by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
La Femme Magnifique
and La Femme
Walter Cole, 79, enjoys a good drag show. That may come as no surprise to many a drag fan in Portland, Oregon. For those of you who are not in the know, Cole is - and has been - Darcelle XV, the legendary drag queen of the Pacific Northwest for the past 40 years. With thousands of shows under her tiara, Darcelle XV and company (whose numbers have varied over the years, but hover around nine drag queens and a male dancer) have performed shows in Seattle, Washington; Vancouver, B.C.; San Francisco, California; and Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, to name a few. Dressed to the nines in all her drag queen majesty, the queen from Oregon has even performed shows in England, China, and India.
With all that experience and history, it's no wonder Darcelle XV has created one of drag's premier events: La Femme Magnifique. The pageant, now in its 29th year, is, as Darcelle XV puts it, "Glitz and glamour and a passion to win the crown." This year, the regional contest will be held in Seattle at Neighbours Nightclub on May 23. The winner of the regional La Femme Magnifique and La Femme Magnifique Plus (for the healthier girls!) will advance to the La Femme Magnifique International, held on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend in the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Oregon. In the past, only three Washington drag queens - Coco Vaughn (Tacoma, 1986), Gaysha Starr (Seattle, 1994), and LaVada Dela Rosa (Seattle, 1996) - have won the crown. SGN caught up with Darcelle XV to discuss the magic of make-up, entertainment, and 40 years of fabulousness.
"In 1967, I bought a tavern [with Roxy LaRoy] in Old Town," Darcelle XV told SGN. "The laws were very different back then. You couldn't serve alcohol and have entertainment. But soon the laws changed, and our first drag shows were danced on tabletops. Forty years later, Darcelle XV Showplace is a full liquor bar with food and cabaret."
Darcelle XV told SGN that the club exists - and thrives - because of the art of drag. "It's nice to see that drag has moved into the mainstream and is something that people from all walks of life can enjoy," she said. "It didn't used to be that way, and it certainly was never on television. In the late 1960s, drag was unique and performed for all-Gay audiences. Shows were very primitive."
Darcelle XV says that although they never ran into too many problems with the police in the early days, "Gay bars weren't quite as open as they are now." The entertainer says she credits drag for helping to promote the Gay lifestyle in a fun and positive light.
Over the years, there have been certain things that have surprised the seasoned entertainer and business owner. "During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, we thought we might lose our audience because people were scared and confused about the disease," she recalled. "But that didn't happen. We did, however, lose a lot of dear friends and wonderful entertainers. The drag community really did a lot of fundraising and benefit work during those early days. We helped out whenever we could."
"I just closed Just Call Me Darcelle, a one-man show out of drag," Darcelle XV told SGN. "I talked a lot about my history and the history of drag. I think everyone should sit down and write a one-person show. It is very wonderful. It is hard to do because you can't hold back. Mine took me two years to write. I didn't hold back; I was honest with myself, and when I was through, I ended up with a very good outline of who I really am."
"If everyone did that, then no one would need therapy," Darcelle XV laughed.
"Drag is theatrical, of course," she said. "Eighty-five percent of drag queens take it very seriously. It's a lot of work. You've got to gather material to do, and costumes are very important. Years ago, we used to just throw on a dress from Goodwill. You can't get away with that anymore. Being a drag queen is also very expensive. It is, however, a beautiful art form."
Darcelle XV says she had to learn her craft onstage. "Before I became a drag queen, I was doing male characters from book plays. But once I did drag, I became addicted. When the audience applauds you, it is wonderful."
"The magic formula is to have fun," Darcelle XV told SGN. "You can't just walk out on stage knowing you are the most beautiful, painted-up creature. It isn't just the 'look' that sells the show. The look is five seconds into seeing you - you've got to follow it up with talent and fun."
Darcelle XV says that a good drag queen should be dedicated to the craft. "Discipline is important - from wearing stockings to wigs to make-up, you've got to have that discipline. A good drag show does not have 'drag time'; performers should be respectful of the audience and show up on time."
The 29th Annual La Femme Magnifique and (for the first time) La Femme Magnifique Plus will seat 800 people at 80 tables. The production is no small undertaking, and Darcelle XV promises that audience members are never disappointed. "The winner seems to stand out from the minute they walk out onstage," she said. "The competition consists of formal wear, theme wear [this year's theme is the Garden of Eden], a talent showcase, and a Las Vegas showgirl [segment]."
"This year, I've been asked to be a grand marshal for the Portland Pride Parade," she said. "When the parade is through, I will wash my face and go out with my family. I have two children and two grandchildren from a previous marriage. Although Roxy and I have been together for over 40 years, we haven't been able to conceive yet - but we're still trying!"
"I think everyday LGBT people should be proud," said Darcelle XV. "We need to be proud of who we are and where we've come from. In the past, a drag queen would have never been invited to important events. Now, over the past 40 years, I've attended or performed at mayoral and city council victory brunches. I'm proud that, in Portland, I've helped with positive interaction between the Gay and straight community at large."
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