My friends have always made fun of me for wanting to go out to the bars way too early. It’s true. I’ll admit it. I’m always impatient for the fun to start. But walking into Chasers on a recent Saturday night at 8 p.m. was too much for even me. Not so for Bryan Black, the 32-year-old man behind the “Glitter Queen” stage performer Skylar Michele-Monet.
With a couple of suitcases in hand and the largest traveling make-up case I’ve ever seen, Bryan walked into Chasers to meet me about 15 minutes after I’d arrived. A few courteous hellos and a shot of whiskey with Black started out our evening, heading back to the dressing room where he would slowly undergo transformation into Skylar.
I’ve always admired drag — at least from a distance. I don’t know much about it, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you any of the names of this season’s contestants on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” It’s entertaining, but I give it only a passing thought or appreciation.
And that’s where Bryan comes in. My job on this sticky summer Saturday night was simple: shadow Bryan, get to know him, learn more about the art form he takes so seriously and give readers a tiny behind-the-scenes glance at life as a local queen.
Bryan’s a friendly personality — the kind you can immediately identify the moment you meet them. I could tell it from the moment he walked into the door, smile a’blazing across his face. And, luckily for me, he’s a talker, too. There was certainly no shortage of answers to the bazillion questions I threw at him that evening.
The transformation begins
Once back in the dressing room, Bryan settled onto a bar stool in front of the mirror and began sifting through his mammoth make-up case.
We started simple. You know — name, age, where Bryan had grown up. And Bryan’s love of artistic pursuits. Turns out, he had been a national champion dancer — clogging, to be exact — as a teenager.
“By the age of 13, I’d won every title I could,” he said.
He got started when he was four. His aunt had been a member of local clogging group.
“Anytime they had a recital or competition, I was always the one in the audience in the middle of the aisle dancing along with them on the stage,” Bryan recalled. His mom asked him if he wanted to dance like his aunt, and he took her up on the offer.
As a kid, dancing was Bryan’s way of getting attention and standing out from under his older brother’s shadow, he says. His father had been a “sports guru,” he said. Both sides of his family had all gone to the same high school.
“My dad literally held every single baseball record and every single football record you could hold,” Bryan explained. “My brother followed in those footsteps. I was never a big sports guy. I played, but I wasn’t into it a lot. I could get my attention by dancing and being on stage.”
After winning his several clogging championships, Bryan turned to hip hop, contemporary and jazz. He says he even tried a little tap dancing before putting a short pause on his need to be on stage.
All that desire to entertain and perform, though, came rushing back when Bryan saw his first drag show.
“The first time I went to a gay bar and saw my first drag show I was 15 years old,” he said. “I can still remember the exact show it was. Three legendary divas. Instantly, I loved it — the whole dramatic, theatrical look of it.”
By this time in our conversation, Bryan already had several make-up layers applied to his face.
“When I first started doing drag, my make-up took me three hours to get ready,” he said as he picked up a glue stick.
“What in the world is the glue for,” I asked him, stopping him mid-sentence.
Flattening down his eyebrows, he explained. “If you don’t use enough, little hairs will start popping up through your foundation.”
It’s been 11 years since Bryan first performed drag at a Scorpio’s talent show. Today, he’s cut his make-up time down to about an hour. Then it’s just another 25 or 30 minutes’ or so worth of pads, tights, the dress and finally the wig.
It’s an incredible transformation, really, seeing Bryan slowly, methodically turn into Skylar.
The process even now makes Bryan feel special.
“The whole transformation aspect, it just blows me away,” he chatted. “The amount of make-up and what you have to do and then all of a sudden you’ve gone from having these really manly features and then you come out looking like a very feminine woman.”
And that’s exactly what happened. As our first hour together came and went and Bryan finished getting dressed, it didn’t even seem quite right for me to keep calling him Bryan. Skylar, it would have to be.
Drag as an art
For Skylar, drag is pure art, and certainly an under-appreciated one. And, like any art, there’s plenty of disagreement on exactly what it is or should be.
Skylar has a more open and inclusive appreciation of his chosen art form.
“Some people are drag queens. Some people identify as female impersonators,” he said. “But, really, what is the difference between a beauty queen versus a cisgender femme queen versus a king or a male lead or a gender-fluid performer on stage? We’re already in such an inclusive community, why would we try to separate or divide inside the drag community?”
