This blog post is part of a series of profiles of Atlanta-area drag queens and is funded by a grant from Idea Capital.
"I'm not quitting drag. I just want to quit the job of drag. In my boy job, I could work tonight and make $250. But I'm spending money to be in drag to maybe make $40," says Kryean Kally while gluing down her eyebrows for the second time tonight.
"I think drag's a better choice in the long run," she says affirmatively.
Matthew Callaway (boyface Kryean) just made it home from Yeah Burger where he works as a bartender. He's throwing a face and outfit together for Kryean, trying to make it to The Jungle for her Wednesday night performance.
Miss Kryean is behind, as usual, because she wasn't satisfied with her makeup. Her eyebrows weren't flat enough, and they poked out through her foundation. She scrubs her makeup off to reveal Matthew again, and then quickly sets to work on her face a second time. She smooths a glue stick over each brow slowly and precisely, and they now lay much more cleanly. Kryean dips her brush into powder she dumped on top of her toilet, and whisks it over her brows. They disappear almost instantly. Kryean blows a kiss to herself in the mirror and smiles at her handiwork.
"Violet Chachki taught me how to do makeup. The first time I paid her $20 to do my face. The second time I paid her another $20 to do half my face and help me do the other half. The last time I paid her $20 to watch me do my face and correct me," Kryean says.
Although Kryean knows drag is an artistic money pit, it allows her to fulfill many childhood dreams. As a cloested gay kid in Calhoun, Georgia, Matthew wanted to design clothes, act, sing, dance, perform, etc. These fabulous dreams were too big for the Georgia sticks, and he knew he could not live openly as a gay man out there. After high school, Matthew left his family to live freely as a gay man in Atlanta. Here, he found the Atlanta drag scene which has given him a creative outlet and a social safety net in the city. Violet, his sister in drag, is just one of many great friends Kryean has brought to Matthew.
"My drag family helps me understand myself better. They helped me see that I'm happy as a boy, but I perform as a woman. The attention I get in drag doesn't mean I need to become a woman," says Kryean .
Drag has brought Kryean so much attention in the last year. She's been on the cover of Creative Loafing, David, and Do Savannah; the Loaf named Kryean as an artist to watch in Atlanta. Kryean even won local drag competition Dragnificent, joining the ranks of distinguished queens Edie Cheezburger and Evah Destruction. All of this acclaim made Matthew wonder if he was meant to be a woman; perhaps Kryean was his true self. Kryean's drag family -- her sister Violet Chachki and their drag mother Genre Mon'Ster -- helped Matthew see that Kryean is a separate, artistic persona. People love Kryean because she's a great performer, not because we want Matthew to become a trans woman. Truth be told, Kryean actually inhibits Matthew's ability to get laid.
"Doing drag, it's difficult to find gay men who accept your art and still find you attractive," says Kryean. "Many gay men love us as performers, but not sexually."
Although some queens pursue drag for sexual purposes, many performers, like Kryean, want separate sex lives and drag careers. Some people do flirt with Kryean, but she never puts out. Matthew finds no appeal in trying to get Kryean laid -- the makeup would sweat off and her wig would be ruined. In boy world, Matthew finds that many gay men can't separate Kryean from Matthew. Many of the same folks who love to see Kryean perform also see drag as a turn-off in a boyfriend. If you date Matthew, you'll also have to also love Kryean; many gay men cannot handle a strong woman joining their relationship. Drag both isolates and consumes many performers, and only fellow queens can understand the heartache of drag.
"Whenever I'm with my drag family -- Violet and, increasingly, Genre -- all we talk about is drag. It's like counseling for our art," says Kryean. "Drag families help each other know that they are beautiful people, and that we are accepted and loved."
Without a drag family, Kryean would not be the strong, beautiful woman she is today. In Kryean's "drag room" (an extra bedroom Matthew used to rent, but which is now full of drag gear), a rack of outfits sits opposite the "wig wall". Of the dozen or so looks, the best ensembles clearly came from Genre's touch. The plain frock that turns into a sparkling gown when Kryean spins, the perfect Effie Trinket suit, and all the other magical outfits Kryean learned to make from her mother Genre. Her sister Violet also did more than teach her makeup; jewelry, accessories, and gossip flow between the two. Having a sister and mother to learn from and steal from makes drag much more sustainable.
The art of drag has allowed Matthew to achieve so many of his childhood dreams, but the job of drag has prevented him from having the stable life he also wants. Matthew gets to make his own costumes, to be be beautiful, and to be photographed; but he's in it for the art and not the dollar bills. Kryean loves to be seen, but the stage (and the life that goes with it) is not where Matthew's heart is. He loves the project of drag--the planning and execution--much more than the applause.
Matthew will sit at home for hours gluing rhinestone after rhinestone on a gown. He'll burn through several movies like this, half listening to his tv, but mostly consumed by the sparkling ensemble coming together in his hands. He'll go through cases of rhinestones every month; another one of Kryean's drag bills he has to pay. But he loves the chance to be creative and to see a vision in drag come to fruition. When he's mastered one aspect of drag, he'll move on to another. Drag becomes a lifelong art, a series of new skills to learn and perfect.
"I've been working on stoning more than anything. When I run out of things to stone I'll sew things. But for now, stoning makes a $3 panty look like $300 couture," says Kryean Kally.