All the glitter and glam: Drag bursts into the mainstream, but New Beginnings remains a hub in our region
A typical night at New Beginnings goes like this: Dance music beats over the speakers while the dance floor crowds with the patrons of the night.
The floor and catwalk clear out twice a night for drag queen performances — a showcase of glam, glitter and sometimes comedy or camp.
More or less, that’s how it’s been at New Beginnings for the past 32 years when the gay nightclub and bar opened in 1987. It quickly became a hotspot for aspiring drag performers, and one of those performers was Jacqueline St. James.
A performer with 30 years under her sequin-studded belt, St. James made her start in Johnson City. Since then, she’s lived and performed across the southeast including in Florida and Atlanta.
Now she’s back in Johnson City, and if you find yourself at New Beginnings on a weekend, chances are she’ll take over the stage for a performance.
For 30 years, she said, Johnson City remained a hub for drag performers. Part of it is being a college town, she estimates, but creating such a culture around drag performance drives competition, driving drag performers to compete for spots at local shows.
That’s also led to four local drag queens receiving national honors and another, Eureka O’Hara, to land a spot on season nine of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” And they all started at New Beginnings in Johnson City.
The competition to catch audiences’ eyes is what churns out quality performers, St. James said.
“You can’t help but improve and step up your game,” St. James said. “It’s what makes drag such quality drag here.”
In recent years, drag performances have started branching out in the area. Every once in a while, a performance pops up at Gypsy Circus Cider Company or Woodstone Deli in Kingsport, and a budding Main Street Theatre in downtown Johnson City promises to hold regular Drag Queen Bingo a few times a month later this month.
Drag isn’t even tied to nightlife much anymore, St. James added. New Beginnings offers a Drag Queen Brunch one Sunday a month and, of course, you can catch “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” in the comfort of your own home.
One misconception, she said, can sometimes be the nature of drag itself. While many might view drag as a hobby or second source of income, it was a main source of income for St. James for 20 years.
And a lot of that money went right back into her passion to pay for wigs, custom costumes and shoes. That’s not including the time and effort that goes into planning and coordinating a performance.
“A lot of people think that drag queens that we look like men in high heels and wigs, prancing around on stage or they think we’re trying to be strippers,” St. James said. “What drag is supposed to be is art — it’s supposed to be subversive and a little out there.”
AnnaTomical, another local performer, began performing nine years ago. What she’s noticed has been a movement of drag performance from underground to mainstream. Again, she attributes some of this change to the popularity of Ru Paul’s show, but she said she believes other local efforts to put queens in the spotlight have a part in it too.
The only drawback, AnnaTomical said, is the high quality of the show raise people’s expectations, which can hurt homegrown, local queens.
“We may not have as extravagant things as they have on TV,” she said. “(Viewers) may have a one-world view based on ‘Drag Race.’ ”
She notes more positive changes, though. She said she can go out in drag and be asked for photos with fans.
“I don’t think that would have been possible even 10 years ago,” she said.
Both queens say they think the shift in drag and drag culture is positive overall. AnnaTomical said the success of the TriPride group was instrumental in pinpointing how far drag culture has come, and she said she’s noticing more diverse crowds every time she performs at New Beginnings.
St. James said she remains optimistic for the future of drag performing – and the LGBTQ culture surrounding it – will become even more accepted and less vilified.
“I continue to have hope and think that people’s minds are opening up and realizing that it’s not a sin to see a man portraying a woman on stage for a show,” she said. “It’s an escape from reality, it’s a show, it’s imagination.”