This Saturday, Emerald City Lounge will have its most spectacular drag show yet. The amazing Alyssa Edwards will grace the stage as the night’s headlining Queen. And joining her are some of the best and brightest Drag Queens in Champaign-Urbana.
If you’re anything like me, you might be wondering who Alyssa Edwards is and why Saturday’s show will be any more special than they always are. If that’s the case, if you’re wondering this, then, like me, you don’t watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. Considering all of the articles I’ve written for Smile Politely on drag shows in C-U, you’d think I’d watch RuPaul’s reality program. But, no, I do not. I don’t have a specific reason why. It’s just never … seriously, I don’t have a reason why I don’t watch it; I just don’t. Many, many people, however — both gay and straight — do watch this show. It’s enormously popular. I always know when it’s on — and I even know who’s been eliminated — because my Facebook newsfeed explodes with the cheers/outrage from so many of my friends.
So, who is Alyssa Edwards? She is the drag persona of Justin Johnson (not to be confused with our own Justin Johnson, a.k.a., Leiloni Stars). She is the former Miss Gay America 2010, and she also appeared in the award-winning 2008 documentary Pageant. But most people know Alyssa through her breakout (and fierce) performance in the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Alyssa was eliminated in episode 9, making her a 6th-place finalist in the competition overall.
Alyssa continues to work and perform all over the country, and even has a weekly digital series titled Alyssa Edwards’ Secret on Wow Presents, where she “spills the T on an array of topics.” She’s a busy lady, but she’s found time to come to our fair cities to show us what she’s got.
And this is happening thanks to Emerald City Lounge, and especially the wonderful Amy Ramirez (née, Myers), who works her butt off to get amazing dancers, entertainers, and even musicians to perform on Emerald City’s stage. I spoke with Amy recently at Café Kopi over damn good Jasmine tea and curried egg salad that had way too much onion.
Smile Politely: This is the second performer from RuPaul’s Drag Race to perform at Emerald City, correct?
Amy Myers Ramirez: Correct. Leiloni [Stars] was in charge of booking the first one, and I was in charge of booking Alyssa.
SP: Why Alyssa Edwards?
Ramirez: It started at Emerald City on Taco Tuesdays, where at 8:00 I’d show RuPaul’s Drag Race, and everyone would come out and have dinner and watch the show. And a friend of mine is dating Alyssa Edwards, so I talked to him, he talked to her, she talked to me, and that got the whole ball rolling. Why not do it? I talked to the owners of Emerald City and they were very happy to oblige with the financial backing and everything regarding the performance.
I know that I and some other people have driven to St. Louis, Chicago, and Indianapolis, so this is a big deal because it’s the first time that somebody like this has come to central Illinois. So now we can get people from Bloomington, Decatur, Springfield, Champaign, so people don’t have to drive to ‘the big city’ to see it.
SP: So the performers on RuPaul will drive all over the country and perform? Like musicians?
Ramirez: Yes. Oh yes! They go all over.
SP: So what can we expect from Alyssa? What kind of music does she perform to?
Ramirez: She has a single out called “Drop Dead Gorgeous.” She’s very high energy and I can’t wait to see what she’s going to bring to our stage.
SP: Will there be other performers on Saturday as well? And who’s MCing?
Ramirez: MCing will be a joint contribution from everybody. So along with Alyssa Edwards, we have Amaya StJames, Leiloni Stars, Aurora Lamont-Carrington, Kalasia Karmikal, Sienna Mann, and Celexus Carrington-Steele.
SP: All Queens on this night, no Kings?
Ramirez: All Queens, no Kings. High energy. I asked for no ballads. I want it all high energy performers.
SP: And drag, thanks to RuPaul, is becoming very mainstream, isn’t it? It’s not just for The Gays anymore, is it?
Ramirez: I want for all the shows that I do, and especially for this show … I want to promote it to the straight community because RuPaul’s Drag Race started off on Logo, which is the gay/lesbian television channel, and it eventually began airing on VH1, so a lot of straight people started watching the show and drag became more popular.
Emerald City is welcome to anybody at any time. I want it to be open to everybody. And they’re going to meet a star the likes of which they may have never seen before. I’m having a hard time reaching out to the straight community because I don’t know how to advertise to them, but I want it to be open to everybody.
SP: We have great drag shows at several venues in C-U, and I know that Emerald City has many events that aren’t focused on drag, but it seems to me that most of C-U’s drag culture occurs at Emerald City, whether it’s part of your Talent Night or your headlining shows.
