By Sohi Kang/El Inde
Lil Miss Hot Mess has been doing drag before she even knew what it was. She just didn’t have the language for it yet. As a kid, she would do crafts with her grandmother, creating costumes that she would dress up and perform in. She would don tutus with her ballet friend and play imaginative games with others as different characters, in what she refers to now as “drag-adjacent” activities. In high school, Lil Miss played a character in drag for a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but wasn’t quite ready to call what she did drag.
Today, at age 38, Lil Miss Hot Mess has appeared on national news, authored two drag-themed picture books and has even had her likeness used in a Marco Rubio campaign ad. The video featured a clip of Lil Miss during a Drag Story Hour, a nonprofit organization that brings story times to children led by drag performers. As she reads to children, the Republican Florida senator can be heard saying in a narration, “The radical left will destroy children if we don’t stop them. They indoctrinate children, try to turn boys into girls.” Lil Miss made a direct response to the senator in an Instagram post, questioning why Rubio was so “obsessed” with her and Drag Story Hour. She said the organization’s goal was simply to read books to children and encourage them to use their imagination for a more just and fabulous world. “You on the other hand are out here during a hurricane that is pummeling your state spreading hateful, homophobic and transphobic bigotry,” she said in the video.
As someone who can now be considered the face of Drag Story Hour, what she does now can certainly be called drag.
“[Drag is an] opening up of possibilities, opening up of the imagination, creating a sense of play for the sake of play, without having to necessarily have strict A-B-C learning guidelines or outcomes behind it,” – Lil Miss Hot Mess at the 2022 University of Arizona Downtown Lecture Series.
Lil Miss Hot Mess sort of fell into Drag Story Hour. She had been professionally performing since 2008 in bars and other nightlife spaces throughout San Francisco. But in 2015, after moving to New York and not performing as much, she got an offer from her friend and founder of Drag Story Hour, Michelle Tea. Tea asked her to do a reading in the city, and she was hooked.
It presented Lil Miss with a fun, different avenue to perform. Usually lasting less than an hour, a story time typically consists of a welcome song, reading around three books with songs or movement breaks in between, talking about what a drag performer is and guiding kids through an arts and craft activity. Story times were energizing to Lil Miss, and she saw a political value in it as well. Drag seemed to be the perfect conduit for the imaginative minds of children. Kids are not quite baked into society’s norms and expectations, so the element of play in drag often came to them naturally.
Before she started Drag Story Hour, she recalled a time where she was at an ice cream shop doing a photoshoot. A dad and his daughter were there, with the little girl watching Lil Miss Hot Mess in awe. Eventually, she made her way over to greet the drag queen. “It was something overly formal, and I think she may have curtsied. It felt like she was trying to introduce herself to someone who she thought was royalty or important in some way,” Lil Miss said. With a larger-than-life and less-than-subtle appearance, the drag queen compared her look to the characters at Disney World.
“Kids are excited about the fantasy and play of it. They see us as real-life queens or princesses or superheroes or cartoons,” she said. Her own drag persona is self-described as “the bat mitzvah girl meets the grandmother,” with Lil Miss Hot Mess in glittery patterns, bright colors and big, curly hair. The style is inspired by her grandmother who would wear sequins and beaded clothing at fancy occasions.
At her story hours, a book she often reads is her own published picture book, Hips on the Drag Queen, a nursery rhyme playing off the classic tune, “The Wheels on the Bus” to depict a drag queen performing her routine. The book was written out of a desire to create a safe space for kids to experiment. In her own childhood, she was teased and shamed for being gay, queer and feminine. “I remember as a young adult wearing pink and people making comments, even my family saying things about how boys shouldn’t wear that much pink. I want to give people license to … play around in different ways,” Lil Miss said. “Being told that you swish [your hips] too much is part of that.”
Her book comes at a time where more and more queer stories are published each year, which can be compared to the movement of Drag Story Hour – the demand for this representation has allowed it to grow. Currently, the organization boasts 28 chapters in the United States, along with chapters in Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Japan.
