After graduating from the University of Tennessee in 2008, Davenport was accepted into Case Western Reserve University’s doctoral musicology program.
“I wanted to study Jimmy Buffett and Polynesian Tiki music,” Davenport says, laughing. “Something no one else was doing. That only I could contribute to.”
But alone in a new city, Davenport quickly fell into a crisis of purpose. For the first two years, Davenport, unsure how to ease the persona developed in Tennessee into Cleveland’s scene, didn’t do drag.
“I was miserable,” Davenport recalls. “I didn’t know anybody. I cried a lot my first two years.”
Suffering bouts of depression from harassment experienced on Cleveland’s public transit, Davenport began wearing copious amounts of jewelry in self-defense. The shifting day-to-day fashion statement felt empowering.
Once Davenport forgot to put on any rings or accessories for a job interview. “I pulled into a Charming Charlie, walked in and spent $50 on jewelry,” Davenport says. “I was like, ‘OK, I feel good. I have my armor on now.’ ”
In the summer of 2010, two years into graduate school, Davenport began contemplating a shift in research to drag from the point of view of a musicologist. Davenport had been mulling the idea since first being exposed to drag at UT. And with the popularity of Drag Race’s first season, the subject grabbed center stage in Davenport’s mind. Drag had been given a pop culture spotlight, and Davenport wanted to step into it.
Daniel Goldmark, Davenport’s adviser, was both optimistic and cautionary. As someone who had spent his own doctoral research on a musicological take on cartoons, Goldmark felt that the ambition could backfire by sucking the joy out of painting eyelids, strapping on boots and performing.
“The research could become adversarial,” Goldmark recalls saying to Davenport. It’s a warning he gives frequently: By joining two passions into one singular pursuit, it could become Ahab’s White Whale.
Yet the newfound purpose freed Davenport to begin a serious pursuit into Cleveland’s drag scene. Davenport noticed an ad for a drag night hosted by Erica Martinez, a queen with 45 pageant titles. Davenport nervously shot Martinez a message on Myspace asking to perform in a late-night show.
“I didn’t want to get paid,” Davenport says. “I just wanted a chance.”
Martinez agreed, easing Davenport in as a fresh debutante who had some drag experience. “I could tell he was very talented,” says Martinez. “He could do Michael Jackson. He could be a woman. And he wanted to learn. Out of all my kids, he’s one of the top ones who really, really listened when many queens did not.”
Davenport’s intellectual bent also piqued Martinez’s interest. “Not a lot of people can get their Ph.D.,” she says. “A lot of us entertainers could just care less.”
Davenport’s career was full of two-fold promise: a unique idea confirmed by most queens and adviser Goldmark. Davenport also began fading away the “boy numbers” — pieces done in masculine attire — for more glamorous, feminine spectacles full of outlandish glitz. Feather headdresses began to replace Michael Jackson imitations; enormous silvery wigs overtook pinstripe shirts and fedoras.
Yet teaching and performing as Jeremiah Davenport felt odd. “I felt like I needed to be a character,” Davenport says, “and I wasn’t a character.”
In fall 2010, Davenport attended a party where a drag sister named Danielle Vasquez overheard the stage-name predicament. “She was like, ‘Why don’t you just be Lady J?.’ ”
It clicked like Dorothy’s ruby slippers. I said, ‘Yes, that’s it,’ ” Davenport recalls. “I wanted a name that would morph with my gender.”
During that time, Davenport’s dissertation, “From The Love Ball to RuPaul: The Mainstreaming of Drag in the 1990s,” was beginning to take shape as well. Over the next four years, those interests were a two-way handshake: scholarly research on David Bowie, Leigh Bowery and RuPaul informed an understanding of what was going on artistically, under the makeup for Davenport and other queens.
“I kept thinking, Somebody who understands all the flash, the spectacle and all this stuff has got to write about it,” Davenport says on Case’s campus in June. Wearing a bright-violet blazer with floral lapels and four bejeweled rings on each fist, Davenport defines the style as “Willy Wonka meets Oscar Wilde meets Southern dandy.”
