Her golden-blonde hair rests on the collar of her black sweater, and her soft side bangs brush the thin, silver frame of her glasses. She smiles. Her lips are full and painted a deep, dusty-rose shade of pink. She sits, hands folded together with a shiny gold band on each ring finger, waiting for the others to arrive.
Nikki Fenmore, a woman who was born a man, led a panel discussion entitled “The Art of Drag” with Syracuse University students Monday. The 41-year-old Syracuse native works as a hairdresser by day and performs as a drag queen every Thursday night at the downtown Rain Lounge’s college night.
Nearly 30 people attended Monday’s event, “The Art of Drag,” hosted by the LGBT Arts & Activism programming series, in the basement of Shaw Hall. The panel included a single queen, Nikki, and two drag kings: Windz, from Rochester and Miles Long, from SU. The event served as a precursor to SU’s upcoming Totally Fabulous Drag Show, the campus’s annual talent competition for drag kings and queens.
An informal workshop following the discussion allowed panelists to share makeup and performance tips with aspiring drag kings and queens. Nikki taught students about stage makeup and the importance of lip-liner. Windz showed how to apply sideburns to get a more masculine look, before giving an impromptu performance that included Justin Timberlake and Ne-Yo.
For Nikki, her life as a “she” began 21 years ago at Christmas time, when Nikki’s friends decided to give her the gift of drag. She had performed in the apartment of her two male friends, who were also friends of a local drag queen and they decided it was time for “Nikki” to give it a try. “They dressed me up and I loved it,” she said. She danced and lip-synched to Jane Child’s “I don’t want to fall in love,” at a talent show. She almost won. “I would have won if the winner didn’t win,” she says, laughing. “I was good.”
When performing, Nikki opts for big hair, full makeup and false lashes. She describes her look today (blue-jeans, a cowl-neck sweater, simple makeup) as boring for her. She takes stage-style inspiration from sexy celebrities like Pamela Anderson, who, to Nikki, personify beauty. “They’re dumb, but they’re beautiful,” she says, and giggles.
Nikki also loves the look of Lady Gaga because “she just does whatever she wants,” Nikki says. (She loved Gaga’s spacey, Armani dress she wore to this year’s Grammys, and Nikki’s current favorite Gaga song is “Teeth”). Nikki will perform “Teeth” and songs by Kesha and Carrie Underwood, as the host of this year’s Totally Fabulous Drag Show. She advises aspiring drag queens to really work at it. “Don’t just throw makeup on. You have to do more than a woman does. You have to accentuate your face,” she says.
For Nikki, drag is not just cross-dressing. It takes research, energy and practice to truly represent the artist whose music she performs to.
“It’s a good art form, and a good way to express yourself if that’s what you’re into."
The Totally Fabulous Drag Show preliminaries are Feb. 11, tickets available at the Schine Box Office; the final competition is Feb. 19, tickets also at Schine.