By Ellie Heffernan
The recipe seems easy enough. You need makeup, sequins, a properly secured wig and last but certainly not least, a massive foam butt. Voila! You have something that looks like a drag queen. But it takes more than colorful eyeshadow and costumes to touch people’s hearts and minds.
Raafe Purnsley knows this, and they’ve used their wit, musicality and a certain je ne sais quoi to become one of Durham, North Carolina’s most iconic drag queens. Don’t recognize the name? You probably know them as Stormie Daie, a queen who uses her platform to promote racial justice, sex positivity, LGBTQ equality and more.
Drag personas display such a wide range of intense emotions that audiences often view them as their own people. They fall in love with these larger-than-life characters, making it hard to accept that these vibrant personalities are always, on some level, a façade.
Perhaps this is why no writers have dared to peek behind the sequined curtains that shroud Purnsley in mystery. They write about Stormie, but they forget that the person who created her is also worth getting to know. Purnsley defines Stormie — not the other way around — and learning about their life reveals what it takes to be an impactful performer and human being.
The making of a performer, educator and community builder
Purnsley, who identifies as nonbinary, says their love of performing came from their family. Their mother frequently danced in North Carolina shag competitions, performing routines to speedy, swinging jazz. Their grandmother grew up jitterbugging. Men would toss her in the air, and she’d shoot right between their legs and pop back up, Purnsley said.
Purnsley’s commitment to education and community building is also rooted in their childhood. During one of many summers spent visiting their grandmother in eastern North Carolina, Purnsley attended estuary camp on the inlet in Little Washington. They studied swamp systems, which motivated them to later earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental and ecological sciences from Elon University.
Purnsley’s career in education began at the Center for Human-Earth Restoration in Raleigh, where they taught groups of predominantly students of color from kindergarten through ninth grade. Lessons consisted of basic science, local flora and fauna and Black and Indigenous history related to the land.
Although Purnsley may have never taught them science, fans of Stormie have likely seen them “holding class.” Purnsley often weaves into their performances conversations about consent, HIV/AIDS, racial inequity, Durham’s rapid gentrification, and gender and sexuality. This summer, they read picture books about gender and sexuality at a kid-friendly drag storytelling event in Chapel Hill.
“Drag gives you a chance to be something that society doesn’t want you to be,” Purnsley said. “You realize that once you’re good at drag, it’s a form of power. And then you can use that power to hopefully make space for people who also feel similarly to you and support being seen and heard in the ways you wanted to be.”
Purnsley has empowered people like Ellison Commodore, a Black queer individual who attended his first drag show when Stormie came to Carrboro in fall 2018. Commodore was initially nervous to attend the event, having often felt uncomfortable in predominantly white, queer spaces. He felt at ease when he saw a Black, queer person dance energetically, clearly having a good time.
Drawing the line between Purnsley and their persona
Stormie usually looks like she’s having a good time. She’s bigger, happier, sassier and more joyful than Purnsley, they said. Purnsley admitted that when Stormie shares emotions — even moody, negative ones — it’s a little superficial.
“Stormie’s like pieces of me, and there’s just more parts of me that aren’t necessary for Stormie to exist,” Purnsley says. “And those pieces are the ones that keep us real.”
Purnsley’s good friend Carlos Fernandez might disagree. Fernandez, whose drag queen name is Naomi Dix, said Purnsley and Stormie are almost the same person. Both are fun-loving, confident people who stand out in a crowd.
Purnsley is so confident, woke, eclectic and highly educated that it made Fernandez feel threatened. The two did not initially click with each other. Today, Fernandez describes Purnsley as one of his favorite people and a “partner in crime” who balances him out. Fernandez is more reserved, but he has stronger organizational skills. Purnsley is a bit scatterbrained, but they exude confidence.
The two perform together frequently, and they co-hosted the first “Sister Sister Drag Tour” in 2018, traveling to various colleges. They kicked off a second round of the tour this year.
Life outside of drag
It’s difficult to pin down the pieces of Purnsley that don’t shine through in Stormie. Purnsley basically has no schedule, they say, which aligns with Fernandez’s description of his friend’s organizational challenges.
They typically wake up around 9 a.m. They lay down for another 30 or 40 minutes before actually waking up, frantically watering the plants they should have watered before going to bed and feeding their three dogs: Blue, Moon and Moose.
Blue and Moon are Chihuahua-toy poodle mixes. Moose is also a mutt, but he’s approximately the size of a Great Dane.
By day, Purnsley works as the Durham Co-op Market’s community outreach coordinator, where they determine how to use the cooperatively owned grocery store’s resources to support local communities. This work includes donating food or sharing information about community resources and events.
When they come home, Purnsley often spends time with their boyfriend of four years, Joaquín Carcaño, a public health worker with a background in infectious diseases and focus on HIV/AIDS.
The couple met at a potluck organized by mutual friends. Carcaño had brought some beers, and Purnsley began to drink one while they talked. At one point, Purnsley laughed so intensely at a funny joke Carcaño told that they spilled beer all over their future boyfriend.
Carcaño said he was drawn to Purnsley because they stand out in a crowd. They know how to make people laugh and put them at ease – a trait that became clear early on in their relationship.
Recently, Carcaño was recovering from a surgery, and Purnsley brought flowers to his house for both him and his mother, who traveled there from Texas to care for Carcaño. Purnsley immediately hit it off with Carcaño’s mother, and they began chatting excitedly about shoes and drag. Carcaño had introduced other partners to his mother, but none had immediately bonded with her.
Anecdotes like this show that Purnsley is, in Fernandez’s words, a “mother hen.” Purnsley may be confident, creative, intelligent and even scatterbrained, but above all they are loving. This trait motivates them to do everything with the singular goal of building community.
Confidence and progress
Purnsley gave people the gift of Stormie Daie. But perhaps Stormie Daie has also given Purnsley, who used to be much less secure in their queer identity, a confidence they did not previously possess.
Purnsley recently performed a show at their alma mater, wearing a black ringlet wave wig and a copper sequin dress with bell sleeves reminiscent of the 70s. This was an era when someone like Raafe Purnsley would not have been welcome on Elon’s campus, but things are much different now.
Edited by Caroline Bowers and Claire Tynan