Cheers erupted in Habana Cafe as stage curtains flew open, revealing a woman dressed in emerald green smiling in the spotlight. She began lip-synching to an upbeat pop song as she sashayed around the bar, pausing to pluck dollar bills from audience members’ hands.
The drag show had officially begun.
Female impersonator Max Dean said drag culture became prominent in Harrisonburg in 1996. The local movement began after the creation of Miss Gay Harrisonburg, a pageant recognizing drag queens’ talents. A flourishing drag community arose and continues to thrive over 20 years later.
“I thought for a long time that I should have been a woman,” Dean said. “My whole life, I’ve been very feminine and, growing up, that was kind of hard.”
Dean debuted as a drag performer in 1989. Through female impersonation, he said he learned to love himself by embracing his femininity.
“You know, I’m still that little girl that I always wanted to be,” Dean said. “But I’m also falling in love with who I am.”
Dean said that his drag persona, Maximus Everything, is a part of his personality. His stage name was Max when he first started drag. He changed it to Maximus Everything after the Miss Everything Pageant was created.
Dean said that performing drag is a necessity for him, as it’s a part of his “light.”
“I have to do this to survive as a human being because she’s in there, and she has to come out, and that’s when I’m my happiest,” Dean said.
At the show, the crowd chanted as Jayda Knight danced into the audience. She bounced in her hot pink mini dress and voluminous blonde wig. Her dramatic eye makeup sparkled as she twirled in her high heels. She controlled the room with confidence.
“Before I started doing drag, I could not talk in front of people,” Chad Sager, who has been performing drag as Jayda Knight for over 15 years, said. “Doing drag over the years has helped me with self-confidence.”
In 2010, he started Rhinestone Productions, a company that organizes drag events in Harrisonburg. Sager said that Rhinestone Productions has become a staple of the downtown community and has brought more awareness, understanding and love for the art form.
“It’s important for the community to know that we have such a rich history of female impersonation here in Harrisonburg,” Sager said. “The drag culture here is just amazing.”
Another woman takes Habana’s stage. With only two-and-a-half years of drag experience, she performs her routine with the enchantment of a female impersonator who has been entertaining for decades. She spins around the room, stopping to interact with audience members as she makes her way to the back of the bar.
Liam Major said he was captivated when he went to his first drag show. Six months later, he began performing as Genesis Knight.
“She’s fun, she’s young, she doesn’t play by the rules,” Major said. “She does whatever she feels like in the moment.”
Sager became Major’s “drag-mother” when Major first entered the drag scene. Under her guidance, Major said he was able to grow as a performer.
“It’s really a family,” Major said.
“One thing that this community needs to learn very deeply is that we are a close-knit family,” Dean said. “We always have been.”
Dean said the Harrisonburg drag community is known for being drama-free. Its motive is to spread love and acceptance to everyone.
“Rhinestone Productions teaches that everyone needs to be themselves, everyone needs to respect themselves, and by doing that, our community will survive longer,” Dean said. “In our own little community that we have here, we just want to spread love and acceptance to everyone.”
Contact Alexa Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.