fierce dramas

This Mess in Williamsburg

DragNet and how a generation of drag artists came of age.

Merrie Cherry in 2016. Photo: Redferns
Merrie Cherry in 2016. Photo: Redferns

Jason Ruth, now known as Merrie Cherry, needed help. His inaugural drag competition at Metropolitan bar in Williamsburg was rapidly approaching and he had no money to hire performers, and no performers meant no audience. In 2012, there weren’t that many young Brooklynites clamoring to get into drag.

He didn’t even have a name for the party. He wanted to call it “Miss Mister,” because it would be open to all genders and types of drag, but his friends weren’t convinced. “Ugh, that’s a horrible name,” his friend Donovan said, shaking his head. He and another, older regular named Gary exchanged a look. “Let’s ask grandma what you should call it.”

Gary put the phone on speaker. “Hello,” a hoarse, elderly voice answered. “Grandma, how are you?” Gary asked sweetly, and Jason could hear the person on the other end of the line take a drag off a cigarette. “I’m good, just watchin’ TV.”

“Grandma, we have a new friend named Merrie Cherry who’s starting a drag competition in Brooklyn called Miss Mister,” Gary spoke slowly into the phone.

“I hate it,” the voice cut him off.

“What should she call it then?” The phone went quiet for ten seconds. Jason could hear the person on the other end inhale again.

“DragNet,” Gary’s grandma announced.

“Yes. That’s it. Thank you, Grandma,” Gary said and hung up.

“All right.” He turned to Jason. “Mother Flawless Sabrina just blessed your party.”

Jason had received the imprimatur of one of the most influential and respected members of the New York City drag community, a performer who’d organized one of the first successful drag pageants in the 1960s, gone on to a have a career in Hollywood, and, now in her 70s, mentored a slew of young drag performers, trans activists, and artists — a legendary queen. And the name was, indeed, perfect.

Jason began to post on Facebook every few days, then every day as the party approached. His tone was unhinged: “One more day until the crowning of the first Miss DragNet. Expect pure creativity and magical cunt power. Bring your Depends because you may lose control of your bowels.”

How You Get Famous is available wherever books are sold.

But by show night, Jason, now in drag as Merrie Cherry, was panicking. Of the five people on that night’s lineup, at least three were doing drag for the first time ever including Sheeza Lush, a cisgender girl who described herself as “cheeky, freaky, and downright creepy after years of binge-drinking, anonymous sex, and recreational drug use,” and Hamm Samwich, a rapper in pink tights who wrote lyrics like “I got a pussy flown in from the fifth dimension” and “My vagina’s sweeter than the best sparkling wine in all New York.” At least the bar was packed. Everywhere Merrie turned, she recognized someone. They smiled and came over to swap air kisses and wish her good luck. This is my party, she thought to herself as she walked over to the bar and asked for a shot of tequila. Then another.

“Helloooo people,” she shouted from the stage — which was all of six feet wide. At Merrie’s request, each contestant sent a short bio, which she forgot to read onstage, opting instead for ad hoc introductions that all amounted to the same thing: “This bitch? I know her. She’s fierce.”

Sheza Lush, who brought her own smoke machine, had sewn strips of fabric onto an old shirt to make it look like a gnarled tree, covered her face with gold leaf, and was wearing a white faux-hawk wig full of twigs and leaves. She sang a Björk song and, at her performance’s climax, doused herself with a packet of fake blood she’d hidden in her bra. Another cisgender woman, Ballerina Bizet, danced acrobatically in toe shoes, then stripped off her shirt and bra. Hamm Samwich broke a chair. The crowd went crazy.

Merrie was serving a sloppy, deconstructed, gender-bending look and had on white eye shadow and a red lip. “Diva Dance” from The Fifth Element starts slowly and sounds like a conventional aria, then, midway through, flips into a cartoonish banger. In the film, it’s the calling card of a beautiful, preternaturally talented alien performed for the entertainment of a cosmopolitan and stylish audience. Lip-syncing at Metropolitan, Merrie tried to keep her performance classy. As the song’s tone shifted, she could feel the people watching her, and she began to sway back and forth on the tiny stage, waving her arms and pumping her chest with the beat. She moved her hands in circles in front of her face and twirled as the music swelled and trilled. Her feet had started cramping in her high heels, so she kicked them off with a flourish and the audience cheered. Oh, I don’t have to wear these suckers, she realized.

