Current Letters of Appreciation
Noah Parnes, ‘21
“This summer, through the generosity and support of Davenport’s Class of 1956 Summer Fellowship, I have been immersing myself in the art and history of drag. While I am just starting out and still have a lot to learn, its subversive history speaks to me – drag fundamentally challenges the structures of gender in which we are brought up. I feel privileged to explore my gender expression, portray queerness in all its beauty, and open myself and others to new ways of perceiving gender and art through this transformative and freeing experience.
“This project particularly resonates with me this summer because drag would not be what it is today without the artistry and power of Black people. Black drag queens, trans- and cisgender women and men, nonbinary people, and femmes have fundamentally shaped drag culture – it is imperative to acknowledge the influence of Blackness on this art form, and I hope this project encourages everyone to continue to learn about and support drag queens, artists, and performers of color. Black Lives Matter.”
Second Letter, June 8, 2021
My Summer of Drag
By Noah T. Parnes
RuPaul’s Drag Race got me through a tough time. My boyfriend had broken up with me,my friendships and schoolwork felt more and more distant as my sophomore year progressed, and I was consistently tired and uninterestedin my day-to-day.I would wake up, go to class, eat in the dining hall alone, come home, watch TV alone, and go to bed. While I typically thrive on a routine, this one was not providing me with any sense of purpose.
At a certain point, I finished watching a TV series and needed something new to absorb. Enter my friend Jerome, who suggested that I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. With fourteen seasons and a new one on the way, it somehow made sense to tackle such a huge mass of episodes, as an endless stream of content would provide me with countless hours of “productive” alone time. What I didn’t realize was that the show would change my outlook on my identity, my ability to connect with others, and my queerness.
To be clear, I became gleefully addicted to Drag Race. The fashion, the makeup, the pure unbridled personality of these drag queens ignited something in me and made the rest of the year bearable. I had something to talk about, something to root for. Drag made me happy.
And,coincidentally,drag has been a part of my life from a very young age. As a child, I would frolic around my front yard in a fairy godmother dress, complete with poofy sleeves and a magic wand. My family supported this, and I am very fortunate to have a family that loves me regardless of who I am or the clothes I wear—in fact, they love me because of it.
In high school, I came out as queer to the entire student body at an all-school assembly organized by the Queer-Straight Alliance. This was an important milestone that changed my life, made easier by the accepting environment that was my liberal New York high school. I was able to stand as a voice among many students who were not yet comfortable with their queerness, giving advice and helping other students come out to their families. During my junior year in high school, I was cast in the musical Rent as Angel, a character who wears “fantabulous Santa drag” (their words, not mine) and eventually dies as a result of AIDS. At first, I was unsure of how I felt about being the only openly gay member of the cast portraying a drag queen. I was also a white person playing a role written for a Latinx actor, and the racial implications and complications were blatantly clear at my predominantly white private school. Yet, as I embodied the story of Angel, I realized that it was an honor to play the role. Performing in drag meant I got to dance in silver platform boots and portray queer love onstage in all its glamor. I was again afforded a voice that portrayed queerness as beautiful. Through this performance, I understood how important it is for queer people to tell their own stories and be celebrated for them. In wearing drag, I felt powerful, uninhibited, and sexy. The wonder of gender fluidity became so much clearer as I looked at myself in the mirror of the boy’s bathroom while wearing several layers of makeup, fake eyelashes, and a blonde wig. I was so grateful for the platform (pun intended) to express myself and my queerness.
So when the opportunity arose for me to apply to the Davenport Class of 1956 Fellowship to spend a summer engaging in something completely unrelated to my studies, exploring the art of drag seemed to be the perfect project. I was extremely grateful to receive the fellowship, and the accompanying vote of confidence in my desire to become a drag artist—and that’s when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Suddenly my summer plan of exploring the New York City drag scene, interviewing queens, and beginning to perform as my own drag persona became impossible. I was stuck at home, as many were,though fortunate enough to have that safe haven as the pandemic took (and continues to take) its unimaginable toll. As I finished the newly online semester, I couldn’t shake the need to absorb as much drag as I possibly could during the coming summer quarantine. And who knew? Maybe I’d be able to perform somewhere once the pandemic began to subside.
But where was I going to do it all?My original proposal included Brooklyn drag bars, exciting performance venues, other New York drag queens helping me hands-on with my makeup. My house in Yonkers didn’t exactly have the same feel to it. As the summer began, however, it became clear that to shake the inevitable boredom, I’d need to get creative.
