In class, Franky Canga was having trouble with the lip syncing. Canga, whose drag name is the mononymous "Franky," had studied dance, so he felt comfortable onstage. But he couldn't seem to nail the lyrics to the song he'd chosen to perform: the staccato rap "Bling Bling," by Junglepussy.
"The ending verse, she essentially does eight bars in, like, 25 seconds. It's like, spit fire, spit fire. And that was the only part of the song I could not get," Canga notes ruefully.
Lip syncing is just one practicum offered by New Orleans Drag Workshop. Its students (men — and, occasionally women) study drag, the gender-bending performance art that experiments with notions of beauty and identity.
Founder and head "mister-ess" Vinsantos DeFonte says his workshop is one of the most intensive of its kind. Its cycles run for 10 weeks and culminate in a full-scale "draguation" performance at Allways Lounge. The next event, for graduates of the workshop's sixth cycle, takes place June 19.
DeFonte started the workshop after moving to New Orleans and finding drag nights that were very different from those in San Francisco, where he spent years doing experimental and avant-garde drag at a monthly event called Trannyshack. In New Orleans, he discovered somewhat more conservative, femme-leaning drag shows "steeped in tradition and these long lineages of family," he says.
"Growing up, I was always immersed in the alternative drag scene," DeFonte adds. "Boys, girls, trans people, everybody mixed together. Gender wasn't really the point of our drag. The point was really just to express ourselves, and to be someone that we weren't in our daily lives."
In organizing the New Orleans Drag Workshop, DeFonte wanted to cultivate drag that was more in line with his existing sensibilities, but he discovered something different and unexpected — a diverse and enthusiastic array of aspiring drag artists, all with their own conceptions of who they wanted to be.
"People came into the workshop and said, 'I want to look like Christina Aguilera.' ... I really encourage them to keep an open mind and be flexible, because we're discovering these characters as we go along," DeFonte says.
Joining New Orleans Drag workshop isn't easy. There's a surprisingly intensive, multi-step application process involving written responses and in-person interviews, and there isn't enough room for everyone. DeFonte says he always has to turn people away.
For those who make the cut, there's much to learn, especially for people who don't have much experience with makeup or wig styling. (Imagine cramming an entire lifetime of knowledge of the feminine grooming arts into 10 weeks.) But DeFonte stresses that his classes are much more than learning about hip pads and makeup contouring techniques to change the shape of the face. Instead, students focus on creating a unique character and learning to embody that character with poise and stage presence.
- Photo by Roy Guste
- Cycle 4 Draguation curtain call.
In drag, people often transcend their typical gender presentation and physical form, expanding the boundaries of their identities. DeFonte says it can be really effective in helping people over- come self-confidence and body- image issues.
He knows his students have made it when he sees them "bust out" onstage.
"Probably the biggest thing is being completely free in front of an audience ... just opening themselves up to trying new things," he says. "The biggest challenge is letting go."
Canga, the drag student, wouldn't overcome his lip syncing problem until "draguation," when he aced his performance just as he realized a strobe light would have concealed any wobbly parts of his "vocals."
But the biggest learning curve, he says, came at the beginning. It took him eight or nine years to get up the courage to do drag in the first place, overcoming "insecurities and childhood fears" and concerns about his family's misconceptions.
"Certain family members [thought] that drag was sort of my easy way to transition to becoming a woman," he says. "That's true for some people, but it wasn't necessarily true for me. It's an art form. I get to dress up; I get to throw colors on myself."
- Photo by Roy Guste
- Miss Pageant Pageant contestants prepare for their performances.
When he came to the workshop for his first drag experiences, Canga envisioned his character as a take-no-crap hip-hop type in big hoop earrings, the kind of girl who knows how to hotwire her boyfriend's car. But through the workshop and beyond, he's uncovered someone different, and (to his surprise) more androgynous.
"I like the idea now that 'Franky' kind of either blurs gender or erases it," he says. "I've intentionally been rocking this bald look, because what I do [onstage] is very hyper-feminine. ... It's super-sensual, very sexual attire that I wear, but there's no hair, so there is a kind of masculinity to it."
Though DeFonte says not everyone comes to the workshop with a plan to become a working drag queen, many "draguates" do go on to careers onstage. Since finishing the workshop, Canga has been working gigs at clubs like One Eyed Jacks and Rare Form. He's also preparing an audition for RuPaul's Drag Race and learning about drag as a business.
Some of his discoveries: Gigs can pay well — especially in out-of-town markets such as Los Angeles — but for starting artists there's a lot of up-front investment. The workshop itself has a registration fee of about $100, but there's almost no end to the amount of money one can spend on makeup and costumes; a pair of shoes that will last five or six shows easily can cost $300 to $400. Gigs also call for a maddening amount of administrative work, ranging from booking details with venues to submitting music to collecting payments.
And, of course, there's the time it takes to transform into one's character, a process that's both physical and mental. Four hours before the start of a gig, Canga likes to begin by putting on a disco playlist. Then he'll mix a cocktail and sit in front of the mirror to sculpt his brows.
He spends the hours that follow becoming "Franky."
"People think it's easy. They say, 'I could throw on a wig and a dress,'" he says. "[But] there's tucking, there's padding, there's makeup, there's shaving. ... There is a lot of work that goes before having to go onstage for five minutes."