Merrie Cherry performs at Bushwig in 2019. Photo: Getty Images

By the end of that first DragNet competition, most people were too drunk to notice when Merrie crowned the winner — a yellow-spandex-clad queen from San Francisco who lip-synced to “20 Dollar” by Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. (Hamm Samwich, the rapper, had been the crowd favorite but lost after she refused to lip-sync in the final round). Someone stole Sheza Lush’s smoke machine. For many in the audience, the attention-starved maniacs on the small Metro stage were a welcome reprieve from the bar’s regular crowd of sweaty boys eye-fucking each other from across the patio. Blindly stumbling ahead, Merrie had busted open the doors of Brooklyn nightlife and invited the amateurs in.

Drag, Merrie realized after this night, meant people knew your name when you went out. It meant they noticed you when you walked into the bar. Well, they didn’t notice you exactly, but they noticed a persona you created, and that was good enough, maybe better even. Merrie knew that somewhere out there were girls who had been perfecting their crafts and personas for years, never missing a beat in their numbers, never an eyelash out of place. But she’d brought none of that polish or professionalism to DragNet, and it hadn’t mattered. Merrie, who dreamed of becoming very, very rich, had not intentionally set out to democratize the medium of drag. And yet, instead of seeming like an unattainable version of a glamorous woman or a full-fantasy sex kitten, Merrie Cherry’s haphazard aesthetic had signaled to the other performers that drag was, indeed, for everyone. Jason — who had very little money and only a couple true friends — had gotten dressed up, stood in front of a room full of people in a dress and a wig, and the audience cheered and whooped and celebrated. The fantasy, for Jason as Merrie, was fulfilled not by wearing the sparkliest gown or the tallest heels but by showing up and taking the stage. By DragNet’s third event, competitors were showing up in droves.

Merrie Cherry at DragNet in 2014.

Ooof, who are these girls? Merrie thought. It was the third Thursday of June 2012, and a handful of teenage drag queens had just stomped through the door of Metropolitan. The first competition had been such a success that Merrie had been able to spin it into a monthly event with a season finale scheduled for the end of the summer.

“I am Aja Injektion Marie Von Teese,” Aja said and cocked her head, sizing up Merrie Cherry. “This is Kaos Marie.”

Aja performing in 2017. Photo: Getty Images

Fifteen-year-old Kaos Marie, whose boy name was Esai Andino, had taken the name because “my life is chaos” and was currently considering becoming an emancipated minor. An older woman from the neighborhood, who lived near Metropolitan, would sometimes let him stay with her. He’d shown her pictures of him and Aja in drag, and the woman lit up. “I walked past this bar and saw a flyer for this thing called DragNet with a guy called, like, Cherry Mary or something,” she told Esai. “You should compete.”

Aja, who was seventeen and lying about her age to get into bars, had grown up near Metropolitan. In five years, she’d be cast on season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race as an exemplar of Brooklyn style and attitude, but at first she hadn’t realized that people even did drag in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was where parents, bullies, and old ladies on the street tried to scare the gay out of you. A place that threatened to grind down anyone who couldn’t break free and find their way across the river. Esai and Aja lived there because they had to.

What the future would bring.

But at some point Brooklyn had become a symbol of creativity, coolness, and rarefied consumerism. It was as much an idea — about the clothes people wore, the music they listened to, what they ate, and how they spent their time — as an actual place. The Williamsburg of Aja’s and Esai’s childhoods had been populated by Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Hasidic families. Since they were kids, a parallel Williamsburg had emerged, inhabited by young — often white — people with disposable income, artistic inclinations, and irregular schedules. If there were drag shows in their neighborhood, it seemed only natural to Aja and Esai that they would dominate them.

Aja had been working hard on her looks and persona. On any given night, she could be found sitting at her desk, a rack of outfits behind her, wigs hanging from hooks on the wall, blue contacts in her eyes, pasting her eyebrows flat against her forehead with Elmer’s glue stick. Some queens approached their eye makeup with surgical attention to detail. Aja at seventeen was more of a butcher. Her eyeliner was a thick black chunk that extended diagonally from the tear duct across most of the eyelid and ended in a swoop at the far end of her brow bone.

