Natalie Gaye was introduced to drag while a student at Cumberland College. She and friends would drive from Williamsburg to a gay bar in Knoxville called the Carousel.
"I was always interested in theater. Performing in drag seemed such a wonderful outlet. I loved it," Gaye, a stage name, said.
After she moved to Lexington in 1988, Gaye met drag queens at The Bar Complex, the longtime nightclub on East Main Street where there are three drag shows a week.
"They told me I ought to do drag," she said. "It was as simple as that."
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Twenty-one years later, Gaye is one of 26 Lexington drag queens who are sharing their personal stories for an oral history and photography project called Passing by Transylvania University professors Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova.
Todorova, an assistant professor of English, became interested in drag two years ago, when she taught an American literature class called "Passing." The class took its name from a term meaning "to pass yourself off as something you are not," she said.
After she showed students the 1990 documentary film on drag performers called Paris Is Burning, Gohde, an associate professor of art who had photographed drag queens for a charity calendar for several years, told her there were drag performances in Lexington. "He said he would take me to see one," Todorova said.
When an opportunity came up to apply for a grant from the Kentucky Oral History Commission to interview people whose voices are not heard in Kentucky, the two conceived a project to collect the stories of local queens.
Working with the drag queens appeals to Gohde and Todorova in several ways. One, Gohde said, is challenging the dual explanations of gender and sexuality at play in the drag community. The other is creating a record of lives that history shows us will be forgotten, he said.
Part of Gohde's and Todorova's fascination has been in finding among Lexington's drag queens a community of people who give their time to raise money for many charitable causes, giving back to society even when society does not embrace them.
"It's an incredibly selfless community," Gohde said of the drag queens. "They make incredible sacrifices. They spend a lot of money to raise money for charity."
Gaye is particularly an example of this, Gohde said. "She gives and gives. It's trusting there will be payback, even if it never comes directly back to you. That's a type of giving very few people have the capacity to do."
Since the Passing project began last April, it has evolved in several ways.
Three separate photo exhibits of photography from the project will open Monday at Third Street Stuff, The Bar Complex and Transylvania's library. On March 25, a drag show, telling the story of drag, featuring queens from the project and directed by another queen, Chelsea Pearl, will be presented at Transylvania's Carrick Theater.
For some time, Gohde and Todorova have written regular creative essays about drag queens on the project's MySpace page, www. myspace.com/passing_lex.
Ultimately, they plan to compile the essays and some of the oral histories and photographs in a book.
And with another grant from the Oral History Commission, Gohde and Todorova will go to Venice, Italy, this summer to present papers at the International Conference on Art in Society.
To be a 'mini rock star'
Gaye and other female impersonators say performing in drag shows — with the over-the-top hair, makeup and glamorous costumes — is their ultimate expression of creativity.
"You get on stage and sing the songs of your favorite performer and be a mini rock star for a little bit," said Jenna Jive, 28, who has performed under that stage name for about five years. Jive was born male but had gender-replacement surgery. It's unusual that she performs as a drag queen, an art form traditionally pursued by men.
When on stage, "you feel that energy of the audience. It's very rewarding," said Jive, who, like most queens, lip-syncs and pantomimes her shows. "You can never get enough of it."
Getting dressed to the extreme for drag is complicated and usually takes more than two hours, performers say.
When performing, Gaye, who lives as a man, wears several layers of panty hose so she doesn't have to shave her legs. To become her drag persona, Gaye puts on a waist cincher, a bra with foam-rubber breasts, and feminine hips made from foam rubber. Next, she applies heavy stage makeup and two pairs of long eyelashes.
Then there's the icing on the drag cake: "Instead of one wig, you might layer two or three," she said, adding that a saying among drag queens is "More is more."
It's glamour and spectacle
Most performers favor the term "drag queen" over "female impersonator," Gaye said.
"I'm not trying to look like a woman who's sitting in the audience," she said.
Instead, drag queens aspire to an extreme of glamour, femininity and spectacle.
Gaye, 41, said she has never wanted to be a woman.
"There are drag queens who have the desire to be a woman, but that is separate from their drag," she said. "I consider myself an entertainer."
When in drag, Gaye refers to herself as "she." At her day job as a hairdresser, Gaye dresses as a man and responds to "he."
Not long after coming to Lexington, Gaye, who lip-syncs her songs, began performing at The Bar Complex, where she is now a fixture. She also is a popular entertainer around town. On Tuesday night, she performed at the Mardi Gras Ball that benefited several gay-friendly organizations. That's just one of the many charitable events where she has performed over the years.
"It's a way to have fun, make money and be a part of the larger gay community in Lexington," Gaye said.
Twice she was elected empress by the Imperial Court of Kentucky philanthropic organization. She appeared in the Imperial Court calendar that Gohde photographed for five years.
In drag, Gaye says, she feels not like a man, not like a woman, but like a queen.
How does that feel?
"Over the top," she said. "You walk into a room and get everyone's attention. Again, it's that desire to entertain and to be on stage. That's what drew me to being a drag queen."
But getting into drag makeup and costumes, being at an event for several hours and performing is exhausting, she said.
"The first thing when I come home I take it all off. Fingernails first. That's the first thing I take off. Then I take a shower," she said.
"Really it's like a job. I come home, and it's all over."