Dr. Lady J: A Woman Who Slays, at the 2022 FRONT Triennial
Dr. Lady J—credentialed with a PhD in musicology, and a dissertation on how drag went mainstream—is a co-host of the FRONT Triennial podcast APodofDustandRainbows. She collaborates with textile artist Loraine Lynn on an installation/performance opening at the Cleveland Institute of Art on September 30.
Dr. Lady J (she/they) is the world’s first drag queen with a PhD dissertation on drag history, titled “From the Love Ball to RuPaul: The Mainstreaming of Drag in the 1990s.” A drag mega-fan, she came to Cleveland from Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2008—“a year before Drag Race started,” she noted—to pursue a PhD in musicology from Case Western Reserve University. Knowing she wanted to shape her graduate school experience around drag, she observed that most of the existing academic writing on drag history was not written by drag performers; in fact, the narrative was largely led by gay men. Additionally, she believed the existing scholarship shied away from important topics to avoid offending drag performers.
Furthermore, when Dr. Lady J began her research, much of the existing writing about drag and its history didn’t contextualize what happened onstage, and instead reflected what academics thought about gender. Gender is only one small piece of the puzzle. “Saying that drag is all about gender is like saying architecture is all about a brick,” Dr. Lady J remarked. “Things are a lot more complicated than they seem.” She often focuses on the character and the story she is trying to tell onstage. “When I first started, I was very much a rock and roll queen, which was different for the scene then. Now, I am a woman who often kills men onstage.”
Upon realizing these gaps in the field of drag history, Dr. Lady J embarked on writing her dissertation, believing she could make an important contribution to the field as a working drag queen—but that’s not to say she wasn’t met with confusion. “I did have some professors who were very dismissive,” she explained. A lot of academics didn’t see the connection between drag and musicology.
“It was not super easy. A lot of them had a pre-existing idea that drag queens lip-synch to a preexisting song. Then I showed them the mixes we create. My ‘Women Who Slay’ mix is one of my favorite things I ever do. It’s a heavy metal song but laid into it are quotes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Bride from Kill Bill, and Éowyn from Lord of the Rings. I wanted to show women who have to kill the people they fight.” The Women Who Slay mix is an example of how drag performances can evoke a feminist narrative while conveying who the drag performers are as people.
Throughout the process of writing her dissertation, Dr. Lady J was simultaneously discovering her own identity. When she began her project, she identified as “somewhat of a straight person, because I still identified as somewhere between genderqueer and male, and I was dating women. Participating in the drag world helped me find myself and my gender through performing.” Today, Dr. Lady J identifies as a non-binary trans woman.
While the process of writing her dissertation didn’t come without challenges, Dr. Lady J’s advisor, Daniel Goldmark, supported and mentored her. By the time Dr. Lady J completed her dissertation, more academics were able to see drag as an art form. “The Swiss-army knife approach” is a term coined by Dr. Lady J to describe how drag borrows components from music, dance, theatre, and fashion, thereby elevating it to a form of fine art.
The first big example of crossover between drag and the visual arts was when Leigh Bowery performed at the d’Offay Gallery in London in 1988. Similarly, at the 2022 FRONT Triennial, Dr. Lady J is collaborating with Toledo-based textile artist Loraine Lynn to bring drag into the gallery space and to audiences who wouldn’t normally experience drag performances.
The collaboration blossomed when Dr. Lady J, a co-host of “A Pod of Dust and Rainbows” (FRONT’s podcast), met Loraine Lynn when she appeared in one of the episodes. They realized that Dr. Lady J’s drag work and Lynn’s tufted textiles shared common shapes and dynamic, neon colors. “My aesthetic is trash and neon!” Dr. Lady J gushed. “When Pat Catan’s closed, I bought out every neon bead they had.” The Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) caught wind of the potential collaboration and invited the duo to perform on-site for FRONT.
On September 30, CIA will host Dr. Lady J and Loraine Lynn. As Lynn’s textiles creep off the wall and into the gallery space, Dr. Lady J will add further dimension to the works with the performance aspect. “When I was writing about a queen who was performing in an art gallery, I never in a million years thought that would be me,” said Dr. Lady J.
The intersection between drag and textiles doesn’t end with FRONT. There is considerable overlap between drag and fashion given the level of care and detail that drag performers put into onstage ensembles. Dr. Lady J has both created her own outfits and commissioned creatives to bring her vision to life. “I have a giant puppet that I perform inside of and pop out of, that’s made out of, like, five years of drag trash I’ve saved up from costume-making,” she explained. Dr. Lady J commissioned Nate Puppets, a black, disabled, queer puppeteer, to construct the puppet.
She also has a black denim coat that weighs as much as chain mail. “It’s about 75 pounds. The brand is called Balls on Fire. I’ve had it for seventeen years, and I encrusted it throughout the pandemic with beads and broken jewelry that were attached by safety pins,” she said. These garments tell a story to the audience in the same way a work of art does in a gallery space.
Through the FRONT Triennial, Dr. Lady J hopes to reach new audiences and demonstrate the power of the art form—she said, “It’s up to us to figure out what that looks like. Drag should be looked at like painting, or sculpting, or playing an instrument—it is what the artist makes of it. It is a tool, a medium, through which certain performers work.”
Dr. Lady J’s performance piece will occur Friday, September 30, and will last about ten minutes,and will be presented as part of the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Lunch on Fridays series, in the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Atrium (second floor) and the Mary Ann and Jack Katzenmeyer Student Lounge (first floor). Loraine Lynn’s FRONT exhibition is installed in the Student Lounge. Dr. Lady J’s performance and costume will be in response to Lynn’s installation.