Properly applied, drag makeup both enhances one’s natural features and creates a fantasy. For the eye shadow and the lips, Aja took inspiration from manga and video games like Zelda. The look was, as she once put it, “alien-warrior-princess realness.” The larger point, though, was to mix ugliness with beauty. How to successfully do ugly things while being beautiful was Aja’s biggest challenge. “I have a downslanted face, my eyes go down, and I paint to snatch,” she would later tell the Grizzly Kiki podcast hosts. “When you paint a downward face to snatch, it doesn’t go up. It goes to the side. So I look like I’m grilling everyone. I look like I hate you.” In the bars, Esai would tell Aja to “fix your face” when she seemed to be scowling. “This is my face; it’s the only face I’ve got,” she’d reply.

Aja had always felt insecure in boy clothing, chasing down anyone who, noticing her awkwardness, called her a faggot or a sissy. Before drag, she had tried to butch it up, fronting that she was tough and masculine. And she was certainly tough, but performing masculinity was exhausting. Aja’s godmother, who suspected that evil spirits were holding Aja back, had her see a spiritual doctor, and she’d been regularly attending Lucumí ceremonies, but the power of the spirits overwhelmed and scared her and it only made things worse. Then, one morning, Aja’s mother woke her up. “I had such a weird dream about you last night,” her mother said. “You were sleeping in my bed, and there was a woman putting smushed brains under your pillow.” In the dream, her mother had removed all the gore and beaten up the woman. Aja listened to the story and noticed that she felt good. The anxiety and fear were gone. From that point on, Aja said she had “the spirit of ‘Fuck you.’” As Aja’s drag began to elevate, she felt stronger and more confident on the streets as well. Now when people made a point to tell Aja, “I don’t like you,” she’d shoot back, “I don’t give a fuck.” And most of the time she meant it.

That night at DragNet, though Aja was just a drag baby, no one could resist her. She performed “This Joy” by Vernessa Mitchell. She high-kicked, she dipped, she crashed onto the floor with every ounce of energy in her lanky, 17-year-old body. “I think they had never seen anything so Black at Metropolitan,” she said. In the competition’s second round, Aja executed a series of ruthless pirouettes, opening her arms and spinning until even the crowd was dizzy. She won and advanced to the DragNet finals.

Aja at DragNet in 2014.

Like Aja and Kaos, Merrie’s drag was rough, but she worked to seem like she had things under control. The teenagers caught this scent of responsibility and proceeded to hassle and harangue the older queen whenever she exhibited any ambition or authority. They’d loudly read Merrie for her thrift-store looks, for wearing flip-flops onstage or having a powdery beat. Like two troublemaking teens at the back of the classroom. Which is who they were.

But they kept coming back to Metropolitan week after week, and audiences came with them. At Aja’s urging, Kaos entered the next round of DragNet. Kaos walked onto the stage in a nightgown, her hair wrapped in a rag, back bent over and limping. “Wade in the Water” played. The music switched to an Aunt Jemima syrup commercial with a retro jingle describing pancakes without Aunt Jemima syrup “like the spring without the fall.” While Kaos lip-synced to the jingle, she poured syrup onto the judges’ open hands, and they licked it off. The number ended with Britney Spears’s “Slave 4 U.” Kaos danced and shook as Britney cooed, “Get it, get it, ooh.” The whole thing was a mess. Merrie would later describe it as “so not PC but fun.” Though it was laughably offensive, confusing, and sloppy, Kaos was committed to the performance. The crowd giggled uncomfortably, and she slowly won them over with a mischievous, goofy smile and her natural charisma. By the end, they were cheering.

Also in the running that night was Untitled Queen, the drag persona of an artist named Matthew de Leon. Merrie Cherry had met him at a lesbian dance party in Manhattan where Matthew had been wearing a long pink wig and dancing wildly — his arms shooting up in all directions. From the moment he’d decided to get into drag, he brought a startlingly coherent and innovative aesthetic to the club. That night at DragNet, Untitled performed the opening number from the movie Little Shop of Horrors. The look was a cotton-candy, man-eating-plant mash-up with a pink tulle skirt, a green leotard, and pink and green leafy accents. Untitled and Kaos tied that night, and Kaos was elated. “We some badass bitches,” she told Untitled. “Picasso come to life” was how she’d later describe Untitled’s aesthetic. They would both compete against Aja and three other performers at the finale the following month.

