Photos by Gary Willey & Pixemi Photo
WE'RE ALL BORN NAKED AND THE REST IS RAV
BY PEYTON WHITTINGTON
It’s Friday night at Maude’s Sidecar Bar in Gainesville, and the hum of the boozed crowd falls hush as Nicki Mirage, host of Downtown Drag, takes the mic. Dressed like Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter, she introduces the next act in this week’s drag and burlesque show.
“Ok, does anyone in this crowd watch Naruto?” she asks, with an expression that half-expects silence for an answer. A couple people let out an affirmative whoop.
“Good, then at least one person will understand this next performance,” she says.
Out struts Mx Bubbles, local drag and burlesque performer, dressed like Ino from the anime Naruto. They lip sync to “Why Don’t You Love Me” by Beyoncé, tearing up pictures of Ino’s unrequited love interest, Sasuke. It’s cosplay, but they’ve added their own flair that makes it drag, like fishnets and big purple glittery eyeshadow.
There were a few people who didn’t get it, but who cares? That’s drag.
THE MX BUBBLES ORIGIN STORY
Like most in the drag scene, Mx Bubbles (Rav, off-stage) got into it through RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“I’ve always wanted attention, even though for a long time I didn’t think that I did,” they (they is the gender-neutral form of she/he) said. “I just feel really good when I’m on stage.”
When Rav moved down from Ocean City, a small, conservative resort town in Maryland, the first thing they did was Google local Rocky Horror troupes. They happened upon Frankie and the Pretenders, a troupe they still work with.
Their next opportunity came from a chance conversation with an Uber driver who mentioned that she belly danced with people who did burlesque. At that point, Rav had never even heard of burlesque. Further research led them to work as a kitten (the person who picks up costume pieces and stage props after a burlesque number; basically a glamorous maid) with Breakaway Burlesque.
From there, they met and hung out with other local players, including their future drag mom, Nicki Mirage.
“I think she was drunk when she decided I was her drag daughter. She drank an entire bottle of wine, and she was like, ‘You’re my daughter,’” they said, mimicking Mirage’s slurred speech. “It just kind of comes to be.”
The story behind Rav's stage name is just as nerdy as they are. In the video game Bioshock, characters called Little Sisters are protected by genetically enhanced humans called Big Daddies. The Little Sisters call their Big Daddies Mr. Bubbles, which gave Rav their inspiration for their stage name, Mx Bubbles. Mx is the gender-neutral version of Ms., Mr. or Mrs.
“I always thought the Big Daddies were fucking awesome, and I want to have a presence like that where people don’t mess with me,” they said.
Now, they perform at Downtown Drag, Breakaway Burlesque and produce a cosplay draglesque production company called Tassels and Tentacles.
Rav’s performance style combines the best elements of drag, burlesque and cosplay. This kaleidoscopic mix of art forms begs the question…
WHAT IS DRAG AND WHAT IS BURLESQUE?
It’s not just men dressed as ladies and women taking their clothes off.
“You know the famous RuPaul quote, ‘We’re all born naked and the rest is drag’? I kind of agree with that,” Rav said, explaining their interpretation of drag. “Any persona you’re putting on, that’s you going into the world [doing] drag. Is it intense drag? Is it commercialized drag? No. But you’re doing drag.”
Rav disagrees with the idea that drag is just exaggerated gender imitation.
“I don’t think that drag is a matter of being super girl or super guy. It’s just being super,” Rav said.
This idea of hyperbolic performance is also key to dancing burlesque. Most think that burlesque is all rhinestones and feather boas, but Rav says a burlesque act can be whatever you make of it.
Jenny Castle, Rav’s burlesque mentor, calls burlesque an exaggerated form of performance art.
“You don’t take your clothes off onstage the same way you take off your clothes when you come home from work,” Castle said with a sly smile. “That is, unless you’re portraying a character coming home from a long day at work.”
Rav’s ability to blend different art styles earned them respect from their peers, but especially their beloved drag mom.
“It’s either cosplay or ‘I’m going to fuck your perceptions of gender’ or both, and I love that,” Mirage said.
UNLEARNING WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
Genderfuckery is a hallmark of Bubbles’ personal style, but it’s also their biggest struggle as a performer. Drag and burlesque are supposed to be the perfect venues for self-expression, but Rav says communities can be narrow-minded when it comes to gender identity and its role in performance art.
Rav is a biological female, but they detest the thought of identifying someone by their body parts. There is a portion of the drag community that thinks someone like Rav isn’t fit to do drag since they were born with round hips, a full bust and feminine facial features.
To them, Rav is a woman because they look like one.
“Half of the issue is when people talk about gender identity, they want to label other people. Labels don’t exist to categorize other people, they exist to categorize yourself,” Rav said.
If the spaces meant for atypical people offer a wobbly acceptance of trans folk, then regular life is no better.
Rav has to adjust their colleagues, friends and family to their pronouns every day. They are a theater major at the University of Florida, yet even in a liberal arts college, there are still people who just don’t get it.
“It’s easy to get mad at yourself and then get mad at other people when you make mistakes because you’re trying so hard to avoid the embarrassment,” Rav said, explaining why people lash out at them after messing up their pronouns. “You have to remove yourself or deal with the fact that they’re going to misgender you, and that’s how the world works.”
Their tone of voice drips with the confusion, turbulence and resignation of someone who knows that society doesn’t understand them and probably never will.
I misgendered Rav once when I spoke with them for this story. Right after I said that “she” would like a to-go box to a waiter, Rav said “they” without missing a beat.
I felt awful. I felt guilty. I felt like an idiot for misgendering them when that’s all we had talked about for two hours.
Rav assured me that all of their friends had misgendered them at least once and not to worry about it.
Despite the disrespect they expect from others, they understand that unpacking knowledge about gender is a huge learning curve.
Rav thinks the key to understanding trans pronouns is already a part of our everyday language, hidden in plain sight.
“You’ll say, ‘Oh, I have a friend coming,’ and someone will be like, ‘Are they cool?’ You don’t even think about it. You only start thinking about it once someone has said they need to be called they, and suddenly it’s an issue,” they said.
Rav let out a sigh.
“I have so many thoughts on this, but I don’t know where to start,” they said. “There’s so much to say and nowhere to say it.”
It’s Saturday night and the Reitz Union Ballroom is jammed with 800 nerds of all types. The lights dim. Cosplay props and merch bags are tucked under seats and crisp Washingtons are pulled out.
This is the SwampCon Drag Show, and the audience is ready to see some weird geek shit.
As always, Bubbles provides. They take the stage decked out as Orochimaru, a character also from Naruto, complete with black patent leather gogo boots and a mean slit that goes all the way up to their upper hip. Who would think to make a character who vomits snakes this sexy?
Bubbles racks up over $30 in tips. They perform to “Touch My Body” by Mariah Carey, a song they decided on two days before and hadn’t heard in years.
They stumble over the words, but nobody notices. If they do, they don’t care. The crowd eats it up.
“If you feel like doing something, try it,” they said. “If you feel like you’re not a girl, then don’t be a girl.”