It’s Not Just the Story of Drag in Brooklyn, It’s the Story of America

HOW YOU GET FAMOUS: Ten Years of Drag Madness in Brooklyn, by Nicole Pasulka

Nicole Pasulka’s “How You Get Famous” opens in 2011, with a scene of two teenage queens racing to catch the subway as they embark on their first night in drag in Manhattan. Aja and Esai are 17 and 14 years old, Black and Latinx, “two Brooklyn teenagers in search of attention, cash and adventure in the big city.” Esai stumbles along in gold shoes Aja bought him with a few dollars earned from reading tarot cards. Their mission: Get into a gay bar despite being underage, perform in a drag show and win prize money. It isn’t a spoiler to say they are successful getting to, and in, a club. And while they didn’t win any contests that night, Aja made an impression strong enough to begin opening the doors that led her all the way to “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” twice, making and discarding names along the way, emerging at last as Aja LaBeija, a rapper who no longer identifies as a drag performer.

Aja’s journey is one of the many stories documented in “How You Get Famous.” Drawing on approximately 100 interviews and many years of reporting, Pasulka is a narrator and not a character here, and this distance gives her space to document the sweeping issues facing drag, like the significant generational and class divides. The book is told novelistically, in the third person, and follows the various origins and career trajectories of several drag queens who shaped the Brooklyn scene from 2010 to the end of 2019: Merry Cherry, the Williamsburg hostess and drag impresario who works a boring corporate day job; Thorgy Thor, the high-concept queen with classical piano and violin training; Veruca la’Piranha, the self-proclaimed “first drag queen to ever perform a Lady Gaga song”; Untitled Queen, or “Picasso come to life,” as Esai dubbed him, a drag alter ego for the artist Matthew de Leon. Pasulka introduces readers to experimental drag collectives, like Switch ’n Play and backSpace, queens from Ohio with dreams of precision dancing who compete and eventually collaborate with queens from the piers in the West Village, who learned from vogue ballroom legends. The resulting book is funny, poignant, dishy and even enlightening, all at the same time.

The performers at the center of “How You Get Famous” pushed the art of drag while also becoming famous in a neighborhood abandoned to gentrification. Their struggles and successes defined a drag scene where becoming a legend is a career move. The ballrooms and the piers, with performances conducted for a community, are still present, but the drag scene that Aja and Esai set off for when they were kids was a show business conducted in gay bars, where performances for cash could, and did, lead to much bigger things.

For the queens Pasulka follows over the decade, celebrity is the key to everything from business success to social mobility to gender-affirming health care. As Pasulka outlines in her author’s note at the beginning of the book, the circumstances for queer people in the United States have generally improved over the years, but there is still no stable access to L.G.B.T.Q. civil rights in the country, especially in the current political climate where those rights are under attack in multiple states and potentially at risk from a conservative Supreme Court. Celebrity for drag performers is now a path to personhood and the status that might protect you when your government and family won’t. And so “How You Get Famous” isn’t just the story of a niche nightclub scene in Brooklyn — it’s the story of America now.

Alexander Chee is the author of the novel “The Queen of the Night” and the essay collection “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.”

HOW YOU GET FAMOUS: Ten Years of Drag Madness in Brooklyn, by Nicole Pasulka | Illustrated | 319 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $27.99

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