"I'm 2 tons of fun of twisted steel and sex appeal!"
That's Miss Darienne Lake's tagline, and it's a good description of the Rochester drag diva. Darienne — given name Gregory Meyer — has been performing in the Rochester area for 22 years. She is almost as much of an institution as the regional amusement park that inspired her name. And now, at age 41, Darienne is poised to hit the big time as she makes her debut as a competitor in the sixth season of Logo TV's "RuPaul's Drag Race," premiering on Monday, February 24.
Actually, you could argue that Darienne has already arrived. Since she was officially announced as a member of the cast back in December, Darienne has amassed more than 4,000 followers on Twitter, and she has already started performing across the country. Her YouTube video covering RuPaul's song "Lick It Lollipop," released in early February, had more than 23,000 views after two weeks. And that's before a single second of Darienne's "Drag Race" season has aired.
That is the power of "Drag Race," a reality TV show produced and hosted by drag superstar RuPaul Charles that has grown from humble, low-budget beginnings to a pop-cultural phenomenon. Each season of the show sees considerable growth in ratings — 2013's fifth-season premiere nabbed more than 1 million viewers — and has inspired a rabid fan base that blogs, vlogs, and Tumbles virtually every facet of the show. The series has had a profound impact on drag culture, bringing it into mainstream America, and arguably making the form of entertainment more popular than ever.
The Rochester drag scene already knows the benefit of the show's reach. Formerly local performer Pandora Boxx — one of Darienne's "drag children" — came in fifth in the show's second season back in 2010, and became hugely popular with viewers. Within a year she moved to Los Angeles, and since then has appeared on several "Drag Race" spin-offs, has been cast in guest roles on network sitcoms, launched stand-up comedy and performance careers, and now hosts her own "Drag Race" video recap show.
Will Darienne experience the same national success as her drag sister? In her "Meet the Queens" video for the series she states that she would like to "show America that a big, large, and FUNNY lady can make it all the way to the end." Over the next three months we'll all get to see how she fares in this season stocked with very impressive queens.
In the meantime, you can check out Darienne live every Friday night as part of the "Facelift Fridays" show at 140 Alex Bar & Grill. And she's only one of the many talented drag queens who call Rochester home. See the accompanying article to get to know some of Rochester's drag royalty. Then grab some friends, head out to a show, and have a blast. And make sure to tip generously — good wigs are hard to find.
City had an opportunity to speak with Darienne in advance of the premiere of "Drag Race" Season 6, which she shot in Los Angeles last summer under a shroud of secrecy and sequins. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
CITY: Darienne, congratulations on making it on to "Drag Race." How many seasons have you been trying to get on the show?
Darienne Lake: This was my third time auditioning.
Had you adapted your audition video over the years? Did you try anything different this time?
For the first one, I thought, "Let me try it, give them what I think they want to hear." For the second one, I thought, "Let me give them what I think they're asking for." Third time, I decided I was just going to give them what I felt like giving them. So it changed from an idea of what they might want, to, "You know what? Here's me."
I think what came through this time was my sense of humor, my honesty, and me being myself. Being confident and being happy with who I am, and knowing that I'm not perfect, and I have things to improve on.
You won the fan-voted spot on the cast for this season. Four of the 10 queens up for that spot were from Rochester. That's a pretty staggering figure. Why do you think our local queens get so much support for this show?
I think with small towns, we have a lot of work to do just to get people out to our shows. In larger cities people are going to go out regardless. In a small city, what are you going to do to get people to go out? It's a tighter group, so we work well together. It's not as hungry in the way that, say, a girl's trying to steal my gig. For us, drag is not our life-and-death career. It's something we enjoy, and enjoy doing together. There's camaraderie. We're sisters. In New York City you can have five, six different drag "houses." We're all in the same house here.
What do you think about the current state of the Rochester drag scene? Improving? Sliding?
I think it's improving. It was really fantastic, and then over the past three years it seemed like it was sliding and people weren't going out as much — guys were hooking up online, improving themselves, not becoming alcoholics. The bars were not treating us like the divas we are. For the queens, we were saying, "This is a hobby for me, and it's becoming not fun." So we started phasing out and getting into different things.