Arizona, where Lil Miss Hot Mess currently lives, boasts one of the largest, prominent chapters of Drag Story Hour in the country. Yet, they do not receive public funding like in San Francisco and New York. “Gay people pay taxes,” David Boyles noted, the president of the Drag Story Hour chapter in Arizona. He is also a professor at Arizona State University. With a lack of programming for queer youth, executive director of Drag Story Hour Michelle Miranda-Thorstad thinks that the youth are propelling them. Traditionally, drag culture may be seen as something as an adult category and inappropriate for younger audiences. However, Boyles argues this is merely a product of historically having limited spaces for queer people and this form of expression, such as night life. Boyles compared it to other genres that have both adult and kid-friendly categories. There’s stand-up comedy only for adults or R-Rated movies, but then there are comedies for kids and G-Rated movies, so why is it not seen as the same for drag?
There are also fears of indoctrination and Drag Story Hour performers are often seen as dangerous or criminal people, who should not be around kids. And out of this fear there is also anger, in the shape of protests from people who denounce the event. However, Drag Story Hour is currently not in the school curriculum, nor do they perform at events they were not invited to. Everyone in the program is background checked and gets fingerprint clearance, according to the Drag Story Hour Arizona organizers.
Jonathan Hamilt, the executive director of the national Drag Story Hour, believes the fear and anger come from the 1950s rhetoric that still lingers today about the gender binary or patriarchal system we’ve been in for so long. To him, “drag is costume, drag is theater, drag is something to present something creative and fun.” Humans created the construct of gender, so he sees no harm in being creative and exploring this.
“Drag comes in so many different flavors, shapes, sizes, colors, styles, attitudes,” – Lil Miss Hot Mess at the 2022 University of Arizona Downtown Lecture Series.
Lil Miss’s initial performances involved a lot of political numbers that revealed both her cultural identity and the technological landscape at the time. One way she did this was during the “second dot-com boom” period marked by a rise in internet-based companies. At this time, one of those rising companies was Facebook, where many drag performers found a sense of identity and community. Drag families are a long-time tradition, where the first person to do one’s makeup was the “drag mother,” or an experienced performer would “adopt” newcomers as part of their drag family. They would use Facebook’s feature to add and share one another as their family members, though not biologically-related.
However, due to policy requiring “real names,” many drag performers were flagged and suspended by the social media platform for using their adopted names or pseudonyms. And with a less-than-stellar face identifying technology, many drag performers were grouped as the same people, despite having vastly different looks and personalities. And so, Lil Miss Hot Mess and other drag activists descended onto Facebook’s headquarters in 2014 to protest their real-names policy and its discrimination for those using alternative names. Other than drag performers, victims of abuse, transgender people or those not officially “out” used alternative names to safely connect and socialize with others. They organized a petition with over 45,000 supporters. In the end, Facebook issued a formal apology to the queer community acknowledging their harmful actions. Lil Miss also used drag to challenge its face recognition software. She carried out a study on drag performers, asking them to apply similar types of makeup. The result was a 10% error rate, compared to a typical 3% error rate the platform boasted, illustrating the harms of digital technologies in the surveillance and commodification of queer identities. Contrary to Facebook’s algorithm, these identities did not fit into neat and marketable categories. It may not have been what its web designers intended, but it was a way people showed resistance and interacted with technology.
Many performers, including Lil Miss Hot Mess, use their persona and performances to poke at aspects of culture and identity and address things related to their racial and ethnic heritage. “In a way, [drag] shows how many aspects of our identity are already fictional or already kind of socially constructed,” Lil Miss Hot Mess said. Unlike acting, where people are transformed into another character, most drag performers see it as an extension of themselves, using it as a way to spread political messages, challenging gender norms in society as well as cultural assumptions.
“No one owns femininity, no one owns masculinity. We all get to experience and express these different aspects of gender in whatever ways. We get to play with them in whatever ways we want to,” she said. As drag continues to innovate and grow over the years, Lil Miss Hot Mess hopes to continue to challenge cultural assumptions and expectations. At story times in Drag Story Hour, though some kids may ask questions about gender, most don’t. Instead, they’re caught up in the sparkles and fantasy. It’s hard to say whether some of them notice and not care or if they do not notice at all. Still, to her, drag represents a necessary function of any society, allowing people to picture ways to dance to the beat of their own drum and see past what they are being told to be in the world.