The queens have arrived: Chapel Hill’s emerging drag queen scene

Drag queen Naomi Dix hosts Cat’s Cradle first drag show on Friday, Feb. 23. The show was sold-out. Photo by Rachel Jones.

By Rachel Jones

It’s hard to make out either side of the chalkboard around the crowd.

Facing away from Cat’s Cradle, it reads “DRAG QUEENS ARE COMING!” in big, angular letters, traced in bright blue and retraced in even brighter red.

The side facing Cat’s Cradle reads “LIQUOR,” in just one set of bold white letters with an arrow pointing to the bouncer in the doorway.

Denim and leather and lace sneak around the concrete back porch, squeezing past the rusty green rails that the chalkboard rests on. Everyone looks like they’re wearing highlighter; it lights up under the continuous camera flashes in front of the door.

Nobody is moving — the line is too congested. Boys in makeup and baseball hats laugh at each other. The girls around them wear the same, their pastels muted and dark under the evening sky.

Suddenly, a glimmer of beige cuts through the crowd. Naomi Dix is here.

Short and glamorous, the queen’s shiny latex dress clings to her frame. Her ombre wig flows to her shoulders, making her brown skin glow. Her makeup is traditionally feminine, but with a distinct drag edge; her cheeks are carved out in a bright contour, and her eyelids are swimming in stacks of fake lashes. She’s wearing a massive necklace and an even bigger smile as she greets a gaggle of barely-legal-looking students.

“Oh my god, people showed up,” she said, exclaiming in a feminine, nasally voice. She hugs tightly to fans with the bejeweled hand that’s not clutching a cocktail.

In an hour, she’ll be on stage, announcing Cat’s Cradle’s very first drag show, and one of the only ones in Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s recent memory.

The show is sold-out.

Drag queens have arrived.

Coming up in drag

A sold-out venue was never a guarantee. The night before, Dix sighed into the phone when asked about her turnout expectations.

“I’m not expecting a lot of people to show up,” she said. “Because after all, it is the first show at Cat’s Cradle that they’ve ever had when it comes to drag.”

Dix connected with Cat’s Cradle through a link between her drag family and the bar manager. The reference was bolstered by her recent win at Miss Hispanidad Gay 2017, a drag pageant run by Durham Latino advocacy organization El Centro Hispano.

Friday was her first Carrboro show, but it’s far from her first performance in drag. For her, drag is an outlet, a welcome escape from her day job.

“I have to be a little more kept to myself as Carlos because I work a full-time job. I can’t act like that every single day. So, to be able to work a full-time job from 8 to 5 and then get off, go home and put on makeup for two hours… and look outstandingly gorgeous for the next eight hours,” Dix said. “Who in their right mind wouldn’t mind wouldn’t want to do that?”

Dix is ingrained in Durham’s drag scene, performing and hosting regularly at the Pinhook. It’s normally a concert and event venue, featuring indie bands like Girlpool and Screaming Females alongside activist talks like the Bible Belt Abortion Storytelling Tour.

While drag has entered the mainstream with VH1’s hit show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” that hasn’t necessarily translated to great financial and social success for local drag queens. Like 26-year-old Dix, many of these queens keep a normal day job and set ambitions for a statewide tour, not a national one. This holds especially true in North Carolina, a state better known for basketball and barbecue than its thriving LGBTQ community.

Dix grew up around Raleigh, arguably the hub of drag in the state. It’s home to Legends, a sprawling gay club with drag nights that once hosted Porkchop, North Carolina’s first and only contribution to “Drag Race.”

But Dix didn’t pursue the Raleigh scene, which she perceived as closer to an old-school, man-to-woman form of drag. Instead, she chose Durham.

“What was alluring to me about Durham drag was the free spirit,” she said. “When I started drag, I definitely had this feeling of acceptance and this feeling that I wasn’t being judged as harshly as I may be judged if I’d been doing drag in Raleigh.”

As a beginning queen, she was taken under the wing of Vivica Coxx, one of the pioneers of the Durham scene as a refreshing and more genderqueer alternative to Raleigh drag. Dix’s surname alludes to her drag “family,” the House of Coxx. Led by Vivica, the group often takes gigs together and holds a weekly home-cooked dinner for its members. Now, Dix has drag children of her own, two of whom performed with her Friday night.

One of those queens was Margaret Snatcher, a big queen with even bigger hair. She’s an undergraduate at Duke University, where Dix frequently plans student events and performs.

“Having fun, Chapel Hill-Carrboro?” Snatcher said, hearing screams from the crowd in response.

She had just finished a number to Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge.” During the lip-sync, she reached out to the crowd for volunteers. These brave souls were then gently pointed to motorboat Snatcher’s fake breasts, which were made out of a half-gallon of cooked rice.

“And it’s a snack after the show because it is already cooked,” Snatcher said to loud applause.

Every time a head went under, the crowd roared.

“This is a sold-out drag show,” she said, still out of breath from the song. “You’re in the right place if you’re here right now and nowhere else tonight.”

First-year Nick Tapp-Hughes, who came with his boyfriend, was in the right place. It was his first drag show and his first time at Cat’s Cradle.

“I didn’t think it would be that fun to watch someone lip-sync, but it was really fun,” he said. “I hope that more drag shows happen. Hopefully.”

On stage, Snatcher is still heaving.

“You are lucky, you are lucky, and I want to get lucky tonight! Let me ask — Naomi, are you ready? Now, the queen of the night, Miss Naomi Dix.”

Looking ahead

Dix has been doing drag for four years, and for the past year, her schedule’s only gotten busier. She’s begun thinking about a long-term strategy and vision for her drag career.

She knows she’s popular with students and young crowds, something that Chapel Hill and Carrboro have in droves. Now she’s choosing these towns, the same way she chose Durham.

“I mean, this actually might be something that I can go ahead and take under my wing,” Dix said. “As of a month ago, Chapel Hill and Carrboro have become my new baby, and everyone that lives in Chapel Hill and lives in Carrboro now knows that they are a part of my family, and they are now my children.”

Edited by Megan Cain