Striking Portraits Of America’s Most Legendary Drag Queens

An ongoing photo series honors the art form’s true pioneers during Pride Month and beyond

Dolly Levi

Photo: Harry James Hanson

In Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson, a 2012 documentary filmed shortly before Johnson’s death, the activist and drag queen says, “History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable. It happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment. But those moments are cumulative realities.” Johnson was referencing the Stonewall Riots, which began in lower Manhattan on June 28, 1969, and collectively remain a monumental juncture for civil rights in America.

While the demonstrations—led by Johnson and other trans women of color including Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy—arose in direct response to a local police raid targeting the LGBTQ community, they quickly evolved into a larger retaliation against widespread discrimination and injustice, and signified an important tipping point for the gay liberation movement. Now, as we celebrate Pride Month 51 years later in the midst of another historic cumulative revolution, we are looking back on those figures who were once considered unruly rioters or radical activists, and celebrate them for the barriers they broke down.

It’s queer icons like these that Harry James Hanson and Devin Antheus seek to recognize and capture in their ongoing photo series, Legends of Drag. Featuring striking, high-drama photos alongside captivating interviews, the project highlights drag elders from all over the country who were instrumental in securing rights for today’s queer community and championing the art of drag. From Darcelle XV, the oldest working drag queen at age 89, to Donna Personna, who participated in the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco, each queen has an extraordinary story to tell.

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“As teenagers in the Midwest, it would have been incredible to be able to access this kind of archive.”

“We’re creating work that we would have loved to have had as adolescents,” explains Hanson, who met Antheus when the two were teenagers growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Now based in Brooklyn, the lifelong drag performer works as an artist and creative director, and serves as the project’s photographer. “As queer people coming of age, as teenagers in the Midwest, it would have been incredible to be able to access this kind of archive that chronicles queer history and celebrates it.”

The visual component of the projects puts a dizzying spin on royal portraiture: For each shoot, the queen arrives to set completely self-styled and with a made-up face, often flanked by a group of her drag daughters who have tagged along for moral support. “Every shoot we’ve done has really been each of the queens bringing the fullness of the looks they’re able to turn,” says Antheus, who lives in San Francisco. Whether dripping in ethereal jewels like Dolly Levi or covered in kaleidoscopic color blocking like Psycadella Façade, the queens’ ensembles speak to their own particular brand of drag.

As a lush touch, Antheus, a spirit worker, writer, and floral designer, creates a gorgeous custom floral arrangement for each portrait, selecting blooms based on their seasonality and uniqueness. “I’ve taken to thinking of the flowers that I do for the queens as being queer in and of themselves. We’re using a lot of unique blooms and flowers that are dyed, flowers that are painted,” they explain. “For example, carnations are thought of as being fairly pedestrian, but we’ll incorporate them in a dynamic way that makes people look at them differently. And we’ll use a lot of anthuriums, which are just very queer in and of themselves.”

The resulting photos are explosive, rivaled in charisma only by their accompanying biographies, which cover the queens’ illustrious careers and the parties, people, spaces, and memories that defined them. “We also ask them what advice they would have for younger queens and what their relationship with younger drag queens is like, because a focus of the project is about fostering intergenerational exchange,” says Hanson.

“Being millennial generation queers, we definitely grew up with a lack of elders specifically because of the AIDS crisis,” explains Antheus. “A lot of people who would have been there to show us the way or explain things weren’t there.”

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“It’s important for the children to know that [drag is] not just entertainment on TV, it’s also a ritual tradition inherited from our queer ancestors.”

Right now, there’s one very singular version of drag being celebrated within popular culture largely thanks to the rise of RuPaul’s Drag Race. While drag going mainstream represents enormous progress, it’s also allowed for the erasure of the art form’s diverse roots and deeper significance—roots that this project aims to unearth. “Drag is entertainment and it’s joyous, and there’s so much about the performance aspect of it that is to be celebrated,” says Hanson. “But it’s important for the children to know that it’s not just entertainment on TV, it’s also a ritual tradition inherited from our queer ancestors. These elder queens are a bridge between that history and the future generation of drag.”

Currently, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic that disproportionately affects the LGBTQ community, people of color, and the elderly. Hanson and Antheus note that some of the queens they have photographed reside in assisted living facilities and that all have been financially strained due to the closure of drag venues and live performance spaces. “There’s this twofold dynamic going on, where on the one hand, we have people who do share the collective memory of what it means to survive a plague and what it means to live through what feels like an unprecedented era of pandemic, and on the other, these are the exact people who are most at risk of this particular situation,” says Antheus. “There really is this tightrope that we as a project need to walk—trying to receive and preserve and, hopefully, transmit as much of that knowledge as we can so that it isn’t lost to us while fighting for and prioritizing the survival of these queens.”

If you’d like to help the duo with a contribution, click here, and be sure to follow the project on Instagram at @legendsofdrag. Below, Hanson and Antheus share eight of their newest portraits and accompanying interviews with BAZAAR.com.

This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.

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