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Economic Pulse

The future is uncertain for Tennessee drag artists

Sabri Ben-Achour and Erika Soderstrom May 26, 2023
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Cameron Wade, also known as Justine Van de Blair, shares what life has been like following the news of Tennessee's anti-drag law. Cody Stallings
Economic Pulse

The future is uncertain for Tennessee drag artists

Sabri Ben-Achour and Erika Soderstrom May 26, 2023
Heard on:
Cameron Wade, also known as Justine Van de Blair, shares what life has been like following the news of Tennessee's anti-drag law. Cody Stallings
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In about a week we’ll learn what becomes of Tennessee’s anti-drag legislation. The law, which aims to heavily restrict drag performances in the state, has been stalled in a legal battle over free speech protections.

But what has news of the law meant for the business of drag? For Cameron Wade, an HR generalist and Nashville-based drag queen under the name Justine Van de Blair, business is good. “I would say that the current state of things backfired on the senators and those who created this ban, because there’s just been an overwhelming outpouring of opportunity and support.”

The response hasn’t been all positive, however. “I don’t know if my eyes are just open to it or you know, just how much that this [law] has allowed people to feel comfortable violating us on social media or in public,” Wade said in an interview with Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour. 

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sabri Ben-Achour: So what what got you into drag originally?

Cameron Wade: Well, you know, in high school, I was always drawn to musicals and Broadway and choir and church, all that good stuff. And prior to graduating high school, I had no experience with anything other than those things. And so I went to my first gay club and they were hosting a drag show that night. And I remember just, there was a specific queen who rounded the corner and opened the show, and I remember seeing like the rhinestones and the feathers and just being super mesmerized and captivated and it all kind of clicked in that moment. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is everything I love in one. This is for me.’ And eventually worked my way into the backstage watching the performers put their makeup on and get dressed. It was just… it’s always and it still is just an interesting process to me.

Ben-Achour: Your stage name is Justine Van de Blair, drag artists tend to have pretty unique names. What’s the backstory behind yours?

Wade: Yeah, I know, mine is actually a mouthful. My first name Justine comes from, at the time I had come from a very, very, very religious, you know, and right wing family, and some of my initial friends — like getting outside of high school and, you know, making my own — I had a straight couple named Justin and Christine. At the time they were together, sadly they’re not together anymore. But they were my first set of allies and the first name was a tribute to them. My last name was a show I was watching at the time, “Gossip Girl.” And the two main divas on that show were Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf. So I just kind of meshed a bunch of names together and came up with mine.

Ben-Achour: [Laughs] Now, is this something that you do like for fun as a hobby? Or is it an actual full on business?

Wade: Well, it’s interesting. When I lived in South Carolina, it was definitely primarily a creative outlet. You know, I was obviously obsessed with it. I loved the transformation process. I loved the time that goes into backstage and all the stuff, like creating your looks, your hair. When I moved to Tennessee, a lot of the queens here it’s business. I’d never been exposed to it quite on the level of business that it is here. So I’d say right now, it’s definitely a business. But it’s great because it serves a dual purpose, I do get to use it as a creative outlet as well.

Ben-Achour: We’ve seen this push to restrict drag performance in several states, to kind of classify it as something that’s not suitable for public spaces, to other-ize it. Tennessee’s law was the first and has since been temporarily blocked by a court. But what does this mean for your business?

Wade: Yeah, so you know, initially, it was very vague. We had no idea what it meant. Like, okay, so if we’re not in a public space, when we’re walking through a public space and you happen to be in drag, could anybody come up and say, ‘You were performing or being in drag in front of my child.’ And we didn’t feel very protected, we felt very vulnerable. Now, you know, we’ve had a lot of support. I know it’s not over yet. I don’t want to say we’ve won anything, but it’s definitely a threat. It’s definitely… it gives you anxiety, I’ve never really had problems with anxiety or problems with being myself and now it’s, you know, it’s just kind of all up in the air.

Ben-Achour: Has it made any difference in audience?

Wade: I would say that the current state of things backfired on the senators and those who created this ban, because there’s just been an overwhelming outpouring of opportunity and support.

Ben-Achour: Transforming into drag takes a lot. There’s makeup, there’s hair. And inflation is basically being felt everywhere these days. How has that affected your business?

Wade: Yeah, so it is very expensive. I use the gigs that I have to basically reinvest. You touched on my day job, which is an HR generalist, I do real estate on the side, that’s what I use to pay my bills but drag all kinds of goes into itself. So when we don’t have opportunities I don’t have, I don’t have anything to reinvest into my craft. And yeah, you can buy stuff you can… you know, we like to say we don’t do things off the rack we get everything kind of custom made. But stuff needs upkeep, hair needs restyled so yeah it’s a huge investment. And you know when it’s threatened to be taken away it’s a big deal.

Ben-Achour: You just got back from RuPaul’s DragCon in LA, was this push to restrict drag felt there? What was the experience there?

Wade: I did not feel the push there. You know, originally me and one of my performer friends locally, we we go every year and we were just going to go and attend you know, almost like a vacation. But a group that we work with here in Tennessee, inclusion tennessee, worked with us. And we brought a bunch of performers up. And we also, we had a booth at the conference, and we performed at a club, where basically it was “Queens supporting Queens” was the title of the show. So we had Tennessee and California girls all together, just embracing each other and supporting each other. Other than that, I would say the only thing that was kind of felt was there were some protesters being very, very rude, near the entrance. I mean, they were… it was hateful stuff coming out of their mouth. But California has always shown the love. I’ve never really experienced issues there.

Ben-Achour: Yeah, you mentioned protesters, you know, we have seen violence against the LGBTQ community before. Are you at all worried that this kind of attention focused on drag might encourage harassment and violence?

Wade: Yes, and you could see it from the day that this was an idea. I had never really seen a lot personally. But now, it’s weird because I don’t know if my eyes are just open to it or… you know, just how much that this has allowed people to feel comfortable violating us on social media or in public, but yes, I notice it everywhere now.

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