Story by Quinn Gawronski. Photos by Jordan Larson and Chelsea Taxter.
The cluttered dressing room is lit by a few buzzing fluorescent bulbs, the white brick walls bare except for flyers announcing Thursday student night here at Trexx, a gay bar in Syracuse.
Foundation, powder, fake eyelashes, and glitter clutter the countertop in front of Sam Bratt, a seasoned drag performer from Rochester, New York. He layers on thick stage makeup, highlighting and contouring in warp speed with his grey sweatshirt unzipped and stomach exposed above the elastic band of navy sweatpants.
“It smells like fifth grade locker room in here,” Bratt says.
Bratt, known on stage as Samantha Vega, has been a drag queen for more than 20 years. He first performed as a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology for a competition-style fundraiser.
“The first time I did it I thought it was the only time I would do it,” Bratt says. “Here I am 20 years later still putting on panties and dressing up.”
When Bratt began performing, he bathed in the attention he received as a drag queen. He says he never felt attractive as a male, but Samantha Vega is different.
Bratt began performing at Trexx after winning a Syracuse drag pageant in 2008. He said he wanted to maintain a presence here and give back to the community. Now, he performs at 27 college shows every year.
“I guess we’re all attention whores,” Bratt says.
The curtain crawls open and Samantha Vega appears, her blonde curls bouncing as she struts to the center of the stage. Bratt’s broad face has been transformed with high cheekbones, black arched brows, and overdrawn fuchsia lips.
Green and red lights dance across the walls, bouncing off the countertops and alcohol bottles that line the shelves. The speakers on either side of the stage pulsate music, a huddled group dances to steady vibrations of bass. A man slumps on the edge of the stage, lazily sipping a Corona, as a long-haired girl grinds against him.
Samantha Vega lip syncs the words to “I’ve Been So Mad Lately” by the band Butt Trumpet in perfect time, her lime green contacts flashing and laced up leather boots reflecting the swirling array of lights coming from above the stage.
The Thursday night host, Fred Donath, better known as Frita Lay, books performers like Bratt regularly and hosts amateur nights with prizes of up to $100 for new performers. Despite this push to bring new acts to Trexx, Donath says that the bar has been suffering from a serious lull over the past decade. Following the creation of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009, drag has become a widely accepted facet of the entertainment industry.
Many performers like Donath and Bratt now travel to perform at pride events, college shows, and bars across the East Coast, and for some lucky performers, drag is a full-time career.
Donath has learned from RuPaul’s Drag Race but also blames the popular VH1 series for the decline of attendance he’s witnessed at Trexx.
“Drag in Syracuse is not what it was,” Donath says. “I can see that in the numbers we have at the bar.”
With awe-inspiring shows available at the click of a button, many patrons have become disincentivized to attend in-person drag shows. Donath says the show detracted from the fun campiness that drag used to have, and he isn’t alone.
For Samantha Vega, staying relevant in the ever-evolving landscape of drag is an ongoing challenge. Keeping up with the high expectations of the public is impossible.
“It’s like any art form, things change with time,” Vega says. “Everything is about death drops, the stunts, the gags. How do you keep up with that? How do you stand out when you can’t do those things?”
Brittany Perkins, another performer whose name on-stage is Elijah Knightly, reminisces about the old days when all she did was buy some “boy clothes” off the shelf and gyrate to a sexy hip-hop song.
“You were made, you were in,” says Perkins. “Now, you better step up your damn game or you’re going to get lost in the dust.”
In the arcade room to the left of the stage the thumping music is dulled, and a quieter crowd sidles up to the bar. Patrons of Trexx chatter quietly on the barstools while others circle the pool table slowly, cradling drinks.
Donath sits at the far end of the bar, conversing politely with a balding man who sits next to him. Large costume jewelry hangs heavily from his ears and neck, sparkling with each turn of his head. He’s come a long way since his first performance on his thirty-first birthday in 1999, when his boyfriend signed him up to perform in an amateur show known as Wig Fest.
“He put me all in drag, made me up. I looked like an Italian mob woman, dark curly hair, wearing leather,” Donath says. “That’s when Frita Lay was born.”
Frita Lay was not always so outgoing. Donath says he was absurdly introverted at his first Wig Fest but went back the following year and won the competition.
When he first began performing at Trexx in 2009, Donath was heavier-set and wore moomoos. He didn’t feel like he was affable enough to host the show.
“I said something funny, somebody laughed,” Donath says. “I haven’t shut up since.”
Tonight, Frita Lay confidently paces the stage, microphone in one hand, an Absolut grapefruit cocktail in the other. She wears a skin-tight black dress, complete with a short jet-black wig and flaming red lipstick.
“Who feels like family when they come here?,” Lay asks the small crowd clustered on the right of the stage. They cheer and clap as she descends the wooden steps and introduces the first act of the evening, who goes by the name of Little Jazzy.
