It is 6 p.m. on a Saturday evening at The Bar Complex, one of Lexington’s most well-known and long-standing gay nightclubs and the heart of its drag scene.
Rihanna’s “Disturbia” blares in the hallway as the drag queens get ready backstage for their weekly Saturday night performances.
Dakota Brooks asks around to see if she could borrow a pair of earrings to match the rose gold cocktail dress she is wearing, while Heaven Hernandez, “Cuban Barbie of Lexington,” applies yellow craft glitter to her eyelids.
“We sometimes borrow things from each other like hair, jewelry, things like that,” said Hernandez, a 25-year-old Miami native. Hernandez has been doing drag in Lexington for only a month but has come to love the community and relationships she has built along the way.
“We’re just one big happy family,” she said.
Before coming to Lexington, Hernandez lived in Louisville, where she first started experimenting with drag around six years ago.
“It’s the gay cliché of ‘I’ve always felt different when I was a little boy,’ but I was a very outgoing kid, and I didn’t fit in with a lot of kids, so I said, ‘This may be something different I want to try,’” she said while applying powder to her face.
Hernandez first got her start in drag after performing on a Sunday night at Play Louisville, one of the bigger gay clubs in Louisville and home to many drag personalities.
“Since then, it’s just been something I’ve grown to love,” she said.
Hernandez moved to Lexington and started working at The Bar Complex three nights a week after her close friend, roommate and fellow drag queen, Natalia Jolie, encouraged her to audition for cast.
“The girls are amazing here,” Hernandez said. “We just get along so well, and that’s another reason why I wanted to move to Lexington as well as to pursue new opportunities: to see what I can do and how far my drag will take me.”
Jolie, who has been doing drag for five years, had different motives to her start in drag.
“It sounds really generic, but I’m trans, so I always wanted to wear girl clothes and to experiment with gender, and drag was a really safe and fun way to do that at first,” said Jolie, also 25 years old. “I started doing it pretty frequently, and then I wanted to audition for cast at Play. From then on it was more about the actual job of doing drag and less about the gender expression. I was already pretty comfortable with my gender at that point, so I’ve just stuck with it.”
Including Hernandez’s “clean, polished, curvy and stunning” drag style, as she describes it, and Jolie’s extravagance and adult humor, Lexington is home to a diverse range of drag talent; every single queen has something different to offer to the scene, and every night you can expect something new from the performers, Hernandez said.
The Bar Complex hosts shows every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. A typical 9 p.m. show at the bar is filled with a variety of drag talent, as one can observe during a night out at the establishment.
Serena Van Daren incorporates a lot of humor into her performance while interacting with the audience, whereas Benita Bloom, the bearded queen of Lexington, delivers a much softer, spookier yet beautiful rendition of Kesha’s “Woman.”
Billie Blaze is known for her energetic kicks and splits on the stage floor, while Scarlet Princess shows off her sensuality and femininity while dancing with the bar patrons.
Dakota Brooks shocks the audience with her costume reveal and can turn it out while dancing and lip-syncing to the Tina Turner classic cover of “Proud Mary,” and Adriana P T Fuentes, a multi-pageant winner, closes the night out with her energetic dance movies and contagious bright attitude.
“I feel like we all bring a different type of taste to the stage here in Lexington,” Hernandez said. “Louisville drag, they have their thing going on, we have our thing going on. We all have that one thing that sets us apart, and it’s just our craft, you know?”
In bigger cities, such as Nashville, the drag is starting to transition to a sleeker, more high-fashion era, said Jolie, whereas Lexington seems to hold onto the more traditional aspects of drag while at the same time incorporating new trends and styles.
“I really like Lexington’s drag scene,” she said. “Different places have different communities and types of drag that are popular. I think that the reason why Lexington’s drag is doing so well right now is because it’s still old-school drag but with new fashion.”
Lexington’s drag scene in particular has been known to be welcoming and accepting to all forms of drag, according to Hernandez, especially as drag starts to become more mainstream all over the world.
The queens at The Bar Complex are ecstatic to see the growth and normalization of drag with television shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a popular reality show where different drag queens across the country compete for the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar.”
“I think it’s wonderful,” Hernandez said. “It shows that we’re all different in our own type of way and we love each other no matter what and being able to present what we do with the world and have them return the favor with love and affection is the best gratitude in the world.”
Drag becoming more mainstream in our culture has also helped in creating brand new drag personalities all over the world, Jolie said, which was an unexpected but welcome surprise for the drag community.
However, due to the pandemic, times have been tough for drag queens in the Lexington area. With cities shutting down and bars closing their doors for extended periods of time in 2020, many of the entertainers have struggled with making ends meet.
Jolie, whose income relies solely on drag (including what she is paid by The Bar Complex and tips), has worried about making a living at a time like this, but Hernandez says that The Bar Complex has been making efforts to help the queens with financial stability.
