Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Durham News in 2014.
If you want to see Vivica C. Coxx perform, you normally have to catch her late-night show in downtown Durham.
If you wanted to see her perform at the Durham County Library last week, you just had to be one of the first 176 people in before they closed the doors, leaving another 40 people in the lobby.
It was standing room only for “The History and the Art of Drag.” The lecture by Michelle Robinson, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, and four drag performances drew a record crowd to the library.
Not that organizers didn’t expect some critics.
“We had security close by,” said Gina Rozier, the library’s marketing and development manager. But, despite a complaint that day, no protesters showed up.
“When the first group of senior citizens walked in, the officer said, ‘Are those the protesters?’” Rozier said.
“I said, ‘No, those are our fans.’”
Justin Clapp, 30, has finished his day at Duke, where he works with first-generation and low-income college students, and returned to the Elizabeth Street home he shares with husband Joseph Lee. The couple, together six years, got married in New Mexico in May.
He sits at his dining room table, a battery of blushes, powders and lipsticks spread out in front of a small square mirror.
“I played in my mom’s closet; I really did,” he says as he pulls a black wig cap over his red tufted hair.
He’s dressed up ever since.
He dabs his eyebrows with spirit gum. It gets sticky as it dries and lets him apply eyebrow plastic, which he can then layer with foundation to conceal his natural brows.
Behind him, the lace appliqué mermaid dress he had custom made hangs from the top of a door. His shoes, black and silver sequin peep-toe pumps, will add three inches to his 5-foot, 11-inch frame.
It took time to create Vivica, he says and adds, “I don’t think she’s done being created.”
He still remembers the advice he got early on.
“The first thing I did was listen to what the more-seasoned drag queen that was performing that night said, which was “Don’t be afraid, find comfortable shoes and learn how to sew.”
He already knew how to sew.
‘The difference between a drag queen and a female impersonator is a tricky one,” Robinson tells the library crowd.
“The female impersonator, we might say, is doing drag,” she explains. “But the drag queen is doing more. A drag queen can be larger than life, can be spellbinding .... an extraordinary person with an extraordinary life.”
Robinson, an assistant professor of American studies, gives a brief history of drag in the 20th and 21st centuries. The word “drag” comes from the literal drag on a gown as it sweeps across the floor.
In the 1860s, minstrel performer Rollin Howard became famous for female blackface impersonations. At the end of the shows, the performers removed their wigs to reveal their true gender, she says, “restoring order.”
In the early 1900s, Bert Savoy became a huge burlesque star, performing as a red-haired harlot. Mae West borrowed heavily, turning his line “You must come over” into her signature, “Come up and see me sometime.”
The 1950s challenged drag queens. Laws in some cities dictated men’s club attire and police raids rounded up offenders.
By the end of the decade, though, drag had gone Hollywood, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis donning dresses in “Some Like It Hot,” while the ‘60s made a star of Divine, in director John Waters’ cult classics “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble” (and as Ricki Lake’s mother Edna Turnblad in the 1988 version of Waters’ “Hairspray.”)
And then came RuPaul, Robinson says, the recording artist, reality show host (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”) and LGBT activist, who has said, ‘You’re born naked, and all the rest is drag.”
But famous or not, because they create their persona, drag queens pose a provocative question, she explains:
“What would the world be like if every individual had the prerogative to determine how the world saw them?”
Taking the stage
Vivica takes the library stage, but the lights aren’t working.
“You don’t need to see me to love me,” she ad libs. “But when you do see me, you will love me.” The audience laughs.
“This is absolutely amazing,” she continues, as the lights come up. “It’s not often as a drag performer you get to walk into a library.”
The performance briefly stumbles again, however, when drag queen Vivian Vaughn from Carrboro starts to perform. This time it’s the audio and she has to lip sync through a rock number with the sound fading in and out.
“So we just learned one of the important things about being a drag queen,” Vivica says as she retakes the stage.
“When someone throws you a lemon – throw it back harder!”
She takes questions to fill time.
“Tell us about your jewels!” someone shouts.
“Honey, I bought them,” she says, and waits for some in the crowd to get the joke.
“No, seriously,” she continues. “I saw them. I liked them. I paid. There are some drag queens that won’t pay, but my momma raised me right.”
The sound gets fixed and Durham drag king Spray J., in purple coat and ruffled shirt, kills a Prince medley. Jazmine Brooks of Raleigh follows, lip syncing Patti Labelle’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” complete with little bird wing flaps.
And, to show a faulty sound system can’t keep a good diva down, Vaughn returns with a second number, slinking up the center aisle in skin-tight leopard skin.
Then the room darkens and Vivica re-emerges in a red and black plaid 50s rockabilly swing dress and new blonde wig, bangs swooping over inch-long lashes.
The voice is Jennifer Hudson’s, but it’s as if it’s coming out of Vivica, whose lip quiver mimics Hudson’s vibrato. A stunned audience applauds.
The song builds. Vivica, who’s already run up and down the aisle half a dozen times, climbs back on stage and, as the music peaks, lands a full split.
The crowd goes wild.
‘Durham is different’
“Durham loves its drag queens,” Clapp says, “because I think Durham is different.”
“(For a long time) we didn’t really have gay clubs. We didn’t have any LGBT spaces in downtown, but gay people still existed, and we still felt welcome in a lot of places.”
Clapp hadn’t told his boss about Vivica until the day of the library performance. Her response? “Oh, can I come see your show?”
Drag queens are larger than life, Clapp agrees, but it’s more than that.
“I think Vivica gives me license to say things in public I wouldn’t say as myself,” he explains. “Vivica is political in that she believes everyone deserves a place, and she will sometimes take a stand on that.”
But what happens to drag queens when gay goes mainstream?
“I do think being gay has become less subversive,” Clapp says, “which I think is interesting, sad and awesome.”
But Vivica is pretty awesome too, he says, and drag queens can perform as long as they apply their foundation.
“I think Vivica is limitless,” he says. “But I do not know where we’re going yet.”
Mark Schultz: 919-829-8950