A Conversation Between Drag Queens, Old And New
BY JEFF SKINNER a.k.a. Jennifer Lynn Ali
In celebrating the changes drag has undergone through the years, two local Columbus queens chat about everything from memories to the future.
Like any art form or craft, female impersonation hasn’t stayed the same since its birth. From the changing of laws pertaining to cross-dressing and to a popular, Emmy-award winning show about competing drag queens, times really have changed. But what about the approaches, the attitudes and the memories?
True Q’s Administrative Executive and female impersonator Jennifer Lynn Ali sat down with friend Samantha Rollins to talk about how drag has changed through the years:
Jennifer Lynn: Entertainers like you, Coco, Brazon, Maria Garrison have paved the way for myself and many other drag queens in Ohio. I wanted to sit down and talk with you about what drag was like when you first started, and then talk about our favorite memories of drag. How long have you been doing drag?
Samantha: I’ve been doing drag for 37 years now. More than most drag queens now have been alive.
[laughs] Wow. I don’t think I knew that!
Why are you laughing?!
Because I didn’t know that! I didn’t know it’s been 37 years. Wow.
Why do you think I’m so fabulous?
That’s amazing. I started drag when I was 18. I’ve been doing it for eight years. Oh, my gosh. I’m a baby.
I started doing drag when I was 20.
What was it like back then? I know now, you walk in fully ready.
I’ve always walked in fully ready. Unless I’m out of town and have to get ready there; in that case, I hope for a hotel to get ready. I’ve always looked at this as a job. They hired Samantha, from start to finish. So I go in and leave as Samantha. You get what you pay for.
I know that I’ve heard that “back in the day” — like years and years ago — people didn’t show up in drag. They would have to get ready in the bars. Did you ever have any issues with showing up in drag?
Well, I looked like a woman, so from a distance, you’d never know. Back then, you had to have on at least three articles of men’s clothing, in case you were pulled over or arrested or harassed. Mostly, that would be like undergarments, which we could hide.
You’ve never been harassed?
Nope. I’ve never been looked at twice, as long as I’ve been doing this.
Good! That’s amazing. I’m not one to dress up and come to the bar. I like to get ready there. Actually, I’m like Hellin Bedd. I have my sweats on.
You’re a dude in makeup, is what you’re telling me. Well, I’m a lady in makeup. Now we know the difference between today’s youth and me.
Do you think social media has changed drag? Why?
Yes. 100%. Back in my day — I hate to say that, because I’m still here; it sounds like I’m retiring — the only place you’d see drag was a gay bar. You couldn’t turn on a soap opera and see a drag queen, like you can now. Or any time of the day, watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. All we had was the gay entertainment scene. We’ve lost that spark in the bars now, because they’ve already seen it before they got there.
Right. They’ve seen a picture on Instagram.
Or it’s preconceived what a drag queen should be because of RuPaul’s Drag Race. So if you don’t look like a RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant, you fall behind.
I was going to ask you about RuPaul’s Drag Race, but you brought it up! What is RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Starting out, it could have been really good and helpful to drag queens, but they’ve isolated so many drag queens by saying, “this is what we want, and if you are not that…” So look at Trixie Mattel. They picked someone who doesn’t look like your average drag queen on RPDR, but now all these new queens are just watered-down Trixie Mattels. Drag queens now aren’t their own personalities, like me and Georgia and Sonya Ross are. We had nothing to go off of. We had to create our own selves. There wasn’t any “let’s rewind this tape and let’s copy this girl’s makeup.”
There was no YouTube to follow their exact routine.
What are some of the impersonations that you’ve done throughout the years?
Make fun of yourself first; yes, I have a big nose and I’m very aware of that. I can do Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Cher… Uh… Oh, Lady Gaga. Duh.
Duh! How did that slip your mind; that’s like your main one!
Because you do it, and I thought of how horrible you do her.
Now we’re on Drag Race behind the scenes.
