What you always wanted to know about being a drag queen but were afraid to ask
'For me drag is the perfect outlet for my love affair with excess'
I recently noticed a poster in Charlottetown advertising an intriguing upcoming event: Drag Queen Story Time with Whatshername at the Confederation Centre Library.
Upon closer investigation, I discovered drag queens have been sashaying into the spotlight to read to kids in libraries around North America for a few years now. It's a movement to foster acceptance of the LGBTQ rainbow and teach kids it's OK — fabulous, even — to be different.
It's the closest thing I have ever found to having magical powers.— Nicholas Whelan, a.k.a. Whatshername
"I never set out to be a drag queen, but I think it was a side effect of being wonderfully weird and different from other boys my entire life," says Nicholas Whalen, a.k.a. Whatshername. The 36-year-old is a professional animal scientist who loves transforming into his glam female persona as often as he can.
Whalen agreed to take me for a walk in his shoes — platform stilettos, actually — to explain what being a drag queen is all about.
1. What is a drag queen?
"Drag is different for everyone," Whalen says. "It's not one thing for me, it's everything."
"Drag has slowly morphed into its own art form," he says. "I think only recently have we begun to rethink the term, or the art as I say, so completely."
For him, drag is about inspiring people to understand that things are not always what they seem.
"This world is as much an illusion as the makeup on my face and the wigs on my head," Whalen said.
2. Do drag queens want to be women?
No, Whalen said. Some women do drag too — they're known as drag kings.
"This is all about putting on an illusion," he says. "It's about showing gender norms or societal norms don't need to be part of the everyday."
3. Are drag queens the same as transvestites or cross-dressers?
There are a number of terms — some people call themselves gender illusionists, cross-dressers or transvestites, Whalen says. Some drag queens use all the terms interchangeably.
There are at least a dozen different genres of drag, he explains — some are more popular in different areas of the world.
"I like what's called day drag, which most drag queens don't like," Whalen says. That means Whatshername comes out in the daytime to things such as the Pride Parade or story time.
"You really have to know how to do your makeup and make it look really pretty because you don't have all those special lights and you're not dimmed in a nightclub," he laughs.
Being Whatshername in the daytime also reaches more and different people.
"I love the shock of it — I love disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed," Whalen said.
4. Are all drag queens gay?
Most drag queens are gay, Whalen says.
Drag queens came to prominence in the 1970s when they began to stand up publicly for the LGBTQ community, he explains.
"Drag queens are keepers of gay history — they have been there for every milestone," he says, with drag queens having been some of the most visible gay rights activists.
5. How do you create the look?
Whalen has created foam cutouts he wraps around his hips to create the illusion of female curves under his outfits. Pouches of rice stand in for breasts.
Plenty of high-contrast foundation makeup creates female facial contours, then he works to exaggerate lips and eyes.
"As they say, Cover Girl don't cover boy," Whalen says, so he buys a lot of specialty makeup online, as well as other drag queen accessories.
He's purchased a few high-quality wigs he's styled himself, and tops off the look with some large, sparkly costume jewelry.
He also sews his own outfits, using lots of shiny sequin fabric.
6. Where did you learn how?
Tutorials on YouTube about drag queen makeup have been indispensable for Whalen.
"When it comes to your costume, if you're a good drag queen, you do it yourself," he says.
Growing up in Cape Breton, N.S., Whalen spent several summers as an animator at Fortress of Louisbourg, so he was learned all kinds of wardrobe tricks and had access to "a wig collection that is every gay boy's dream," he says.
"If you think about how men dressed in the 18th century, it was the closest thing to femininity that you can imagine — they wore wigs, makeup, moles on their face, high heels. What's closer to drag than that?" he says.
He's also been inspired by Montreal drag legend Mado Lamotte and Australian television comedian Dame Edna, who he says "really made drag acceptable to the mainstream audience."
7. Are all drag queens performers?
There's always a performance element to drag, Whalen said. Some drag queens sing or lip synch, some do comedy while others simply dress up and move.
As soon as he dresses up and people look at him, he is a performance artist, he said. He enjoys participating in art festivals and installations, such as Art in the Open, where a few years ago he first revealed Whatshername.
He's gone to drag shows around the world and was especially inspired by RuPaul, whom he met at a drag convention in Los Angeles a few years ago.
8. What compelled you to become a drag queen?
"I'm heavy-handed in all that I do," professes Whalen. "So for me drag is the perfect outlet for my love affair with excess!" He also enjoys the attention, he says.
"It's the closest thing I have ever found to having magical powers," he said. "The moment you put on drag and go out, even in a community like Charlottetown that's small ... you have a power that is so incredible."
As soon as he becomes Whatshername, people watch and listen, giving Whalen a platform for his message of acceptance.
"You can stand up for the little boys and girls and those who have yet to decide and let them know it's OK to be you," he said.
Whalen's family is very supportive, he said, which is helpful.
9. Where do you go in drag on P.E.I.?
"It's tough here!" Whalen admits. He takes every opportunity to become Whatshername.
He avoids transforming at Halloween, he said, because he finds it counter to his message of acceptance any time.
I wanted to be that question mark — what is he, what is she, what is that?— Nicholas Whalen
The first time he performed in drag was when he was a student at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, he recalls, for a fundraiser. He competed with three others representing each of the college's dorms, he said.
"I took it much more seriously than the others," he said, noting he was the only gay competitor (he won).
Whalen is also host of the Cape Breton Pride parade and festival for the next few years.
Returning to his home province and being lauded for what he's doing "made me feel super awesome about myself," he said.
10. Why 'Whatshername'?
Whalen wanted people to look at his female persona Whatshername and do a double-take, he says.
"I wanted to be that question mark — what is he, what is she, what is that?" he said.
The other reason he chose the name was that it allows Whatshername to be fluid — he's not locked into an aesthetic like "Chocolate" or "Dolly."
"I'm really excited about her because I think she's going to develop into this really cool, amazing character over the next little while," he says.
11. Do you think there's a growing drag queen movement, or awareness, on P.E.I.?
With the popularity of RuPaul's show, more straight people are aware of drag and what it's all about, Whalen says.
"I don't know if drag will ever become mainstream," he says. "It's not intended to be that."
12. How do drag queens and storytelling go together?
Drag queens reading to kids became a trend a couple of years ago in San Francisco.
The idea is for children of all ages to learn about diversity and acceptance.
Whalen plans to read LGBTQ-positive books including King and King, and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress.
"I will say there's a good chance the kids are going to go home a bit glittered and looking fabulous," Whalen says.