The first DragNet finale took place on a steamy night in late August 2012. The stakes were high. The winner would not only get a cash prize of $50 plus a $50 gift certificate to Bagel Smith, the all-night deli across the street from the bar, but would also co-host DragNet with Merrie for the next year — a steady gig was worth so much more than a one-time cash prize. For the occasion, Merrie Cherry had upped her game — slightly. She’d used hairnets to style her white Afro wig into two poufs, one at the front of her head and one at the back. She’d glued pink jewels in a line from her forehead down the bridge of her nose and was wearing bottom lashes but not top ones, as she only had one pair.

Aja in 2017. Photo: Getty Images for VH1

Esai and Aja, meanwhile, spent hours painting their faces and putting on homemade bodysuits, mohair jackets, and spandex shirts to transform themselves into Kaos and Aja Injektion. Aja’s confidence was growing and growing. A few weeks earlier, she’d won another pageant, and her aim tonight was to look as fierce as possible and snatch the crown. They’d brought friends to cheer them on. Even Kaos’s mother and older sister had come in a rare attempt at support and reconciliation.

By the end of the night, Kaos, Aja, and Untitled Queen had all made it to the final round, where they were tasked with lip-syncing together to “Let’s Have a Kiki,” a gay anthem about a drag-queen house party. As the music blared, Merrie, watching from the DJ booth behind the stage, could tell Aja was killing it. Kaos and Untitled jerked and bobbed along with the beat, but Aja planted in the center of the tiny stage. Her energy was infectious; she was clearly the strongest dancer and knew every word perfectly.

And yet it seemed to Merrie that Aja wasn’t sharing the stage. During the drum solo just before the song’s bridge, Aja fell into a split, forcing Untitled to step over her. Untitled had on a tight, white, long-sleeve dress artfully covered with dots of different sizes and colors and a wig that looked like a ball of cotton candy. No one was polished, but Untitled had a vision. To Merrie, she seemed like a star.

After the song ended, the contestants stood panting on the stage, waiting anxiously for Merrie Cherry to announce the winner. Aja heard the crowd chanting her name.

“Well, I think it’s clear who won tonight,” Merrie said. “The winner of the very first DragNet finale — and, don’t worry, there will be others — is my sister … Untitled Queen.”

The audience gave a tepid cheer. Aja was gagged. “Don’t be rude. Clap for my girl,” Merrie exhorted. Aja stormed past Merrie and off the stage, barely concealing her anger. The winner was going to co-host DragNet with Merrie for the next year, and Aja thought that had to be the reason she didn’t win — Merrie knew that she would have overshadowed her.

Merrie found Aja after the show. “Babes, congratulations. You were great,” she said, trying to smooth things over. “It’s not shade, girl. You understand, right?”

“You know what, Merrie? I can’t talk to you right now. If I do, I will punch you in the face,” Aja snapped. The sputtering, red-hot frustration that lived inside her began to pour out. The need to be seen, the anger at being taunted and misunderstood, the sense that no matter what she did, there was no satisfaction, no way out. Drag helped to channel this resentment into jokes or dancing, but it hadn’t really changed anything, had it? Disrespect and disappointment were always lurking.

“Well, do you want to go outside?” Merrie stood up tall, wishing she hadn’t taken off her high heels. She puffed up her chest to look as big as possible.
Aja paused and noticed that everyone was staring at her. It seemed to Merrie that Aja was surprised she’d stood her ground.

“I’m leaving,” Aja announced. She felt like people always expected brown and Black girls to fight, and she did not want to be a stereotype. Merrie wasn’t worth her hands.

Merrie was gagged by the intensity of Aja’s anger. It was crazy to be screamed at in a bar but also shocking that anyone would be that upset about the contest.

Of course, Merrie had no idea that Aja and Esai were teenagers. She had never seen them out of drag, had never actually wondered about the rest of their lives. Not because she didn’t care but because the point of getting dressed up, changing your name, and performing in front of a room of mostly strangers was to be something — or someone — other than your everyday self. Everyone had aspirations, and everyone definitely had an ego. To Merrie, Aja and Kaos just seemed to have something else that made them pop off so easily.

Aja and Esai stormed out, shouting about “nepotism” and “favoritism.” Merrie took a minute to collect herself, then walked back to her perch at the bar, where a throng of well-wishers had gathered to congratulate her on a stunning finale.

The Shady Nights of Williamsburg Drag