Evie Lovett’s transformation began in the basement of the Rainbow Cattle Co., a gay bar in Dummerston, Vermont. As she photographed everyday Vermont citizens turning themselves into divas of the stage—padding their hips and busts, lavishly applying lipstick and eyeliner and donning gorgeous wigs—she asked herself, “How do I let my hair down?”
It was the drag queen called Mama who encouraged Lovett to capture the metamorphosis of these men (and one woman) into fabulous vamping and strutting performance artists: The Ladies of the Rainbow. Lovett recalls Mama telling her: “You don’t want a photograph of us performing. You want a photograph of us backstage.”
“What an enormous gift it is when someone opens their life to you,” says Lovett. “They just opened the door to me.” And once a month for two years, Lovett captured the dazzling personas emerge in the Rainbow Cattle Co.’s basement.
Lovett’s photography show Backstage at the Rainbow Cattle Co.: the Drag Queens of Dummerston, Vermont is touring the state. It’s also been to Boston, Cape Cod, and even Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The show, Lovett’s photography joined with audio segments from interviews with the ladies, will be opening at The Plainfield Community Center on April 18.
Lovett felt her photographs—“Contemplative, individual, square, black and white,” taken with a 35mm Roloflex—reflected her as an artist, but they didn’t fully capture the drag queens that she had come to know. In 2010, five years after the Rainbow Cattle Co closed, Greg Sharrow from the Vermont Folklife Center helped Lovett record interviews with five of the main members of the troupe to make the show more complete. Visitors to the show can now dial into 19 audio recordings with their cell phones while looking at Lovett’s rich and candid black and white photographs. The audio adds “a sense of how fun and outrageous they are,” Lovett says. “These individuals are in touch with themselves. They know themselves.”
“They are phenomenally brave,” Lovett adds. It is already “tough…to be gay in this culture.” But a drag queen? “You are going to be gay and put on heels?”
Lovett’s show helps you understand the reason why. Miss Candi Schtick, one of the ladies, found that “growing up in a small town in Vermont, it was hard to let people in, to see my creative and fabulous side.” But she found her voice “loud and clear” on stage.
Yearning to unearth our true selves is a universal experience, not reserved for closet drag queens, Candi reflects. If put into effect, the discovery and acceptance are empowering. As she articulates, “Anybody who works a ‘nine-to-five’ everyday and goes home at night and says, ‘you know what? I wish I could,’ that’s their ‘drag.’ If they ever push to experience that, they’ll find that freedom, that liberation.”
But change and acceptance come slowly. Lovett tells a story about Vermont’s transformation. In 2000, at the height of the civil unions debate, a large wooden “Take Back Vermont” billboard was erected at a local gas station in Putney—pushback against the proposed changes. Lovett passed through Putney often and had been using the station. But when the sign appeared, Lovett stopped going in quiet protest. Recently, on her way to one of the drag queen’s fundraisers with posters in hand that advertised their show, she passed the station. The billboard now gone, Lovett asked herself, “Should I peel in and ask them to put up a poster for the drag performance?“ Taking a chance she went in. “And they said, ‘Yeah yeah!’” With relief, Lovett noted the change. “Fourteen years makes a difference.”
Feedback isn’t always positive. Although, commentary from visitors to the show is usually encouraging—“You awakened me to people and situations I hardly knew existed,” wrote one visitor to the Rutland exhibit—Lovett ran into less favorable reception in Newport. There, some visitors found the show “distasteful,” “disgusting” and “immoral.” Perhaps if they knew the drag queens by day, they’d have a change of heart.
Onstage, the drag queens work for free, for the love of it. Offstage, all of the queens have full-time jobs. Lovett counts them off: “Candi works at Vermont Yankee. Mama is a nurse at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Kitty is a nurse’s aid. Mercedes works at Northfield Mount Herman. Sophia runs the Windham County Humane Society.” While the queens work in mainstream Vermont, Lovett continues to focus on her photography and her own sea change.
“I’m this sort of white-bread, straight chick. Yet I am so burdened—I think we all are—with what we think we are supposed to be. Good wife, good partner, good parent, good citizen. I think we sometimes don’t let ourselves be who we are.”
“How have I transformed?” she asks herself. “It’s not sexy…but I feel more comfortable with the fact that I’m an introvert…knowing them [the drag queens], seeing their strength has given me strength. I wish I could say, ‘Now I perform in drag.’ But that isn’t my thing.”
Lovett’s art is also changing. She used to focus her lens on others; now her work is “more about self and expression, less about others.”
“I didn’t think I had much in common with someone who dressed as a drag queen, but I emerged wishing I had more in common—more guts to explore a different facet of myself, to be courageous and outrageous, to write my own life story rather than follow a prescribed path that I feel I ‘should’ walk. My time with the Ladies has prompted me to ask myself: ‘how can I achieve that degree of freedom of expression in my own life?’”