In January 2019, I went on a road trip from Los Angeles to Providence. Along the way, I took photos of myself in drag.
The history of landscape photography is exclusionary. It’s a masculine history where individuals assert themselves over and define the land. This has led to a limited conception of the American landscape. It’s a tradition focused on domineering interactions with the land rather than the complex network of individuals and experiences that inhabit it. Extra New Topographics aims to use drag as a means to push back against these traditional notions of landscape photography, exploring the American landscape’s many social, political, and environmental facets.
Though I appear in isolation in these images, it’s important to recognize and normalize that drag queens and queer communities inhabit every acre of the American landscape, and belong in its history. In order to bring this to life, I interviewed drag queens from many of the major stops on my trip. The mixed media elements surrounding the photographs in my installation were each informed by one of these queens. Read on to learn more about each of them!
“All I wanted for my whole life is to travel for my art and have anyone care about it,” said Astrud Aurelia.
As the recent winner of The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula Pageant, Astrud has recently
seen this dream come to life. At just 20 years old, she’s been travelling the country, bringing the alternative, underground drag scene aesthetic to cities from NYC to Miami.
“I’ve been hustling to represent myself,” she said.
Just a year before, Astrud was studying jazz at Arizona State University, feeling disconnected from her identity, academia, and from any queer belonging. Like for many young queens, RuPaul’s Drag Race inspired her to find her community.
“I went it balls deep,” she said.
Astrud created two looks and put together two numbers every week for the first six months of her drag career. She combines alternative music, performance, fashion, and art into an experience that defies modern day drag expectations (think Gaga meets Bjork and St. Vincent and mix some art history in).
“I can’t stand Beyonce,” she said. As a classically trained musician, Astrud is more interested in the technical aspects of music than the commercial. For that reason, she considers her music taste much more alternative than the average club-goer. Drag bridges the gap between her tastes and the audience—she uses emotion and aesthetic as a gateway for the audience to understand her music taste.
The Phoenix native dropped out of ASU, and soon hopes to move to Brooklyn.
When Kalorie Karbdashian was asked about the New Mexico drag scene on Season 10 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, she responded, “What drag?”
This lit a fire under Albuquerque local queen Avery Taureaux’s ass.
Though she’s been doing drag for less than a year, Avery immediately caught Albuquerque’s attention. Just months ago, she and her friends went to a trivia night at the local gay bar, and Avery decided to go in drag. Dressed up as the Drag Race alum Naomi Smalls, Avery was mistaken by the club manager as an impersonator for the professional drag show after trivia. She performed that night on a whim, and has been consistently booked ever since.
“I just kindof fell into it,” she said. But her background in contemporary dance, degree in styling, and expertise as a makeup artist by day made her a perfect fit.
Since her unexpected drag career, Avery has been igniting the Albuquerque scene with her pop princess aesthetic. Her most recent endeavour, and her response to Kalorie’s comment, was to create Blackout, a drag troupe focused on creating queer events that highlight diversity and a sense of community.
Though she says everyone in her hometown either wants to be a nurse or a cosmetologist, Avery aspires to continue to build Albuquerque’s drag scene and beyond.
“I deserve to be famous,” she said. “I don’t want to die boring.”
At 17 years old, Ladyboi skipped her high school’s football games, and even her prom, to perform at local drag shows. Even on school nights, she would stay up until 1 or 2 a.m. painting her face.
“It helped me survive high school,” she said.
Straight out of high school, she moved from her small hometown of 2,000 people in Missouri to Little Rock, AR. While living and performing in Little Rock, she would drive for four and a half hours to Dallas, TX, for their larger drag events—Pride, Halloween, etc. Even though she’s a self-proclaimed “mug queen,” her electric performances and neon-Bratz doll aesthetic gained her a following in Dallas before officially moving there two years later.
*At this point in the interview, Ladyboi paused to order Asian Sweet Chili Boneless Wings from the Sonic drive-thru.*
Though the Dallas drag scene is dominated by pageant queens, the “post-Drag Race community” is on the rise in Dallas as it is in other major cities. Ladyboi’s place in the Dallas drag scene was solidified when she caught the attention of Drag Race superstar Alyssa Edwards, who became a mentor and friend. Her ever-growing success didn’t come without a price, though.
“You go through a lot of hard shit,” she said, commenting on the stress of moving to a large (and expensive) city.
To keep her drag career going, Ladyboi has one mantra. “You need to know how to have fun,” she said.
She left me with a final bit of wisdom: “Every drag queen should smoke weed.”
During her college career at the University of Central Oklahoma, Tape was invited to perform at a theater arts festival in Scotland. She devised a show that was essentially wrapping her head in duct tape and sticking flowers on it.
“The show was given a one-star review,” she said.
But from that show, Tape was born. She continued with her messy, “trash chic” performances, throwing herself into kiddie pools, having fake periods on stage, etc.
“Think of Amy Winehouse as a drag queen,” she said. “I wish I could be like that 24/7—a drunk mess.”
The Oklahoma City drag scene is dominated by pageantry, and drag is generally held to a rigid, polished standard.
“The big discussion [in the community] was about nails. Recently it’s been about brows” Tape said.
That’s why Tape takes her talents all over Oklahoma to showcase her messy, monster-esque persona. Her favorite bar to perform is in McAlister, OK, or what she calls the “meth capital.”
