Rhinestone Productions is bringing drag to Harrisonburg, whether it likes it or not
By Lauren Hunt | Photos by Lauren Hunt
The headquarters for Rhinestone Productions — Harrisonburg’s very own drag company — is a small, two-car garage tucked into the farmland of Rockingham County. Despite the open doors, the air inside hangs thick with cigarette smoke and hairspray. Shelves of wigs line the walls in every shape, size and color imaginable. The shelves sit above boxes full of any kind of makeup or hair product a girl could need. In the back of the garage is a table set up in the corner displaying the latest works of art by jeweler Michael Batton; huge rings, earrings and necklaces that sparkle and twinkle in the light.
“The rings have an open back so they can be tightened on your finger,” Batton says. “If they’re not put on real tight, they’ll fly right off and into the audience.”
Some necklaces take up to 16 hours to make, and the biggest and flashiest matching sets of a necklaces, earrings, rings and bracelets can cost up to $400.
“That’ll make them break — and then you have one pissed off drag queen,” Batton said.
The sound of laughter explodes from a group sitting together on the other side of the garage. It’s a room full of big personalities and even bigger wigs.
“Hey, Taylor! Got it in the butt lately?” A group of men sitting at two tables pushed together in the middle of the garage giggle as they wait for fellow drag queen Taylor Morgan’s response.
Taylor stops drawing in her eyebrows to laugh. “Yeah, last night!”
Drag? In the ’burg?
Walking around downtown Harrisonburg, it’s hard to imagine the thriving drag-queen culture right at the heart of it. With a population of about 50,000, it’s not a huge city by any means. Nestled right under the Appalachian Mountains and surrounded on all sides by farmland, it’s not necessarily the poster city for drag.
“We’ve never had a problem with the community,” Jayda Knight, founder Rhinestone Productions, says. “Sometimes we get called bad names, but that’s pretty rare.”
The origins of the art of drag can be traced back to as far as 16th century Shakespearean and classical Chinese theater, in which men would have to dress and perform as women since women weren’t allowed on stage. Over the centuries it’s transformed into an art form of its own.
The term “drag queen” comes from a combination of the words “drag,” an acronym for “dress resembling a girl,” and “queen,” an anti-slang term used for a feminine gay man. This is the most widely used term, but some performers prefer the term “female impersonator” or “illusionist.”
Underground drag cultures have existed for most of the 20th century and began appearing visibly along with other LGBT communities in the 1960s, despite the fact that all homosexual acts, including performing in drag, were illegal in every state but Illinois during that time. Many communities began to organize and create chapters. They formed “houses,” where older and more experienced “house mothers” would take in new queens and teach them the art of drag.
Where the magic happens
There are a few makeup stations set up around the garage with a queen settled at each one. The transformations the queens are about to undergo include glitter and some magic, but it’s nowhere near as quick or smooth as Cinderella’s.
“It’s a work of art,” Chad, the resident makeup artist and Jayda Knight’s partner, says. “When it’s obviously a man and you make them look not like a man, it’s a work of art.”
The first step is gluing down the eyebrows.
“You have to glue them down and then you cover them up so you can draw them on later,” Lana Knight says, who was competing for the Miss Harrisonburg Newcomer at the show on April 19.
She coats her eyebrows with an Elmer’s glue stick and dries them with a blow drier. After several layers of glue, she puts on a generous layer of foundation so she can begin contouring. Her partner, Larry, watches as she puckers her lips to find her cheekbones and holds up a piece of paper as a stencil for her highlight and helps her match it on the other side. She spends about ten minutes on her cheeks and eyes, making sure they’re even.
“I never thought I’d be a drag queen,” Lana Knight says as she swirls her eye shadow brush in a white pallet and brushes it in the inside corners of her eyes to brighten them. She mentions that she’s spent all day at the office practicing walking around in her heels for the next night. “When I’m Lana, I’m someone different and I can express a different side of myself. It’s like a bug. Once I got my face on and began performing, I knew I could do it and I liked it.”
