Glamor. Some women define it as classiness and wealth. Other women like “legendary” drag queens Maxi Chanel, Nickki Stevens, Donna Personna and Lady T Tempest feel their most glamorous when they perform in drag, donning sparkly dresses in front of an audience. The queens met with University of Michigan students from the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design Thursday night at the Michigan Theatre to discuss the history of drag and their personal experiences performing at Detroit’s Gigi’s Cabaret and San Francisco’s Aunt Charlie’s, which are gay bars well known for their role in the drag scene.
The Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series and the Institute for the Humanities presented Legendary Drag Queens: Gigi’s Meets Aunt Charlie’s: A Tale of Drag Scenes & Queens. The program was open to the general public and brought together the four drag queens to tell stories of performing in both bars and around the country. The queens hailed from both cities and discussed the history of their legacies and drag’s importance to themselves.
Ben Johnson, arts and culture manager for the city of Beverly Hills, California, helped organize the event. Johnson also previously served as the Director of Education and Audience Development at the University Musical Society. The event was originally planned to take place in January 2022 but was postponed to September due to rising levels of COVID-19 in the Ann Arbor community.
“We are thrilled to finally have this program in the house, postponed from last January due to Omicron, originally inspired by the Institute for the Humanities exhibition of James Hosking’s project, Beautiful by Night,” Hamilton said.
After Hamilton’s opening remarks, Johnson introduced the queens to the crowd, saying it is important to recognize their work as activists for transgender rights and to celebrate their world-renowned drag talent, which in itself is a form of activism to the queens.
“We’re all here to recognize and celebrate four living legends within the performing arts field,” Johnson said. “They’re community activists and entertainers. But tonight we celebrate these living legends. Each one represents a lifetime of performance, awards and history.”
Johnson dedicated the event to Jim Toy, a queer activist who was part of the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front and was widely believed to be the first openly gay man in the state of Michigan. Toy, who passed away in January, was the founder of what would become the Spectrum Center at the University, a space specifically for the LGBTQ+ community on campus.
“I’m sure (Toy) would be here tonight and he would be thrilled to know that this was happening but his spirit is with us tonight,” Johnson said.
Johnson then spoke about Gigi’s Cabaret, the longest running and most awarded female impersonation venue in Michigan, and Aunt Charlie’s, the last remaining queer and trans-centered cultural space in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
“As someone who studies Performing Arts for a living (…) it’s always struck me as a unique aesthetic that was the DNA of what it meant to be a performer in the city of Detroit,” Johnson said. “In Detroit, in my mind, it was different. It was more performative, as if the artists are literally performing for their lives, but also adding juicy doses of talent, punk, edge, humor and joy.”
The four queens then walked out in glamorous and sparkling apparel onto the stage, immediately jumping into a performance of Jimmy Barnes and Tina Turner’s song “The Best” under a gleaming disco ball.
After the performance, Maxi Chanel, Nickki Stevens, Donna Personna and Lady T Tempest sat down for a discussion moderated by Johnson, who asked about the queens’ personal lives and how they see themselves as a part of the history of drag. Lady T Tempest spoke to being part of the LGBTQIA+ community in addition to also doing drag.
“Don’t allow anybody to put you in the closet,” Lady T Tempest said. “Be who you are, be positive and make sure anybody that needs your help, you help.”
Nickki Stevens said the culture she grew up in was very different than today because it was more dangerous to go to gay bars due to oppression by police and prejudiced people.
“Back then the entrance to the bar (was) through a back door so you didn’t get shot,” Nickki Stevens said. “Nobody knew where the bar was. It was our own private oasis, our own private paradise, we could be around people who were like us. It was very hush hush (and) on the down low, and you had to ask somebody where the next bar was.”
Donna Personna, an icon in the drag community from San Francisco who was featured in Beautiful by Night and was instrumental in the designation of the first transgender district in San Francisco, added that it is important to have compassion and help others in the drag community.
“Just be human,” Donna Personna said. “Don’t try to be perfect. There’s no such thing.”
Art & Design senior Emilia Bauer said the event exposed students to the lives and experiences of older members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“I think it’s honestly just really great to see anybody that’s older that’s in the LGBT community because so often (…) once you get past a certain age or even when you’re younger (it is rare to see that),” Bauer said. “Hopefully we’re moving towards a place where more people can do that kind of thing and just be more public (about their sexuality), even at the university and in academic settings, and be who they need to be.”
Daily News Reporter Rachel Mintz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.