Drag's transformative power reaches New London

Harry Cruz, 23, of Waterford checks his wig in the mirror in the dressing room of O'Neill's Brass Rail in New London on Friday, July 20, 2018, while preparing to perform as his drag persona, Bella Daleadho. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Harry Cruz, 23, of Waterford checks his wig in the mirror in the dressing room of O'Neill's Brass Rail in New London on Friday, July 20, 2018, while preparing to perform as his drag persona, Bella Daleadho. (Tim Cook/The Day)

It’s midnight at O’Neill’s Brass Rail in New London, and wigs are flying. Four drag queens, packed into a tiny dressing room, are quickly making last-minute costume changes before re-taking the stage. Through drops of sweat, stiletto boots are zipped, corsets are tied, and fallen eyelashes are re-applied. One drag queen smears fake blood down her chest. Another glues a wig to her head. The smell of liquid latex fills the room. A cloud of hairspray hovers above. A techno beat playing over the sound system pulses through the air. Last-minute jitters plague some of the queens, while others delicately fan themselves between gasps for air.

“This is what I live for,” says queen Bella Daleadho, speaking loudly above the frenzied backstage bustle. “This is what it’s all about.”

Even in New London's small but burgeoning drag scene, a night as queen is pure adrenaline — especially now, as drag is turning into a vessel for self-expression for both queens and those in their audience. More than ever, drag, it seems, is in its "golden age."

Readying herself for her second appearance, Bella quickly looks in the mirror with a smoldering stare, swings her wig, which runs the length of her torso, from side to side, and steps behind the makeup-stained curtain that cordons dressing room from stage. With the drop of Cardi B’s “I Like It,” Bella is strutting onstage, ready to tear down the house.

Only hours prior, Bella was her alter ego, Harry Cruz — a 23-year-old New London native who attends Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, majors in visual fine arts, works part-time and lives with his boyfriend in Waterford.

He’s the type of guy who, on a muggy July day, likes to wear shorts, Birkenstocks and a T-shirt (though sometimes he accompanies such outfits with a pair of white, wide-rimmed sunglasses with bright pink lenses for flair). He’s also the type of guy who blushes when talking about his passions, which include art and fashion, and dreams of living in New York City as a designer. He is appropriately idealistic for his age, as well as incredibly polite, offering to pay for a coffee and earnestly listening to those who speak to him.

At the same time, Cruz has always been a boundary pusher. As a student at New London High School, he would wear makeup and heels. He was captain of the cheer team and president of the art club. In the fall of his senior year, he was nominated homecoming queen. The following spring, he was chosen as prom king. And though Cruz never minded being in the spotlight, he says he’s always known how to balance his softer self with characteristics reminiscent of his drag persona, Bella Daleadho.

“I know how and when to turn on the sassy, the intensity that is Bella,” he says.

As Bella, Cruz is a dominating force. It’s often in the dead of night and in the depths of New London’s gay scene that Cruz will appear in his other form — an androgynous amalgamation of Cardi B, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé. And it’s here where, in a matter of minutes, he can have a crowd twerking, screaming and thrusting dollar bills onto the floor before him. He’ll sashay, strut and drop-split his way across the stage while wearing six-inch platform heels — a transformation that always feels like pure magic.

In the physical sense, that transformation typically starts four hours before a scheduled performance. It begins with carefully pinning back the hair and ends with putting on platform heels.

“I start by blocking my brows out with glue and go over them with liquid latex,” says Cruz while standing before his bathroom mirror that same night, making tweaks to his brows, which are now arched high onto his forehead. “Once I feel good about my eyes, I just start going into my face. I start caking it up with creams and all that good stuff.”

Ten-gallon storage bins filled with makeup are strewn about his beige bathroom. Just-released hits from The Carters play over a computer sitting in the living room.

But even after several layers of foundation have been applied and his eyes have been amplified, Cruz is still talking like his everyday self — worrying, for instance, about an upcoming exam and the work week ahead of him, the usual things that make up his everyday life. But it’s the small feminine mannerisms, such as a quick flick of the wrist or a seductive glare into the mirror, that start to steadily take over. Cruz is slowly transforming into Bella Daleadho, luxuriating in the process.

“It isn’t until I put on my padding (to accentuate his hips) and corset that I really feel like a woman,” says Cruz. “That’s when I truly become Bella.”

A channel for self expression

Cruz is a relatively new face in the New London drag scene — a subculture that has had a steady presence in the city’s underground for decades. Formerly housing itself in the now-defunct Frank’s Place throughout the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, the scene eventually relocated itself to O’Neill’s as Frank’s underwent new management in 2004 and officially closed in 2015.

As O'Neill's began to gradually re-establish itself as a gay bar in 2004, the two establishments became local hotspots for the art form, hosting drag events geared towards different audiences. While Frank's attracted more established performers and older clientele, O'Neill's hosted up-and-coming queens, garnering a younger following. In those years, there have been two primary "O'Neill's Queens": Victoria Adams and Kiki Sheppard. Aside from performing regularly at the bar, both have also helped to bring in new and emerging talent to the Whaling City, including Cruz.

Incidentally, however, it seems that Cruz's entrance into the New London scene came at the precise moment when locally, as well as internationally, drag has been in the midst of its own transformation.

That's been due in large part to the VH1 hit reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” an “America’s Next Top Model” for drag queens. Though the show has been airing since 2009 on Logo, its 2017 switch to the VH1 network has helped put drag into the international limelight, creating a ripple effect through drag communities as large as New York and as small as New London.

