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It’s 11 o’clock at Cocktails Cleveland, and one drag queen is still missing.

Veranda L’Ni, a 7-foot-tall drag star in an icy-white cocktail gown, readies her red-and-black butterfly dress in the pea-sized dressing room. Samantha Echo warms up guests in her Vegas-blue feather headdress and a bright blond wig (“It’s not a wig, this is my real hair!” she protests). And Ms. Teri Mann, a Liza Minnelli impersonator, warms up her vocals for an open-armed rendition of Cabaret. Outside, the only hint there’s a drag show going on tonight is the neon rainbow Pride sign lit in the bar window.

At 11:15 p.m., a drag queen in teal eye shadow and 2-inch nails walks in carrying a 4-foot-long headdress — so long, her boyfriend has to hold the five-pronged tails — bound for the dressing room.

“Hiiiii, Lady J,” a man in a sleeveless tank says.

“Heh-loo, darling,” she says with Southern affectation, heels
clicking. 

Now, everyone knows, the show can officially begin.

This isn’t just any run-of-the-mill drag night for the queen known to many as Lady J Martinez O’Neal. For one, it’s June’s Pride in the CLE, and the Gordon Square Arts District gay bar is packed for “Somequeer Over The Rainbow,” a two-hour spectacle of the city’s star-studded cast of female impersonators, Xena-like warrior princesses and “Call Me Maybe” lip-syncs. It’s also a seminal performance for its headliner, Lady J, who just a month earlier earned a title that makes her among the first in the nation: a drag performer with a doctoral degree in musicology with a focus on drag culture. 

For Lady J, it’s taken much more than the three hours of powder, three-toned eye makeup and showgirl lashes to get here. It’s been a decade-long journey to discover her own identity, find acceptance and transform it all into a career.

Around midnight, L’Ni finishes her winged number, picks up piles of dollars and grabs the mic. “Are you all ready for your headliner?” she screams. The crowd of about 50 responds with cheers. Lady J, off to the side in her green-and-pink feather headdress, stares at her heels. 

“She went through hell to get where she is,” L’Ni adds. “There is definitely no one like her in town. Darlings, please help me welcome to the stage, the newly titled Dr. Lady J!”

The crowd erupts like glitter from a cannon as Lady J hops out to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” “Don’t hide yourself in regret,” she mouths, flailing her arms to and fro, falling to the stage on her knees. Feathers bounce as Lady J struts before each audience member. “Just love yourself and you’re set.” 

Jeremiah Davenport’s evolution into Lady J begins as a teenage band geek from Tennessee. 

A sandy-blond-haired kid with an overactive mind, Davenport grew up in the relatively conservative Roane County in the late 1980s and early ’90s with two brothers. With Baptist Sunday school teachers as parents, Davenport formed a quiet predilection for theater and over-the-top glamour. 

“He was parading around the house in his grandmother’s heels by the time he was 2,” says his mother, Vivian Clark, a former nurse. The couple divorced when Davenport was 5. As a teen, Davenport was exposed to drag via wide-eyed viewings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

“I love jewelry, I love hair, I love fashion,” Clark says. “So, I guess I played an influence.”

Behind closed doors, Davenport covered every inch of the bedroom walls with Hanson posters, studded the music collection with Cher CDs and adorned the bookshelf with biographies of Barbra Streisand and other divas. But for the better part of those teen years, the pressures of high school normalcy cloaked Davenport’s real self. 

Still Davenport wore long hair lightly parted like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. In moments of liberation, Davenport permitted indulgences of the dramatic, dressing like a gangster in a pinstripe suit and fedora for a drum major performance or in white gloves and cane for prom.

Davenport’s feminine air brought harassments big and small. A band director mocked Davenport’s hair, while classmates and even parents repeatedly derided the teenager with taunts of “faggot.” 

At 14, Davenport came out as bisexual to close friends. Two years later, Davenport began dating a girl and remained in a relationship with her for four years. “People thought she was my ‘beard,’ ” Davenport says, using a term for a heterosexual cover. “But I loved her dearly.” 

Davenport struggled with a sense of identity. Everything seemed too narrow, too conflicting. “I think it was because no one understood bisexuality,” Davenport says. “People always said, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t be this.’ ” 

Davenport refused to accept the notion. “I’m going to do all of that.” Davenport adds. “The opposition definitely lit a fire under my ass.”  

At the University of Tennessee, the world expanded for Davenport who studied music with the aim to teach drum majoring and even contemplated becoming a professor. In 2006, as a UT sophomore, Davenport and a few friends started hanging out at a popular gay bar on campus called the Carousel, where they met a transgender drag queen named Ashley O’Neal. Davenport felt uneasy — barely familiar enough with “transgender” to say the word. 

“I was afraid that people would say, ‘You’re gay!’ ” Davenport says. “I wasn’t ready. So, I’m like, ‘Pffff! Why would I would I want to go there?’ Secretly, I was really like, ‘Oh, I am so curious.’ ” 

At the Carousel, Davenport witnessed drag in person for the first time with the full spectrum on view: blond-braided druids, black and platinum alt-drag goth getups, and parasol-spinning Rihanna
impersonators. 

“I became obsessed immediately,” Davenport admits.

Even with persistent nudging, it took several weeks for Davenport to eventually venture onstage. The first performance was a melange of Rufus Wainwright, David Bowie and Alice Cooper, complete with black eyeliner and floor-rolling, to tell “the story of my life” up to that point. 

“It was really pretentious and stupid,” Davenport recalls, “but it was what it was.”

