People love RuPaul's Drag Race.
Small-town drag queens dream of one day appearing on the competitive reality show. It's the Olympics of drag.
A few weeks ago, in the Rockhouse, a St. John's bar, six queens competed in a crowded venue to chase that dream. The winner of that tense, tightly contested drag competition would earn the right to open for Aja, a superstar with a two-season tenure on the fabled reality television institution.
Sherry Hibiscus was crowned the victor after an insane routine: she spat red glitter into the crowd. She brandished a prop dagger smeared with crimson makeup. She absolutely dominated.
The surprised faces from what I do on stage were the biggest deal for me. - Shawn Lewis
By day, Sherry goes by Shawn Lewis, a mild-mannered café manager who happens to excel at this niche craft.
"The surprised faces from what I do on stage were the biggest deal for me," said Lewis after his victory.
"On Saturday the biggest surprise was me actually putting glitter in my mouth, and everyone was like, 'What are you doing?' That's the energy I want. That shock value from something that's not so serious."
Drag in St. John's is here to stay
None of this would have been possible if not for the passion of the local drag scene.
Lewis was still relatively new to the game when he won the big contest, but he was embraced and assisted by a strong community of local enthusiasts.
"The drag scene is certainly growing rapidly. Myself, I've only been doing it for six months, so just to have that community be so accepting and loving and uplifting, I find that that's the biggest thing that I've realized."
Lewis's drag persona of Sherry Hibiscus is a unique twist on contemporary horror movie conventions, and those surreal and bizarre motifs make for entertaining shows.
"I like to call her the dusty doll that you found in your nan's attic," said Lewis.
"The biggest comparison I could make is Annabelle, the demon-possessed doll.… The character for me is someone who sort of goes from zero to 100 very quickly, and I try to reflect that in the music choices that I use. So I usually start off slow and end insanely fast and insanely upbeat."
Lewis has come a long way since his debut performance as Sherry.
There are people who can discover their own personal identities through the art of drag. - Shawn Lewis
"The first time I ever went out was Dec. 28. I'll never forget. I had not a cream product to be seen.
"My drag parent, Madame Daddy, my best friend of 13 years … if you saw their face that night, you wouldn't believe where I am today. I started officially performing around the beginning of January this year and I've been doing it almost weekly, sometimes twice, since."
Part of what makes drag appeal to Lewis, and what makes it so exciting as a performance medium generally, is its multimedia format.
There's the audio of a mixed lip-synch track, there's dance, there's costume design; Sherry's routine has involved painting canvas props and forcing an interactive element into his shows. Drag spectators can be made to taste the performance.
I think right now there's a lot of standards that are put by consumers and by the public — but it takes a lot to be, like, 'You know what? Eff that.' - Aja
During one routine of Sherry's, she pours something into teacups and requests that audience members drink the unknown liquid. Some did, and some didn't. It was just Mountain Dew Kickstart.
These are the sorts of things you can only really engage in at a solidly done drag show.
Aja, the superstar who Sherry will open for, hasn't been to Newfoundland before — but they love Canada.
"I love Canada. There was a time where I went to Canada legit like six times in one month. I went, then I left, then I went then I left... I think Canada's great," said Aja (alter ego: Jay Rivera).
Aja had some words of wisdom for Lewis, and others like him, trying to make it big in smaller cities.
"My advice for anyone who is trying to make it in the world is, honestly, just be yourself and just understand that there's nothing more precious or entertaining than authenticity," said Aja.
"I think right now there's a lot of standards that are put by consumers and by the public but it takes a lot to be, like, 'You know what? Eff that. That's not what's important. What's important is remaining true to myself.'"
More than men dressing as women
The biggest misconception Aja hears — not just by the general public but even people they're close to — is the generalization that drag is just men dressing up as women.
"That's definitely something that I went into it thinking about. Because, of course, a lot of people's only experience with drag is RuPaul's Drag Race," they said.
"So the biggest thing for me that I would want people to know is that drag is not a performance of a man dressing up as a woman, but it's a performance of gender and a performance of bending that reality for four or five minutes.
"And there are people who can discover their own personal identities through the art of drag."
You can catch Sherry Hibiscus and Aja performing live at Club One on July 13. You might want to bring a poncho in case of glitter.