In the spirit of RuPaul’s statement, “We are all born naked, and the rest is drag” comes Bay Area drag queen, choreographer and performance artist Monique Jenkinson, who recounts her life story in 2022’s memoir-in-essays “Faux Queen: A Life in Drag.”
From toddlerhood, she was a Halloween canvas for her parents, donning costumes that might not pass muster for cultural appropriation today. She channeled middle school angst into outfits fit for Boy George. She says ballet, an early and enduring passion of hers, came out of “one of the highest points in the history of drag, when men and women alike cavorted in high heels, wigs, and makeup.”
Jenkinson entered the world of drag in the rancor of 1990s San Francisco, as she writes, “in a warm pool of liberation and love surrounded by cheerleading drag doulas.”
In these essays, Jenkinson recounts a Gen-X upbringing that prepared her for San Francisco’s drag world and the queer communities from which it sprang and continues to evolve. It reads like a survey what led to her victory as the first cisgender woman, then called a “faux queen,” winner of Miss Trannyshack 2003, a pageant created (and arguable, weaponized) by San Francisco drag icon Heklina.
But how does one build a book on a foundation of drag, an art form born of ephemerality and artifice?
Jenkinson says, “I had these seeds. I had written a couple of essays…and I had written my [cabaret] shows. Lots of cabaret shows are pretty scripted…so I have these monologues. I call it a book of essays in drag, as a memoir. I mean, it definitely leads into the essay for each chapter. You can pick it up and put it down.”
Growing up in suburban California and Colorado, it seems inevitable that a girl who liked “Little House on the Prairie,” ballet and queer 1980s musicians would fit in with a lineup of lip-synching divas. “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the hit TV show that introduced many a normie to the queens, has yet to cast drag kings and counts no cis female performers among its ranks; it did not cast an openly trans contestant until season 9. But in the Bay, per Jenkinson’s pages, queens of all genders are kiki-ing, drag kings show out, and even non-drag performers put pop hits to shame on a shoestring budget.
“Faux Queen: A Life in Drag” (Amble Press/Bywater Books, $15.99, 280 pages) has many tenets of a memoir: family anecdotes, lackluster hometowns, budding artistic passions, adolescent rebellion, finding the love of your life.
There’s also Heklina simulating sex onstage, a night getting too drunk in Iceland, the author’s feminist awakening, and examining the use of the word “tranny” across a generation when the meaning and use changed drastically.
Jenkinson says she approached the book as a series of connected essays that touch on her artistic practice and life outlook: Drag is both the content and the lens into Jenkinson’s life and cultivated purpose.
The central artery follows her as an adult falling in love with drag and its stewards, embellished with dark humor, sequins and a desire, as a cis woman, to win the Trannyshack pageant, even though it might anger some of her fellow queens.
She considers various names for her persona (Glory Holesome among them) before settling on Fauxnique, which carried her to victory.
Fauxnique, as Jenkinson writes, “allows me to play with ideas of belonging or feeling like I don’t…Fauxnique articulates the authenticity I found in drag.”
Through the pageant and all the performances that prepared her for it, her craft takes shape. She sings to men’s songs to keep the gendered inversion. Ballet, its details and shapes, forms the backbone of her winning number, Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” which still can be found on Youtube.
Then Jenkinson takes several detours. Her infatuation with Bette Davis, the pain of friendship breakups, an adolescent eating disorder. While Jenkinson as an only child lauds her parents for their eclectic music taste and embrace of her off-kilter dreams, they remain mostly shrouded.
Her drag family, including drag mother Juanita More!, are given more space; Jenkinson said she was transparent about permission from her cast of characters, but most don’t seem to have asked her to censor much. Heklina with her barbed love, endless perversions and booming cackle reigns supreme, even as she remains somewhat removed.
But at just under 300 pages, with Jenkinson’s nonlinear structural intent in mind, the pace can waver. The tension of how her victory came to be, from climbing the drag ranks to choreographing a six-minute number with four backup dancers, gets cleaved by comparatively demure personal anecdotes or strolls down memory alleys. A section of photographs clustered in the book’s middle feels divorced from the chapters that reference them. Though, as Jenkinson says, readers can flit around for the parts they like best.
Sensing an elephant in the room? As a cis, white woman who identifies as queer, Jenkinson understands how her presence might read as gentrifying to spaces dominated by gay men. She offers explanations, not justifications, for her place in drag in the chapter “That’s Problematic,” which analyzes how time and place shape, among other things, perceptions of what’s appropriate.
As young millennials and Gen Z’ers champion wokeness and emphasize the need to respect identity politics, Jenkinson admits that problematic behavior was alive and well in 1990s and 2000s drag in San Francisco, but it wasn’t considered such. AIDS jokes, for example, were small shields against collective grief and mass death. Even the name of the pageant, “Miss Trannyshack,” evokes a different understanding of how the word was used and aimed at marginalized people.
“My experience as a woman in that space was really welcomed,” she says. “I graduated from college in 1992, and it was many of the same conversations we’re having now—lots of hand wringing about identity categories.”
But places like now-closed queer bar The Stud, which hosted the drag club Trannyshack for years, she says, were “putting [identity] up on stage, and being really rough and ready with it…in this way that’s funny and problematic. It’s not to solve any problems, really, just to go ‘Okay, here’s this thing. Let’s look at it from these different perspectives and have fun with it.’ We weren’t really sitting around wringing our hands. And still we came together in relative difference.”
Anyone is more than welcome to reach out to Fauxnique to discuss the book, for better or worse.
The canon of drag writing is nascent and growing. Millennial drag queens or kings, regardless of gender, are navigating a new world, new language, new stages, with a new vulnerability in social media surveillance Fauxnique never experienced. If RuPaul is to be believed, people live in a little bit of drag everyday simply by dressing and walking through the world.
“Faux Queen” is like donning a bedazzled tutu for the evening. You can take it off at any time, but isn’t it so fun to sparkle and twirl for a change?