A Photographic Journey

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Life Is But A Drag

The Academy of Washington, Inc. is not a prep school, nor a military institution. It's a haven for pageantry, make- believe and most of all, drag.

A mixture of glamour, ball gowns, sequins, attitude, vaudeville and beauty contests, the Academy, founded in 1961, also functions as a social and charitable organization within the gay community. Mostly, though, it's fun to watch: a look back at another era when red lipstick, tiaras and upswept hair dominated. Was there ever really such a  time?

The members belong to different "houses" or families. The families use the same last names, and the names are usually passed on from drag mother to drag daughter to drag granddaughter or, I guess since there are drag kings and men playing as men, drag sons. Sometimes the nomenclature eludes me. Some of the other members are named more fancifully. Among older members are classic movie star names like Fred McMurray or Lucille Ball. The grande dame is named Mame Dennis, after Patrick Dennis' infamous aunt. But mostly there are a plethora of "family" names: Colbys, Childs, Garretts, Blakes and others. The houses are virtual- Beekman Place is a reference from Auntie Mame, and Addison Road was named after a long- time member.

Most Sunday afternoons during the fall, winter and spring, the Academy assembles at Zeigfeld's, the venerable dance/ drag show club near the baseball stadium. There is usually a theme: the Royal Ball, the Zodiac Contest, the coronation of Miss Gaye Universe (DC). Glamour is the watchword. The shows are full of earnest pageantry, sincerely presented to an appreciative crowd. There is a flag procession, the Star- Spangled Banner is sung, people rise and hold their hands over their hearts. The queens comport themselves as true royalty, they are perfectly coiffed, their make-up is carefully applied, from curved plucked eyebrows to manicured nails, their skin is smooth and their custom made dresses are cut to enhance their shapely (false) curves. They are enticing specimens of femininity, and they are all men.

A dedicated member like Veronica Blake or Tula can spend as much as $10,000.00 a year on dresses, hair and accessories. Men perform as well as women, but these men usually wear decorated clothing- hats covered in sequins, or jackets painted in outrageous colors. Personally, I don't really get a guy lip- synching to some country western hit, but when I mentioned this to one of the queens, she replied, coolly, "He's a great talent, and he really worked on that outfit." Oops. Or when I saw a guy dressed head to toe as a biker in immaculate leather and said, what the hell is that outfit about, I was told, "He's a wonderful person. He's raised hundreds for charity." I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut.

I'd like to thank the lovely Veronica Blake for opening a lot of doors, and for her support of this project. She is dedicated to the Academy, and sets an exemplar of glamour that any biological woman would admire. She returned all my e-mails right away, and provided the assistance I needed to navigate these strange (to me, that is) waters. I'd also like to thank everyone who let me take their picture. I do not take that for granted, especially in this day and age. I hope they like the results.

I also want to thank the Academy itself for providing a glimpse into the classic world of glamour. Going there is like being, I think, at the Copacabana or the some other bygone club from the forties or fifties, where women drank cocktails, smoked cigarettes in holders and wore feathers and gowns.

Only now, the women are men and the cigarettes are smoked outside.

Even though I felt like Chandler’s tarantula on the wedding cake (from Farewell, My Lovely), I loved every minute of it.

Technical: Canon GII, available light, RAW originals, Lightroom, Photoshop finishes
All photographs ©2011 Breton Littlehales

Miss Gaye Universe (DC) Sarah Lee Garrett


Mame Dennis

Veronica Blake


Anonymous said...

This is great, thanks Bret for doing this. Danielle Devereaux

Unknown said...

Although only two were mentioned, we have three very active "Houses" in The Academy - in addition to Beekman Place and Addison Road, we also have Henry Street. We have a wide variety of "families" and "family names" like Adams, Stephyns, Dennis, Couture, Lee, and Lansbury. some children take the last names of their "drag parents" and some have their own names.

Thanks for the wonderful posting Bret. It was a joy to work with you and have you at our events with your camera. Please come back and visit us.

Unknown said...

I love the pictures and all that you had to say about it....Bravo on the great pics too.

Sarah Lee Garrett said...

Thank you for your photos. I think you've done a wonderful job of portraying us in a positive light. I hope we see many more in the future.

Keily Levy said...

These photos are fabulous. I liked the article too.

Angela S said...

Fabulous! Love these images Bret.

AJ Turner said...

Bret: Thank you for this wonderful write up. Your on point and helped "shine a Spotlight" on the idea of dress up and make believe on a Sunday Afternoon.

As one of the "Men" of The Academy it is the same for us. During our work week we can't wear some of outfits and costumes that we wear at our functions. But more than that we are there to support each other. orginizations and our "Drags" do what they do best...share an Illusion!!

Thank you for Sharing!!!

NE fotoman said...

Great pics Bret

Bambi Jozet Adams said...

Thanks so much I love the pictures if everyone including myself!