LO-TI-ON in "Killer Babes" at Replay Lakeview Credit: Erik M Kommer

Derry Queen takes the stage in a laced leather corset and a black skirt. He begins performing a traditional lip sync to Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi.” And then things turn sour. An edited sound bite of Anderson Cooper declares that “Derry is a top,” a term in gay culture that, well, you can look it up, and Derry runs from the stage in shame. “I’m not a top!” he protests as Britney Spears’s “Piece of Me” plays him off and performers posing as paparazzi snap photos of him. The piece plays well to a sold-out audience packed shoulder to shoulder. Two men circle Derry and lift him over their heads as fake blood runs from his mouth. He’s met with a standing ovation.

The theatrics of Derry’s variety show transcend traditional expectations of drag. His show includes acts ranging between stand-up and sketch, all of which take him at least a month to churn out. Many of the acts rely on gags and pranks pulled on the audience to engage interest. Sound bites are perfectly edited to sync with videos, dubbed over and remixed to present surreal, larger-than-life conceptual pieces that usually stun the crowd. This is a rising form of art that incorporates Internet lingo, social commentary, and pop culture references into one drag number.

In Chicago, where both the gay and comedy communities thrive, it’s no wonder there’s been an artistic shift in the city’s drag comedy scene. Decked out in inflatable outfits (some representing Internet memes) and extreme stylized makeup, drag queens are going to incredible lengths to make each performance a fully realized stage number, embellished with a story line, backup dancers, and acrobatics. Acts have progressed from stand-up and lip-synching to routines that rely heavily on visuals and, most importantly, viral videos and sound clips. The use of Internet culture, which also includes well-known Vines and news-
related segments, makes the acts relevant to a younger audience. This is an experience, not just a performance.

“People are drawn to things they recognize right away,” says Derry Queen, whose “Derry Queen’s Big Queer Variety Show” runs monthly at the Hideout. “Using a sound clip you recognize or mirroring motions from a video is what gets people’s attention. That’s what’s getting popularized right now in the Chicago drag scene.”

Chicago’s pageant-drag roots have grown outward to intertwine with comedy and Internet culture. Costumes are still campy, but it’s no longer a beauty contest as much as a “who can do it all” contest. Queens must stay relevant, look amazing, have an individual stage persona, and sing and dance. They take on difficult tasks, such as LO-TI-ON‘s re-creation of the Boston Dynamic robot dog (by moving back and forth with another performer, Cody Cartagena, inside a cardboard cylinder spray-painted silver). Leaning on well-known pop culture references eases some of the pressure of trying to connect with an audience. The performance may flop, but at least everyone will enjoy it.

“When you see a drag mix, which is a wide variety of performance in one number, is usually when you see online viral sensations,” says Derry.

"Derry Queen's Big Queer Variety Show" at the Hideout
“Derry Queen’s Big Queer Variety Show” at the HideoutCredit: Sarah Larson

With an endless amount of resources, incorporating viral content can be a curse as much as it is a blessing. As with SNL, comedy queens must stay on top of the game to remain relevant.

“What’s hard for comedians today is that there’s so much new material coming out,” says Auntie Heroine, a queen who runs the monthly all-ages drag show “Auntie’s Treasures.” “People still talk to me about their favorite number of mine when I did Melania Trump, which was right after the inauguration. Then RuPaul released Aquaria doing a Melania bit two years later because they had filmed it when it was superrelevant, [but] nobody cared to see it. In general, our culture, since everything is there and it’s available, we have such a low attention span.” As someone who hosts a monthly drag show and travels the country to perform, Auntie knows that remaining relevant is key to maintaining interest.

Drag, like most things in our culture now, is moving toward relying on summarizing ideas through video. Not only must a performer capture an audience’s attention onstage, they must do it online as well. Recently, the multimedia production company Rowdy House teamed with Chicago drag celebrity Aunty Chan to create “The Real Dragwives of Chicago,” a sketch featuring staged drama between five local comedy queens: Aunty Chan, Maureen SanDiego, Bambi Banks-Couleé, T Rex, and Saltine. In its first day online, the video attracted nearly 3,500 views.

“With the Internet now you see drag queens being a part of a viral sensation, at least in the queer community,” says Derry. “It might not necessarily reach everyone, but the comedy that people are doing now is reaching more people because it’s on the Internet.”

The new audience for drag is 16 to 30-year- olds who have grown up with the Internet and RuPaul’s Drag Race. And some people who first came out to see drag queens perform found a community they could be themselves in. Though the LGBTQ community has become more accepted by mainstream society in recent years, the Internet is still a home and a safe space where people can connect and talk to others who also feel ostracized during tumultuous times. For some young people, it remains the only outlet they can find.

“I run an all-ages show, but it’s difficult getting people out there,” says Auntie Heroine. “The teen queen community does a lot of video content. They have their own drag races, and they’re almost exclusively online because there’s nowhere to do it.”

This becomes what people recognize and know. It’s how the LGBTQ community invites people into conversation, by meeting pain with laughter. The energy is infectious and it’s what transforms online followings to people coming out to see a live show. It’s what packs Derry Queen’s show at the Hideout, where people sit knee to knee in folding chairs watching a drag number in which Mr. Krabs from SpongeBob SquarePants seduces a dollar bill to “I Can Hear the Bells” from Hairspray. The familiar nostalgic attribute of this very queer performance leads people through the door between the world of mainstream media, where they feel like outsiders, to one of mashed-up pop culture, where they realize they belonged the whole time. It’s a home people might not realize they needed until they see what’s on the screen, moments of their childhood that make them feel safe.   v