Performers say its a big step for a rural community: Utah State University hosts its first drag show

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bryson LaBar, left, a.k.a. Madame LaCrude, gets a big hug from Larissa Washburn following his drag queen performance at Utah State University.

It took Tyler Jones several hours, three sets of fake eyelashes, a towering blond wig and a pair of 6-inch stilettos to become Anya Bacon. Oh, and a pair of couch cushions that he reconfigured into “new lady hips.”

“Honey,” Bacon declared in a cheeky drawl when the transformation was done, “I look good.”

She danced toward the stage, lining up behind the black curtain, and when her name was called, strutted out to lip sync to her favorite Lily Allen song: “F You.” And while it was fabulous and a little bit frisky, the performance was also historic.

It was the first time Utah State University, a largely conservative and relatively agricultural school in Logan, has ever held a drag show on its campus.

“It was such a moving experience for me,” said Jones, the USU student who performs as Bacon in drag. “It’s such a big step for our little rural community.”

The event, hosted last week by the school’s housing office, featured 10 performers, mostly students, as part of a discussion of drag culture and the LGBTQ community. Those onstage danced, sang and answered questions about what it means to them to perform a gender identity as a drag queen or king.

Nearly 1,000 people filled the ballroom of the campus student center to watch, bringing in hundreds more chairs and cramming into the standing room at the back. They shrieked and cheered for much of the two-hour show. A few in the audience kicked up their own heels in support.

“It was just amazing to see how much passion and love there was,” said Hannah McDonald, a resident assistant who helped plan the event. “It was important for people to see and recognize that this community exists here.”

Jones cried at the warm response, but not until after the show was over, of course. Because as he repeated to himself backstage, “I spent 2½ hours putting this face on; I’m not going to cry it off.” He started performing drag a little more than a year ago and has done three other shows in Logan — the only three ever done in the town — all of which he helped plan and organize. He’s been largely responsible for creating the drag scene here in northern Utah’s Cache Valley after watching the popular television show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

But it’s been slow to catch on, Jones said, and sometimes hard for this tight-knit community to understand what the form of self-expression is really about.

“I identify as male, but I also cannot deny that there is a part of me that I can express as a woman,” he explained.

It’s become even more important and more of a challenge, he said, with President Donald Trump in office. During his tenure, Trump has made several attempts to roll back the recognition of and the protections for members of the LGBTQ community, including looking to limit gender based on a person’s genitalia at birth, trying to ban transgender people from serving in the military and challenging their civil rights under the Affordable Care Act.

Jones held up a sign during the performance declaring, “We won’t be erased.” It included a drawing of Trump with a red X through his face. The act is as much about politics as it is about gender.

“With how much is happening in the White House and how much he’s doing against our community,” he explained, “in my own sort of way, this is me fighting back a little bit.”

Jones got ready backstage with the other performers, the bathrooms bustling with half-dressed drag queens, some wearing more makeup than clothes. Sequined dresses and something described as “a swimsuit with arms” hung on racks ready for the second act. A few performers rehearsed the choruses of Lady Gaga songs.

Jared Espiritu, who performed as Aliyah, practiced toe touches in white strappy heels. The nursing student had done drag once before in Logan and wanted to bring more attention to what he says is a marginalized group.

“I feel like I can reconstruct who I want to be with it,” he said. “I have the opportunity to create a character.”

In her first act, Aliyah wore a mannequin head — named Ornacia — strapped on top of her own head and a glittery purple cape. Audience members danced in the aisles and threw dollar bills on the stage (which were donated to the local LGBTQ groups in the county). For her second act, she wore a spandex rainbow one-piece and a thick brown wig.

Performing on campus, Espiritu said, made him feel accepted and gave him more confidence. He was happy to be a part of the show — and for the opportunity to showcase his handmade costumes that “accentuate everything that needs to be accentuated.”

The other performers, too, boasted about their outfits. One named Nancy Raygun made a dress out of Christmas sweaters she found at the thrift store. Jones tore up his sofa to create curvy hips. Emcee Alexis Cooper, Miss USU 2018, painted on a beard using a full tube of mascara and an eyebrow pencil.

The event made history for Utah State. And honey, it looked good.