I started in the playroom. The playroom encapsulates one of my family’s favorite pastimes: saving things. It was filled to the brim with the toys, board games, and arts and crafts my sisters and I had left behind as we grew up. It overflows with nostalgia, even if some of what’s in there could be classified as pure junk. Thus, the challenge of cleaning up the playroom was daunting. Deciding what to keep and what to throw away seemed almost insurmountable, especially because I would need to assess each item’s significance with my family before anything exited the premises. But I knew that this space, infused with childhood curiosity,would be the perfect place to redecorate to become a new kind of playroom: my drag studio. As I slowly but surely made room for my new project, I noticed other art projects I’d worked on, and became excited by the idea of creating new memories in this room that had always been a center of creativity in the Tattelman/Parnes household. Where I had once painted squiggles on a child-sized easel, I would soon paint my face.
Oh, right—I needed makeup. But ironically, my family is hilariously makeup-averse. I can’t remember my sisters or mother (or my father, for that matter) ever wearing makeup, so it was up to me to discover these new materials, and the skills I would need to utilize them. The internet became an invaluable resource to me as I began this journey. If I couldn’t join drag queens downtown, I’d have to find them online. As I would soon discover, YouTube is luckily overflowing with makeup tutorials, from queens who appeared on Drag Race to amateur and professional makeup artists across the globe. I started watching them with a passion, trying to soak up any and all tips and tricks to the magic of makeup. How did contouring reshape the face? Why place darker colors toward the outer corner of eyeshadow? Do I really need to glue my eyebrows down flat against my skin? All of these questions were answered, and I slowly but surely began to learn the not-so-secret secrets of makeup, all from the comfort of my own home.
Soon it became obvious that I needed to put my “skills” to the test. I picked up some cheap makeup and some brushes at the drug store and sat down at the table I had placed in the still-not-entirely-empty playroom. And I suddenly realized… I needed a mirror. And a memory came to me. When I was young and visiting my mother’s mother—my Bubbe—during the holidays, I used to play around with an old artifact from her glamorous youth: her makeup mirror. I had never put makeup on while using it, but I was always fascinated by the light bulbs on the sides that would shine in different colors ifI moved the dial. When Bubbe died in 2010, I remembered that my mom had brought it home to Yonkers. So now I had to find it. I searched the attic, I searched my parents’ room, but eventually found it in the hallway along with some other decades-old tchotchkes from Bubbe’s house. Little did I know that this discovery of Bubbe’s mirror would spark an entirely new aspect of my journey in drag.
Once I had the mirror, I started to paint my face. It took a lot of practice to make sure my makeup looked right—I came to realize that I was teaching myself an entirely new skill, something I hadn’t done in quite a while. This was a new way to move my fingers and hands in both sweeping strokes and tiny flourishes across my face to change the way it looked, to make it more “feminine.” I needed to draw my eyebrows low enough,yet still with a marvelously accentuated arch… but I could only do that once my natural brows were glued down properly with an Elmer’s glue stick; I needed to get my lipstick right, to stick my false eyelashes on in the right place in order to give my makeup an ironic pop of realism; I needed to use the right amounts of bronzer and concealer to contour and highlight my face, creating the illusion of a lifted bone structure!It was hard work—and resulted in some hilarious photographs that should really never see the light of day. I did get frustrated sometimes, smearing lipstick or redoing eyebrows as was necessary, but eventually, with feedback from some queer friends of mine who knew a bit more about the details, I found a face that I really liked looking at. This new face looked like me, but also looked extremely foreign. I—she—was staring back at me in my Bubbe’s mirror, and she was beautiful. But she needed more. She needed hair. She needed clothes.
Remember when I said my family liked to save things? That turned out to be one of the luckiest circumstances for a summer stuck at home. I learned that my Bubbe’s mirror wasn’t the only thing my mom had brought home ten years ago. We had Bubbe’s dresses. We had her jackets and scarves and hats. We even had clothes from my dad’s mother, and she had been a beautician! I tore through closets in the attic, in my sisters’ room, in my parents’ room, and I discovered a trove of fashions, a baby drag queen’s dream. And, miraculously, it all fit.
