Mood lighting and dance music transformed Kimmel’s Eisner and Lubin auditorium into a plausible approximation of a nightclub as a crowd of more than 400 settled in to watch NY(Drag)U, the LGBTQ Student Center’s fifth annual drag queen and king competition—emceed this year by none other than Jujubee of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame. 

drag performer in red dress on a stage in front of a screen that says NY(Drag)U

For some of the seven student performers, the September 17 lip-sync competition would provide a first opportunity to perform in drag, while for others it offered a chance to take stock of how much they had grown in their craft. As Judy Garlands and Whitney Houstons, statuesque beauties and femmes fatales, they showed off the hard work that goes into building a persona and the courage it takes to share one’s creation with others.

After the show, a few of the participants, including newly crowned Lilith (deemed the night’s winner by four judges), spoke to NYU Stories about confidence, inclusiveness, and—of course—tips for bringing out the glam inside us all.

—Stephanie Garay

drag performer in blond hair and gold dress

Li-Hsueh Lu (aka LaGaysha)
Senior, Stern School of Business

Why drag?

“Growing up [in Virginia] I did a lot of theater. I started out backstage doing costuming, hair, and makeup, and then I progressed to being onstage. When I got to business school at NYU, I found I was losing that arts performance portion of my life, and I wanted to continue it. I didn’t have a person to play on anymore [like in the theater], so I just used myself, and I watched RuPaul’s Drag Race. I thought, okay, I can make my own clothes. I know the basics.”

Creating a persona:
“One of LaGaysha’s mottos would be ‘I release everything that doesn’t serve me.’ So if it’s not something beneficial to you, there’s no point in having it. She enjoys performing, she enjoys dancing, she enjoys just letting loose and not having anything weigh down on her. I feel like the clothes reflect that and the way I paint her face. I want to keep things soft, nothing heavy.”

Room for everyone:
“I find NYU is very open, and you can be whoever you want to be in a city that’s pretty anonymous. NYU does a very good job especially with the LGBTQ community. There is a a place here for almost everyone, and if there’s not, you can make it. I think that’s great for anyone who’s trying to develop their own sense of self in the four years that we have in undergrad.”

Makeup tips:
“The purpose of the primer is to make colors that sit on top and pop, especially eyeshadow primers. So when you put it on your cheek and you put a highlighter over it, you get the actual color that the highlighter is supposed to be versus one that’s adjusted to the oils in your skin and isn’t as bright. Also, lip gloss is my one big no-no, because if I’m dancing and twirling my hair gets stuck. I can’t do it. I’ll do a matte lipstick with a champagne color over it to make it look like it’s glossed, but it’s not sticky.”

Standing out:
“I sometimes wear my heels to my classes at Stern. I had done it once because I was like, ‘this outfit goes really well with heels.’ But after a while I started doing it more often because I noticed there wasn’t a large gay population that was out in Stern. They were kind of uncomfortable. But if I can walk into a room in high heels, then maybe I can make people feel like this is normal and make the environment more open.”   

photo: drag performer in purple wig and black crop top with black skirt

Alyx Steadman (aka Lilith)
Senior, Silver School of Social Work

Why drag?

“I’ve had a lot of inspirational drag queens in my own life, but out of my friends, I was probably the last one to actually start. I went to NYDragU as a freshman and from there, I sort of was on the outskirts looking in. Last year my co-RA at Lafayette was an up-and-coming drag superstar, so he was the first one to go to all the parties and kind of test the waters, and I lived vicariously through him. I would go out with them and do my own version of drag—still looking super fierce in heels and makeup, but as a bearded queen. Eventually I came into my own and started Lilith.”

Creating a persona:
I think that we’re all performing gender in a way. In queer theory there’s talk about the clothes that you wear and how you show yourself to the world as an unconscious choice, saying this is what aligns with feminine or masculine and where I want to fit onto that spectrum. And drag is just playing off of that in a more theatrical and hyper sort of way. It’s saying this is what I want other people to see of me, and reclaiming that ownership of your body and your presentation. Lilith is very much a manifestation of me and the things I want to be in my own life. And I’ve learned things from her, like being able to run down Broadway in heels and a crop top. That’s something I wouldn’t have been comfortable doing a year ago.”

