Mic in hand, donning my heel boots, plaid sheer dress and strawberry blonde wig, I waited on stage in anticipation for my music track to start. After I spent a few seconds filling the UIndy Hall’s silence with some witty banter, I soon heard Mick Fleetwood’s familiar drum beat, and I was transported.
When the 15th annual University of Indianapolis Drag Show was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was admittedly disappointed. Looking back, however, I see the year’s delay as a blessing in disguise, at least in the context of drag and not the other impacts of the pandemic. While performing as Crystal Shields in spring 2019, my freshman year, was one of the most euphoric moments of my life, and I expected sophomore year to be more of the same, I needed the gap to truly find myself and have that self-discovery inform my act.
I am nonbinary. That is to say, I was assigned male at birth, but I no longer identify as a man or a woman, although I do lean more toward feminine side. Given what a relatively recent discovery this is, as well as the fact that the drag show was swiftly approaching, I realized that I needed to rethink what drag means to me. I used to believe that drag was the act of putting on clothes associated with the opposite biological sex, crossdressing if you will. However, I now understand that drag can mean a variety of things to different performers. To some, drag is simply something fun and goofy, but it can be personal and heartfelt to others. Drag is a mockery of gender norms to some, and to others, a celebration of the fluidity of gender. And in my self-reflection, I realized I wanted my drag “thing” to be equal parts entertainment and personal statement of defiance.
To accomplish this goal, I knew I needed to modify the act I had planned from last year. All I had intended to do was impersonate Stevie Nicks and sing a Fleetwood Mac medley. Fortunately, further analyzing Nicks’ lyrics helped my new plan fall into place — rather than fall apart.
For the purposes of my act, I came to interpret the speaker of the song “Dreams” as kissing goodbye to my previous, cisgender-presenting identity and embracing my truest self. When I sang about the “stillness of remembering what I had and what I lost,” that was me reflecting on the feminine childhood and adolescence I had missed. And when the music to “Dreams” fades out and “Rhiannon” fades in, that is my truest self coming out for the world to see.
But I knew I needed more than lyrical analysis to indicate my intentions to the audience. I needed at least one bold, dramatic action to drive the act home, rather than just singing a Fleetwood Mac cover. And I must say, I am pretty proud of what I ended up doing. On the final phrase of “Dreams,” before the music transitioned into “Rhiannon” — “when the rain washes you clean you’ll know, you’ll know” — I stripped away my black cape to reveal the nonbinary pride flag. First, who doesn’t love a stunning wardrobe reveal? Second, the reveal pulled the songs from their original contexts and tied them to my act. I was no longer a Stevie Nicks impersonator but became Crystal Shields. I like to believe the crowd thought that, too.
My singing and wardrobe represented a fraction of the work in comparison to the tremendous assistance provided by my dear friend, freshman theatre education major and drag performer Skyler Clarkson (known on the drag show stage as Lolita Lollipop). Clarkson sketched the mockup of my makeup design and, leading up to the show, spent hours doing the majority of my makeup application. These efforts truly made my performance, and I could not be more grateful for them.
Being crowned “Most Memorable Act” caught me by surprise. Besides the fact that the crowning ceremony is, in all sincerity, the last thing I think about in connection with the drag show, my heart, mind and soul were focused on the performance itself. But the vivid light shining over me, the burgundy bouquet, the sequined tiara, and posing for photos between several other radiant queens, including Clarkson, who had been crowned “Most Creative Act,” elated me. In fact, I probably uttered the word “elated” a dozen times that night, and that is still the first word that comes to mind, although admittedly with some caveats.
Now that the show is done and gone, I wonder where I go from here. Weeks of preparation and rehearsal on my part and Clarkson’s led to one evening of excellence, then it was over. Of course, there is always next year’s drag show, and drag shows elsewhere, but with the euphoria that drag shows still provide, I cannot help but be upset that it was so impermanent. This experience has confirmed, reconfirmed and set in motion for me the fact that I feel my most authentic self in drag. My only hope going forward is that I can find other outlets to feel that amazing as often as I can, but also to be as content as I can in the present.