HOW YOU BECOME FAMOUS: Ten years of drag madness in Brooklynby Nicole Pasulka
Nicole Pasulka’s “How You Get Famous” opens in 2011, with a scene of two teenage queens racing to catch the subway as they embark on their first night of drag in Manhattan. Aja and Esai are 17 and 14, Black and Latinx, “two teenagers from Brooklyn looking for attention, money and adventure in the big city.” Esai stumbles into golden shoes Aja bought her with a few dollars earned from reading tarot cards. Their mission: enter a gay bar despite being underage, take part in a drag show and win cash prizes. It is not a spoiler to say that they manage to surrender and enter a club. And although they didn’t win any contests that night, Aja made quite an impression to start opening the doors that led her to ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ twice, making and rejecting names along the way, finally emerging as Aja LaBeija, a rapper who no longer identifies as a flirt.
Aja’s journey is one of many stories documented in “How You Get Famous”. Drawing on approximately 100 interviews and many years of reporting, Pasulka is here a narrator, not a character, and this distance gives her the space to document the broad issues facing dating, such as significant generational divides and of class. The book is told in a romantic, third-person manner, and follows the diverse backgrounds and career trajectories of several drag queens who shaped the Brooklyn scene from 2010 to late 2019: Merry Cherry, hostess of Williamsburg and impresario of drag who works in a boring day job company; Thorgy Thor, the high concept queen with a classical piano and violin background; Veruca la’Piranha, the self-proclaimed “first drag queen to perform a Lady Gaga song”; Untitled Queen, or “Picasso Comes to Life,” as Esai dubbed her, a drag alter ego for artist Matthew de Leon. Pasulka introduces readers to experimental drag collectives, like Switch ‘n Play and backSpace, Ohio queens with dreams of precision dancing who compete and ultimately collaborate with queens of the West Village piers, who have learned from legends of the fashionable ballroom. The resulting book is simultaneously funny, poignant, flat and even instructive.
The performers at the center of “How You Get Famous” pushed the art of drag while rising to fame in a neighborhood abandoned to gentrification. Their struggles and successes have defined a drag scene where becoming a legend is a career change. Ballrooms and piers, with performances made for a community, are still present, but the drag scene that Aja and Esai got into when they were children was a show business conducted in gay bars, where performances for money could, and did, lead to much greater things.
For the queens Pasulka follows over the decade, fame is key to everything from business success to social mobility to gender-affirming healthcare. As Pasulka points out in her author’s note at the beginning of the book, the situation for gay people in the United States has generally improved over the years, but there is still no stable access to LGBTQ civil rights. in the country, especially in the current political situation. a climate where these rights are under attack in several states and potentially threatened by a conservative Supreme Court. Stardom for drag performers is now a path to personality and status that could protect you when your government and family won’t. And so “How You Get Famous” isn’t just the story of a niche nightclub scene in Brooklyn — it’s the story of America now.
Alexander Chee is the author of the novel “The Queen of the Night” and the collection of essays “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”.
HOW YOU BECOME FAMOUS: Ten years of drag madness in Brooklyn, by Nicole Pasulka | Illustrated | 319 pages | Simon & Schuster | $27.99