The clock strikes twelve and I’m perched on a stool in the dimly lit basement of Break for the Border, a fresh pint in hand. Another electro-pop anthem begins its bassy intro and a couple from the group beside me jump and scream as the beat kicks in, booty shaking and bopping their heads from side to side like the sassy black women they aren’t. Above the stage hangs a single makeshift curtain and a banner printed with the words ‘DRAGGED UP’.
The crowd seems as earnest as I am: some sip their drinks and stare intently at the stage, others like me flick their eyes only occasionally towards the dim light for signs of life. Admittedly, mine go more often to my watch. I stare at a six foot three blonde wig making its way to the bar, and will these disorganised queens to get their voluptuously padded asses out of the dressing room and onto the stage. Come on Haus of Edwards — I’m sure there are other people in here who would like to be tucked up in bed by about half past two. I scan the room again. Maybe not.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with Haus of Edwards, they are trio of American drag performers: wonderfully narcissistic, loud-mouthed, and undeniably fabulous contenders of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. What’s Ru Paul’s Drag Race, you ask? It’s basically America’s Next Top Model for cross-dressers but without Tyra Bank’s tiresome ‘smizing’ and way more addictive catchphrases. ‘ConDRAGulations’, and ‘sashay away’ are two of my favourites, so I’ll give you those for free.
Across three separate seasons these veterans of the show respectively competed, none of them crowned, but each rising to international fame with plenty of shade-throwing and melodramatic rivalries tossed in for good measure. And here I am, about to see them live in all their glory, with two girls from work who have no idea what’s going on, but are soaking it all in anyway.
At about twenty past midnight there is a shift in the lights and a flutter in the audience. The larger-than-life Pixie Woo struts onto the stage and begins her first warm-up number: not singing of course, but lip-syncing. Fascinated and amused, my colleague whips out her phone and starts filming. The crowd dances and sings along enthusiastically, I assume they’re all feeling the same relief as I am: the hour and 20 minute wait is over.
The song finishes, and the tension mounts. There’s a burst of whooping applause with the introduction and ‘Bang Bang’ pulses out of the speakers. One by one, Alyssa Edwards, Laganja Estranja, and Shangela storm out looking fierce, lustrous locks flowing, face and body contouring that would put Kim K to shame. My colleagues laugh at me as a big smile breaks over my face and I clutch my hands to my chest, I’m genuinely delighted to be here.
Those who have paid to stand in the small barriered VIP section up the front get a great view of the limber Laganja doing her gymnastic splits and death drops. I can’t help but feel hard-done-by for being left out of the action. The two-tiered pricing makes sense to me now. When we arrived, there was an impressive queue winding around the corner and up the adjacent street, a line which we gratefully skipped because we were holding standard tickets; others, who gained access for a pricier fare, queued for about an hour. But it makes sense, you pay a little more, you get a little closer.
A couple more lip-sync numbers ensue, and I bop along, sipping my third pint, wishing for something else to happen. Alyssa Edwards takes a minute to talk passionately about being proud of the person you are, a central tenet of Drag Race, and one I think is worth offering up. Then someone else with a shaved head skips on for a lip-and-chin wag and it’s time for a smoking break.
We climb the stairs to the outer patio and breathe in the cool air. I ask a hulking ginger biker to take our picture when I notice he’s holding one of the stamped red cups that the hour-queuers are toting around inside. I ask him whether he’s here to see the show. “Oh yeah,” he replies, “my girlfriend loves it.” He takes a drink and I discreetly inspect his prison tattoos. “We went to another one over in England and she met the performers backstage.” And what’s with the cup? I say. “All you can drink refills for the night.” One last question and I excuse myself before asking. How much does that cost? “40 euro” he says. Worth it? This guy looks like he could make it so, but I don’t remember that option on the price list.
We make our way back downstairs where the music is still blasting, and Shangela’s onstage for an impassioned solo effort that reminds me of the last moments of Drag Race: the bottom two queens, desperate to stay in the competition, perform a ‘Lip-Sync For Your Life’ battle (cue Ru Paul wearing a gigantic peroxide wig and peering past the camera with wide-eyed intensity).
This is possibly the most emotional part of the show. Faced with elimination, each woman clings to the chance of winning. It occurs to me what is absent from this performance that I expected, or at the very least what I had hoped to see. The skits, the impressions, the reading and the shade-throwing aren’t there. Instead, it feels like a rehash of the last two minutes of any episode. The creative and comedic ingredients that are such a fundamental part of the show are limp and lacking. And when it comes down to it, the whole set up smacks a bit of dressed-up money-grubbing.
It’s 2.10am and we step outside. The night is still. Nearby pubs are shutting their doors, but inside the party is showing no signs of dying down. I walk home with my ears ringing slightly and consider the possibility that I’m being too critical. I could have paid more money and stood closer to the stage. I might have chosen to see comedy queens instead of pageant queens for a bit more personality and comedic value — maybe I will, Alaska Thunderfuck plays in May.
I later check out some shaky live videos on You Tube of the notoriously quick-witted Bianca Del Rio doing her tour routine. It’s a totally different kind of show — a hilarious, thoroughly un-PC piss-take of what I have just seen. That’s more my kind of thing. My first try has a been a mild disappointment, but I’m not ready to sashay away just yet. Every drag queen has her style, and every fan their preference, so I’ll keep looking for one I like. My next stop? Pantibar.