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Cincinnati Drag Queen - a look behind the performance


Drag queen in red hair and makeup with trees
P.H.Dee at Ault Park in 2019
P.H. Dee At Ault Park 2019

HE/HIM



On any given weekend in Ohio, you can find Josh sitting in front of a mirror applying bright colored makeup to his face. Josh performs drag, and recently I spent some time interviewing him as he showed me the transformation from Josh, the everyday guy on the street, to 'P.H. Dee', the sassy, quick-witted and flamboyant drag queen.


One thing I'd like to point out is that we share the same name, and as I do not refer to myself in the third person, 'Josh' is P.H. Dee, and I am ‘Me'.


I met Josh as P.H. Dee a while back in 2019 when we did a photoshoot at Ault Park in Cincinnati. While thinking of subjects to photograph and write about, I remembered how interested I was in the vibrant colors during that shoot, and how much work it must take to get dressed up in drag. I shot Josh a message and met up with him at his place to watch him prepare for a show.

drag queen applying glue to eyebrows
Josh working on getting rid of his "boy eyebrows"

Josh lives in an upstairs apartment in downtown Cincinnati with two cats and an abundance of makeup and costumes. His kitchen table is organized chaos, with sponges, makeup brushes, foam heads for holding wigs, glue for eyebrows, fake eyelashes, and other makeup accessories scattered in front of a small vanity mirror.


drag queen makeup with foam heads
Josh working on the prep
drag queen makeup getting powder
Powder all over the face

I immediately started taking photos as Josh powdered his face. I didn't know much about drag, so I sat a voice recorder on the table and started asking questions while I snapped some digital and film photos.



drag queen getting makeup ready and cat sitting
Josh laughing while one of his cats sits unimpressed

Me: How did you get started with all this?


Josh: I kind of fell into it. In grad school, I was the president of our LGBT group, and we wanted to do a fundraiser. I suggested trying an amateur drag show, and ended up being the only one that signed up. But I don’t half-ass anything, so I spent hundreds of dollars on wigs and costumes and makeup. I remember stepping out on stage to people cheering for me and thought, “Wow. This must be what Beyoncé feels like. I guess I’m a drag queen now."


Trying to decide on some colors

Me: Do you get nervous doing it at all?


Josh: Early on I did a bit, especially when performing a new song, but now it’s been about two and a half years since I started and I feel fine. But it does take a lot of courage. When I hit the stage, it is me and ONLY me for 3 and a half minutes, or however long the song is. I have to be willing to be vulnerable in those times. There’s a sense of vulnerability that goes into being a drag queen, to be on stage for people to look at you. People underestimate the bravery and courage that it takes to put yourself in that situation to be scrutinized.



Me: Is it easier because you almost become a different person when you’re on stage?


Josh: Somewhat, yes. P.H. Dee has helped me in ways like finding confidence, being more outspoken, and being more charismatic in my daily life.


Layers and layers of makeup to bring out more feminine qualities.
drag queen makeup black and white
Working on the eyes

Me: So, what is drag? As in, what is for? What does it mean?


Josh: Drag means different things to different people. I have a 9-5 job, so drag to me is my creative outlet, and it’s almost like my tie to the community. It is a way for me to connect to my queer history, community, while also…looking pretty. But on an intrinsic level, it’s a way for me to find the confident parts of me that I don’t usually have outside of drag.



Me: Do you have any goals when it comes to drag? Like, would you want to do it full time?


Josh: My goal in drag is really to just be a community person. I don’t have any desire to be on RuPaul. I would rather make a local impact. I want to see MY community thrive. But if I became fucking famous I’d absolutely lean into that.


drag queen makeup colorful
The colors start to pop when the eye makeup comes on
drag queen makeup eyes mirror
Trying to get each eye perfect
Medium format film - Doing some painting.
drag queen makeup blue lipstick film photo
Medium format film - Blue Lips
Fixing up the lashes

Me: Do you face any discrimination online or in person for what you do?


Josh: None from any outsiders, but from within the community there is drama. Being a drag queen has destroyed dating opportunities. People don’t want to date a drag queen. There’s a lot of toxic masculinity among gay men. Anyone who embraces their femme side has a much more difficult time dating. There’s this culture among gay men called ‘Masc 4 Masc’. It’s a masculine man who only dates other masculine men. For example, I’ve been told, “If I wanted to date a woman, I’d be straight."


Me: That sounds terrible.


Josh: I’m not a woman. I’m not. At the end of the day, I still take off my drag, and I’m not trans. So, it’s difficult, but it is what it is.


drag queen, rent tattoo
525,600 RENT tattoo showing, spraying a setting spray to finish up
drag queen mask
Off for a show, carrying bags and wearing a clear mask to keep makeup from smearing


SHE/HER


Fast forward a week later to a spot called e19, the bar where a drag performance is held every Sunday. In the back room, sipping her signature Tito’s and tonic with lime, is P.H. Dee. She’s writing down the setlist for the performers, but she's early, because she’s MC’ing the show tonight.


I ask what time the show will start and she responds, “Well, it’s supposed to start at 4, but Gay Standard Time is 15 minutes late, so probably around 4:15 or so.”


drag queen mirror writing
P.H.Dee writing out the setlist for each performer in the changing room

I stood awkwardly in the corner, trying not to be too invasive, but wanting to get good shots. “I think I’m going to walk around a bit, say hi to some people. I’m early, so I don’t have to get ready just yet,” says P.H. Dee, so I followed her like a lost puppy dog through the bar as she struts table to table, welcoming friends and regulars and doing some pre-performance crowd work.


