It’s an hour until curtain time at the annual Dragalicious fundraiser for Pride of Southern Utah. Performers like Karma Zabich, however, have been honing their fierce look all afternoon.
“Three hours, and we're still going,” she said. “It takes a lot of work to be a queen.”
Decked out in a black sparkle dress, white face makeup and an electric green wig, she leaned toward a mirror to put the finishing touches on her signature look: a beard of glitter.
Behind Zabich, performers crowd into a hotel hallway turned makeshift dressing room. A flurry of skintight bodysuits, flowing gowns and larger-than-life wigs dart back and forth in just about every color and style imaginable. Elegant velvet evening wear with gold sequins. Polyester polka dot pants. A space-age catsuit.
After a tumultuous year of drag controversies in St. George and beyond, nights like this take on new meaning.
“Queer events need to be protected, especially here in St. George with such a conservative community,” said Zabich, who goes by Jordan Aldrich out of drag. “We face a lot of backlash just in our daily lives. So when we have these events, it makes people feel safe.”
On the other side of the dressing room, St. George drag king Pauper Cherry topped off their black and yellow wig with a few final hits of hairspray before taking the stage with a stick-on handlebar mustache, hand-painted leather jacket and rhinestone-encrusted pants.
As someone who identifies as non-binary, Cherry noted they aren’t able to fully express themselves in the daily world. At a drag show, however, they can express “how I want to feel in an environment that is safe, that I'm surrounded by people who love and support me.”
In 2022, some St. George leaders pushed back against the plans of HBO’s “We’re Here” to film a drag event at Town Square Park. Then this spring, the city council denied a permit for a local drag show group to put on a public all-ages event. That decision was overruled in June by a federal judge, who said the denial was unconstitutional discrimination, and the show went on.
Cherry, who goes by Micah Barrick when not performing, said the stress and harassment that followed led them to step away from drag for months.
“In this climate, it's not easy being a drag performer,” Cherry said. “This night is a good celebration, not just for our community, but for me personally to be able to come back.”
Deseret News pointed to state data showing that there have been more hate crimes directed at the LGBTQ+ community in Utah this year — 63 reported so far —- than the past four years combined. The highest number of incidents were reported in Tooele, Utah and Davis counties.
Even large metropolitan areas like Salt Lake City have dealt with drag backlash. Early this year, local tea shop Tea Zaanti shut down its all-ages drag shows after the Proud Boys — a far-right hate group — showed up for an armed protest. The same weekend as the Dragalicious show in St. George, Salt Lake City bookstore The King’s English had to cancel a drag storytime event due to a bomb threat.
“It's not a new phenomenon,” said Nino Testa, an associate professor of women and gender studies at Texas Christian University. “It's part of a very American tradition of demonizing queer people.”
Testa described the nationwide panic about drag as just the latest wave in a long history of people trying to exclude queer joy from public life. But he said drag itself also has a long history — of helping LGBTQ+ communities endure.
In places like southwest Utah where there may not be as many visibly queer people, he said, drag becomes especially important.
“It can show that queer life can be glamorous and fun and beautiful and centered on community and connecting with those around you, as opposed to being a thing that you must experience in shame or isolation.”
Dragalicious was an adults-only show in a private space, so it didn’t draw as much public opposition as recent public shows, said Katie Methe, executive director of Pride of Southern Utah. Even so, a small handful of protestors still held signs outside by the road.
"It's been a roller coaster. We see a lot of incredible support come through from the community, and at the same time, we see an incredible amount of opposition come through from the community."
This show brought in roughly 350 attendees for the organization’s largest annual public fundraiser. Those funds support LGBTQ+ events, such as the Sept. 30 Pride in the Park festival in St. George.
And if the night introduced even just a few new people to what drag actually looks like, they said, that’s a win.
“The community is growing. Every year we see bigger numbers, we see more turnout,” Methe said. “It's just showing me that this community is changing.”
“Dance the Night,” Dua Lipa’s “Barbie” movie hit, pulsed as performers stepped out onto the stage in a swirl of spotlights. The packed house crowd in the dark St. George hotel ballroom roared, hitting a crescendo each time a drag queen or king made their grand entrance.
As the night went on, each performance showcased a wide range of styles under the drag umbrella.
Some “werked” up a sweat twirling and dropping down the aisles. Others opted for pageantesque lip sync routines to Adele’s “Hello” and Vanessa Williams’ “Colors of the Wind.” A couple of acts even resembled musical theater, complete with props and progressing storylines. The performers ran the gamut, too — from a white man in his 60s who’s been doing drag for nearly five decades to a transgender Latina in her early 20s.
Throughout the three-hour mélange of bodysuits, ballads and bouffants, the audience’s enthusiasm never seemed to wane — rising to wave rainbow-colored clack fans and dollar bill tips each time a performer wowed them.
As the show came to a close, performer Mitski Avalōx carried a white canvas off the stage. As part of her show, she painted it with a red-lettered message that matched the crimson alligator pleather heart strapped over her bodysuit.
It read “Drag is not a crime” — a reference to her ongoing discrimination lawsuit against the city of St. George for denying her entertainment group, Southern Utah Drag Stars, a show permit this spring.
The reality of being a drag performer in places like southwest Utah means “rebelling by existing,” she said. And the best way to push back against prejudice is to just keep showing up.
“People think that drag is coming from a big city, [but] drag is already here. It's your brother, your sister, your nephew, your niece,” Avalōx said. “Being able to give them a platform for them to be themselves and show the community that they are a part of the community is amazing. That's what I live for.”