In a hallway at the University Center on the University of Montana campus, a group of uniformed ROTC students furiously take notes as an instructor grimly points to a whiteboard. Occasionally, one of the students glances away from the lesson, distracted by the buzz of excitement coming from a neighboring meeting room full of people sporting dyed hair and pride buttons. The enthusiastic crew in the meeting room is part of a bi-weekly workshop called “So You Think You Can Drag” designed for anyone — mostly newbies — to get tips for and guidance in the art of drag.
“I love the clothing,” someone says. “I would dress that way every day if I could.”
“What’s stopping you, other than society?” asks another person
“Society is a pretty big factor,” they answer. “That and money.”
Jaz Dierenfield, the workshop’s instructor, smiles.
“I’m not sure what we can do about society,” Dierenfield says. “But as for money, look at me: I’m a broke college kid and I find a way.”
Dierenfield has performed around the world, from London, England, to Portland, Oregon, since taking part in their first drag show while studying at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Dierenfield’s drag persona, Aladdin Glambert, is a flashy and dynamic blur of energy that seems completely removed from the soft-spoken physics student teaching the workshop. The idea to teach the workshop sprang from Dierenfield’s realization that a lot of people in their personal life were showing an interest in drag, and most of them had no idea where to start. As the student coordinator for the Student Involvement Network and the outreach director for UM Lambda, Dierenfield realized they were in the best position to facilitate it.
“The drag community has been so supportive and encouraging and empowering here in Montana.”
Since its founding 30 years ago, the Imperial Sovereign Court of the State of Montana has produced dozens of drag shows every year throughout the state. “It’s a bit of a surprise when people [outside the state] find out about Montana’s long history of drag performance,” says Johnny Barber, a drag performer and UM history grad student.
Helena, Bozeman and even Great Falls all have thriving drag scenes, but Missoula’s stands out with its monthly themed drag shows at the Badlander, tight-knit community of performers and supportive environment. Still, even in a welcoming atmosphere, drag can be an intimidating prospect for newbies. Where do you start in a field known for its use of makeup, costumes and choreography? In an artform dedicated to big characters and big costumes, it can be terrifying for someone wanting to make their break in the world of drag. And that’s where the workshop comes in.
Even though some of Missoula’s performers have been performing for decades, they all started somewhere, and people like Dierenfield say they are more than willing to share their best tips for starting drag on a budget. What it takes? Attitude, learning from your mistakes and saving a couple of bucks whenever you can.
“Firstly, figure out what kind of queen you want to be,” says Matty Oliver, who has been performing as Zara Renea Spritzer for almost nine years.
Just putting on a dress or wig doesn’t make you a drag queen, Oliver says. Everything you put on should serve your inner character.
“You can have the best wig and the best makeup and the best dress, but if you don’t have the inside figured out, you’re in trouble.”
When Oliver started in drag, they procured a stash of makeup by stealing their mother’s Mary Kay Cosmetics samples. This allowed them to play around to see what worked for them, but they still recommend trying on your makeup a few times before wearing it in public.
“I felt fierce, but I looked busted as fuck when I first went out,” Oliver says.
If you don’t have any experience with makeup, Oliver recommends checking out YouTube tutorials and, in lieu of stealing makeup from your mom, trying some of the cheaper brands before investing a lot of money. Wigs, commonly associated with drag culture, but by no means a necessity, can also be a daunting undertaking. Oliver currently spends between 40 to 80 hours prepping each wig before a performance in a painstaking process that evolved over the years through trial and error. For the beginner, however, they recommend purchasing cheap wigs. “Don’t just take them out of the bag and put it on your head,” Oliver says. “Take it out, brush it out, style it; a little work can go a long way. You learn the most from your failures.”
Johnny Spritzer, the drag alter ego of Barber, also knows the importance of learning from mistakes. Early in their career, Barber, like many rookie drag kings, bound their breasts with an Ace bandage. Binding, the process of compressing your breasts to create faux pectoral muscles, has a long tradition in drag culture. But while the bandage effectively compresses breasts, it’s also incredibly dangerous. A decade ago, Barber discovered just how dangerous it can be backstage at a show. Moments before Johnny Spritzer was to take the stage to compete for the title of Mr. Gay Missoula, Barber coughed, and immediately heard a loud snap. The compression of the bandage, coupled with the cough, fractured one of their ribs. Barber still took the stage and performed through the pain, even winning that coveted title, but never used an Ace bandage again.
“I got really drunk after that,” Barber says. “I want to save other people from that pain. If you’re someone with breasts and you want to bind, please, please, please use a binder.”
Binders go for around $20 online, and it’s easy to find cheap clothing and other accessories on the internet, too. Locally, clothing can be picked up on the cheap from Missoula’s plethora of thrift stores, or at the drag performer favorite, Ross Dress for Less. “I’ve gotten some of my favorite pieces for five or six dollars at Ross Crossdress for Less,” says Oliver, laughing.
At the workshop, Dierenfield leads the enthusiastic attendees through the schedule for the bi-weekly workshop and gives some final advice.
“Be a part of the community. Drag is great for personal expression and challenging gender norms, but it’s also a great opportunity to make connections with people.”