Dressing in drag is truly a labor of love and passion. The transformation these girls make is neither quick nor painless.
“You’ll want to see this.” Jayda Knight says as she heads over to Taylor Morgan’s station in the garage. “She’s about to put her bump on. This is the most painful part of drag. It’ll bring tears to my eyes.”
The bump is a wig that’s turned inside out and molded into a ball and used to give volume to a hairpiece. Taylor positions the bump to where she wants it on the crown of her head and balances it there while she grabs a roll of duct tape and begins wrapping tape around her head until it doesn’t budge. She proceeds to pull a blond, curly wig off of the rack and pulled it over the bump.
“You need something else there. It’s just so — ” Chad says, making a grabbing motion in the air, as if grasping for the word he was looking for. He’s been keeping a careful eye on everyone all evening.
“So what? That don’t tell me nothing,” Taylor raises an eyebrow at him in the mirror as she mimics his grabbing motion.
“You can see your dark hair in the front.” Chad says.
“So what? I need to add a pompadour or something?” Chad nods and Taylor reaches down and grabs a bag full of hair. She pulls out a small patch of blonde hair and positions it in front of the bump.
“The duct tape doesn’t bother me as much,” Taylor Morgan says. “The most painful part is the bobby pin. It’s gotta go between my head and the tape or else it’s all gonna fall off.”
She makes a face as she works a bobby pin into place to cover her hair.
“We have to use Goo Gone to get it off. If you tried to just pull it off you’d pull my whole damn head off,” she says.
Arguably the most important part of the two-hour long preparation is creating a woman’s figure on a man’s body.
It starts with two layers of panty hose and old couch cushions that have been cut and shaped to look like a woman’s curves. The cushions are put between the two layers of panty hose and adjusted to give the queen a woman’s figure. Then, at least two more layers of panty hose are added over the cushions, a padded bra is placed over the chest and in most cases, a girdle to cinch the waist.
“People think that female impersonators just want to be women or change themselves, but it’s not that,” Jessica Taylor says as she sits in Jayda Knight’s kitchen, taking a break from the garage. She’s wearing a Jessica Rabbit-esque red dress and her crown was pinned in a short, bob-like wig. “It’s a lot to try to transform into curves with such a straight figure. It’s an art.”
During the day, Jessica Taylor is a construction worker. It’s only on every third Saturday of the month that she dons her makeup and wigs.
“I had always been in theater in high school, and it was more of an extension of the theatrical part of my life,” she says as she brushes some hair that had gotten caught in her two-inch long eyelashes out of her face. “I get to be the person I want to be sometimes. When I’m Jessica I say a lot of things I wouldn’t normally say.”
For her, it’s all about the audience reactions.
“I just love to see smiles on their faces,” she says.
Kayla Kelly, a drag queen with Rhinestone Productions and one of the judges for the upcoming competition, walks over to the group in her new pantsuit, which had just been sewn together about an hour before.
“Your thighs are too low,” Chad says as he walks over to Kayla Kelly and reaches down into her jumper to adjust her thighs. After some jerking and yanking, her thighs were up where they needed to be. “There you go.”
“We act like we hate each other, but we don’t. We really all love each other. We’re all one big family,” Max Dean, a drag veteran for nearly 40 years, says. She watches as Lana Knight nervously poses for the camera. Max was the first to jump up and help.
“Here, put your hands behind your back and show us some tits,” she says as she adjusts Lana Knight’s feet and shoulders, tipping her chin up toward the camera. It’s clear that Max has been performing in drag for years. “Beautiful.”
The Artful Dodger, where the pageant is being held, is ironically enough, less than a half-a-minute walk down the sidewalk from a church with a towering steeple and stained-glass windows. On this particular night, the Dodger is packed to the brim with people. An older woman sits near the stage with her oxygen tank and tubes. She’s there, even with all of the cigarette smoke blowing into the café from its open doors. A little girl about six or seven years old sits with her mother in the front row.
