No longer underground, Maine’s drag queen scene is mainstream and ‘finally cool’

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Cherry Lemonade crowns Gigi Gabor the winner of the 2020 Miss Blackstones Drag Queen Pageant in Portland on Saturday night. The annual event is one of the two biggest drag shows in the state.
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With thriving scenes in Portland, Ogunquit, Augusta, Waterville, Bangor and Bar Harbor, drag is coming out of the shadows and into the mainstream.
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PORTLAND, Maine — A capacity crowd of nearly 600 people saw Gigi Gabor win the 2020 Miss Blackstones Drag Queen Pageant at Port City Music Hall on Saturday night. The annual contest was moved from its tiny namesake gay bar to a larger venue this year due to so many people being turned away at the door in 2019.

With thriving scenes in Portland, Ogunquit, Augusta, Waterville, Bangor and Bar Harbor, drag is coming out of the shadows and into the mainstream. This year’s contest, hosted by Blackstones — Maine’s oldest gay bar — isn’t even the largest in the state. That title goes to the annual University of Southern Maine’s Royal Majesty Drag Show, which draws closer to 700 people every spring.

“Drag is finally cool,” said Cherry Lemonade, Miss Blackstones 2019 winner. “We used to be doing it in underground bars, late at night, washing it off our faces before we left the venue so we wouldn’t get our asses kicked on the way home.”

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The contestants (top photo) in the Miss Blackstones pageant wait to hear the name of the winner Saturday night. From left are: Cheryl Lynne, Regan White, Gigi Gabor, Chartreuse, Ophelia Johnson and Arabella LaDesse. Last year's winner Cherry Lemonade (above left) performs a horror-themed song. The crowd of almost 600 (above right) enjoys the show.

Lemonade said the gender-bending art of drag is much more mainstream now thanks, in part, to the popularity of television shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Dragula.” Paul is slated to host “Saturday Night Live” next month. Last week, the Bangor Daily News reported that Dover-Foxcroft native Jesse Havea would appear on the 12th season of “Drag Race.”

Gabor beat out five other contenders Saturday night for her crown. Each contestant was judged in four categories: talent, celebrity impersonation, evening gown and a question-and-answer session.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Miss Blackstones pageant winner Gigi Gabor (top photo) gets a hug from Danielle Dior, a veteran performer and MC for the night's festivities. Gabor waits to go onstage (above left) before the celebrity impersonation portion of the show. Guest performer Madame Sheena removes her wig (above right) as a sign of defiance during a song.

Historically, drag performers have identified as men using exaggerated clothing and makeup closely associated with women to put on a show. In more modern times, however, the lines have blurred.

“Drag is finding a heightened version of yourself, be it the gender you identify with, or an opposite gender, or a mix of the two,” Lemonade said. “It’s just playing with, and toying with, the idea of gender — and presenting that onstage.”

To find out more, BDN Portland spoke last week with all six contestants, asking them how they got into performing drag and what it means to them, personally.

Gigi Gabor, Portland

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Gigi Gabor holds on to her crown after winning the 2020 Miss Blackstones Drag Pageant at Port City Music Hall in Portland on Saturday night.

“It started one night when my friends needed [someone to play] Bubbles for their Powerpuff Girls costumes — and I went out all night dressed like Bubbles. It felt good. It felt right. It was a gender expression I felt like I’d been missing in my life. I like the feminine — and the masculine — and what you can do to bridge that gap. I identify as non-binary and drag has really helped me come to terms with that. The rush of being on stage is like no other. The best drug is performing and laying it all out there, showing the audience that this is me. If you look at it, there’s a message behind most [drag] performances. There’s a feeling of joy. It’s supposed to make you feel good. If it doesn’t, maybe you’re at the wrong show but I doubt you’ll walk out without a smile on your face.”

Arabella LaDesse, Raymond, New Hampshire

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Arabella LaDesse dances in the Miss Blackstones Drag Queen Pageant Saturday night in Portland. LaDesse finished second in the competition.

“I grew up in a very Irish, Catholic, heterosexual household. The idea of my gender was very much instilled in that place. I wanted to explore. My favorite part is the transformation, how I can look so manly one day — or even one hour — and then I can turn myself into a woman. Being onstage and sharing my art with people is such a great feeling — and then having them appreciate it is even better. Arabella is me on hyper mode. It’s taking all the things I might be very quiet about and making them very loud.”

Ophelia Johnson, Topsham

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Ophelia Johnson entertains the crowd at Port City Music Hall in Portland on Saturday at one of Maine's biggest drag queen competitions.

“I got into this because I was always a theater kid and I ran out of time to really go to rehearsals and I still needed a creative outlet. I like the attention. On top of Ophelia being her own character, she’s also just an extension of me. I always explain Ophelia as a 1960s, hot mess housewife — and if you didn’t pick up on it, her name is a hand job joke. The atmosphere [at a drag show] is very uplifting. Everyone knows that we’re men in dresses — or sometimes women in men’s clothing, of course. It goes everywhere. We’re there to have a great night and make some memories.”

Regan White, Portland

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Regan White performs a number at the Miss Blackstones Drag Pageant on Saturday night at Port City Music Hall in Portland.

“My grandmother reads your paper. Can we not include my name? Sorry, we’re just trying to let her go without ever talking about the gay thing. Drag is an amalgamation of whatever you’re good at. Some queens are good at dancing, some are theatrically trained, some — like me — are more comedy. Queens are jacks-of-all-trades. Eventually, we learn how to sew, do hair. Doing makeup, that’s a whole skill set to pick up. Regan is me but definitely an exaggerated version of myself. My character is a weird blend between Janeane Garofalo [who is famously sarcastic] and Rose Nyland [the sweet character from the “Golden Girls”]. Sometimes she cutting and sometimes she’s an idiot.”

Cheryl Lynne, Portland

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Drag performer Cheryl Lynne lip syncs a song on stage in Portland on Saturday night. Lynne was one of six queens competing for the title of Miss Blackstones 2020.

“I’ve been performing in drag since I was 16. Let’s just say for over 40 years. [Back then] there was more art to it — it was less campy — it was real female impersonation. People were puzzled. You had to lead with the question as to whether you were really a woman or not. It was a different time. We fought a lot of battles to let the kids do what they do today. We were family. Most folks didn’t have a lot of family and if we did, they stayed away because of what we did. It’s still an outlet [for me]. You get to go out there and be someone else for a while — and leave yourself behind.”

Chartreuse, Portland

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Drag performer Chartreuse (second from left) and her posse dance in Portland on Saturday.

“I’ve only been doing drag for about two years but I’ve been performing my entire life. I grew up a competitive figure skater. I started theater when I was young, I took voice lessons. I went to college and got my degree in dance. Performance, in some regard, has been part of my life, forever. Drag is a way to combine all my artistic interests under one umbrella. If people are wondering what to expect [at a drag show] they’ll see dancing, energy, laughter and a room full of love and support.”

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