During the walk through the bar

P.H. Dee seems very well known here, like it’s HER bar. Everyone has something different to ask, like ‘What songs should we expect tonight?’ Or ‘What outfits will Dee be wearing?’ There are many references and names that go way over my head, but I laugh along with everyone else anyways.


P.H.Dee's signature drink and makeup bag
Changing room door

Tonight will wrap up an entire weekend of drag for P.H. Dee, having already performed for a club and a private party nights prior. “I’m so sore. I probably won’t do a cartwheel tonight, I’ve been in drag all fucking weekend and I’m exhausted,” she tells me as we walk back to the changing room.


But, spoiler alert, she did end up doing a cartwheel that night, I just didn’t get a great shot of it.


drag queen cincinnati Leah Halston
P.H.Dee explaining the layout of the bar to drag icon Leah Halston

Back in the dressing room next to the DJ booth, P.H. Dee began the strenuous process of putting on her costume. One layer of pads, one layer of panty hose, one layer of something I thought was probably panty hose, another layer of something stretchy that looked difficult to get on.


Layers on layers to complete the look

“You see the bulges from the side of those pads? That’s why I wear so many layers, to cover that up,” she says. Turns out there were eight layers in total under the costume. On top of the layers of material, various sprays were used generously for many purposes.

Need to hold up part of the shoulder strap? Spray. Need to keep makeup from running? Spray. Hair need to be fixed? Spray. Need to round everything off? Spray.


Almost finished layering
The first costume comes on

It’s truly impressive to see someone go through so much work for a performance of a single song, only to come back five minutes later to tear it all down and put a new outfit on. It’s like watching a painter scrape off their masterpiece every few days to make a new one.


For her first costume, P.H. Dee wore a hot pink rhinestone studded catsuit with six-inch glittery high heel boots and a white-blonde wig, which is the very costume she ended up doing a cartwheel in. After she finished the final touches on her costume, P.H. Dee strolled confidently up to the DJ booth and grabbed a microphone.


drag queen wig pink dress
Giving the hair a quick check before walking out

“How’s everyone doing today? I’m P.H. Dee and I’ll be your MC for the show tonight. Remember, if you tip via Venmo, hold up your cards so we’ll know you’ve donated to us. I’ll even blow you a kiss."


She pauses as the crowd laughs. "For our first performer, please give it up for…ME!”


Starships by Nicki Minaj starts to play, and everything is a blur. P.H. Dee is dancing, strutting, and cartwheeling through the tables. The crowd is shouting and clapping, waving cash and Venmo cards in the air.


phdee drag queen pink
P.H.Dee flirting with the crowd before her performance
Post-cartwheel P.H.Dee
Finishing her set and walking away with a tip

Her performance ends. She grabs the remainder of tips and welcomes the next drag queen up to the stage while she rushes back to the changing room.


“How much time do you have to change before you go back on?” I ask.


“Not much,” she says out of breath, “since I’m the MC tonight I have to introduce each performer and talk between the sets.”


Rushing to change between songs

And that’s exactly what she did. Midway through changing into a black dress, P.H. Dee hears the music stop and grabs the mic to introduce the next performer. She changes quickly to be ready to go out after the music stops next. Then she storms out of the back room to put on another performance that’s sassy, classy, and flirty.


P.H.Dee using a wireless mic to introduce the next drag queen while getting changed for her next song
Adjusting the next wig

This goes on a few more times. A calorie-burning performance followed by MC’ing while changing, rushing out, changing, spraying, sweating, sipping vodka, taking tips, breathing deep, laughing, grunting while changing, and putting on a straight face before a new song.


Adding earrings to the look
Wearing the clear mask to keep the look seen
Spinning, twirling, dancing, and showing off for the crowd
Accepting tips from a members of the crowd

Each time she walks out of the changing room, P.H. Dee’s personality becomes harder and harder to separate from Josh, almost like they’re slowly transforming into the same person. It’s exciting to watch, especially when you see everything that goes into preparing for each song.


Needing a little help to get ready
Getting the hair just right
Microphone in hand for some crowd work
Putting some soul into the show
Fierce while accepting a tip from a fan
The dressing room mirror becomes cluttered quickly as mad dashes are made to change

P.H. Dee’s final number was my favorite. Dressed in an unapologetically loud green and black one piece covered in metal spikes with a maroon puffy wig and silver high heeled boots, she performed E.T. by Katy Perry, which seemed fitting for the costume.


Bending, twisting, hyping up the crowd, putting her boots up on the audience’s chairs, P.H. Dee killed it.


The most interesting outfit of the night
Taking a break to MC while getting ready
Staring strongly while walking out
Getting flexible for the crowd
During the finale
Belting out the lip sync
Left to right: Leah Halston, Molly Mormen, and P.H. Dee

After witnessing the exhausting process of makeup, wardrobe changes, crowd work, and dancing, I left e19 with my head spinning a bit. I had a blast, and I’m so impressed with the amount of dedication vulnerability drag queens are willing to put themselves through to give a performance.


I can’t thank Josh/P.H. Dee enough for allowing me to see what goes on behind the veil.


What's a show without a little blood?

You can find P.H. Dee on Instagram www.instagram.com/phdee__


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