“Hello b——, we’re about to get this show on the road,” Taylor Morgan, the emcee for the night, says as she sits on the left side of the stage, shielding her eyes from the spotlight with her hand. “Oh, are there children in here? S— … F— … Damn … I mean, gosh darn.”
Once their song begins, each performer stays behind the curtain for anywhere between 10 to 30 seconds — just enough time for the audience to hear the song and imagine what kind of costume the girl will be in. They’re usually in heels and gowns that would make even a seasoned model nervous.
Each girl is judged based on performance quality, crowd interaction and how much money in tips she brings in. The theatrics of the art are apparent; the girls know how to put on a show. Despite the place being too packed to breathe, the girls somehow find a way to move in and out of the crowd to grab the dollar bills that audience members wave in the air.
The crowd members hold their drinks in the air and dance along, sometimes offering a sip or a chug along with their tip. Pink baskets are passed around to collect the dollars that the queens can’t reach. Everyone is having a good time and it shows.
Lana is contestant No. 4. She comes out onto the stage in a black gown, draped in strands of silver and gold rhinestones. Her smile is tight and she shakes a little as she walks down to the end of the platform, but she is steady on her heels. The practice paid off.
As she makes her way down the stairs and into the crowd, her smile becomes more genuine as she is met with several dollars, folded longways to be more visible. She smiles and winks as she grabs tip after tip before moving deeper into the crowd.
The spotlight follows her as she weaves in and out of the audience, grabbing dollar after dollar until she holds a bouquet of green in her hands. She finds an open spot in the floor and begins to jump to the music and the crowd follows suit. Lana takes a bow as the song ends and the crowd erupts into applause and cheers. She’s all smiles.
“Great job, baby,” Jayda Knight says as Lana Knight drops her tips on the table to be counted. It’s a pretty big pile.
The little girl sitting in the front row watches with a twinkle in her eye as each queen approaches her to take the dollar she’s holding out.
“Thank you, baby,” they say and give her a kiss on the cheek. Her smile splits her face from ear to ear.
When one performer throws the dollars in the air for flare, she’s the first to begin picking them up once the performance is over. She makes a basket out of her shirt and carries them over to Jayda Knight, who thanks her and wraps her in a big hug before planting a smooch on her cheek.
No matter your age, gender, sexual orientation, skin color or religion, everyone is welcomed with open arms into the big family.
“Jayda is all about love. If you can’t love yourself, how can you make anyone happy? My family and friends are very supportive of what I do,” Jayda Knight says. But not everyone is so lucky. That’s where Rhinestone Productions steps in to help those who want to perform but don’t have the means to or the support they need from the people around them.
“Everyone’s entitled to try it once,” Jayda, who is considered the mother of the family, says. “We want to encourage girls and help them develop their persona. We help find their inner diva and bring it out. It’s theater. It’s art.”
And it’s one big family.
“Alright ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to crown the new Miss Harrisonburg Newcomer.” All of the contestants were lined up waiting for the results, all visibly nervous. One of the other newcomers, Venom Vain, grabbed Lana Knight’s hand and holds it to her wrist so that Lana could feel her pulse.
My heart is racing!” Venom Vain says as she fans her face with her other hand. Taylor Morgan opens the envelope.
“In first place, with a total of $475 raised, is Lana Knight.”
Everyone cheers as Lana Knight was crowned and her sash pinned before spilling out onto the patio of the Dodger, ready for some fresh air and relief from the heat of the 100-plus bodies that had been packed in the tiny café.
“It was a lot of hard work, but it paid off,” Larry says, watching as Lana Knight snaps picture after picture. She’s wears her crown and sash with confidence. “I’m glad to say that I was at least a little part of that. I’m really proud of her.”