Photographer Madeline Gray lived Kinston, N.C., from 2018 to 2020. She returned this month to document a drag brunch, which continues to be controversial with some people protesting the monthly gatherings. As Pride month wraps up across the country, Gray spent time with some of the performers in this rural North Carolina town to see how they're striving to build an inclusive space in this traditionally conservative community. PHOTO GALLERY:
Miss ENC Pride Michelle Michaels applies false eyelashes before hosting a drag brunch at The Herritage. Michaels began performing 25 years ago in Texas after learning how to do stage makeup for musical theater. Michaels won the very first drag competition she ever competed in and now performs throughout the state.
Veruca Salt prepares for her drag performance during ENC Pride's festival to celebrate Pride Month. Although the drag shows started in February of 2020, the community Pride event scheduled for June of 2020 had to be cancelled due to covid restrictions. However, this month's event brought performers from as far away as Raleigh and attendees from all over Eastern North Carolina including Greenville, New Bern, and Jacksonville.
Michelle Michaels waits for other performers to arrive before a special ENC Pride celebration for Pride Month. The drag brunches are a fundraising opportunity for a larger Pride festival that will take place in Kinston in October. Michaels explains that it's easier to be accepted as a drag queen in bigger cities, but in rural communities it can be "a bit more tricky." ENC Pride hopes to bring together the LGBTQIA+ community in Eastern North Carolina and offer many people their first opportunity to attend a drag show.
Veruca Salt performs for a full house during the ENC Pride festival. Austin Moore, the Board President for ENC Pride, explains that when he moved to Eastern North Carolina, he felt like an outsider and felt like there were "not a lot of safe places for LGBTQ people to go." And then he says that moving to Kinston initially felt even worse in terms of there being "absolutely nothing" that reflected the LGBTQ members of the community. So he and The Herritage owner, Laurie Anderson, decided to change that.
Veruca Salt, a drag performer based in Raleigh, sprays her hair before performing at The Herritage. Salt explains that she snuck into her first drag event at age 17. "I saw the local queens do an amazing show and knew instantly that all of my interests of makeup, hair, show business had a name, DRAG!"
Michelle Michaels takes a break before continuing to host the ENC Pride drag brunch to celebrate Pride month. The event featured professional drag king and queen performers as well as an amateur competition for those just starting out in drag.
Miss ENC Pride Michelle Michaels, right, performs for attendees including Mr. ENC Pride Eli Stone, left wearing a crown, and Charli Livertone, center with rainbow socks. Eli Stone who has been performing as a drag king for three years says that "I'm actually about to be 37 but I will say, I wish I had been exposed to this kind of art and culture when I was younger." Drag brunches "are an amazing place for LGBTQIA+ to find love and acceptance."
Michelle Michaels hops down from the bar during her performance. After 25 years Michaels says she has drag great grandkids referencing all of the performers she has mentored over the years. She sees her role as paving the way to make drag "easier and more fulfilling as those before me did. As a momma to Eastern North Carolina I always hope to look out for them [young performers] and provide safe homes where all feel welcome."
Attendees including Linda Watkins, of La Grange, line up to offer money and respect to Michelle Michaels as she hosts ENC Pride's celebration for Pride month. Often when a drag queen is performing in her crown, admirers form a line to honor them and their accomplishments.
Veruca Salt performs at The Herritage. Salt explains that "Eastern NC drag is unique because we have such an eclectic style of pageantry, old school and new school influence. We also have to navigate spaces to keep drag alive" in places where such events might not be as well established.
Jupiter Moon performs under a cloud of confetti during the amateur show at ENC Pride's June event to celebrate Pride month. Mr. ENC Pride Eli Stone, who has started to mentor amateur drag kings, says "these small town shows have become a place of acceptance for all, there is so much love and room for all kinds of people." Drag brunches like this one are a place "to enjoy seeing all sorts of humans, races, genders and gender representations, different types of families."
Ivory Sanchez collects dollar bills from attendees during the amateur show of ENC Pride's drag brunch. Sanchez won the amateur competition and as a result will have a real paid booking as part of July's show alongside professional performers.
Miss ENC Pride Michelle Michaels and Mr. ENC Pride Eli Stone stand backstage after performing at The Herritage. Michaels who was the first to hold the title of Miss ENC Pride will relinquish her crown in September when ENC Pride hosts a pageant contest to crown the next queen and king.
Jupiter Moon pauses after her performance. It was only her second time ever performing in drag and she says "It really felt like a flower blooming for the first time and everyone was in awe of the beauty."