Tape hopes to prove that Oklahoma City’s drag scene can be just as good as any big city’s. With a widespread community across Oklahoma, Tape wishes to bring artists together to create a unified community. She says it’s the thrill of persevering that keeps her going.
She has many personal goals as well. “I’m focusing on expanding my arsenal of artistic weapons,” she said.
“I actually hated drag,” said Naomi Dix.
Growing up in a religious household, the Durham, NC native was only exposed to drag queens through exaggerated stereotypes in TV and movies.
It wasn’t until college that she went to her first drag show, and her feelings about drag began to change. Though the scene was dominated by pageant queens, the more experimental queens caught her eyes.
Soon after, drag legend Vivica C. Coxx encouraged her to try out for her amateur competition. Naomi won the competition, and Vivica quickly helped book her shows, along with adopting Naomi as her drag daughter.
Naomi’s polished, sultry style helped her rise to hosting her own shows, and even travelling on college tours. Her drag goes beyond simply entertaining crowds. Throughout her five year drag career, she’s worked to ensure fair pay for drag queens and create safe spaces in the queer community. She talks about enthusiastic consent with the audience at every one of her shows.
“We want to set standards for drag queens,” she said.
Though polish and sex appeal booked her shows, she says it wasn’t until she let her guard down that the audience truly fell in love with her. Naomi wants to be seen as a performer, a businesswoman, and an advocate—not just a “pretty ho.”
“Drag is not just being a woman. Drag is an art,” she said.
MRZ. IVY CARTER
A self-proclaimed “military brat,” Mrz. Ivy Carter was born in Japan, and moved around the world until settling down in Greensboro, NC. Forced to grow up quickly after constantly moving around, Ivy soon found herself in the wrong crowd. She says she was a “wild one”—always fighting, “doing this and doing that.”
Ivy started drag professionally two years ago. Like most baby queens, it took some time for her to get her footing. “I ain’t gonna lie—I was a booger,” she said, “But I still thought I was Miss Baddie B.”
Ivy soon became more than just a nightclub host, serving as a role model for the local queer community. “Everyone around here in Greensboro…they call me Mother,” she said.
A large portion of her audiences are college students, many of whom come to Ivy for advice and support. Ivy’s rough past allows her to relate to her audience’s current experiences, and provide them with living proof of a better future.
“They have other people they can talk to, but they feel connected to me,” she said.
Her infectious attitude even saved her local bar from shutting down—her weekly shows brought in enough of an audience, and revenue, to keep the bar afloat.
Though often rhinestoned from head to toe, Ivy’s drag philosophy extends far beyond glamour. “It’s just about being a part of the LGBTQ community and helping the LGBTQ community,” she said.
Her biggest piece of advice is one that she makes sure to do often:
The morning I interviewed Aurora Sexton was the morning she signed to a talent agency in Los Angeles. From the Club Kid scene to winning national pageant Miss Gay U.S. of A., Aurora has touched about every field of entertainment a drag queen can, and now is looking forward to a career in acting.
“When I saw the industry change, I could keep trying to beat the floor, or I could evolve,” she said.
Aurora started drag when she was just 13 years old in her hometown of Denver, CO. She was entranced by the theatrics of the club kid scene. “I felt like I was getting away with something bad,” she said. “I fucking loved it.”
She spent seven years of what she calls her “wild youth” in Chicago. In these pre-RuPaul’s Drag Race days, pageant circuits were the main way queens were able to tour the country and promote themselves. As a trans woman herself, Aurora was mentored by and worked with the trans women that were dominating the pageant circuits—Erica Andrews, Mimi Marks, and Monica Monroe to name a few.
Famous for her celebrity impersonations, Aurora then moved to Nashville, where she lived for seven more years. She worked as a famed “Playmate” at nightclub Play Nashville, working four nights a week every week.
“They treated us like gold,” she said.
Along with her budding acting career, Aurora is currently touring her one-woman show “LET THEM EAT CAKE! Diary of a First Lady,” where she impersonates Melania Trump.
“My show’s a complete mindfuck,” she said.
While entertainment is always a priority, Aurora sees civic engagement drooping in the drag community. She believes queens have the responsibility to educate their audiences.
“I’ve found humor is the best way to educate people,” she said. “Make it funny, but root it in truth.
Born in D.C., Lena Lett has been giving Capitol Hill clientele their comedic relief for 27 years. As a host and comedian, she uses old-school drag tricks to continue to appeal to a new-school audience.
“Drag is an opportunity to take people as they are and raise them a little bit higher,” she said.
Lena’s drag gospel extends beyond the sweaty nightclub walls—by day, she is a Catholic priest. Though she left Seminary when she was young, drag became her faith. She took inspiration from drag legends like Vicky Vox, and even became close friends with drag icon Lady Bunny, all while hosting shows in nightclubs nationally and internationally.
“Back in my day, the drag queens were really the ministers of the community,” she said.
Lena was able to take what she learned and drag and apply it to ministry, which eventually is what led her back to the church.
“Jesus didn’t come to preach to the safe. He preached to those who weren’t safe,” she said.
And Lena practices what she preaches. One night when she was working as a bingo host, she saw a lady crying in the corner. Lena approached her, and discovered she had just gone through a breakup with her girlfriend. Lena gave her some tough love, and told her, “Ladies don’t cry in public.”
It turns out the woman Lena comforted was a Senator Chief of Staff. Lena received a fruit basket from her the next day.