Revealing the life of a young drag queen

Posted on May 15, 2012

Blake Danford has two alter egos.

There is Danford, a 17-year-old high school student who is gay and trying to make it through his senior year. Then there is Rhea Sunshyne, a drag queen who is confident, sexy and outrageous.

“My drag persona is a character. She isn’t who I really am, so to speak. I can go out and be that character — this big  fabulous glamorous thing — and then go back to being my boy self — that friend, that person (who is) normal, (like) everybody else,” Danford said.

To put it simply, a drag queen is a man who dresses up as woman to perform.

He went on to call it an art form — a medium of expression, if you will.

“People have their different mediums through which they express themselves —whether it’s writing, whether it’s art, whether it’s theatre — mine is drag,” Danford said. “My art, my medium, is drag. Even drag is so much more than just learning how to be a woman.”

It’s learning how to sew your own clothes, do hair and makeup, and how to walk in heels.

“That wasn’t easy,” Danford said about the latter.

Danford first stepped out in drag when he was 15 years, a few weeks before his 16th birthday.

“I was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. You dress up for that right?’” he said. “… I went out in full drag for the first time that night.”

But he’d been doing costuming for a long time prior to that, so he had some idea about what he was doing.

“I thought I looked amazing. I looked in the mirror and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I look incredible,” Danford said reminiscing. “Now I look back at those pictures and say, ‘What I was thinking?’ … I didn’t do anything with my eyebrows. I had these big bushy eyebrows sitting on my face. My lipstick wasn’t applied right. I did my lipstick myself, I remember.”

Almost three years later, his drag look and style has evolved.

“At first, I thought drag queens just try to look like women, so that’s what I was going to do — try to look like a woman,” Danford said. “I’m going to do very basic makeup … then I realized that that’s just not what I liked. I wanted to go over the top. I wanted to take drag into my own hands, rather than just try to look like a woman.”

It’s an art form, he reiterated, and went on to say that, much like painting or drawing, there are many different ways to do drag.

“The whole foundation of it is feminine — the feminine essence, so to speak — but taking it in totally different directions. There’s many different styles of drag. There’s fish, which does mean to look like a real woman. Some drag queens do that and they do they do it amazingly. There’s also camp — typical drag queen mentality — way over drawn eyebrows, huge hair, giant boobs, hips and sequenced everything,” Danford said. “There’s also many other styles, (like) the girls who take it more edgy, which is what I like to do … It’s just finding what works for you and what style you really appreciate.”

Dressed in a vintage turquoise shirt with soft neutral vertical lines, gray jeans and burlap Toms, the 17-year-old has a taste for old-fashioned style clothing. Vintage is prominent even in when he is dressed in drag.

Rhea Sunshyne

Rhea Sunshyne (also known as Blake Danford) participated in Bootylicious: Rocky Horror Picture Show on April 19. The event was hosted by Cal State Fullerton’s Queer Student Association to raise money for the group.

At a Cal State Fullerton Queer Student Association event she performed at last month, Rhea Sunshyne wore a long, form-fitting orange dress with a short-sleeved jacket she found at a thrift store. On her head, she wore a blonde wig with a decorated military cap that was painted gold, sequenced and chained. She also wore a black, fingerless glove on one hand.

Danford is like countless others who choose to dress up in women’s clothing and perform.

Many people don’t understand why some men choose this lifestyle. There are various reasons — from pure joy of performing to exploring a different medium for expression— but one thing unites these drag queens: the opportunity to be noticed.

“Drag queens are basically all little attention whores,” said Yovanne Villanueva, 21, a biochemistry major at Cal State Fullerton.

But Danford is no “attention whore.” On the contrary, he is actually very shy and reserved.

“I like to think I walk softly, but carry a big stick,” Danford said.

Rhea Sunshyne, however, is a different story all-together because the drag queen lifestyle isn’t exactly a shy one.

“If you dress up in high glam from head to toe and step out on stage in front of hundreds of people, then you’re not doing it to hide,” Danford said.

It isn’t easy, either.

“It takes a real man to dress in drag because it’s so difficult,” Villanueva said.

More specifically, it takes long, false lashes, a fashionable wig, immaculate makeup, a sexy outfit and a whole lot of duct tape to pull off drag.

The cosmetics and outfit are pretty self-explanatory, but the duct tape might need some clarification.

“Women don’t have male genitalia. In order to go with the feminine stereotype, we sort of have to tuck,” said Danford. “It’s not a very comfortable experience. It’s kind of like wearing a wig; you just get over it after a while. It just kind of stops bothering you.”

And when you’re performing in front of hundreds of people, getting “over it” is kind of required.

But the effort it takes to transform into a woman is worth it.

“It’s so hard getting ready, doing everything that you have to do,” said Villanueva, “but we love to do it.”

Villanueva and Danford performed last month at a QSA-hosted drag show, Bootylicious: Rocky Horror Picture Show, with other drag queens such as Jon Garcia, 24, who is known as Nikki Licious Halston when he is dressed.

On average, it takes Jon Garcia one full hour to apply makeup and about 10 minutes to “tuck” in order to become Nikki Licious Halston.

Illusion is everything to drag queens, said Garcia, and there are a lot of factors involved to maintain that illusion.

“It’s not just about the hair and makeup,” said Garcia.

That’s where tucking comes in.

“You can’t look like a beautiful woman and have a lump down there,” Garcia said.

Besides tucking, Garcia also uses the duct tape to create hips.

Despite all that, however, dressing in drag goes beyond the look. It’s a medium in which men, generally gay men, express themselves.

“What I really like to do is open people’s eyes,” Danford said. “A lot of people have these preconceived notions of what they think a drag queen is … way over-drawn eyebrows and hair piled miles above their head, but that’s not exactly what drag is.”

Submitted as my Reporting on Minorities class final in May 2012.

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