A man whose stage name is Carnita Asada said his eyelashes were made of sorrow. “Sorrow and baby tears and pine trees,” he teased. “A friend of mine in L.A. made them. They’re really just a bunch of lashes glued to some cardboard or something.”
Carnita Asada fluttered the eyelashes his friend made for him, then puckered rouged lips surrounded by an impressive beard. He was seated on a staircase just outside the bathroom in the green room of a Roosevelt Row establishment called Paz Cantina. A sturdy young woman with a crew cut, whom Carnita referred to as his bodyguard, sat nearby, staring into her iPhone.
“I started doing drag in 2009,” Carnita began. “Traditional female impersonation. I was not a very pretty female, but I tried.”
Carnita is neither pretty nor traditional. His deliberately clownish face makeup is a wink to the audience, tipping them off to the comic numbers he’ll offer on stage tonight as hostess of a very nontraditional drag revue called The Cluster Tuck. Women will perform as men; men will insult audience members from the stage; dresses will be worn backward.
This kind of misfit drag has been around for many years, Carnita said, patting the silky do-rag that covered his hair. “It’s usually been underground. A big, popular gay club wouldn’t have this kind of show, where you don’t have to get up there and be a perfect Nicki Minaj. For Cluster Tuck, we’re blurring the lines of gender. People go in and out of femininity and masculinity. We have male performers who perform as men, and we have males doing vintage drag, stuff from the 1920s. And then there’s me, wherever I fit in.”
Fitting in has never been interesting to Carnita, he admitted. When he moved to Phoenix 10 years ago from a small town outside Chicago, he was 23 but already knew who he was. “As a person,” he clarified. “I still had to learn what kind of artist I was.”
What Carnita found was that he wanted to push boundaries. “Offstage, I’m more relaxed than Carnita. She gets onstage and the first thing she says to an audience is, ‘You’re going to be offended. Please leave your sensitivity at the door.’”
He perfected his wicked routines — cursing at the crowd while lip-syncing to a Chipmunks song; forcing a patron to wear a blonde wig, then hauling him up on stage to be serenaded and insulted — at a Seventh Avenue gay bar called Stacy’s.
“I had a show there called The Queer Agenda,” Carnita said. “We did rock and Top 40 songs, but dressed like monsters. I brought in actual female illusionists who did, like, Mariah Carey. We had drag kings, women performing as men. Everyone loved it. In our first year, we won Arizona Show of the Year from arizonadrag.com.”
After the show became popular, Carnita said, things changed between the bar owner and Carnita. He left The Queer Agenda last month, and asked the cast to change the name of the show. So far, they haven’t.
“I have nothing but mad respect for all the artists in that show,” said Carnita, who thought there was usually drama among drag performers. “But it was a learning experience, running a show at Stacy’s.” He was pleased when Paz Cantina, which isn’t a gay bar, called to offer him a stage for The Cluster Tuck. This time around, he has copyrighted the name The Cluster Tuck and, while he was at it, the name Carnita Asada. His old audience, he claimed, had followed him to this new venue.
“I’m also reaching new audiences,” said Carnita. “Beyond your gay bar audiences. This is the epicenter of downtown, the heart of downtown.”
He paused. “With this show, we are bringing art to Roosevelt Row,” he said, with no irony at all.
But art isn’t everything, confided Carnita, who was about to launch a social media campaign called Love You Be You. It will challenge body image problems and the desire to Photoshop our own worst pictures before posting them on social media.
“It’s basically about learning to love yourself,” he explained. “When you love yourself, you can be yourself. We did this photo shoot where the cast of The Cluster Tuck is all naked. Artistically naked. All body types, all colors, no labels. And we’re going to post the photos with a story about how we became who we are. And, you know, hash-tag-love-you-be-you.”
Before he could right the body image wrongs of the world, though, Carnita Asada had a show to do. Tonight, he intended to open with a remake of the David Seville song “Witch Doctor” with his top on backward. “That’s very Carnita,” he said. After that, a drag king dressed as a rapper would lip-sync to “Bust a Move” and then do an 'NSYNC number. A man who performed under the name Rosie Bush was going to do Loretta Lynn singing “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.” The performers would circulate among the patrons, accepting dollar-bill tips.
“The show could be good, or it could be bad,” Carnita admitted. “But if it’s bad, eat food and drink up, and eventually it’ll end.”
It was a very Carnita thing to say.