Imagine: you're in a dimly lit bar. There's a stage that a kinetic group of mostly queer and all incredibly fashionable people are huddled around. You can feel the rush of anticipation radiating off the bodies around you. Suddenly, a song bursts through the speakers. You know this one. Everyone knows this one. Or maybe you don't. Maybe it's something edgy and strange. Either way, the crowd whoops and hollers for the performer who dramatically enters stage left. Or maybe it's stage right. Or maybe they pop out from behind the audience, causing a burst of hysteria among the crowd around you. Their face is painted dramatically. Maybe it's awe-inducingly beautiful or perhaps it's warped and nearly grotesque to create a feeling of the uncanny valley. Either way, you can't look away.
Perhaps the performer that stands before you has tricks up their sleeve. A dramatic costume change, athletic prowess, or is shoving crucifixes up their fauxgina. Or maybe they just stand there. All emotion and nothing else. Either way, you're captivated. Consider yourself officially at the mercy of Seattle's drag scene.
“If you’re doing traditional drag in 2016, you might be doing it wrong,” Cucci Binaca stated in an excellent interview with Queerspace Magazine three years ago. If you’re unclear about what “traditional drag” is, look to RuPaul’s Drag Race, a historically important but highly unradical show in 2019’s drag culture. In it, cis-gendered gay men are pretty much the sole representation of the drag scene while racism and misogyny abound. In this world, drag queens are nearly always highly femme, with high bouffants and a perfect contour.
In Seattle, drag looks a little different. Trans men and women, nonbinary people, and cis women all have a place here to perform countless styles and sub-genres of drag. The makeup is often harsh and aggressive, many times ghoulish. The outfits not necessarily femme or flattering. It’s not always pretty and it’s definitely not safe and it’s exactly what we need right now.
KEXP spoke to a few of the leading performers in Seattle’s drag community about the art of drag as well as the power and importance of music within their lives on and off the stage.
Arson Nicki may have started performing drag completely by accident a little over three years ago but every move they’ve made since then has been thoroughly intentional. Rather than going with the status quo of drag, Nicki pushes the boundaries of what drag can be by utilizing athletic theatrics and unexpected song choices to make performances that are idiosyncratic and utterly special.
“My drag icons tend to be folks who experiment with how drag (and, by extension, queerness) inform mediums other than lip syncs in bars,” Nicki explains. “On a larger scale, I look up to folks like Sasha Velour, Christeene, and Taylor Mac, and locally I've always admired what BenDeLaCreme, Jinkx Monsoon, Waxie Moon, and Cherdonna Shinatra do.”
When explaining how music illuminates their performances, Nicki explained that song choice is “crucial” to those who work primarily with lip sync. “Figuring out which pieces of music you prefer to perform is essential to carving out a unique niche in drag world,” they assert. “Few things feel better than someone approaching you after a show to tell you a story about a personal connection they have to one of the songs you performed.”
Nicki splits their overall relationship with music into four often-overlapping categories: songs they perform in drag, songs they listen to in their free time for pleasure, local music, and songs they play as a DJ. Their signature drag numbers range from Donna Murphy's version of "Could I Leave You?" from the Sondheim musical Follies, a mix of memes surrounding "All Star" by Smash Mouth, and a lights-out rendition of Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek."
A well-rounded appreciator of music, Nicki lists a wide range of artists they’ve been listening to lately including Tierra Whack, Weyes Blood, the new Xiu Xiu record, “anything and everything” Kate Bush, and Kali Uchis. At 26 years old, it’s no surprise that their all-time favorites are Arcade Fire, The xx, LCD Soundsystem, Fleet Foxes, Miike Snow, Bjork, Fiona Apple, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, M83, and Sigur Ros. They also have their finger on the pulse of Seattle’s local music scene, naming new releases from Youryoungbody, Flora FM, CarLarans, IVVY, DoNormaal, Aos, and Michete. As a DJ, Nicki loves playing artists like Martyn, Peach, Octo Octa, Route 8, Fugal, Kasper Marott, and Beautiful Swimmers.
“My favorite performance of mine has to be the one I do to ‘Woods’ by Bon Iver,” Nicki confides. “I don't want to spoil the ending in case I bring it back, but I think it exemplifies drag's uncanny ability to shut down an entire room full of people when you arrive at the gig equipped with a lot of concepts and little to no budget. Strong theatre doesn't always require tons of money, elaborate technical elements, and suspension of disbelief through meticulously constructed verisimilitude. The performance tells just enough literal story to make some amount of sense while leaving it open-ended enough to leave the audience to fill in a lot of the blanks, which I think is the sweet spot for numbers like these that err towards the more experimental side of things.”
You can catch Nicki DJing at Pony every second Thursday of the month for Vitamin D, as well as every last Thursday at Clock-Out Lounge for TUSH. On August 10th, they’ll celebrate the 3 year anniversary of the monthly party Rapture at Kremwerk. Nicki is also performing at FreshFest at 18th & Union during the first weekend of August and producing a local drag showcase as part of the 2019 Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival.
Beau Degas (pronounced “bodega”) is relatively new to the drag scene, first performing a year and a half ago after being spotted and encouraged by Arson Nicki. An expert and longtime lover of makeup artistry, Degas initially started out as a painter in college. “I wanted to pick it back up after I finished my time in the Peace Corps, but buying canvas was too expensive and there's nowhere to [store] paintings if you've got a tiny apartment,” Degas explains. “So makeup was the route I took.”
Degas’ signature look includes strong, arched brows, enormous eyes, and mammoth lips that would make a Kardashian jealous. “Painting on my face forced me to be more present, and more aware of the time and energy it takes to do something seemingly easy, like applying liquid eyeliner,” she muses. “And since makeup is transitory, that time and energy I spent just feels much more meaningful to me.”