Kiki Sheppard, a queen from a nearby town who requested not to have her real name used, said she has witnessed recent shifts in New London's drag culture, both in openness and form of expression — a likely outgrowth from "Drag Race." Channeling an ever-shifting LGBTQ culture, O'Neill's began to host performances "from artists who convey messages through poetry, song and various dance forms," and not necessarily "through vogue"-ing (a style of dance originating from '80s drag culture).

"When I started, it was whatever song you want to perform," Kiki says. "Now there (have been) theme nights in the last few years, annual parties, collaboration in shows. 'Drag Race' brought about lip-sync battles, and challenges."

From Cruz's perspective, "Drag Race" not only told gay youths such as himself that it was OK to experiment with and explore their feminine interests, but also that drag could be something other than a hyper-realistic idea of femininity or stereotyped pageantry, which is often perceived with the art form. Instead, drag could be a self-expression of one’s creative interests through performance, as well as an invitation for audiences from any background to let loose, have fun and be whoever they want to be in that space.

As a master of commanding a crowd and inspiring confidence in his spectators, Cruz can take an initially timid group, standing along the periphery of the room, and quickly bring them to the edge of the stage. His energetic dance routines as well as his raunchy humor will, at first, prime them for fun, but it’s when he invites some onstage that the room transforms. Suddenly, even the most reserved will strut and twerk alongside Cruz, all under raining dollar bills.

“I’m a man standing onstage dressed as a woman,” he says. “If I can do that confidently, they too can be the person they want to be in that moment. The point, really, is to always have fun.”

Drag as art

Drag, as a performance art, has had a long and varied history, dating as far back as the 16th century when male Shakespeare performers would dress as women to portray female roles. Drag as a form of expression, however, started to gain underground popularity throughout the 20th century and, later, greater mainstream popularity with the release of films such as "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" in 1975 and "The Birdcage" in 1996.

Primarily impacted by RuPaul’s form of modern drag culture, Bella has sculpted herself as an androgynous queen that works with and against gender norms and stereotypes. As an example, Bella is intensely feminine, swinging her hips and long hair during performances. At the same time, she incorporates a full beard into her appearance — a dramatic dichotomy that lightheartedly pokes at conventional appearances.

“Drag is anything you want it to be,” Cruz says, while explaining the many other forms drag can take. “Drag for me is a combination of all my interests. It’s where I can bring my interests in fashion, makeup, art, design, performance, all into one. It’s that place where I can happily explore those other aspects to myself.”

Even though Cruz has been dabbling in drag for some years, it was just in January when he made his New London debut as Bella, hosting weekly “Drag Race,” viewing parties at O’Neill’s. The gigs were set up by his drag manager Sky Casper, the same person who organizes the monthly Pink Eggs and Glam Drag Brunch at New London’s Social Bar + Kitchen (another drag event that’s helped shape New London’s scene outside of O’Neill’s).

The two met in early 2017 when Casper started hosting drag competitions geared towards Connecticut-based queens. It was here where Cruz not only started to further develop Bella’s personality but also where he met other queens trying to push their personas in new and exciting directions.

Among Cruz’s contemporaries, or “sisters” as he calls them, Cruz is close with Rashawn Lee, aka Robin Fierce, a fish queen (meaning a queen that convincingly passes as a woman) from West Hartford who embodies a personality that feels like a cross between Naomi Campbell and Michelle Obama, and Sawyer Hurst, aka Lotus, an alternative-theatrical queen from Cheshire who likes to experiment with “Carrie” impressions, Catholic motifs and fake blood. Both have performed in New London over recent months, bringing other “sisters,” and their individual interpretations of drag, to perform, as well.

Becoming Bella

Cruz’s fascination with the female form began at a young age. Since he was 6, Cruz says he enjoyed playing with dolls. But it was Bratz Dolls, with their hyper-feminized appearances, as well as drawing female figures with accentuated waists and hips, that inspired him most.

As a teenager attending New London High School, Cruz’ interests in costuming, hair and makeup only grew, especially as he watched “America’s Next Top Model” and “Drag Race.” He started incorporating “Drag Race” clothing and makeup challenges into self-designed costumes. On spirit days, Cruz would show up to school in all-gold outfits or in dresses made from newspaper. On other days, Cruz would put on a dash of mascara, or some lip gloss, for special school events, such as a class field trip. One time, he decided to come to school in a pair of heels that his father bought for him.

“Some people made fun of me on Tumblr after that, but a lot praised me for what I did. I never let the fear of truly expressing who I am get the best of me,” he says.

His decision to become a drag queen, then, didn’t spur from an aha moment, but rather from a steady culmination of his interests over many years. And though his decision (which he made in 2015, shortly after graduating high school in 2013) didn’t surprise those who were close with him, it also hasn’t been without its challenges. Besides preferring not to broach the subject with his family (whom he describes as “old school Pentecostal Puerto Rican” but who are also supportive of his sexuality), he has had to navigate his passions in a hometown where many people know him.

“I remember I had to do a photo shoot when I first started performing and the photographer asked if I could do the shoot on the New London pier, and I was so scared that someone I would know would see me,” Cruz says, though he has since overcome such fears. “Doing this, in the beginning, was difficult. People don’t really understand why you want to do this.”

For example, Cruz says people assume that because he is a drag queen that he is also transgender.

“No, I’m not transgender,” he says, while explaining that transgender drag queens are not the norm in drag culture (though they exist). Most queens, he says, are simply gay and happily identify as male.

“I have no desire to become a woman. I am comfortable with my gender. I like being a boy. Drag is just a way for me to express another side of myself, for a couple of hours here or there, every week or so,” he says.

"Drag has made me more confident in myself," he says. "It is the fullest expression of who I am. I can do whatever I want, I can say whatever I want. When I'm Bella, I can be whoever I want."

m.biekert@theday.com

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