Salt Lake City group of drag queens is changing the scene

Story and photos by MADELINE SMITH

Klaus von Austerlitz isn’t your stereotypical drag queen with fake breasts, high heels and glamourous makeup. Instead, he takes the stage with a chalk white complexion and black designs drawn on with eyeliner, a red wig topped off with his trademarked black mouse ears and moon boots.

“I take the stereotype and flip it on its head,” he said. “We make the idea of what women should be gross.”

Von Austerlitz is Tanner Crawford’s stage name. Crawford is a junior at the University of Utah working on a bachelor’s degree in performing-arts design. He specializes in lighting, makeup and wigs and aspires to be a wig master for a professional theater.

Growing up, Crawford felt foreign living in Ferron, Utah, and developed von Austerlitz’s character during high school. It wasn’t until 2011 when Crawford began doing drag that von Austerlitz, a German man, came to life. The foreign roots stem from Crawford’s feelings of being different in his hometown, he said.

“[Klaus] is my idea of what a boy can be,” he said.

He uses his performing-arts design experience in von Austerlitz’s costumes. He said even if the look isn’t 100 percent great, he still has a solid idea and a full design.

During the U’s Pride Week drag show on Oct. 4, 2012, von Austerlitz performed to a remixed version of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” He mixed the song to transition from the original to a version with ghoulish vocals and a darker sound, and he performed accordingly.

Von Austerlitz pointed to his hand and the numbers 666 every time Carly Rae Jepsen sang, “Here’s my number…,” in her song “Call Me Maybe.”

Crawford said the Pride Week drag show attracted an audience he typically doesn’t see elsewhere. He was unsure how people would react to his performance.

“I was out of my element,” he said. “I just wanted to show what I’ve got.”

Crawford said his strange style stems from his concern about the drag scene being too homogenized. He doesn’t like the idea of drag entailing only dressing up like a woman and lip-synching.

“[It’s] sexist. It’s men putting on what women should be,” he said.

Doing drag is a form of catharsis, a more intimate means of art. He said he uses it to express dark messages that people don’t want to think about. For example, he utilizes revered symbols such as painting an upside-down cross on his forehead and dousing his clothes in blood to inspire people to question societal norms.

Crawford strives to make people more open to being uncomfortable. He also puts himself in unusual situations, including watching disturbing documentaries that force him to learn how to react.

“I try to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Crawford said. “It makes me more open of a person.”

He said a lot of his costumes are inspired by Japanese horror films such as “Ju-on” and “Ringu.”

Crawford tries to incorporate multiple cultures, such as Japanese and Native American, into his costumes by utilizing dominant symbols like a cross, feathers or culturally-influenced makeup.

Despite using important symbols, he takes precautions not to stigmatize any one group of people.

“I try not to be racist or demeaning,” Crawford said.

He also gets inspiration from the movie “Party Monster,” a story about the original club kids in New York City in the late 1980s who wore flamboyant and bizarre costumes.

The Bad Kids

The movie also inspires Crawford’s friends, a group of five queens who met at Miss City Weekly on June 2, 2011. They discovered a shared interest in challenging the standard image of a drag queen and formed The Bad Kids, named after the famous Lady Gaga song.

Cartel Fenicé, as Scotty Phillips is known on stage, is Klaus von Austerlitz’s drag sister.

“We try to be a collective, all-inclusive group,” Phillips said in a phone interview.

They encourage people to join them, be themselves and express who they are. The Bad Kids don’t follow the rules like traditional drag queens, Phillips said. They don’t portray themselves as women on stage and they’re trying to change the idea of what gender is.

“It’s disrespectful to women,” Phillips said. “It’s like we assume all women have big breasts.”

Instead of wearing fake breasts, The Bad Kids bear messages scribbled on their bare chests with eyeliner, or Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets on their heads with their bodies covered in blood and feathers.

However, The Bad Kids aren’t all about gore. They use the stage to make statements that they feel strongly about, such as abortion and greed.

Phillips dressed as a gypsy for a performance at Metro Bar during the themed show “Politics are a Drag.” He danced to a mash-up of Shania Twain’s “Cha Ching,” “Money” by the Flying Lizards, and “Money, Success, Fame, Glamour” from the movie “Party Monster.”

“[I was] the mystic woman trying to tell the world that what everyone is doing in America is filthy,” Phillips said.

He ended his performance by ripping off his dress to reveal dollar sign pasties covering his nipples and throwing Monopoly money at the audience.

Despite the sometimes-political meaning behind their performances, The Bad Kids never take themselves too seriously, Crawford said.

“We’re like clowns,” he said. “We make people have a fun time.”

The Bad Kids perform on the last Thursday of each month at Metro Bar, located at 540 W. 200 South. Crawford encourages other queens to join the group to ensure fresh, creative performances at the club, and can be reached by email at klausxoxo@hellokitty.com.

Even when they’re not doing drag shows, The Bad Kids dress up and go out for a night on the town, regardless of the public’s reaction. Phillips said this is how they perpetrate their vision and make their presence in the community known.

Philips said some individuals they encounter wonder why the queens don’t wear fake breasts. Others think it’s a bold thing to do in Salt Lake City.

“Some see it as unique, some people expect us to embody what women look like,” he said.

Phillips said being out in the community also creates awareness of the group. Individuals who are interested in doing drag are invited to  connect to The Bad Kids through each of the queen’s Facebook pages.

Crawford said the group tries to be friends with everyone, in part because the drag community in Salt Lake City is so small. Since 1976, the local drag scene has been dominated by The Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire, a nonprofit organization that is made up of high-fashion drag queens who perform to raise money for Utah charities.

The Bad Kids want to create a spectrum of queens to break away from the standard, Crawford said.

Klaus von Austerlitz waves to the crowd after the crown was given for the best drag queen at the U’s Pride Week drag show, held at Sugar Space on Oct. 4, 2012.

Phillips said The Bad Kids want to do bigger shows in larger venues with a variety of performances.

And Crawford said the group hopes to film videos and post them on YouTube.

“I’m being myself!” he said. “Come do it with me!”