Pittsfield Pride Drag Show aims to revive a once lively scene

PITTSFIELD — Keshawn McGowan is willing to resemble an "eyebrow-less alien" most of the time if it means, on some nights, Gemini DaBarbay's painted-on brows look flawless.

"I know it will pay off," McGowan said.

To become DaBarbay, it can take McGowan as long as four hours to put on the necessary hair, makeup and attire. He applies foundation that is close to his natural skin tone, brow pomade (he shaves his eyebrows to make the drawn ones look more realistic), powder, highlights, contours, exaggerated cat eyeliner, 301 eyelashes (what he calls a "staple" in the "artistry of drag") and "beauty marks," such as freckles. These products aren't cheap, and neither are wigs and costumes. McGowan said his costumes typically range from $50 to $150. Wigs often cost about the same.

But it's all worth it when DaBarbay takes the stage.

"I've always been an artist and drag is probably one of the most fulfilling mediums I have ever taken on," he said. "I've gotten to create a entire stage persona based around my inspirations and my experiences. A persona in which I can express things I feel like I can't in my everyday life. It's truly one of largest things that bring me pure joy."

McGowan will bring that joy — and his high heels — to the inaugural Pittsfield Pride Drag Show, which will be held at the Tavern at the A on Friday, Nov. 3. The event will feature six Berkshires performers lip-syncing to Broadway tunes, Top 40 hits and other numbers in between while sporting garb that impersonates a gender other than their own. With the Berkshires drag scene all but disappearing in recent years, organizers Matt Pennell and Jackie Rivera are hoping the event will spawn a regular local alternative to shows in Springfield and Albany. Rivera, who formed Weekend Warriors Entertainment with Pennell this year, recalled a conversation with a drag queen that is typical of the response the show has received thus far from drag performers.

"He was telling me how it's great that we're bringing it to the Berkshires because the nearest place where they can have entertainment and feel comfortable — the nearest accepting LGBTQI community — is in Albany. ...We are hoping to work with venues on a consistent [basis] to bring it out more frequently, maybe once a month, twice a month," Rivera said.

While drag figures do not always identify with the LGBTQ community, McGowan said he doesn't know of any heterosexual ones in Berkshire County. Joseph Daley, who will host and perform as Harmony Chanel Diamond on Friday night, couldn't think of one, either. Drag shows in the county, then, can serve as much-needed meeting grounds for LGBTQ residents, according to both performers.

Kenneth Mercure, a lifelong Berkshires resident and an organizer of the first Berkshire Pride Festival that debuted this summer, agrees with McGowan and Daley that LGBTQ-devoted night spots are slim in the Berkshires. But he said he's pleased with the increase in LGBTQ gatherings in the county recently. He cited Rainbow Seniors of Berkshire County, Elizabeth Freeman Center, Pittsfield Human Rights Commission and Indivisible Pittsfield as organizations working to support the LGBTQ community of the Berkshires. The Pride Festival in particular was a critical step because it brought the leaders of these entities together, Mercure said. And what was the festival's most popular aspect?

"The major draw of Pride was the drag performance," Mercure said.

Pennell, who is gay, and Rivera are aware of the added significance surrounding their show. Their aim is to hold more LGBTQ events.

"It'll definitely bring awareness," Pennell said.

As a gay adolescent in Pittsfield, Daley had his own method for getting people's attention. He started dressing and performing in drag when he was 17.

"There has never been too much of a gay scene in Berkshire County, but I didn't let it stop me. I would walk everywhere [in drag]," the 33-year-old said. "I've never been ashamed."

That attitude has carried over to Diamond's acts.

"She does not hesitate to jump on a table to get attention," Daley said during a recent telephone interview.

In his early 20s, Daley started appearing on stages in Albany, where he was living with his boyfriend. He also participated in benefit events during that time, including one that raised money to combat AIDS.

Those shows provided templates for "Lipstick & Magic," a drag series Daley started about five years ago after returning to the Berkshires. The since-shuttered Chameleons and the Crowne Plaza Hotel's Underground Pub hosted the events, which rarely drew less than 40 or 50 people, according to Daley. Spectators ranged from the elderly to newly legal drinkers. Benefit shows were common, such as one at Chameleons for a friend of Daley's who had multiple sclerosis and needed money for medication. Guests could put cash in a bucket or, as is custom at drag shows, place the bills in the performers' clothing (or toss on stage). They raised about $2,500 that night, Daley said.

Another highlight for Daley was a show at the Underground Pub. An acquaintance told him afterward that she had planned on killing herself before seeing Diamond in action.

"Whatever I did convinced her that she's got to keep going," Daley said.

When Chameleons was shut down in 2014 and the Crowne Plaza subsequently lost interest, the series stopped, according to Daley. Berkshires drag figures mostly had to look to neighboring counties for work. McGowan said that he and several others have recently performed at a few Pittsfield locations, including Hotel on North and Casey's Billiards (now closed), but finding a steady home for their events has been difficult.

"People clearly have interest in the shows, so I'm not sure why venues won't pick it up," said McGowan, who called the current Berkshires drag scene "nonexistent."

The problem isn't a lack of drag figures in the county.

"There are a lot of queens that have started from here and gone other places," the 23-year-old said.

Nor is the issue one of demand. The drag queen said he has pocketed $100 just from the door sales at Berkshires drag events.

Mercure offered one potential reason for the dearth of drag shows. Even if venue owners are personally receptive to the shows' content, he said, they may not want to risk being viewed as a niche business, turning away customers who don't want to view drag events. They're missing out, Mercure said.

"I think it would be a business boom," he said, noting that he feels that a venue could successfully hold monthly events.

Such a schedule would give locals a greater opportunity to see shows that blend many of the arts.

McGowan began performing in drag at age 13, drawing inspiration from RuPaul (of "Drag Race" fame), among others. His current on-stage persona, DaBarbay, seeks to contrast her attire with the music she lip-syncs. For example, McGowan said DaBarbay will wear something glamorous while rap or hip-hop plays but dress provocatively during a "classy" song.

"It's kind of like a big juxtaposition," he said.

Daley recruited McGowan and the other performers to appear at the Pittsfield Pride Drag Show. For first-time drag show attendees, Daley said to expect an unscripted night.

"You're getting a raw natural reaction to whatever is going on, and every performance is different," he said.

McGowan drew a timely comparison.

"It's like Halloween," he said, "but better."


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