I ordered some cheap wigs online and then I really got started. My first ever look was an outfit that was entirely silver: I used a jacket that actually belonged to my mom’s dad, a skirt from our childhood dress-up collection, and the silver platform boots that I had gotten when playing Angel in Rent four years previously. It felt utterly serendipitous to connect my first ever foray into drag during high school with this new iteration of my drag persona. Those silver boots really mean a lot to me.
But now I had even more outfits to work with, these glorious pieces of fashion from my grandmothers and a different time period. It became obvious that I needed to string them all together somehow into a magnificent array of looks—in looking at the collection in front of me, it became clear that I had enough to create a rainbow, dedicating one outfit to each color. Bubbe had already paired together a red dress with a patterned scarf, she had a matching turquoise set of pants and a jacket, and the pièce de rèsistance was a striking orange gown that I couldn’t wait to wear.
I got to work. For each color of the rainbow, I used different shades of eyeshadow, wore a carefully styled outfit, and embodied a new kind of character. Every couple of days I would plan out a new look, spend two hours in front of Bubbe’s mirror, then enlist my mother and sister to take pictures of me!I posed for these photographs in both my house and my backyard to document each new instance of my drag, each explosion of color.
I decided to make an Instagram account. I wanted to show people what I was working on, this entirely new set of skills I was learning through practice, trial and error, practice, and more trial and error. I had never had an account before this moment, had never felt the need to use social media solely for photographs, but this time, it felt right—I needed to show off. She did. So I made the Instagram account (@noahdoesdrag) and posted pictures in the order of the rainbow. For the color black, I wore a dark shawl and funeral veil. For the color brown, I posed among the numerous baskets that my family had collected. For purple, I wore a robe from my sisters. Blue, I decided to do twice—one more indigo, one the turquoise suit from Bubbe. For green, I posed in my backyard with trees and vines, and even put some leaves in my wig. But for yellow, I wore pants and no wig. I got creative with the color orange—I wanted to do something more out of the box, perhaps even a bit freakier, so I wore a net over my face and one of my Bubbe’s hats at a preposterous angle, plus the over-the-top tulle gown, of course. The red dress was already matched with the scarf by Bubbe; I just put it on.
By the time the rainbow was completed, I had posed in eleven different colors, each with their own style and design. And somehow, the summer was already coming to a close. I needed a culmination to the project, something to tie it all together. The obvious choice was a lip sync.
Drag queens have been lip syncing for eons. Through the generations, queens have mouthed along to the music of queer icons like Cher, Diana Ross, Lady Gaga,and so many more. Lip syncing is one of the quintessential drag queen experiences—when queens synchronize themselves to music, they embody the power, emotion, and personality of the artist. To allow the voice of an idol to escape your lips, even in illusion, brings such joy to a performance, and I was not about to let the opportunity to feel that fire pass me by.
My dad, whose career in the theater gives him good ideas like this,told me to try Judy Garland’s performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. Judy is one of those queer icons, of course—she means so much to both drag and queer communities, and her legacy endures with euphemisms like “a friend of Dorothy” and the ever-present rainbow of the pride flag. Combined with the stripes of rainbow on my Instagram, this song was a perfect choice. I memorized the timing of each lyric, the feelings captured by Dorothy at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz. I dressed in my Bubbe’s longest and most dignified gown, a shimmery golden gray, and balanced a large headdress, likely rescued by my dad from the original Broadway production of La Cage Aux Folles, on my head. Then I went into the backyard, pressed play, and my sister filmed me move my lips as Judy Garland sang.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”speaks to a certain hope, a desire for better times. The summer of 2020was a time of monumental loss—lives were lost, time itself seemed to be lost, and injustice seemed all too present, so performing this song felt resonant for this moment in history.
But hope requires action. How do we move forward?
