Queens of the Central Coast
An Introduction to the Santa Barbara Drag Scene
By Ricky Barajas | March 9, 2023
From left: Angel D’Mon, Vivian Storm, and Melina Poinsettia | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom
The popularity and acclaim of TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and HBO’s We’re Here have shined lights on drag culture in communities and homes across the nation; however, there is still widespread misunderstanding of who drag queens are, what they do, and why they deserve a place in Santa Barbara.
The Wildcat Lounge, which is one of the oldest queer-friendly spaces in town, became so after all of Santa Barbara’s gay bars closed in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Robert Mendez, manager at the Wildcat, started a gay-club-themed night — Red Room — on Sundays in 2003. Sunday, February 26, marked the 20-year anniversary of Red Room.
“Those [early] days, it wasn’t very accepting that our community was going to bars downtown that were not gay bars,” said Mendez.
Gaining recognition and acceptance of queer identities in the U.S. has always been a battle. The LGBTQ+ Pride movement began with a riot started by a police raid in 1969, and thousands of gay men died in the 1980s before President Ronald Reagan ever acknowledged the existence of the HIV virus. And today, the American Civil Liberties Union reports that there are currently 321 active anti-LGBT bills across 36 states, and events like the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016 and Club Q shooting in November 2022 show that there is danger present even in predominantly queer spaces.
Even in the face of such danger, there are people in the queer community who have taken it upon themselves to not only live in a way that feels authentic and true to them, but also to revel in it. In this reverence for the power of self-exploration and expression, they share their joy with their communities. These people are drag queens, who dress up in items such as wigs, dresses, and high heels with full faces of makeup and perform as women with names that are often inspired by female characters or contain some sort of pun, such as Pam Cakez (“pancakes”).
Vivian Storm, who has become one of the most iconic queens in town, created her name from a combination of Aunt Vivian from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Vivian Ward from Pretty Woman, and the X-Men character Ororo Munroe, whose hero name is Storm. “When I’m on stage, I want you to feel like a whirlwind went through you,” she said.
Drag as a form of performance art has origins that many attribute to Shakespearean theater in the late 1500s — a time when women were not allowed to act on stage, so all the characters were played by men. Since then, and until relatively recently, drag performances were primarily practiced by cisgender men, though this is not a rule — people who identify as transgender or nonbinary as well as cisgender women all are capable of doing so.
The nature and style of drag performances have shifted dramatically from onstage theater, due to influences like the New York City ballroom scene and gay men’s fascination with pop divas. Drag queens today may perform by lip-syncing to anthems by classically celebrated pop stars such as Diana Ross, Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Celine Dion or more contemporary legends like Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Doja Cat. Some may sing or showcase their dancing skills, fashion sensibility, or comedic timing while on stage too.
A lifelong resident of the Central Coast and former drag performer himself, Mendez said, “I remember doing drag in the early ’90s, and I loved it. I especially loved going to the drag shows. A lot of my close friends did drag, and I always admired them.”
With the introduction of Crush Bar & Tap, and new presences on social media such as @gaysantabarbara, queer-friendly spaces have become more common in town, and there is a strong community developing. Crush frequently has events hosted by drag queens such as RuPaul’s Drag Race screenings. Pearl Social has popular drag bingo nights hosted by Vivian Storm.
Another popular event that has taken Santa Barbara over like a hurricane is the Sunday Glitter Brunch on the back patio of the Wildcat, which Vivian Storm and Angel D’Mon have hosted for the last two and a half years. Storm, D’Mon, and other queens lip-sync and dance their way through the aisles of the outdoor space, while attendees can enjoy a mimosa and food provided by a rotating selection of local restaurants.
“It’s become a home and a safe space for queers where they can be authentically themselves. When you come to brunch, you’re part of a community,” said Angel D’Mon.
One queen named Feltaan began her drag journey here, in part because of the support that she now has to express herself as freely as possible. “Drag in Santa Barbara for me has been an amazing experience,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable, accepted, and protected in my community.”
Santa Barbara is not entirely free of long-held prejudices, unfortunately. After a growing wave of anti-drag demonstrations across the nation, protests reached Santa Barbara in early February. Demonstrators invited by the Santa Barbara GOP lined up across from The Crafter’s Library, a business located in downtown Santa Barbara where local queen Angel D’Mon hosts an event to read queer-, gender-, and racial-inclusive literature to children. Signs held by demonstrators carried messages such as “Keep kids innocent” and “Perversion isn’t education.”
Angel, who received a Master’s in Education from Antioch University and works professionally as a kindergarten teacher, has hosted Story Time with Miss Angel at The Crafter’s Library for the past two years and says that this is the first time that anyone has had an issue with her reading to children. “People making these comments have yet to experience a Story Time event,” she said. “It’s always developmentally appropriate.”
The owner of The Crafter’s Library, Andrew Rawls, identifies as a gay man and has no plan to stop hosting Story Time. “I want to make sure that today’s youth have LGBTQ+ role models that they can look up to….We can also provide resources for parents who may be raising a queer child,” he said.
Despite the backlash from the more extreme conservatives in town, the queens in Santa Barbara have big plans. Vivian Storm, who recently headlined the Juneteenth Block Party, is forming a band to support her singing and is looking for a place to have what she described as a “Vegas-style residency.” She is also excited to watch as more queens find niches in which they excel. She said, “When you come from a place of abundance, you just have joy in your heart for them.”
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