‘Call Me Mother’: How Drag Mothers Are Raising a New Generation of Queens
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When I speak to Edna Jean Robinson — a drag queen in her 50s from Dallas, Texas — it’s Mother’s Day, and she’s packing for a two-week trip to Spain. We’re chatting about her being a drag mother to five girls, including Alana Nicole Robinson, Linda Lovelace Robinson (now deceased) and a few others. Drag mothers are common figures in the drag scene, she says.
“A drag mother really helps a young dragling — that’s what I used to call them, my little draglings — helps them move in the right direction, learning the ins and outs of being a drag queen,” Robinson says. “Drag mothers give direction, give guidance and really give experience and knowledge to a protegé and/or another drag queen who is just now starting to participate in female illusion.”
Sometimes a young drag performer will ask a more seasoned queen to be their drag mom. Other times a pro will pull a younger queen under his wing to divulge some basic skills. Robinson and other drag moms (like famed Drag Race alum Alyssa Edwards, pictured at top with two of her drag daughters, Shangela and Laganja Estranja) will teach young queens how to prepare for a gig, let them borrow clothes, take them shopping, help promote them and get them into shows.
In the House of Robinson, mother Edna Jean ensures that her daughters know how to do their own makeup and work a microphone.
“It is a skill that is absolutely necessary for every drag queen performer … being able to bring someone out and to command a microphone, not be afraid of it and to participate in emceeing,” Robinson says. “If you can work a mic, you can work any show, anywhere, anytime.”
In this Paris Is Burning clip, Pepper LaBeija discusses being a mother:
Many drag fans were first introduced to the concept of drag mothers through the concept of “house mothers” in the 1991 Jennie Livingston documentary Paris Is Burning. The film opens with Pepper LaBeija proudly introducing herself as “the legendary mother of the House of LaBeija,” having ruled the house for two decades with a fair share of pageant and ballroom wins underscoring her authority.
Pepper LaBeija helps prepare her children to compete in balls, where they work the catwalk bearing the house surname. But she also literally cares for her “children” as a real mother would, sometimes putting a roof over their heads after their biological parents have kicked them out for being gay or genderqueer.
According to Robinson and other drag performers, the concept of drag mothers hasn’t much changed in the years between Paris Is Burning and the international acclaim of RuPaul’s Drag Race. In 2017, RuPaul released a track entitled “Call Me Mother,” proclaiming herself as the drag mother who continues to slay the runway and pay her bills while consistently mothering new generations of queens.
But while RuPaul’s reality competition molds talented queens into seasoned drag icons, RuPaul isn’t really a drag mother in the typical sense of the word because she doesn’t help her girls learn basic skills, only advanced ones, and often through adversity rather than direct hands-on assistance. Also, Drag Race competitors often have their own drag families — like the House of Davenport, the House of Mateo or the House of O’Hara — rather than taking RuPaul’s name.
“A lot of times with drag mothering, you take your drag mother’s surname in drag. It is a sign of respect, and it’s a sign of pride and it’s a building of a house,” Robinson says. She also says drag mothers and daughters will often select each other because of commonalities.
Robinson continues, “For instance, the House of Davenport, they all dance the house down, they’re all big dancers. You look at the House of O’Hara, they’re really big into costuming. Dancers will go to other dancers. Actresses will go to other actresses. I do think there is a commonality in a family.”
“My daughters came to me because they wanted to be part of a house that was a little bit comedic and a little bit serious, and maybe have multiple personality looks,” says Robinson.
Like Pepper LaBeija, Robinson says drag mothers often take people who are ostracized from their birth families and find them families in the drag community. And drag mothers often not only take in young queens but also young gay men, lesbians or trans people.
Some gay men taken in by drag mothers include former go-go boys who compete in male beauty pageants like Mr. Gay USofA. Some lesbian and trans “children” also perform in drag events, or just want to be part of a caring house.
Robinson didn’t really have a drag mother, and neither did Meatball, an L.A. performer who appeared in Dragula Season 1, is the host of Hornet’s Welcome to Meatland web series and these days performs on stages around the globe.
“I had kind of an unofficial drag mom. In L.A. there are no drag families like there are in other cities. It’s kind of like everyone all for themselves,” Meatball says.
Early in their career, Meatballs says, “I had one person, Marta Beatchu. She had her shit together and she was performing all over L.A. So I was like, ‘Will you be my drag mom?’ and she was like, ‘I don’t do all that.’ She, like, did my makeup one time and I was like, ‘You’re my mom!’ And then I pretty much forced her into saying it because I would always continually say, like, ‘Oh, this is my drag mom,’ even though she never really ever did anything for me because it felt like that’s what you were supposed to do. And now, years later, we don’t even speak of it.”
For the most part, though, Meatball taught himself how to do drag.
“I wish I’d had someone to teach me how to make costumes or who had given me costumes to wear, setting me up with gigs and getting me connected to the right people at a very early stage. You know, making people aware of you is kind of necessary, especially in a city like L.A. where there’s just an over-saturation of drag queens,” Meatball says. “I wish I’d had someone helping me pay for things when I first started. When you first start drag, it is so expensive because you’re just starting from nowhere. Oh, makeup tips! I wish someone when I first started drag would’ve told me what makeup to buy. I probably wouldn’t have shaved my eyebrows off and looked like goddamn Voldemort all the time.”
Meatball continues, “There’s a lot of people when you first start drag, you look up to anyone who has been doing it for more than two years. And now I look back on the people I was looking up to and I’m like, ‘Oh, thank God I didn’t get stuck in a family with them.’”
Meatball has never had anyone ask to be their drag mom, but he has had younger and less experienced queens come to him and ask for help to make a music mix for their performances or for help with sewing. “It’s like an alcoholic stepmom situation where I don’t wanna be doing it, but I am,” Meatball says.
Meatball has also had a few girls reach out after they’ve tried recreating Meatball’s looks. “And it’s flattering, I guess,” Meatball says, “though it’s kind of weird seeing someone else with your face on, you know?”
Both Meatball and Robinson think drag mothers and drag families are still going strong, even now.
Meatball explains that Melissa Befierce has the House of Befierce out in Los Angeles. She puts on shows and she keeps her family together; Befierce and her family members work together consistently.
“I think in this world of RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag mothers are becoming more commonplace because the drag queens are more famous and the ones that do [have drag children] are really building a legacy,” Robinson says.
“And drag daughters can keep a mother on their, toes too,” he says. “It keeps you sharp. It does, because if you’re going out there, you’re going out there with my last name, at some point it really is a reflection of the matriarch. There’s an expectation that you will compete at a high level, and I think family pressure also comes from a mother as well.”
Here’s to celebrating drag mothers and all the work they do!
This article was originally published on May 13, 2018. It has since been updated.