold, or not getting paid properly.
Being a drag performer sometimes becomes a game of how to fit into a particular box. For example, Poppycock Visqueen is an AFAB (assigned female at birth) queen, and there have been people who asked her if what she does is really drag — because it doesn’t fit into the traditional notion of who a drag queen is.
Kage said that “drag is not a gay art, it’s a queer art.”
Diversity in drag
Within Utah’s drag scene, diversity is an issue — one that Lipsyncki took pains to address when starting the collective.
“When people are pushed out because they don’t fit a mold, which has happened here, and it’s continually happening here in Salt Lake City in the drag game, you’re not getting booked,” Lipsyncki said.
She said she aimed to be an ally in creating a safe space for POC queens, and asked Kage, Edgy and Lilia Maughn to help craft shows where they could be the focus.
The results were the shows “Gender…Where?,’ which was performed by an entirely trans cast, and “Melanin Rouge,” with a cast of queens of color.
Talking about the “Gender … Where?” show, Skies said that “through drag, I was able to understand my own gender identity and learn more about myself and the people in my community.”
Azul, a Latina drag queen, said “Melanin Rouge” allowed her to bring out her “Latina-ness,” adding that “I love to be that stepping stone for everyone that can see a brown girl in the stage and be like, ‘I can be like her and dreams do come true.’”
“You need to see A to Z, you need to see all the colors because that’s what the community is about,” Skies said. “Every individual is important, and if you have the guts enough to get up on stage and do what you do, it deserves to be f---ing seen.”
The art of drag
How do drag queens prepare to perform? That depends on the queen, and on the show.
Each show is different, and requires a different level of preparation. “It’s like a whole new character,” Kage said.
Lipsyncki said that when they are asked to perform a new show, the first question they ask the venue manager is what rating they want. They can go from tame to raunchy — and even have put on an all-ages show, “Spill the Tea,” where they had a 3-year-old in the audience.
It’s nice, the collective members say, to offer a show that queer youth can attend, because it gives those kids someone to look up to.
For some queens, the audience’s energy is a key factor. Some members of the collective say they have seen Republican senators (none of them from Utah) in the audience, as well as famous drag queens like Tina Burner (an alum of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”).
When it comes to audiences, the queens also have to consider their personal safety — and the possibility of heckling that can turn into hate crimes.
“People like drag shows in bars and places like that. They don’t realize what they’re actually doing. … They don’t think about the performers,” Skies said — which can mean inadequate dressing rooms. As a transgender performer, Skies said she always covers her bases, especially around “cisgender, white heteronormative people who have never gone to a show.”
A lot of the queens also make their own costumes, like Kage, who makes dresses out of unconventional materials like paper or tape.
“If you’re not a sewing queen, then it’s fine to be a stone queen,” Azul said, referring to performers who add rhinestones to their outfits. Azul said. “You have to give it your 100%, even if you’re sweating, even if your eyeliner is falling off, you’re giving them a show to be like, ‘Oh, okay, this is what I came for.’”
A drag performance incorporates music, dance and loads of personality — all combining into what the queens say is the best part of drag: The storytelling.
What matters most in drag, Visqueen said, is “that counterculture aspect of: It’s you, not everyone else, and it’s the ownership of queerdom in that way.”
That ownership is on display at Dented Brick Distillery on this particular Saturday night. The queens are being photographed among the distilling vats — which are visible through a window at the entrance.
A few patrons get a glimpse of the photo shoot — and see seven drag queens in full costume.
They are free, confident, powerful. They are inviting anyone who wants to visit, to learn about the world of Utah drag. Skies said anyone who accepts the invitation will come out the better for it.
“Drag heals,” Skies said. “It’s very therapeutic.”
Where to see Artel’s drag queens
Here are the details for Artel Talent’s regularly scheduled drag shows.
• Sunday Service • The Cabin, 427 Main, Park City, Sundays at 11 a.m. ; 21+ show.
• Spill the Tea • Tea Zaanti, 1944 S. 1100 East, Salt Lake City, third Friday of the month, 7 p.m.; all-ages show.
• The Playground* • Club Verse, 609 S. State St., Thursday nights; 21+ show.
• Melanin Rouge* • Club Verse, 609 S. State St., third Friday of every month at midnight, starting in July; 21+ show, featuring queens of color.
• Gender…Where?* • Club Verse, 609 S. State St., first Friday of every month at midnight ; 21+ show, featuring an all-trans cast.
• Besties Who Brunch • Redemption Bar & Grill, 3517 Maradona Dr., Herriman; once every two months (dates TBD); 21+ show.
(A new brunch show is set to debut, June 5, at Flanker Kitchen + Sporting Club, 6 N. Rio Grande St., Salt Lake City — in the Gateway. Details to be announced.)
*Schedules for Verse shows are tentative, and subject to change.
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