Anyone who has watched RuPaul's Drag Race for at least 10 minutes can vouch for the magic of drag. Seeing a burly man (eyebrows optional) transform into a gorgeous woman is more entertaining than you might think. The process isn't easy, thanks to tucking and creating the illusion of a feminine silhouette, but the end result can lip-synch like nobody's business.
Local photographer Paul Elliott captures that magic in his exhibition "This D**k Walks Into a Bar," which is open to the public at Eye Lounge from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, January 3. We recently caught up with him to discuss the Valley's drag scene.
Eye Lounge is currently decorated from wall to wall with a series of neatly arranged black-and-white photos of drag queens. Some of the faces are instantly recognizable -- like Barbra Seville, Pandora DeStrange, and Celia Putty.
"Four queens have really helped me out with this project: Coco St. James, Barbra Seville, Pandora DeStrange, and Mia Inez Adams have all been really supportive. I've also shot, among many, Pussy LeHoot, Sizzel Lamour, Savannah Stevens, and The Legendary Jalissa Aundra Michaels," Elliott says of the exhibition.
The Tucson-born photographer has lived in the Valley for the past two years, after residing in New York and Chicago. He was initially reluctant to photograph strangers for fear of crossing a line, but quickly became comfortable in the drag community.
"A drag show was happening. I snapped a photo as the queen took a dollar from my hand," Elliott says via the show's description. "I was instantly mesmerized. I had been in town for two months, and this was the first place I felt truly comfortable. I slowly worked up the nerve to start photographing other shows, armed with a Holga, on a regular basis."
He describes Cruisin' on 7th as the first place he felt welcome in Phoenix. The popular Phoenix gay bar served as a gateway to the world of drag.
"As I started to explore the scene, I realized that there is a shit-ton of drag in this town," he says, mentioning Bunny Fu Fu and Lucinda Holiday's jaunts in Phoenix.
His pieces capture the point of view of a drag show audience member. Most of the photos are from a point of view that slightly look up at the performer and capture spontaneity and the overall raunchy yet fun environment of a drag show.
"I've contemplated RuPaul's Drag Race as a catalyst for change. I would have killed to have someone tell me that it is okay to embrace male femininity when I was a teenager, but I think the show's popularity could be a double-edged sword. The commercialization of a scene usually means a level of sterilization. Who knows what will happen, but I wanted to capture the Phoenix drag scene now in 2013, when drag is on the brink of possibly American Idol-ing. I wanted to capture the scene before Target started carrying breast plates."
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"This D**k Walks Into a Bar" shows that there's more to drag than catfights and fishy (a.k.a. ultra-feminine) queens lip-synching for their lives. While the local queens may not receive the same amount of recognition as someone like Sharon Needles or Jynkx Monsoon, there is plenty of talent waiting to be discovered in the Valley.
"I hope that people can take away from this project that Phoenix is so much more than golf courses and sports," he says. "I want to expose the fact that [a] drag show really is a unique way to spend an evening out. How many bars do you walk into in which a live show is happening? And I'm not talking about a band. I'm talking about you may be heckled, you might see a wig fall off, you could watch the Virgin Mary give birth to the tune of 'Like A Virgin,' anything can happen at a drag show! I suppose I've created a Drag 101 course for those that don't know."
"This D**k Walks into a Bar" runs through Sunday, January 12, at Eye Lounge.