Grinnell’s Drag Queens talk performance

Kelly Pyzik, Editor-in-Chief

pyzikkel@grinnell.edu

Jermaine Stewart-Webb ’16 only started performing drag as a spontaneous decision in his first year at Grinnell, but it has since developed an important and positive role in his life.

Photo by John Brady

Photo by John Brady

“It inspires me to keep moving forward despite hardships,” he said. “Drag show gives me confidence to be myself and provides a space for me to work out different types of emotions and parts of myself that I wouldn’t necessarily have the time or space to do so in everyday life,” he said.

When Stewart-Webb is onstage during drag show, he feels able to bring out the strongest energy inside himself.

“I channel an inner fire that’s inside of me. That’s with me in any form of performance. I take on an extreme persona or attitude that is very strong, very in your face and unapologetic. Whenever I’m onstage, I’m claiming that space, and not necessarily having to answer to anyone, so I can just answer to myself and answer to what my calling is or whatever my feeling is in that moment. When I am onstage, I feel like I channel this fire and this inner energy that I don’t feel as comfortable having in other spaces,” he said.

Although he saves the innermost fire for the stage, Stewart-Webb feels he challenges norms on campus every day.

“[With] just my being. I’m gay, I’m black and male, which is kind of, like, a rarity here. I don’t see that many people who are as flamboyant, or I like the word, ‘faggoty.’ Because I think the word, ‘faggot,’ is not necessarily a derogatory term. I mean, it can be for some people, depending on the context and your issues with that word, but I feel like it’s sort of empowering, because it’s claiming a certain femininity within the gay community that is sometimes shunned, or not necessarily privileged. I feel like because I take on that high femininity in my performance, I’m able to not care about what other people think of me because I’m just doing what I like to do and being my full self without any qualms,” he said.

Stewart-Webb’s drag queen persona now goes by the name Lil’ Re’Gram. The significance is up to interpretation, although one might guess it refers to a celebrity-like popularity on Instagram.

“I legitimately made that name up a week before drag show this semester. It’s a combination of a nickname I had when I was younger – Lil’ Red – because I had red hair when I was younger. Well, like, auburn mixed with brown. Gram is kind of like Jerm, but not germ, because I didn’t want it to be like, “ooh, germ,” some kind of negative connotation with it. So, I put that together, Lil’ Red Gram, but they kind of dropped the ‘D’ in the show, and I still dig it,” he explained.

Not necessarily a traditionalist, Stewart-Webb sees room for many forms of drag within performance artistry as a whole.

“I would say because I’m just now starting out—I’m just sort of a newbie to drag—I lie between both extremes. I like where drag is going, like you see on RuPaul’s Drag Race, where there are different forms of drag: high fem, high fashion, there are queens who are very comedic, queens who are very over the top, who take on different eras – the 1920s, 50s, and some of them do get engaged in that classic drag. I guess I haven’t completely solidified where I fall on that line. I fluctuate depending on a particular performance, what I want to present, depending on the night, how I feel,” he said. “I would do any genre of performance because I consider myself more of a performance artist than a visual artist or even an academic.”

 

 

James Caruso ’18 was introduced to drag at a young age and dressed in drag for the first time in high school.

Photo by John Brady

Photo by John Brady

“My family watched movies with drag queens, and I began to see them as powerful individuals who were able to transcend boundaries in gender and fashion and everything,” he said. “My first venture into full drag was prom. That was the first time I went out into public and was in front of other people in drag. That was the first time I’d ever done makeup, it was the first time I’d ever worn heels, except for when my sister put me in a dress when I was, like, six.”

At Grinnell, drag is often defined loosely as a mode of self-expression, with no right or wrong way to do drag. Caruso challenges that. He believes in the importance of traditional drag – tucking, packing, taping down one’s eyebrows, using makeup to create or enhance the right features, nice hair, tall heels. He is “not unprofessional.”

Caruso also challenges campus norms with his opposition to Social Justice as the grand-scale concept touted at Grinnell. He feels social justice is often elitist and silencing.

“The reason why I see social justice, especially as it is manifested at Grinnell, as an issue for me, is because it leaves out the voices it attempts to help the most. And it leaves out the voices that are hurt the most by the systems being challenged. In order for social justice to be productive, it must include the voices of the people that need it the most. I feel like a lot of the rhetoric that is used at Grinnell unfortunately leaves out those people,” he said.

Caruso’s drag queen character goes by the name Kristal Meth.

“If I had to describe Kristal Meth in three words: sexy, stupid, seductive. … She’s competitive, shady, … bitchy.”

Kristal Meth is a character Caruso has developed and grown with since his beginning as a “baby queen.” He now performs at drag show every semester, but also dresses up for parties on campus and other events, once including a gala in Des Moines for LGBT rights. He has been offered some opportunities to perform in Iowa, as well as the drag scene in his hometown, D.C.

“I definitely have people I know within the scene. … I’m still trying to make my name, I’m still a baby in the DC scene. But hopefully in the upcoming years I can make a name for myself and be a serious queen,” he said. “I hope to continue after Grinnell. It’s something that has definitely affected my life in a very positive way. Like a fine wine, I hope to age really well within the drag context, so I hope to be a smarter queen, a more beautiful queen, a polished queen. I just want to be on top of the world, really. But we’ll see what happens. I might also just become a professor and be happy with my life and have a family, really.”

Like all great drag queens, Kristal Meth confidently challenges what it means and what it takes to be a woman, or feminine, or beautiful.

Caruso said, “The way that I see drag, and one of the reasons why I perform, is because it shows that me as a man can become a beautiful woman as well. And that with a shit ton of time, energy and money, and makeup, of course, you, too, can become a beautiful woman!”