Little Jazzy catwalks on to the stage, her heeled thigh-high boots striking the floor with each beat. The multicolored lights reflect off of her glittering lip gloss, lilac lob swinging around her neck as she dances and sings.
When Donath isn’t in sky-high stiletto heels cracking jokes at Trexx, he’s an RV mechanic. His coworkers have asked him to perform at their annual Christmas party, but Donath declined the offer because he’s unsure how his raunchy routine would go over with the staunch Republicans he works with.
Donath chose to host Thursday night student shows because it’s his day off from work. He spends the majority of the evening getting ready in his basement, which he has dedicated to drag. When he’s done hosting, Donath heads home to rest before he goes back to work the following day at 7:30 a.m.
“Frita doesn’t exist until the wig goes on,” Donath says. “When I go home, I leave here as Fred.”
On the other side of the arcade room, a Christina Aguilera video is projected on the wall. Brittany Perkins perches on a leather stool in the corner, but at the moment is made up as her male persona, Elijah Knightly.
A pair of aviators hang from her red flannel, and an expertly applied jet-black beard disappears into her snapback emblazoned with the word “savage.”
Perkins has been performing at Trexx for almost six years but still considers herself to be a newbie in the drag scene.
“This is like the second home,” she says. “For some people it’s a hobby.”
Perkins came out at Trexx three months before her first performance, and she met her fiancée at the bar soon after. While she’s here, Perkins is a whole different person.
“When I’m me in the day time I’m not cocky, but me in drag is very cocky,” Perkins says. “Say there’s a group of girls at the bar and they want to talk to me. I will go take 20 minutes out of my time and go speak to them.”
For her first performance at Trexx, Perkins only had five minutes to prepare. Frita Lay told Perkins to get on stage, and she ran with it.
Perkins performed extensively with her winter guard team for 15 years before she began drag, sometimes performing for crowds of up to 2,000 people. Even with this experience, she says nothing is quite as intimate, personal, and intimidating as performing in drag.
“I have never been more scared in my life than being in a crowd of 15 people who are in my face. It’s intimidating as hell,” Perkins says. “You think people aren’t seeing something, but they notice everything.”
Performing comes with intense pressure for perfection. From maintaining a patchless and symmetrical beard to lip syncing every word on time, there seems to be a thousand ways a number can go wrong.
“I always tell people, if you’re not nervous when you’re getting announced before that music starts and that curtain opens, you gotta go find something else to do,” Perkins says.
Even though a nitpicking crowd can be nerve-wracking, she concedes that her toughest critic is herself.
“You judge yourself more than the crowd does,” says Perkins. “They accept you as soon as you walk out, because they still love you, they’re still cheering you on, they still give a shit.”
A strong sense of community creates a powerful bond among drag queens and kings alike at Trexx, where Bratt is known as the grandmother of drag newbies.
“I’m like that inappropriate grandma, I say the worst things sometimes but it all comes from a place of love,” Bratt says. “I want them to grow, I want them to get better.”
Perkins is only one of the performers Bratt has been a mentor to. In the chaotic and high-intensity world of drag, having a faux family is essential.
“The most rewarding part of drag for me has been mentoring performers and having them develop a voice of their own,” Bratt says.
Before Perkins landed on Elijah Knightly as her king name, she was known as Sparks Chaos. Her drag father, Angel Chaos, taught Knightly the tricks of the trade. Without a mentor like Angel Chaos, newcomers often tussle with guesses of how to dress, bind, and apply facial hair.
In her early years, Perkins performed alongside her drag father and a group of six other kings who called themselves the Tom Cats. As the members of the Tom Cats began to perform individually, Perkins curated what she still calls her favorite performance to Adam Lambert’s “If I Had You.”
Two years later, Perkins performed the androgynous act at a Central New York pride event in an attempt to persuade Tatiana Michaels to become her drag mother. Before performing, she marched up to Michaels and announced, “You’re going to be my mom.”
Following the performance, Michaels approached Perkins and said “welcome to the family,” with arms wide open. Michaels and her boyfriend at the time became a second family to Perkins.
“They take you under their wing, and they try to bestow some form of wisdom onto you when it comes to being in the drag community,” Perkins says.
Perkins is supportive of all the performers, regardless of their act. She loves seeing new kings arrive at Trexx, much like she did nearly six years ago.
“If you wanna do it on stage, and you have the cojones to get up there and do it, more power to you,” Perkins says. “I’ll scream my ass off for you.”
Though Frita Lay has never been a mentor to a specific queen, Donath says he is open to all new talent that arrives at Trexx. Many college-aged performers he met long ago are still in contact with him 20 years later.
“I got people all over the country that I still get messages from. All over the world, actually,” says Donath. “They used to call me soccer mom.”
Perkins speaks fondly of Donath and the initiatives he has created to encourage new performers to come to Trexx. “It’s humbling when somebody else can see that you’re trying, and she does,” Perkins says.
Amid the shifting chromatic lights, these kings and queens have found a haven for the art of drag.