Baubles, Bangles, and Queens

Instagram @ageofaquaria

My daughter, Julia, and I climb the staircase to the Cologne Musical Tent, a temporary structure on the Rhine that has become a semi-permanent part of the skyline.

We’re headed to Werq the World, a live show featuring top performers from Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Julia has convinced me to buy tickets for tonight’s shindig. 

I may be in my seventh decade of life, but this is hardly my first drag queen rodeo. Some of my earliest gypsy-in-my-soul performances on the professional stage—back in the late seventies—included playing the piano, singing, and dancing in an old-fashioned Burlesque show that featured a couple of queens. First lesson learned: Never ever stand next to anyone, male or female, who is blonder or thinner. Second lesson learned: Always make friends with the drag queen—she’ll keep you laughing, teach you how to touch up your roots, and let you cry your broken heart out on the padded shoulder of her Joan Crawford suit jacket. 

We didn’t say “you go, girl” back then. We said, “work your show.” 

In 1982 I worked on a horror film outside of Baltimore (House on Sorority Row). Our film was shooting at the same time as Barry Levinson’s Diner and John Water’s Polyester—a trifecta of cult films in three different genres. We visited each other’s sets and a couple of times, I had lunch with Divine. I found myself wishing she had been cast in our chop up the college girls classic—she would have made a great sorority house mother. Divine was divine.

During my years in Manhattan, while playing piano at the Grand Hyatt, I once marveled at “Night of a Thousand Queens,” an event that attracted hundreds of chiseled men in drop-dead gorgeous evening gowns. Upswept hair, spackled faces, butts and fake boobs cranked to stunning heights! Baubles, bangles, and queens! On my break from the piano lounge, I sat in the granite lobby pit on a brown pleather sofa and gaped at the razzle-dazzle parade. In my drag-wannabe Piano Girl high heels and black-tulle gold-spangled Betsey Johnson skirt, I envied their heat-seeking confidence and queenly defiance. Like a pack of fierce, stiletto-footed wolverines, they stalked the lobby and left a trail of undulating optimism in their collective path. Somehow, these guys had survived the eighties. Everyone I knew during that dark decade in Manhattan had lost friends to AIDS. The Hyatt horde of queens turned the lights back on, at least for a few hours. Rage turned inside out—dressed to the nines and ready to fight back. 

So here I am tonight, three decades later, prepared for another shimmer-shine extravaganza. Julia and I have opted to wear simple black dresses with tasteful accessories. No bling for us. I learned my lesson years ago—no matter how many leopard-print accessories or junk jewelry bracelets you own, you can’t upstage a queen on a mission. Her false eyelashes will always be longer, fluffier, and tinted to the perfect shade of midnight; her iridescent eyeshadow will have more glitter than yours. The drag queen colors the world with a different, more vibrant box of crayons. 

The press page blurb for Werq the World says this: “Over-the-top production numbers that will leave fans gagging.” Tonight we’re scheduled to see Aquaria, Asia O’Hara, Detox, Kameron Michaels, Kim Chi, Monét X Change, Naomi Smalls, and (my favorite name) Violet Chachki. The queens, led by Drag Race den mother and jury member Michelle Visage, will attempt to rescue the galaxy from who knows what. The galaxy needs a lot of help these days.

As we head inside, I wonder if we’re in the right place. The youngsters around me look like they’re headed to a church picnic or next week’s performance of Bodyguard: The Musical. But we turn a corner and bam! An Amazon queen—in a blond wig and head to toe silver sequins—poses for photos with awe-struck teenagers.

“Yep,” says Julia. “This is the right place. Just wait until you see Asia O’Hara and Kim Chi.”

“Kim Chi?” I say. “Like the Korean pickled cabbage?”

“Exactly. She is spicy.”

We hand our tickets to a man in a blue coat and enter the theater. The music thumps and bumps so loudly I can feel it jack-jack-jackhammer my heart. Is this necessary? Too much bass in the place. Scary. I put my hands over my ears.

“Mom,” yells Julia. “This is way too loud for you. Wait here and I will go the lobby and get you earplugs.”

“What?” I say. “Did you say earplugs?” I wish I had brought my noise cancelling headphones, but then I would have looked like an oversized, menopausal toddler dragged to a rock concert by her parents.

The German word for earplugs is Ohrstöpsel, right up there with Dudelsack (bagpipe) and Kaiserschnitt(c-section) on my personal list of great translations. I wonder where Julia will find Ohrstöpsel in the lobby, but she returns with a small sealed package. 

“They have to have them at music events. I think it’s a law,” she says.

The foam plugs help. Now that I’m no longer worried about drag-show-induced deafness, I’m free to look around at the other audience members. Along with the churchy-looking youth groups in pressed oxford-cloth shirts, there are stout boys with artsy tattoos and rainbow hair, men with beards wearing suit jackets with skirts (the Billy Porter influence has hit Germany), straight couples in nuances of navy, and young women (I think) with bouffant hairdos and killer waistlines.  As far as I can tell, we’re the only mother-daughter team in attendance. I am easily thirty years older than everyone else around me. Once again, I have clearly entered Great Aunt Edna territory. Old Edna goes to the drag show. Aside from the VOLUME, it’s nothing Edna hasn’t seen (or heard) before.

But maybe it is. 

The curtain goes up. The audience gasps. The queens enter, one at a time, wearing space capes (remember the galaxy theme), that, when stripped off, reveal a rainbow of spectacular costumes. Even though I know these ensembles are the work of a crazed costume designer toting an oversized glue gun on each hip, from a distance they look lavish.

The queens lip-sync, prance, look fabulous, prance some more (there’s a lot of prancing in this show) and are occasionally joined onstage by real dancers. Kim Chi does one number with four acrobats underneath her skirt. Aquaria, with turquoise hair, hangs upside-down from a rope. Asia—a Donna Summer clone—works hard for her money. The audience goes nuts. I see people weeping with joy. Or maybe it’s relief. These queens—silly, slutty, and over-the-top—give us permission to feel good about how we present ourselves to the world. Black pantsuit or lavender sequined ball gown—it’s all good.

In the midst of all this fake-ness, the air hangs thick with authenticity. 

“See Mom? I told you. These queens have the power to change the world. They inspire tolerance. We need more of that, right?”

I wonder what would have happened if I had seen this show in the seventh grade, when I was bullied by a gang of nasty girls for playing the piano and wearing the wrong outfit (plaid skirt with fabulous matching green shoes). Tonight’s message might have made it easier to sashay away with my dignity intact.

In the midst of all the galaxy saving, trapeze work, and satin cape waving, Michelle Visage, perhaps the only person in the theater close to my age, walks center stage, screams, “Hello, bitches!” and proceeds to talk about having her breast implants removed—she had had the “enhancement” in her early twenties because she felt she needed big boobs to play the Hollywood game. Years later, after dealing with serious illness caused by the implants, she had them yanked out. Breast in Peace. Michelle speaks pointedly about never allowing society to dictate the way we look. She talks about body image, eating disorders, and the difficulty of raising teenagers in a culture obsessed with standardized perfection. It’s a missive we don’t hear often enough and certainly not one I anticipated at a drag show.

I am blown away by the love in the hall. By the time the show is over, I’m transformed, not by the blow-your-balls-off bass-lines, the Cher-on-steroids costumes, or the razor-sharp highlighted cheekbones—but by the subtle way the queens have taken an edgy, brash, in-your-face drag show and turned it into a gentle lesson in how we can live better, more authentic lives. 

Werq your show. Save the galaxy with compassion. Love is love. Be yourself. As Ru Paul would say: “Don’t fuck it up.”

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel.  New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist. Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.