Beau Degas has iconically stolen the show multiple times in the past few months. First, at December’s Rapture at Timbre Room where she performed a highly stylized rendition of Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love You’s” that saw Degas utilize her love of art to transform into multiple famous pieces including Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” and Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” Most recently, Degas came in second (although some thought she deserved first) at Critter’s Person of the Year Pageant, where she performed “Total Eclipse of the Heart” with Bitch Hazel.
“Selecting music is usually my first step when coming up with new material--everything falls into place after that,” she notes. “My go-to's are songs that I sing or used to sing in the shower. I remember doing this since I was in elementary school, I would listen to music or sing the song and close my eyes and imagine what kind of performance would work with each song. I'd think of choreography, lights, staging, props, and whatever else could fit on my imaginary stage. Needless to say, I was an extremely gay kid and took really long showers.”
Continuing on with how music has informed and influenced her, Degas reveals, “Growing up I consumed old musicals like it was my fucking job. On top of that, my ma had the car radio fixed on Warm 106.9, where Delilah's show seemingly never ended. So it's not surprising to me that the music I gravitate towards now are show tunes, power ballads, and every goddamn song that Annie Lennox has ever sung. I used to wish that there was more diversity in the music I listened to growing up, but it is what it is and I'm glad I know all the lyrics to Simply Red's ‘Holding Back the Years.’”
“Besides music that I grew up listening to, I tend to enjoy music that motivates me to think of concepts or helps me create a story,” she explains. “Whether that concept/story is funny or sad or stupid or whatever, that doesn't matter so much. What matters is that I have a personal connection with the song and that it's driving me to create and perform and enjoy myself.”
There are a variety of opportunities to catch Beau Degas this weekend, kicking off this Thursday, June 27, at her favorite monthly show TUSH at the Clock-out Lounge in Beacon Hill. The show is hosted by Betty Wetter and features their regular cast of Degas, Miss Texas 1988, Angel Baby Kill Kill Kill, with Arson Nicki on DJ duties. On Friday, June 28, she’ll be doing a doubleheader, first at Critter Barn Pride at Kremwerk, then Beauty Boiz: Queer AF at Fred Wildlife Refuge. On Sunday, June 29, catch Degas in the Pride parade riding a bicycle with folks from The Stranger.
Cucci Binaca has been a leading figure in the Seattle drag scene for a number of years now, shocking and awing audiences with her raunchy genre-blending performances. Hailing from Reno, Nevada, Binaca saw her first drag performance in 2004 called “Tranny Shack” at the 1099 club, where she used a fake ID to get in. She was instantly enamored and completely obsessed with the drag scene but didn’t start performing until 2013 while in the United States Navy. While military service and drag may not seem like they go hand in hand, Binaca’s fellow officers stationed in Bremerton were incredibly supportive as she worked to build up her audience and making Cucci Binaca into the character she is today.
In 2015, after 7 years of service, Binaca left the Navy to live and work as a full-time drag entertainer. She hosts a monthly show called Cucci’s Critter Barn that is a must-see for anyone wanting a taste of the authentic Seattle drag scene. The show spotlights performers who make an effort to test the boundaries of drag, pushing the art form to new heights and previously unseen territories.
“Music has the ability to center yet transport its listeners,” muses Binaca. “In the art of Drag, music is the spine that holds the body of performances together. Music is what centers me on an idea to transport people through the pits of despair and the sharp peaks of camp.”
One of Binaca’s favorite numbers to perform is “Touch Me” by Dj Rui Silva featuring Cassandra. “As I child I was would roller skate to that song and it would take me away for 4 minutes to another world,” she reminisces. “It is one song that still always brings tears to my eyes whether I am performing it or I am alone in my room.”
See Cucci Binaca at Cucci’s Critter Barn every second Saturday at Kremwerk as well as a special Pride edition this Friday, June 28 and at Sped Up every third Friday at Re-bar.
It’s a fact that drag kings are severely underrepresented in mainstream drag culture in comparison to the queens. It’s disheartening that RuPaul has yet to and possibly may never crown a king (although New Zealand's branch of Drag Race, House of Drag, crowned one in its first season) but Seattle’s drag scene is far better than what we see on TV. Here, the king scene is alive and well. One of the leading performers for the past five years is Sam I’Am, a multi-threat who cites actor, playwright, and wig designer on their resume alongside Drag King.
“I’ve always been a performer and when someone asked me to be a King I thought ‘No way!’” they say. “But my first performance was such a hit I kept with it. I’m a comedy King so I do a lot of silly character like Mr. Rodgers, Willy Wonka, Bernie Sanders.”
When speaking about music, Sam I’Am says it serves a variety of purposes in their life, from performance to private time. “As a Drag performer I love Queer artists like Dorian Electra where I can already imagine what my act will look like based on silly lyrics,” they explain. “I’m a comedy King so I’m here to make you laugh even when the song is sexy (but who doesn’t love some Weird Al too?). On a personal level, I like to shut off and strip it down. The NPR Tiny Desk concerts are my favorite, specifically Alt-J, Dram, and Tanks & the Bangas. Their creativity challenges me & keeps me inspired!”
Sam I’Am is wrapping up the final two shows of They/Them: The Festival this Friday, June 28 and Saturday, June 29 at the Annex Theatre. In it, Sam I'Am plays an expecting mother imagining the ways the life of their child would change depending on gender. The show features cabaret, stand-up comedy, burlesque, and musical performances from trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming performance artists.
We caught up with the musical dynamo to preview the gig and to ask her who she’s listening to these days, how her identity as a queer woman informs her art, and when she started singing.
KEXP invites you to celebrate pride with us Wildrose + GAYEXP Pride 2019 on June 28th, 29th and 30th; get more details and see more Pride events happening around Seattle.