Then recently, 140 Alex reached out to us, and asked what it would take to get the girls back. Money. With money, all of us will be there. People will come out. It'll be a great show. Kasha Davis and Aggy Dune have proved that people will pay $30 for their shows [as the Big Wigs; see accompanying article for more details]. If you build it, they will come. So we built a great show of me, Aggy, Kasha, Ambrosia Salad, Samantha Vega, Deelicious, etc.
When did you start doing drag? What was your inspiration?
I was 18 years old. I saw Aggy Dune perform in the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" in Panorama Plaza, and I wondered if that was a girl or a guy. She was so good. I was still borderline coming out of the closet. I went to my first drag show right around January 1990. It was so much fun, so exciting. So then I started going out on a regular basis, and me and a friend from high school would go to the Princess Restaurant at 12 Corners and have breakfast after the shows. All the drag queens would come in and have breakfast as well, and I got in that way.
One night they dragged me to an after-hours show, painted my face, and they said I looked like Ricki Lake from "Hairspray." They all said, "Be her little sister, Darienne Lake." I wanted to be named after an eyeshadow color: Heather Sky. But all of my friends kept calling me Darienne Lake, and it just kind of stuck.
How do you describe your performance style?
I usually do campy, fun performances. Audiences want to see something fun and exciting. Every once in a while I'll throw in something big and dramatic. But I always try to keep it light and fun and an escape for the audience. Folks who come out to see a queen cry over a ballad — I'm over it. You have to throw in popular Top 40 songs, but if that's all you do, that's not going to be something people remember.
I've had people come up to me and say, "Oh, I remember when you were dressed like a roller-skating Christmas tree doing backflips to the song 'Xanadu.'" I've been a Christmas tree, I've rollerskated, I've done "Xanadu." But backflips? It's not a wise idea to put my ass above my head. People mesh things together.
"Drag Race" isn't your first TV appearance — you were featured in the VH1 documentary "Boys Will Be Girls." What did you take away from that appearance?
Actually, back in 1993, I went on "The Ricki Lake Show" because there was a topic, "You're Too Fat to be a Drag Queen." Nothing came of that. Then in 2003, there was the VH-1 thing. They found us through Pandora Boxx's website. They came to Rochester to interview us. Initially they were only going to do one of us, but they saw me and Pandora as the Lucy and Ethel of Rochester. We were stealing Christmas trees from the Boy Scouts while in drag.
It was interesting to see how they take so much footage, and then you see what they show. Some of the stuff we were talking about was about my personal progress, because I think during the filming of that I was thinner than I am now. I had lost weight; I was going through this transformation. I hadn't realized that being thin doesn't make you happy. So it was interesting to see how they edited it, and what I learned from the process. You kind of see who you are on camera, and what you're saying. And also, when you're forced to talk about yourself, it kind of becomes a therapy session. You get a better handle on who you are as a performer, a person, etc.
"Drag Race" was seriously therapy. You're facing your fears, you're tired, exhausted — and GO!
You're Pandora's drag mother. What was your experience watching her on "Drag Race" back on Season 2?
I was proud of her, and excited. There are so many times you want to yell through the screen and say, "Say something!" But you can't really understand until you're in that situation yourself. When you're filming, a lot of the time you tell yourself, "Bite your tongue, this is going to explode." Other times you think, "This would be really good TV to say something...." Part of my style is I'm not really the confronting type. I'm more of the, "put the stick of dynamite and matches in the room and see what happens" type. I'm a pot stirrer. And I love to play devil's advocate.
The show keeps getting bigger and bigger. It has brought drag further into the mainstream than possibly ever before.
It's so huge, and it's great to see. [Season 4 contestant] Willam just hosted the "Real World" aftershow for MTV. I would give both my left and right boobs to have them air my season of "Drag Race" on MTV or VH1. For Pandora's season they re-aired it on VH1. And Season 2 took off like gangbusters because of the visibility. It was great to have that.
For our season, they did this whole Tumblr-Twitter-Pinterest reveal when announcing the queens, and it created such a frenzy. They really have outdone themselves this year. It keeps getting bigger and bigger, even though some of the queens are getting smaller and smaller....
