Rest of the Best 2019—All Hail The Queens
Talking Passion and Performing with Pensacola’s “Best” Drag Queens
By Jennifer Leigh
Flashback to a recent Sunday afternoon—the scene of the Inweekly Best of the Coast cover shoot.
The mood is a little chaotic and a lot glamorous as four of the area’s best drag queens get camera-ready. There’s dozens of disco balls, a clothing rack of colorful costumes and a mix of Lizzo and
Beyoncé playing in the background.
Despite the diva on-camera personas, there’s a lot of camaraderie behind the scenes.
Lauren Mitchell, who has been entertaining the Pensacola area for more than 30 years, helps Monica Heart get into her shimmering sequin dress. Later, Monica will reciprocate the favor by helping Lauren select the right necklace for one of her ensembles.
“(With drag), you kind of teach each other and become a family,” said Monica.
The queen of the queens
This year is the first time Inweekly added “Best Drag Queen” to Best of the Coast, with Monica taking the inaugural win. While drag is nothing new—and certainly not to Pensacola—it seems that the local drag scene has recently been put back in the spotlight after some dark times.
Lauren started performing in drag in 1987.
“I saw a show, tried it and never stopped,” she said. “I love that you get to emote freely, entertain and inspire.”
In those early days, Lauren said she had to learn the tips and tricks of the trade the hard way.
“There was no YouTube, no Pinterest,” she said. “You had to figure out the makeup and how to make your own costumes on your own. It was just you and a hot glue gun.”
Lauren did figure it out and performed not just at clubs but at Christmas parties in Milton, and even at the National Naval Aviation Museum where she performed as Cher singing “If I Could Turn Back Time,” for a RE/MAX Realty convention.
“I’m the only drag queen that can say that,” she said proudly.
Fast forward to 2016 when Emerald City shut its doors. It was just one of a few nightclubs in Pensacola and one of the more popular clubs to catch a drag show. For full-time performers like Mitchell, the loss of venue meant a loss of income.
“I went and got a part-time job. I warned everybody,” Lauren said.
That part-time job then became a promotion, to the retail manager for MAC Cosmetics. And if you’ve seen Lauren’s immaculate makeup, it’s easy to understand the transition.
Now, she performs when she wants to, not just out of necessity.
“It’s brought joy back into it,” she said.
Put Lauren in front of a camera and you recognize she’s a pro. She knows her angles. And to many of the younger queens she’s someone to look up to—a “Drag Mother,” said Monica.
Monica was a former ROTC student who had a dream of being on stage. She remembers celebrating her 18th birthday at Emerald City and approaching one of the drag queens—Valerie Heart—about becoming a back-up dancer. Instead, she got a makeover.
“Everybody was in awe,” Monica recalled of the transformation.
She performed at a Drag-a-Rama contest, and it was Lauren who convinced her to get on stage with “the regular girls.” Monica, also known as the “Princess of Pensacola,” is now one of the “regular girls” performing and competing, and winning, in drag pageant shows.
“Performing was my dream,” she said. “It still is.”
As a performer, Monica Heart (the name pays homage to the drag queen that convinced her to start), enjoys telling a story through a song.
“I’m always thinking about if I was going to the concert of the singer I’m performing—what would I expect from them?” she said. “I want them to be fully entertained for those three minutes.”
Monica not only dances and struts to a beat, but she does gymnastics—in heels no less. She says she started incorporating back handsprings and splits into her act after she lost a ponytail and dropped into a split to recover.
Another fun fact about Monica—she’s colorblind, but you wouldn’t know it from her well-coordinated style.
She said she’s humbled by the recognition as “Best.” Even if she’s only on stage for three minutes at a time, and even if those aren’t her lyrics she’s singing to, she’s giving you everything she’s got.
“It comes from what I feel,” she said. “I don’t ever want to be fake. It’s coming from my heart.”
Bringing it back
The history of drag dates back to the late 1800s, but as far as modern-day drag goes, it used to be an undercover affair. Now, you can watch drag queen makeovers on YouTube and enjoy a drag show with your mimosa at 10:30 in the morning during brunch.
