For decades, rock music and drag culture have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, from the moment David Bowie donned his androgynous Ziggy Stardust persona right up to the recent Pantages revival of John Cameron Mitchell's raucous Hedwig and the Angry Inch. On Jan. 27-28, this tradition of gender-ambiguous rock continues with Dragapalooza, a live, 90-minute, drag rock & roll show at North Hollywood's El Portal Theatre. Produced by Michael Benedetti, with artistic direction by the Grammy-nominated Chris Cox, the two-night event features a sizzling sextet of RuPaul's Drag Race superstars, as well as a guest performance by local drag darling Rhea Litre, all singing with a live band.
“You could almost think of this as Ozzfest for drag music,” Benedetti joked in an online interview. “Artists like RuPaul paved the way for drag queens developing their own personality and stage persona, and the new generation has taken that idea to amazing levels. Drag is the punk rock that we children of the ’80s had; mysterious, badass, accepting and unique. Drag brings that extra power to the night.”
Nightlife is Benedetti's area of expertise. His career began in 2001, when he started working under notable promoter Johnny Chisholm at New Orlean's debaucherous OZ nightclub. Chisholm, whose event credits include Orlando Gay Days and Memorial Weekend Pensacola, quickly took Benedetti under his wing, promoting him to director of public relations.
“It was an incredible time and he allowed me to grow, expand my knowledge and passion. We are still close friends. From there, I started my company, Executive PR and Talent, and started promoting, touring, booking and producing events all over the world, from Ibiza to Brazil to Australia, and even Greenland,” recalled Benedetti, who plans to tour Dragapalooza internationally following the Los Angeles debut. “It is truly my passion and I am excited for Dragapalooza to bring happiness and excitement to the world.”
In addition to Chisholm's influence, Dragapalooza owes much of its germination to the quintessential ’90s alternative-music festival Lollapalooza, and not just as a namesake. Benedetti's drag/rock hybrid formula can be traced back to Lollapalooza founder and Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, who garnered attention for his band by often crossdressing during performances.
Dragapalooza artistic director Cox worked with Farrell, so he and Benedetti attended several Lollapaloozas together. “It was this insane band camp and everyone was so happy,” Benedetti said. “It brought people of all ages and demographics together. I knew I wanted to bring that feeling back to the drag fans in an avenue where the fans can experience what I did.”
Benedetti's vision finally came together after he saw Mimi Imfurst's Divas of Drag show in New Orleans in April 2015. “We were backstage talking and looked at each other and said, 'We need to throw Dragapalooza.' That next morning I started the trademark and, 21 months later, here we are.”
Mimi will be joined onstage by RuPaul's Drag Race alums Courtney Act, Derrick Barry, Trixie Mattel, Sharon Needles and the mononymous Willam. For those not initiated into the realm of contemporary gender illusion, Drag Race is a reality series airing on homocentric television network Logo where contestants compete by turning out the fiercest looks and flaunting them down the runway. The series sets the bar for quality in the drag community and, despite its competitive nature, has fostered a sense of sorority between its contestants, who often refer to each other as “sisters.” This familial bond permeates the ranks of Dragapalooza.
“The initial cast [is] people I already deal with on a daily basis,” Benedetti explained. “Chris Cox has done several DJ shows and appearances [with] artists on the roster, and produced a [single] with Derrick Barry in 2016. The criteria [was] people that possess great natural singing talent. After that it became simple logistics.”
That the performers sing live at Dragapalooza is notable, because a longtime staple of drag has been lip syncing. Drag Race features a recurring segment called “Lip Sync for Your Life.” But the six Dragapalooza performers were selected specifically for their vocal prowess. Courtney Act, for example, holds the distinction of being the first drag performer in history to sing live with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and has collaborated with Willam and their fellow RPDR colleague Alaska Thunderfuck on the holiday-themed comedy song “Christmas Sweater.”
“The simple fact is,” boasted Benedetti, “these girls can sing!”
For more on Dragapalooza at the Portal Theatre on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28, visit dragapalooza.net.