“It’s just been so wishy-washy between how many people we can get in here as well as people tipping with no masks on and us having to tell them, ‘Hey, please make sure to keep up regulations so that we can stay open,’” Hernandez said, who also works as a delivery driver for DoorDash. “But it has affected me as well in the sense of money and income. It’s been a struggle, but we’re back on the boat, and hopefully it all gets better from here on out.”
Fortunately, after implementing a series of strict COVID-19 regulations, establishments like The Bar Complex have been able to open back up to host guests and entertainers safely. Patrons are required to wear masks at all times unless they are sitting at their own tables drinking, and everyone’s temperature is checked at the door before entering.
For many drag queens, entertaining an audience is one of the best things about the job, said Hernandez and Jolie. Bar patrons love interacting with the queens while they perform, and the queens love interacting with them right back, whether that means dancing around their tables as they lip-sync or behaving flirtatiously while being tipped.
“Gay bars are always lit as shit out here, and it’s not even just gay people,” said Jolie. “A lot of straight people go to gay bars and have a great time.”
“I require an audience to perform,” she said. “I go out and I make eye contact with people and interact with them … My job is to entertain you, and I don’t have to do the splits to do that.”
But even though some queens enjoy performing with high levels of energy while others prefer softer ballads, the audience provides the same love and support regardless of the differences, Hernandez said.
“They appreciate each of our arts separately,” Hernandez said.
People are often curious about what it is like to be a dedicated drag queen. Queens devote a lot of time, money and energy towards their craft, investing thousands of dollars into their hair, makeup and clothing as well as working late hours at night and being physically active for extended periods of time while performing.
“It’s not cheap,” Hernandez said. She has spent around three to four thousand dollars on hair alone. One of her human hair units, a long black Brazilian wig, cost her one month’s rent, she said. “It depends on who’s making it, the type of hair they’re using, what type of style, how long it takes to make … all that stuff.”
Jolie said she has invested at least $10,000 into her drag with $1,000 to $2,000 going towards just makeup and hair.
Many of the queens’ outfits, jewelry and wigs are handmade. There are queens like Benita Bloom, the 35-year-old queen from Harlan County, Ky., who has been doing drag for 11 years, who make a lot of their own pieces.
“Ninety-five percent of what we wear is handmade,” 33-year-old Daniel Perkins said, also going by the drag persona Dakota Brooks.
From the body padding to the garments to the accessories, drag queens often have to seek custom, handmade pieces to fit their needs and their particular drag styles. The outfits that drag queens wear are nothing like what women wear on a daily basis; rather, they are bolder, more dramatic and draw a lot more attention.
“What woman have you seen go to the 7/11 in these types of earrings, girl?” Hernandez said, as the dressing room erupted into laughter.
Bruising and bodily injuries are not uncommon for drag queens either.
“My body is aging at a rapid rate,” Jolie said. “I keep medical tape here because I have to wrap my foot before I go on stage, because I cracked my toe six months ago and it’s permanently messed up.”
“But the show must go on,” Hernandez said, having been recovering from a knee injury as a result of jumping into the splits during a performance the previous night.
Despite the hardships, the queens’ love for drag and performing outweigh all the negatives. For Brooks, drag is an outlet for artistic freedom and expression.
“It’s like I turn into a different person when the makeup, eyelashes and the wig come on,” she said. “Stepping out on the stage with a spotlight hitting you and feeling the energy of the crowd is everything.”
Hernandez expressed a similar sentiment. “The best part about drag is being able to go from a zero to a hundred in like two hours,” Hernandez said. “The whole transformation is just stunning ... Honey, we are intricate, delicate women.”
Lexington swims against the current in being one of the most LGBTQIA+ friendly and accepting communities in a traditionally conservative state, said Jolie.
“I’ve only ever done drag in Lexington and in Louisville, which are the two most LGBT friendly communities in Kentucky,” she said. “I think that even though Kentucky is a conservative place, it’s not that hard out here for us. I’m not saying there isn’t risk of danger, but like … you know.”
The city embraces the uniqueness and differences of the people who live here by providing safe spaces for all to express themselves as freely as they like, such as The Bar Complex.
“Growing up in a small town was hard for me as a gay kid,” Brooks said. “There was no such thing as a gay/straight alliance in schools back then. It wasn’t until after high school I ended up coming out to my family and friends.”
Hernandez believes that the drag scene here in Lexington is one that is very welcoming.
“We will always have our arms open to any type of drag,” she said. “Every Thursday, we have a show at The Bar Complex for open-stagers, so come out here, put on a shake-and-go wig and just live your dream, girl, ‘cause if you don’t try and do it, how do you know it’s gonna be for you or not?”
To be a drag queen in Lexington is to defy societal expectations, to find one’s inner calling and to perfect an art to share with the rest of the world. It allows people to “march to the beat of their own drum,” as Benita Bloom puts it, making it possible to create one’s own path in life.
“Drag is art, and art is subjective,” Bloom said. “Drag helped this small backwoods country boy who was shy as hell find his voice and gain self-confidence. Without her, I wouldn’t be half the person I am today.”