And then I did Justin Bieber, which you can find on YouTube.
Yes! I’ve watched that multiple Times. My favorite is probably… What is the KFC guy?
Reba McEntire as Colonel Sanders.
[laughs] Yes, that’s one of my favorite memories of you. It was so fun! All right. What style of drag best fits you, Samantha.
People always ask me that. For some reason, you have to be labelled now, as a certain type of drag queen. I am an entertainer. I do comedy, drama (which is ballads to me), look-a-likes. I try to be everything, so I don’t have a label for myself. If people ask what type of I do, entertaining, is how I put it.
I would say I’m an entertainer, also. I don’t just do one thing; I do multiple things. Wouldn’t you agree?
[laughs] But you don’t do them all good, like I do.
No! Of course not! [laughs] Because you’re a legendary queen and you can do no wrong.
Just let me add here: I’m not conceited; I’m just making fun of you. I am my own worst critic.
I would agree. I’m the same way. What has been your biggest obstacle or challenge in your drag career?
My nose. [laughs] No, I’m kidding. My insecurity. I’m very shy. I’m like your average actor; I’m very different off-stage. People don’t realize that until they get to know me.
That’s funny. I’ve been shy since I was a little kid. I used to hide behind my mom.
I can top that. I moved into a house and didn’t come out for two years. I was agoraphobic; is that what they call that? And then most people ask, “How did you overcome your shyness.” Being a drag queen!
Being a drag queen! You’re right!
By putting on this mask where no one saw me.
It’s like being a different person. So where do you see yourself in five years?
No! I will never say I’m going to retire. Because then, if I don’t, people will say, “you said you were going to retire when you’re 40!”
They’re going to call you Cher.
I used to say I was going to retire when I was 40. Well, Samantha’s 37. I’m going to have that farewell concert for the next three years.
We’re talking a lot about Cher. What’d you think about Cher’s concert?
God, I love Cher. But it was lackluster. You’ve not seen her before, but she’s done that same concert three times in a row here. It’s cookiecutter. My friend Jason was sitting there, and I would know what song she was gonna do next, and he’d turn to me and be like, “you’re right!” “I Got You Babe” was the only new set, because so many people were asking her to do it.
I was very busy looking at her rhinestones and outfits.
She did update her outfits with rhinestones. That’d be like me pulling something out of my closet from five years ago and just stoning it. “Hey, think they’ll notice?”
I was looking at the patterns of the rhinestones, because I was so close. I liked it. I was happy that it was all rhinestone, and I’ve never seen it before. It was great.
The concert was good; don’t get me wrong. But she didn’t talk to the audience as much as she used to. Granted, we were in the middle of a snowstorm. She probably wanted to get the hell out of there.
That was very interesting. And I was in heels during that snowstorm.
Boy drag. [laughs] That shake and bake tan. But you did look good.
I just went tanning that day, so thank you. So I know that you’ve competed in pageants before. What do you think about pageantry?
Back in my day — and I hate, again, to keep saying that — when you entered a pageant, there were 30 other queens in that pageant with you. That was the only way to really get noticed back then, because we didn’t have social media. Hell, we didn’t even have cell phones. You would have your 8 by 10 glossies; look that up, children, some of you may not know what that is. But pageants now. There’s so many, and you only get three girls to show up. It’s lost its importance, because of social media. No offense to girls who are pageant queens. I was a pageant queen, because that’s what you had to be. But I’ve outgrown that.
I totally agree with that.
We are not the same person. Stop agreeing with me. I want you to disagree with me on something.
I like agreeing with you! I just love your opinions.
We’re too much the same person.
What is your favorite drag memory?
My favorite drag memory is why I got started in this. I walked into The Garage — for all you new kids, that was The Garage back in the ’80s when it was a fabulous place, not this 2000s Garage right before it closed — and there was a drag queen on stage. It was an older person and she was performing this number. I just knew that’s exactly what I was going to do. I knew, from then on, I was going to be a drag queen and a performer. I wish I could remember her name. And what song she was doing.