O’Neal adored Davenport’s elan, yet the performance needed work. The makeup was juvenile, and the choreography jumped around wildly. O’Neal saw promise and offered to become Davenport’s drag mom, aiding in the art of dressmaking, catsuit-wearing and heel-walking. 

Clark says she knew Davenport, who was commuting from home, was going to the Carousel but didn’t think twice about it. “To me? Gay was gay,” she says. 

At the Carousel, for the first time, Davenport’s love of music harmonized with gender and sexuality. 

“I felt like a door had been opened,” Davenport says. “Drag made me realize that I could become a work of art. And that was powerful. You were allowed to create yourself into anything you wanted to be.”

For nearly a century, the performance of drag in America remained under a secretive frock, in the public eye as strict taboo. 

Although the practice of men imitating women stems back to the Greeks, the roots of the art in the U.S. begin somewhere in the 1910s, when New York drag balls provided an underground locale for gay men to meet under the guise of ladies. Queer culture was born but not without adversity. In 1916, a federal Committee of Fourteen swept the country with the aim of shutting down 130 drag balls and incriminating their participants.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact date, but drag went semi-mainstream sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s. David Bowie and Lou Reed eased glam rock fans into the world via eye shadow and skin-tight suits. An artist named Leigh Bowery brought kitschy cross-dressing into high-profile art galleries. In 1987, New York exploded with underground drag balls, mostly in Harlem, as queens fought tooth and claw — blowing up cars, pushing queens down staircases — for top spots. Drag became not just a fight against bourgeois culture but a constant plight for individualism. 

“The ballroom tells me that I’m somebody,” a Harlem performer named Venus Xtravaganza says in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. 

By this time, New York’s bustling scene was rearing the performer often associated with today’s drag: RuPaul. A new wave club promoter in his 30s, RuPaul Andre Charles seemed the unlikely candidate to sashay drag into the mainstream: He was a 6-foot-4 gay African-American man, while other rising queens were straight and white (like Britain’s Dame Edna). But his 1992 smash single “Supermodel” led to a radio show, a prominent place on VH1 and a MAC cosmetics modeling contract.

His reality show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, debuted in 2009 and only furthered drag’s complexity, taking Harlem’s runway-styled showgirling and adding violet-haired clown imitations and fake Judge Judys and Kardashians. It’s a complexity most queens argue about today: RuPaul’s reality show is both drag and isn’t drag simultaneously.

“It’s not about RuPaul’s Drag Race or any of that,” says L’Ni. “No, no, no. Drag is about the art of transformation.”

But like most historical debates, the question is: Who gets to define what is or isn’t considered drag and who gets to write that history? “So many things have been written out because queer people haven’t had the reigns on history,” Davenport says.

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.”

On the morning of June’s Cleveland Pride in the CLE parade, Davenport wakes up at 7 a.m. to begin assembling Lady J. 

It starts with a bath to relax the muscles, because over the next three hours, Davenport sits at a school desk in the living room to begin to lay out eye shadows and 15 brushes. An illuminated circle mirror, sitting on a dozen hardback books, is the only light in the room.

Carefully, a base of Coty powder covers Davenport’s face followed by color on the hairline and cheeks. Eyelids get painted pink and teal, the brows brown with a black crease. Showgirl lashes complete the look. Davenport straps on 4-foot tall silver reflective boots with 6-inch heels, then dons a brown velvet dress and violet butterfly wings with lime-green fringe. All the accouterments are covered with $50 worth of glitter.

For about an hour, Lady J marches at the tail end of the mass parading down Lakeside Avenue to Public Square, as onlookers shout “Happy Pride!” back and forth. Halfway through about 10 paraders have moseyed up to Lady J to snap a selfie, congratulate her on the Ph.D. or ask if she’s from Drag Race. It’s nearly a week to the day since a gunman killed 49 men and women last year at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

“We’ve all had death threats,” she says, noticing a trio of bike cops. “We all fear that today is the day someone will snap and shoot us.” 

A little girl eyes Lady J’s waving wand as if she’s witnessing a Disney character. Lady J waves, and her face lights up. 

“And the kids?” she adds after. “I think that they’re all aware that there’s a different person under here. That, really, all I’m doing is playing dress up.”

At Cocktails that night, after Davenport reapplies yet another round of makeup to perform in a headdress and beige full-body dance tights, L’Ni brings up all of the half-dozen queens for a round of applause. She grabs a purple-pink-white-and-blue “Drag Pride Flag” and presents it to Davenport in honor of “becoming Dr. Lady J.” 

Lady J takes L’Ni’s flag with one hand, dotting her eyes with a bar napkin with the other. “I’m going to make my community proud,” Lady J says, crying. “I’m going to make an impact.”

Davenport, who hosts and performs in a monthly first Saturday show at Cocktails, is in the early stages of converting the dissertation into a popular press book that combines drag history and memoir. As a matter of fact, Davenport’s mother is considering a book too: a memoir detailing her life as an actual drag mother. Ironically enough, Davenport hopes the book will lead to being a Drag Race celebrity. 

“I’m prepared to handle it,” Clark says. “And if Jere wants to do a book tour? I’m going to be right there with him.”

At 2 a.m., after Cocktails clears, the queens retreat to the dressing room to pack headdresses, remove tousled wigs and stuff scaled helmets in rollaway luggage. The space is tiny, but there’s freedom here.

“There’s something to be said about purposefully making yourself into another person, spending all that time to create someone who will go away the second you’re done with it,” Davenport says. “It’s ephemeral. You can paint that face a million times. Each time you do, you wash it away again.” 

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