Ramirez: We now have drag shows every Saturday night, each with a certain headliner. So that headliner is in charge of their own show, booking their own people.
SP: So that’s how it works.
Ramirez: That’s how it works. I hire the headliners and they hire their people, work within their budget, and put on the show. We have many new performers now who’ve signed on with us.
Our Talent Night has been moved to the last Friday of every month. That’s been moved so that we can offer high-quality drag every Saturday.
SP: So why do you think that drag culture is so popular? Drag Kings are exploding in popularity as well. At least they seem to be here in Champaign.
Ramirez: I started the King shows when I worked at Chester Street. I was the first one who brought them there. I used to MC them. So I was in charge of that, and the performers were very nice and high energy and full of life. And when I came to Emerald I talked to [owners] Keith and Tim about doing a King show, but they were a little reluctant about shows there at first because they had the Diva show every other month. But they’re open-minded, and they made some changes, and I became the show director, and now we do drag every Saturday.
Drag Kings are very important because I feel like, most often, a lot of groups are just for the men, especially in the gay community. So Drag King night is a special night for lesbians, for the ladies. Everyone is welcome of course, but I wish that more women came out to support these events. It’s very important to keep these nights going and to have events for the lesbians in our community. It’s much needed. If you look around, there’s no other lesbian night, ladies night, nothing in the queer community for lesbians. So this is important to me.
SP: When are your King shows?
Ramirez: The Drag King shows are the third Saturday of every month. We have new King entertainers, and they all have a lot to bring. I just gave Holden Ryder Gently his first show. He’ll be headlining on August 3rd. He’s got three Kings and three Queens for the show. He’s never had a show of his own before, so we’re going to see what he can deliver on the 3rd.
Drag is very important to me. I love the beauty of it, the art of it. I’ve performed drag; I usually perform on my birthday. For me, it’s about adopting an alter ego and having another personality for the five minutes that you’re on stage. I, personally, enjoy looking at people’s faces, making them laugh, knowing that I did a great job and entertained them. It’s just a great feeling.
It’s very important in Champaign, to me, because we’re all like family. Entertaining in drag is an art. It’s nothing to make fun of, it’s nothing to…
SP: It’s nothing to be derisive about.
Ramirez: Exactly. Diversity makes the world go ‘round. Each artist, each person is unique in their own way. It takes a lot of time and effort to put on the make up, get into character; it’s amazing.
And since RuPaul’s Drag Race came on TV, drag has blown up since then. Everybody’s watching it.
SP: I think that people have started changing their attitude and opinion of it, realizing that it’s not a caricature or stereotype. It’s an actual talent; it’s acting; it’s performance art.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed Justin Johnson (left) about drag, and we talked about the perceived notion that drag perpetuates a stereotype about women; it’s sexist and presents women in this glorified Barbie-type, and Justin had a lot of interesting things to say. But how do you, as a woman, respond to this?
Ramirez: I don’t think it’s sexist by any means. I think it’s an art and it’s about entertaining. It’s just something that people enjoy, both the spectators and the performers. And if the performers want to take the time to throw on the makeup and high heels and learn the number, then, baby, they got it.
SP: And you do drag as well. Do you feel like you’re channeling or perpetuating a stereotype of what a man should be?
Ramirez: Not at all. I go out and give my best performance. It’s all about entertaining people, making them smile, and putting on a good show so they’ll want to come back. I don’t want to be a man; I’m happy as a woman. But we also have our transsexual community and transgendered people, and there are trans people in the show. I have girls and guys and that’s becoming very popular these days…
Ramirez: Drag has a different meaning for everybody.
SP: So it truly is universal. Anyone can do it, no matter their orientation or gender or gender identity.
Ramirez: We do have people who say that trans people shouldn’t be allowed to do drag. Certain pageants won’t allow it.
SP: I can see an argument for that. If drag is one gender creating an illusion and performing as another gender, then perhaps men should only perform as women and vice versa. Trans men should, perhaps, only perform as females when they’re on stage. Hmm…
Ramirez: There is controversy, but I love all of our Queens and Kings and they are welcome to perform at Emerald City. I want everyone to feel comfortable. We’re one big happy family.
SP: It’s fun, not political.
Ramirez: Everyone at Emerald City gets along and we’re all great.
And you, dear readers, whether you’re gay, straight, bi, or trans are welcome to come out and be great with me, Amy, Alyssa, and everyone else at Emerald City Lounge this Saturday night, July 27, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $10, and you can go here for more information regarding reservations for VIP tables.