|"Daphne Storm" (aka Bill Sulllivan) performs a Cher number at Eugene's "Pride" festival in August 2006.
|"Karress Ann Slaughter" (aka Cornel Hardiman) performs a Beyonce number at Eugene's "Pride" festival in August 2006.
||See more pictures from Pride 2006
The lounge of Eugene's Red Lion Hotel is packed. Audience members of all ages
cheer as the spotlight turns on the stage and the opening strains
of Ricky Martin's song "She Bangs" blare from the speakers. Four
performers in stiletto heels, sequined dresses and styled wigs dance
and lip sync to the music. These are the ladies of Eugene's SheBang!
drag queen troupe, and they are what the audience has been waiting
for. This show is part of a fundraiser for a local gay and lesbian
nonprofit organization called the Imperial Sovereign Court of the
Emerald Empire (or "the Court").
SheBang! performed weekly shows at Neighbors Bar and Bistro for eight years
before the bar closed a little more than a year ago. They still
perform in front of packed rooms, but a year after Eugene's only
gay bar closed, they are still looking for a new space, performing
the occasional show at Diablo's Downtown Lounge or the Red Lion.
Bill Sullivan has performed with SheBang! as "Daphne Storm" since 2001, but he has done drag for 27 years in various cities. He said he loves the response that his alter ego, Daphne, gets from the audience.
"I love the applause," he said. "(I love) seeing people's faces
and seeing them have a good time – knowing that I can get
out there and be crazy, be someone else and make people happy, make
them forget about stuff for the night."
Sullivan also said performing drag has changed the way he relates to other people, particularly in group situations. At 7 feet tall including the stiletto heels and large wig, Daphne has a big personality. She is loud (often vulgar) and will say anything.
In high school, Sullivan was so shy that if he had to give a speech in class, he would be in the bathroom throwing up. Now, after 27 years of performing as his alter ego, Sullivan says he has no problems addressing large groups.
"It allowed me to do that," he said. "I could hide behind the face. I didn't feel I was capable of addressing a large group of people and be me. I could put this face on, become someone else, say what I wanted to say, get away with it, and go wash it off. It brought me out of the shell."
Sullivan's foray into drag began when a friend dared him to dress as a woman for Halloween. He enjoyed the process of transforming himself and getting a chance to hide behind the makeup and dress.
"You get to step out of your own skin and into someone else's," he said.
In 1981, Sullivan joined the Court in Eugene and began performing as Daphne at fundraisers and traveling with the organization. Later in the decade, he moved to Pomona, Calif., where he began performing Cher numbers.
"I was really skinny back then, and I could wear some of the skimpier outfits,"
Sullivan said. "I got the black hair when her comeback album came
out in '87, and I did a couple songs off that, and I fell in love
with it and the reaction I got."
When he was living in Los Angeles, Sullivan had the opportunity to meet the diva he would spend his drag career impersonating. He described the experience as "totally, out of the blue amazing."
It happened after he performed some Cher numbers at a dedication for his roommate's brother, who had been killed in a car accident. The roommate did a video and wrote Cher a letter about the event.
"We go into downtown to let her management company know there's someone out there being sentimental," Sullivan said. "She was supposed to be in Boston filming 'Mermaids.' We're in the lobby talking to the receptionist and I hear the side door open, and I turn around and she comes walking out. I almost peed my pants. I was totally floored. In awe."
Today, Sullivan's Cher impersonation is one of the highlights of any SheBang! show. When Daphne appears on stage in the long, curly black wig and the sounds of a Cher number begin to play, the audience goes wild.
The process of preparing for one of these performances takes less time than one might expect. In just one hour of prep time, including showering, shaving and putting on makeup, Sullivan, an accountant for Symantec, transforms into his alter ego. Fellow SheBang! members describe Daphne as "the oldest drag queen in captivity."
"Accountant by day, drag queen by night," Sullivan said. "I was a math and science geek in high school. It's in my blood. Now there's lots of sequins and glitter in my blood."
The members of SheBang! purchase their outfits from several places. Sullivan said he likes a Web site called sequinqueen.com because it sells beaded gowns custom-made to the buyer's measurements. He also plans to begin making some of his own clothes, something he did when he started out over 20 years ago.
Cornel Hardiman first began performing drag in Eugene in 1995 as
"Karress Ann Slaughter" and was one of the first SheBang! performers
when the group started in 1998. He purchases some gowns on the Internet,
but because he is only 5-foot-10 in tall heels and has a very slight
build, he is able to buy off the rack. Women who watch Hardiman's
performances may recognize some of his outfits from their own closets,
as he likes to shop at stores that appeal to the 20-something crowd.
"I'm a bargain shopper," he said. "I call myself the 'clearance queen.' Drag does not have to be overly expensive. You can find something and doctor it up and make it what you want it to be. I have more drag clothes than I do boy clothes. It's so much more fun to shop for women's clothes."
Although he spends much more time getting ready than Sullivan — up to two and a half hours —Hardiman's style is more subdued than that of other drag queens. He said his goal when he began was to be more of a female impersonator than a drag queen.
"When I saw drag — there are some beautiful drag queens that you couldn't imagine being a guy — my challenge was trying to look as much like a female as possible, just to see if I could do it as a challenge for myself," he said.
Performing as Karress has helped Hardiman come out of his shell. He said that while he has always gotten along with most people, he was shy and had a hard time relating to people on a personal level before he started performing.
"(Karress) is obviously a bolder side of me," Hardiman said. "I do things as Karress I wouldn't do as me. I think my other persona had me develop my personality more and be able to take more chances than I used to. Be a little bit bolder."
Hardiman's interest in makeup and doing hair (as well as his natural ability to walk in sky-high heels) is rooted in his family. As the only boy in his extended family, he grew up playing with female cousins and walked around in his grandmother's shoes. When he was older, Hardiman did his mother's hair and makeup, and his close relationship with his mother affected his personal style.
"It became more of an obsession because I was so close to my mother — even though she's passed away — me seeing myself as my mother," he said. "I look a lot like my mother when I'm dressed up. So it was kind of a way of seeing my mother all the time. The closer I looked like a woman, the closer I looked like my family, so I think that's why I personally did it."
Although Hardiman's favorite outfit is a leather cat suit he pairs with thigh-high boots, most of his clothes are indeed more practical and casual than sequined gowns.
" I think I'm more modern because when I first saw a show, all you saw was sequins and rhinestone jewelry — so intense." he said. "I think that's great because obviously that's where it comes from and you can't forget about old school to accept new school."
Hardiman said his style of dance, which he described as "much more choreographed" than the style of other drag queens, requires more casual clothing. He said other drag queens in Eugene have begun to adopt his casual style.
"I was like 'OK, I'm going to wear a casual outfit if I'm going
to perform in it, because I don't want to sweat to death in this
heavy gown that's loaded with sequins.' It's great for a certain
effect. But I think I really paved the way because nobody really
did it until I did it. I just think I put more of a modern-day approach