This season you are the only plus-sized contestant out of the 14 competing queens. What was that like?
I had a new respect for [previous plus-sized "Drag Race" contestants] Delta Work, Stacy Layne Matthews, Madame LaQueer, and Latrice Royale. That shit is tough, to be standing there in heels for hours — you come in at 8 in the morning and you don't get back until 10 p.m. I started out in stilettos and wore them down to flats. I was watching some of the old episodes and noticed that some of the girls took their shoes off on stage. But I'm an ox. If I need to pass out, I'll pass out.
There are so many different ways you can look at it. Some people look at it as, "Someone's gotta go home first. Curse of the big girl." Some people say, "You're going to be the funny girl, you need to be funny — the funny fat girl." No, I'm going to be everything. I can be sexy pin-up. I can be the dancer. As long as I work at it, I can do it. I might not be your favorite. You might not think I'm the sexiest. But I'm trying to be a voice for all the fatties and freaks. When you're first coming out you see all the personal ads that say, "No fatties and no freaks." But then you grow up and you find the guy that wants that.
Based on everything we've seen, the Season 6 queens really are an incredibly strong bunch. Were you intimidated once you met the cast?
No. For me, I looked at it as: none of these queens have what I have. Some of them are pretty; I'm prettier. Some of them can lipsynch, but nobody can lipsynch better than I can. If some of the judges are not into what I'm selling, I'm not their cup of tea — I'm going to give them what I am. Even going back to my audition: I'm going to give you what I have. This is what I have.
You've already started booking national appearances and the season hasn't even started airing. Are you ready for your career to go into supernova once the show airs?
That is the thing that is sort of crazy. I still do my job as a stylist at the Thomas Lawrence Salon. I'm still going to try to hold on to that, because I think at this age of my life, I don't know what's going to happen. If things take off and it's amazing, great. If things don't explode like some of the other girls, that's great. I still have a life. I still want to be in Rochester at least a couple of times a week. I'll ride the ride, whatever that is.
Where are you hoping your career takes you? What is Darienne's dream?
I'd love for people to really connect with me, connect with my story and what I'm trying to convey on the show. I want them to bring me to their town, their city, their village, whatever. I'd love to see the world. I always wanted to. So I want to tour the world, see all the places, and do it on someone else's dime. And hey, if Ryan Murphy sees me and wants to cast me on the next "American Horror Story: Circus Freaks," I would be a wonderful bearded lady.
What would you say to readers who have never watched "Drag Race"? Why should they turn in this season?
Because it's about so much more than drag or about gayness. There's so much you can relate to. There really is competition and sportsmanship, and so much laughter. I think this year people are going to watch an episode, and then rewatch it to see things they missed, because they were laughing too hard. It's really enjoyable and such a nail biter. These queens are so equally matched. Everyone has great strengths and weaknesses. It's anybody's game — anybody's.
This year you have that club-kid kind of thing with Vivacious, avant-garde comedy with Magnolia Crawford, traditional pretty with Courtney Act, Gia Gunn, and Joslyn Fox, comedy with me and Bianca Del Rio. And Bianca has a whole, "I'm not a real woman, I don't look like one, I'm a clown, here for your entertainment" thing going on. It's all different facets of the same diamond.
People's mind on drag has changed over the years. At first it was female impersonators, looking female. And then it was about being campy and loud. And then there are these whole genderfuck kinds of queens. The show is really changing the minds of people. Drag is not one thing anymore.
WATCH: Darienne Lake appears on "RuPaul's Drag Race" Season 6, debuting Monday, February 24, 9 p.m. on Logo TV (Time Warner Channel 179). You can also watch episodes on logotv.com or via the Logo TV app.
PARTY: Hang out with Darienne Lake herself at official "Drag Race" viewing parties at The Bachelor Forum (670 University Ave.) every Monday 9 p.m. Watch the show, interact with the queen, have some drinks.
DISCUSS: Want to kiki about all the "Drag Race" drama? Head to the Entertainment Blog on rochestercitynewspaper.com, where Features Editor Eric Rezsnyak will open the library every Tuesday morning. Bring your reading glasses.