I see drag as a method of pushing our society past its restrictive boundaries and into a more just, open world. At its core, drag is a vibrant opportunity to subvert gender norms. Drag as an art form is subversive—it fundamentally challenges the structures of gender in which we are brought up. This I learned from the documentary Paris Is Burning, an in-depth exploration of 1980s ball culture in Harlem. This film is a seminal piece of queer and drag culture, especially for queer people of color. The movie features drag queens and transgender women who were unapologetically themselves within a nation that would not accept them, and their stories of perseverance and pride still resonate to this day. Countless terms, phrases, and mannerisms we as queer people use today originated in these fertile grounds of expression and underground insubordination, rooted in the hardships of under resourced communities of color. As defined in Barbara Tomlinson and George Lipsitz’s book, Insubordinate Spaces: Improvisation and Accompaniment for Social Justice, insubordinate spaces are where seeds of revolution germinate, where the necessary work to undermine the oppressive state takes place. Drag is inherently dangerous to the status quo; it creates an insubordinate space that challenges rigid gender norms. Due to the work of queer, trans, and nonbinary people who do not conform to the traditional oppressive structures of gender expression,the contemporary art form of drag asks the question, “what if?”What if gender expression worked differently? What if we tore down the traditional ideals of what it means to be “a man” or “a woman?” What if performance were a protest in and of itself? What if those performances of these heightened expressions of gender were placed in front of audiences, asking them to question their own role in the systems that run our society?
I worked on this project during the crucial Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. The Black Lives Matter movement continues to force our country to reckon with our racist history and present, and it meant a lot to me to be learning an art form that was invigorated by Black queer and trans people. I believe that all art reflects politics, and drag is undeniably political. As a white person just beginning to enter the world of drag, it was and is important that I commit myself to anti-racism, focusing energy on challenging the many unjust and racist systems of the United States. While that certainly is no small task, drag is one of many paths we can all take toward joining a revolution.
This revolution—one based in subversion, disruption, and also reconstruction—has been in progress for decades. The drag community is enveloped by history, by both suffering and joy, and it calls for change through its very existence. But in addition to dismantling oppressive structures, we need to be able to assemble more inclusive, accessible, and honest ones. Drag strikes me as a medium in which the new architecture of our communities can grow.
This being said, it is also important to recognize other implications of drag—performing femininity within a culture of art that has grown in poor communities of color is a complex notion that I am committed to engaging with. I am in no way interested in stereotyping or appropriating the experiences of women or people of color in service of my own journey as an artist. There is also much to discuss about the traditional forms of femininity that my drag imitates. How does my drag engage with the experiences of trans women? Why should I give fuel to a binary system, one where some features are inherently feminine and others strictly masculine? Who does that serve? I want to honor the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming people through drag,I want my drag to be challenging, and I want to make those who view it think about where they stand in relation to the traditional conventions of gender. I want to inspire change.
So what do I want to do with my drag next?I want to mess around more. Toy and tinker with the status quo. I want to push myself to push others, to subvert the expectations that even drag maintains, like the idea that queens need to be “pretty” and need to have gorgeous flowing hair on their heads and nowhere else on their body. I have chest hair myself—I’ve never really displayed it in when I’m in drag, but I also don’t shave it, opting instead to wear dresses that cover my chest. As I think about where I want my drag to go, I’m realizing that there is room to make anything look beautiful, because anything can be beautiful. Why cover my chest when I can utilize it?
It’s now 2021. A year has passed since the pandemic started and things still remain difficult. Live performance is still on pause, and as a result, I haven’t had the chance to truly perform as a drag queen in the way I aspire to someday. However, I have gotten to have more fun in drag than I expected: I put on makeup and some fabulous Santa drag for the special holiday video the Yale Whiffen poofs created this past winter. I’ve continued my practice of makeup here and there, experimenting with new styles and colors and shapes on my face. But at the end of the day, I want to do more. I’m certainly not done yet. In fact, drag is suddenly becoming a creative outlet I may want to pursue professionally after college.
I chose my drag name recently, too: Zhushka Delle Frae. This stage name is created from the names of my grandmothers, whose fashion and essence inspired my drag from the very beginning of my exploration of the art form. Zhushkawas my father’s mother. She immigrated to the United States from Hungary in 1933, became a hairdresser and stylist, and was outgoing,gregarious, and a little bit mischievous. My dad says I look like her when I do my makeup. My mother’s mother was Fraedelle, and I split her unique name down the middle to create a more elaborate last name for my drag character. Fraedelle decided to go to college and get her bachelor’s degree after having four kids, was a curious, open, optimistic woman, and her fashion gave my drag its old school flare. When my grandmothers were alive, I had no idea that I’d be wearing their dresses over a decade later and feeling our connection again, in a new way. I’m honored to include them in my drag name.
As I move forward, I feel exhilarated to continue my journey in drag. This experience has already taught me so much about myself—how to embody this new side of me by developing entirely new skills, what it means for me to be transgressive, and why the art of drag has always been a part of my life. There’s much more to come; it’s time to head back to the playroom and get started.