My favorite memory would have to be when I first went to a drag pageant. I believe it was Ohio USofA At Large; I think you were actually performing or judging. My mom actually went with me, and we watched the pageant together. That’s when I knew that drag was something that I wanted to do, that I wanted to try and compete at some point. I was very young; 18 years-young to be exact.
Let me change my favorite memory then, because that was too close to yours. My second favorite memory in drag was the first time I saw Sonya Ross perform. No one ever associated my initials (SR) with Sonya Ross’s initials (SR). Sonya was my idol. She was what I wanted to be when I first started doing drag. She was doing a two woman show with Jennifer Foxx at The Garage. It was just the two of them. She changed so fast! That’s when she wore her own hair. She came out for her first number and it was all down. Then she came back out in this S&M spikey thing with a mohawk. All of her own hair! Done literally within two numbers, while the other girl performed. For the last number, she came out with her hair huge with a purple feather boa and matching purple feather fans. She did this strip number. She was just… breathtaking. She’s still stunning beautiful. But she was breathtaking beautiful back in the ’80s.
Back in the day!
And talk about staying power. That’s my Sonya.
How long has she been doing drag, do you know?
A couple years more than me.
[laughs] Yes, a couple.
She’s incredible, and to think that she’s still doing drag is really inspiring to me.
Let’s talk about my favorite memory of you. How long have we known each other?
We’ve known each other for four years. Maybe a little longer than that.
I met you when Hellin Bedd booked you at Cavan’s one night. You had on that incredible teal and black ’80s thrift store jacket that you wore with those black panties. That was my first time seeing you; my favorite memory of you, though. If I’m in a show, I look at it like theatre where you don’t see actors out roaming around the audience, so I kind of go from the stage to the dressing room. Lately, I’ve been going out because people expect that of you now. But I didn’t usually get to see the performers that I worked with. One night, at AWOL, I actually got to watch you perform. When you came off stage, I told you that you’re more talented than you really know. You were doing a Stevie Nicks number, but not dressed as Stevie Nicks. You were so entertaining. I had never really seen that side of you, because I’d only seen you backstage or walking around. It was really good. But don’t let that go to your head; you’re not great by any means. [laughs] I didn’t realize that you have so much potential, and I don’t think you’re using even half of it.
Thank you. That really means a lot to me! My favorite memory of you would be that time when you switched your makeup from Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz to your normal makeup. In like ten to fifteen minutes. I sat right beside you the whole time, and I was just blown away. I just don’t know how you could do that. I’m kind of a perfectionist, and I like to take my time with it. It takes me hours, and you do it in ten to fifteen minutes.
Years of practice!
It’s amazing to me how talented you are. I’m just happy that we got to sit down and kiki, if you will.
Chew the fat!
Now you’re showing your age.
I choose my words very carefully.
Last thing, where can I find you on social media? [laughs] What is that?
Just kidding! Where do you see drag going in the future? Do you think there’s going to be bars to perform at?
There will always be drag. There will always be people who need drag as their artistic outlet. There will always be people who are confused with their gender who need that step to get comfortable with themselves. Through all the decades, drag has gone through many stages. We’re in that rebellious stage. It reminds me of the ’80s punk stage, when we were all rebelling. That’s the stage we’re in right now. We have all these queens who can’t commit to being a glamour queen, so they are hiding behind this rebellious look. Which is fine, that’s their gimmick. I call it rebellious drag. No titties. No hair. The Trixie Mattel big eye thing. I think we will go back to the glamour stage, once people realize that the real base of drag is to look like a woman. That’s the whole purpose of drag. When it started back in Shakespeare’s stage, it was a man trying to look like a woman. I mean, it’s all drag.
Any last words?
“I’m so glad we had this time together. Just to have a laugh…”
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