That Skylar believes a drag queen can be a female-identified person just as well as a male-identified person isn’t without controversy. Some drag queens insist that drag, in its purest form, is about female impersonation and illusion, and being male is a necessary prerequisite for that illusion to take form.
Skylar says there’s a generational difference. Drag has evolved, he says, and what drag means will be different depending on who you ask.
“Drag as an art form to me is representing something that is inside of you, but is not on the outside on an every day basis,” he said. “Drag means you can be creative.”
And that’s an art, Skylar says, which should be open to all people. One of his own “drag children” is a cisgender woman, he says.
As Skylar wrapped up his preparation, I became more and more curious about exactly what it takes to transform Bryan into Skylar. All the accessories, the dresses, the wigs and make-up — $1,000 worth of it in his gigantic case alone — it just seemed so much.
Custom dresses can start at $125, he said, and only go up from there. He showed me a dress he’d brought this Saturday evening that he said cost $350.
Anyone looking to start drag for the first time is in for some sticker shock.
“To startup, to get the full experience, you’re going to have to spend at least $600 or $700 the first time to get all your make-up, your hair, costumes and jewelry,” he said.
“It’s an expensive hobby, but you have to treat it like a business,” Bryan added.
That’s exactly what Bryan does. He began doing drag full-time two years ago. Bookings were keeping him busy three or four nights a week, some of them out of town.
“I was having to take time off from my regular job, so I just made the decision that if I was working this so much already, I’d just do it full-time,” he recalled.
What about the drama?
Because drag is both his art and his business, Skylar says he likes to stay out of the drama that so stereotypically seems to invade the drag community. But, he understands some of the reasons why it exists. Big characters. Big ego. Competition.
“The drama is very hurtful sometimes,” he said, stressing how division and competition can have a negative effect on the entire community. “It hurts people who can’t enjoy multiple venues where they should be able to go and enjoy themselves and feel safe and welcome, but now they can’t because they feel like they have to take a side. We should be one community, instead of people having to worry about not being able to go to this bar or that bar. It should never be about that.”
Yes, the bar wars are a real thing. Drag queens themselves, Skylar said, will have to be the ones responsible for ending them.
“Drag queens are going to have to take a stand and all be together for once,” Skylar said, his voice slightly rising with passion. “Literally standing up and saying, ‘Look, this is going to happen. We want to be one community and until that happens, here’s what we’re going to do.’”
Making change will be hard for most queens, though. “If I say I can’t work in my hometown until things change, then I can’t pay my bills,” Skylar said.
Skylar’s boyfriend, Brandon Addison, has seen the drama, too. He doesn’t like it either, and he stands by Skylar.
“He always says to keep a smile on your face and keep it professional,” Brandon told me.
I saw a lot of myself in Brandon as I chatted with him. Four years ago, when the two first met, he couldn’t stand that Skylar did drag.
“At first, I really hated it. I despised it,” Brandon said.
It really all stemmed from a lack of knowledge or familiarity, really. Seeing his boyfriend grow in his art form has changed Brandon’s perspective. He respects it now, appreciates it more fully.
“It’s about giving your all,” Brandon said. “Whether it’s a good show or a bad show or there’s a crowd or not a crowd, you still have to give it your all every single show. There’s been some shows where there’s only five people in the crowd, and he’s still gone out there and flipped and kicked and everything, and it was a great show.”
In case you’re wondering, there were more than five people at Chasers that evening. And, yes, Skylar gave a phenomenal show. After spending so much time with Skylar and Brandon prior to the show, I certainly found myself feeling more and more appreciation and respect for the art.
Earlier in the evening, before Bryan transformed into Skylar, he had told me a little about what had first attracted him to drag. He’d thought the idea was crazy, at first. But all the good vibes and energy he had felt as a clogging kid back in Gaston County came flooding back to him whenever he took the stage the first time. It’s a feeling, he says, he still has now.
“I can dance and just be on the stage,” Skylar said. “It’s where I feel comfortable. When I step onto the stage, it fills a void. Like a lot of performers, when I’m not on the stage, it just feels like something is missing.”
There was certainly nothing missing from Skylar’s performance the night I visited him. Full of energy — pride and appreciation in his skill, talent and art. There’s something special about that kind of inspiring perspective on life and art. How wonderful if everyone could find, like Bryan, that one thing that brings a fiery zeal and passion for life. : :