Role models:
“I’m from Montana, where I never had the opportunity to see a drag queen or a character anything like Lilith. I imagine what it would have been like to be a young person living in a rural space and watch RuPaul’s Drag Race—how affirming that could be as a possibility model for how to interact with the world. I think that would have been so empowering, and so I’m hoping that Lilith now and further on will be a possibility model for some people as well. I work specifically in LGBTQ social work so I wanted this to be like, ‘I can do it, I can help you in whatever capacities that I can, we can collaborate, and see what happens from there.’ I just really want to be an ally to other people as well as putting my own art out there.”

Transforming for the stage:
“I would say that eyeliner makes everything better—it really changes the eye and the shape of it—but it’s also the most frustrating thing in the entire world. Also, for a drag queen, the wig sort of makes it or breaks it. I think hair is really interesting, whether you’re a man or a woman—it’s both a hindrance, like, oh, my hair is in my face, but also it can be flipped and sexy. It has a very alluring nature.”

Winning the competition:
“It was a real quick reality check: Is this really happening? Is this real right now? I never would have imagined that for myself when I was younger, but it was always a dream or a fantasy for me to be acknowledged for what I have been doing. Performing was important to me from an early age—I’d always dance around as this free, happy kid who liked to put on a show. So the realization that I’d made it from there to here was really emotional for me.” 

photo: drag performer in emerald dress, black stockings, and red wig

Davis Villano (aka QueenDee)
Sophomore, Gallatin School of Individualized Study

Finding inspiration:

“When I was piecing together QueenDee's aesthetic, I was thinking what is she going for, what's her shtick? Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, they're all very strong aesthetics for me. I still don't really know, so I’ve just been focusing on what I want to look like and what kind of songs I want to lip-sync. I think that queens who create a character are trying to do something more with their drag. [Chicago drag queen] BenDeLaCreme is trying to combat her own personal depression and anxiety by doing the opposite of that with her drag character, who is super campy, super happy all the time. [Rupaul's Drag Race season 5 winner] Jinkx Monsoon is trying to make a character to make a critique on feminism. But as of now, I don't have any reason to do that. I do this for fun and I enjoy it.”

Learning the ropes:
“I used YouTube tutorials. I’m self-taught. I did my face every couple of weeks for about four or five months and kept getting better and better. Two of my best girlfriends from home who had basically started me out saw me the second time I went out in drag and they were like, ‘Our baby’s growing up. Tears.’ It’s funny because on many YouTube tutorials for women’s makeup, they will say, ‘here’s a new secret’—and it’s something drag queens have been doing for years. Like if you want to make your eyes seem bigger and more feminine, use white eyeliner under your eye. There are so many girls I know who say, ‘I don’t really know how to do my makeup.’ I’m like, ‘Me neither, so let’s just both try to figure this out.’”

The real secret to beauty:
“If you walk out of your house and you’re very confident in whatever you’re wearing, then that will give you all the glamour you need. I would say I’m more willing to talk to complete strangers when I’m in drag because people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, how are you today, you look great!’ And I say, ‘Well thank you—I wore sequins for a reason.’ I’m a pretty confident person as is, but drag has taught me to appreciate that I have a talent in something, that people like what I do, and that old Hollywood glamour isn’t dead.”

Building a community:
“I’m trying to start a drag interest club at NYU. There were more than 400 people at the show and I only need half of their signatures to start a club. There are a lot of people who want to be involved so they could perform or learn. But the club would also welcome people just interested in drag. Rupaul’s Drag Race has a cult following and drag is a great subculture that people really enjoy because it’s fun and it breaks down a lot of barriers and goes across many demographics. Having that space for everyone at NYU [regardless of gender] would help break down the myth that you have to be a gay male to enjoy drag.”