Decked out in a crystal-bedazzled bodysuit and a perfectly styled blonde wig, drag queen LaDonya Lovelace took the stage in Bangor last weekend to a roar from the nearly sold-out crowd at the Downunder Lounge at Seasons.
Seasons is generally better known for chicken wings and football games, but on Saturday night, it was also a place for flips, kicks, rhinestones, filthy jokes and mugs beat for the gods — artfully applied makeup, for those not versed in drag queen slang.
In the past few months, hardly a week in the Bangor area has passed without a drag event, be it weeknight drag bingo or trivia, or a big weekend drag show with multiple performers from all over Maine and New England.
A few years ago, it might have been months between shows. Today, drag shows attract everyone from members of the LGBTQ community to middle-aged straight people and their spouses and children.
“I don’t know what, exactly, explains the surge in popularity for drag in the Bangor area, but I am here for it,” said Bangor-area actor and director Dominick Varney, who has performed as Priscilla Poppycocks for the past two years. “It’s just something that has to be experienced, and once you do, you love it.”
Priscilla Poppycocks is everywhere these days, with Varney finding a slightly different audience from the late night drag show crowd. He’s hosted everything from workout sessions in drag to a Pride event at Penobscot Valley Country Club in Orono.
Currently, he hosts weekly drag bingo and drag brunches at Happy Endings Martini Bar in Bangor, and Sunday drag trivia at Kick Axe Pub & Club at the Bangor Mall — both of which are earlier in the day and open to those under 21.
“It’s really important to me that drag be accessible to all types of people — not just a late night bar crowd,” Varney said. “I think one of the amazing things about drag having much higher visibility these days is that it’s open to anyone, regardless of your age and background. I want young queer kids to be able to see drag, and see people like them. Drag is for everyone.”
But there are plenty of traditional late-night drag shows, like the ones held recently at Ivy, the nightclub upstairs from Kanu in Old Town, the Common Loon Pub in Orono, and the Downunder Lounge at Seasons in Bangor, all of which feature the fabulous looks and fierce lip syncs one would expect from a drag queen.
The shows at Seasons are produced by Bangor-based Delicious Drag Divas, which was started about five years ago by Lloyd Tracy and his husband, Tony, a.k.a. LaDonya Lovelace. Since they started doing live shows again last year after a pandemic pause, Tracy said he’s seen audiences grow tremendously — not just in larger Maine cities like Bangor and Portland, but even in farther-flung towns like Pittsfield and Prospect Harbor.
“Our Halloween show in Bangor last year was insane. We had to turn people away at the door,” Tracy said. “We’ve always had a pretty good crowd, but not like this.”
There are LGBTQ audience members at these events, of course, but just as many straight people. In past decades, drag shows were almost completely held at gay bars, of which the Bangor area has had a handful over the years, including Visions, the Spectrum and Therapy.
But since Therapy closed in 2012, Bangor has not had a specific gathering place for the LGBTQ community, and in Maine, only a small handful of gay bars are left. That’s meant that the gay, queer and trans communities have either moved online, or mixed in at bars and venues that weren’t traditionally geared toward an LGBTQ clientele. In turn, drag shows have also drawn a more mixed crowd.
“It’s soccer moms and young straight women. It’s a totally mixed crowd. Some of that is because there aren’t really any gay bars anymore, but it’s more than that,” Tracy said. “At some point in the past few years, I think drag just became mainstream.”
The impact of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the incredibly popular drag competition TV series on VH1, is hard to overstate. According to Shaunna Rai, who has performed drag in Maine for more than 25 years, it’s completely changed the game for drag performers of all stripes.
“‘Drag Race’ has opened a lot of people’s eyes to drag as an art form and as a form of entertainment,” Rai said. “And with COVID, I think you had this totally captive audience who saw all these amazing drag artists on social media and on TV while we were in quarantine, and fell in love with drag. And now they really want to see it in person. Or maybe they want to try it for themselves.”
In addition to there being a much wider audience for drag, Rai said, the fact that it’s so easy to access drag artistry on places like Instagram or TikTok has elevated the art form.
“The makeup artists, the wig makers, the designers — it’s totally elevated everything,” Rai said. “I see more and more young people trying it out. They are fearless. There are so many trans and non-binary performers now, too. It’s a beautiful thing.”
When Rai first performed in drag in Bangor back in the late 1990s, options were far more limited, and almost no one felt safe going out in public in gender-bending clothes and makeup. Today — despite there still being plenty of pushback — the world is a more welcoming place for the art of drag, and for LGBTQ people in general.
“I wish it could have been as comfortable for me when I was in my 20s,” Rai said. “The things I could have done, if it had been like this back then.”