“There have been people who have written about drag in intricate ways, but not in ways that reflect what I feel onstage,” Davenport says. “If it’s a painting, someone can talk about the brushstrokes. But there’s not anyone who can say, ‘This is what this queen is doing, this is what that queen is doing.’ We just need a language to talk about what we do.”
Over the next year, Davenport assumed “Lady J” onstage and many times off, inching into this developing character. A flyer for a breakout show in 2011 debuts a blond Lady J posing shut-eyed in a rhinestone fan fascinator: a Vegas showgirl, a Westernized geisha. At this, Lady J became an indirect test subject for Davenport’s findings — or, as Goldmark says, “working the history and integrating it into performance.”
She was a walking history lesson in heels: an ‘80s Bowie homage in one set and a poofy-wigged Dolly Parton in the next. “Good lord, he could do an entire performance in Leigh Bowery,” says Goldmark, “and no one would know what he’s doing.”
Soon after Lady J hit the stage in 2011, Davenport met a new boyfriend, Trae Ruscin, a transgender activist at Kent State University, who was also in his own process of transition at the time. Nervous, Davenport went to their first date dressed in full drag. The two fell in love almost accidentally. Months later, Davenport came out fully to family as queer — or as someone who does not associate with heteronormativity and expresses attraction to all genders.
Clark was, if anything, relieved. It was an illuminating confirmation for a mother who had spent years trying to pinpoint her son’s sexual orientation from afar, while attempting the hard road of tying it to a life in drag. “He came out,” she says, “and I came out with him.”
In the summer of 2012, Davenport drove back to Tennessee to continue working on the dissertation. There had been moments of strife — a committee member forced Davenport to revise the proposal eight times in a “trial by fire” that had gone on since the previous year. Davenport ran out of funding and could no longer afford a $725-a-month apartment. Suffering bouts of depression, Davenport gained 70 pounds and had to perform with a cinched waist.
That summer, Lady J took a sabbatical from the stage.
Pressure crept up on a laboring Davenport. Others had already revealed the gist of their findings outside academia. Wary but focused, Davenport returned to Cleveland. In April, Davenport presented the research for the first time in public during a PopCon panel moderated by Goldmark at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Davenport brushed off creeping doubts and decided to speak.
“Everybody was rooting for me,” Davenport says. “I knew this was my chance to shine.” But, of course, anxiety balled up into dead weight. Davenport had slept one hour in six days, and in a rush, typed a five-minute-long speech in 15 minutes the morning of April 20. Goldmark could tell something was off. “He was a little more manic than usual,” he recalls. “I could tell he hadn’t slept.”
Pale-faced and hunched, in a leather jacket and 2-inch rhinestone earrings, Davenport sped through bolts of discovery: Drag needed a history written by its practitioners, mostly from a music-centric point of view. Davenport spoke so quickly the presentation was the briefest out of five panelists. “I have a unique ontological position as a highly unusual, though not entirely singular, brand of scholar-slash-performer,” Davenport concluded while blowing a kiss to the audience.
“This was a different kind of performance,” Goldmark says. “It was a sort of double-fold to his career. As Lady J but also as Jeremiah — and where does one begin and the other end?”
Alone back home the next day, Davenport had a severe mental collapse. “I think it was the fact that I was at war,” Davenport says. “You spent all these years working up to this moment here.”
Davenport called two fellow grad students. When the friends arrived, Davenport was hearing voices on the trunk of a car. They rushed to the hospital. The grad students called Davenport’s mother, who packed up a car and sped to University Hospitals with her husband, Phil. When Clark arrived, Goldmark was pacing in the lobby. She was mortified. “To be honest, when I saw Jere, I didn’t know if my son would be functional or not,” Clark says. “I didn’t know who I was going to see.”
Davenport remained hospitalized for two weeks and in outpatient psychiatric care until the end of May. Davenport won’t give out specifics but was diagnosed with a mental disorder that had been manifesting over time. Due to the breakdown, Davenport doesn’t remember much from that time.
“It was hard for Jay to juggle both the stage and school,” Martinez surmises. “Female impersonators are under a lot of stress.”
Goldmark sees it as a simple confrontation of identity. “If grad school does anything to a person,” he says, “it makes you question who you are.”