“People weren’t always allowed to dress like this; they’d wait until it went dark to go out,” said Heart. “Now, we’re doing shows at 3 p.m.”
Heart said the drag queen shows are more “spread out,” now with performances at The Cabaret and The Round Up and even some newer venues like bingo at Dolce & Gelato and brunch at The Vineyard.
Glen Hill, owner of The Vineyard in East Hill, started hosting tea dances around 2016 and then drag brunch last year. These events were different from the average nightclub drag show because they were during the day. The Tea Dances originated in big cities across the U.S. and include dance music, drink and drown packages and drag shows.
Drag brunches were designed to be more family-friendly.
“They sell out every time,” said Hill. “I didn’t really think of them as a business opportunity. I just wanted to showcase drag shows outside the element of bars and give people the opportunity to understand the diversity of the community.”
These shows bring diverse customers. Hill said he’s had patrons come from Fort Walton Beach and South Alabama. And the age range is 21 to 80.
“Our senior citizens love it,” he said.
“No one wants to leave when the show’s over,” he added. “The performers work very hard. It’s always a different show—and you don’t have to stay up past your bedtime.”
Drag shows have often been tied to the LGBTQ community, which is likely why they were taboo for so long, but Hill said he’s noticed attitudes change in recent years.
“It’s changed in Pensacola and across the country, and the world,” he added. “This is not about perversion or sexual identity. This is entertainment. People appreciate the art and seeing their favorite celebrities impersonated. There’s Dolly Parton impersonators, Cardi B, Whitney Houston … drag queens create their own style. It’s absolutely fun.”
A new generation
You can’t mention drag queens and not mention the impact the reality competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has had on the drag community. It’s paved a way for young, up-and-coming performers and helped put drag queens in mainstream pop culture.
Terrah Card is considered one of the “baby queens” of the bunch, having just started performing in February 2018. Her first performance was an amateur drag show at Pensacola State College.
She taught herself how to sew elaborate costumes with large, 3D headpieces. At the Inweekly shoot, she shows off a recent creation that’s likely more subdued than her other outfits—a black and lime green houndstooth bodysuit and cropped jacket.
“I’ve never taken a sewing class. I just look it up on YouTube,” she said. “A well-rounded queen can sew, perform and style wigs.”
Outside of the padding and wigs, Terrah said she’s self-conscious, but she found her confidence in drag.
“Once I started performing, I found I was really good at what I do,” she said. ‘I’m super confident on stage.”
Drag has also given her a sense of family when she couldn’t find acceptance at home.
“I haven’t been to Thanksgiving in three years,” she said. “My mom likes to know what I’m sewing and said she’s proud of me no matter what … but you can find other people that accept you to consider family. There’s a sisterhood with drag queens.”
Madame Hex, another of the younger drag queens, grew up in Milton watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Her first performance was the senior showcase in high school.
“It went terrible,” she said with a laugh. “But it was a really cool experience. I’m really happy when I perform. I especially enjoy hosting events and getting to talk on the mic.”
Her goal is to be a full-time performer. She rehearses at home, working on dance routines and rhythm. Her favorite part of the process is when it all comes together in the end. It’s “very satisfying,” she said.
Until she’s on stage full-time, Madame Hex delivers pizza, working from 5 p.m. to midnight. Sometimes that money goes right back into her passion.
“It costs a lot of money to do drag,” she said. “Sometimes you make $40 or $50 in tips, but that doesn’t even cover the cost of hair.”
It’s a lot of work to prepare and perform a drag show. It’s also “surreal.”
“We have the chance to expose people to this art and change people’s mind about what drag is,” said Madame Hex.
Drag is over-the-top and dramatic, but it’s also kind of relatable. We’ve all had grand daydreams of standing in the spotlight. Drag queens just turn those fantasies into realities. That’s how Monica Heart sees it.
“You can’t tell me you’ve never danced in your room singing Beyoncé songs into your hairbrush.”