On October 25, 2014, I attended the D.C. screening of “Advanced Style.” The documentary focuses on women 60+ who believe that style does not fade with age. The director, Lina Plioplyte, and one of the film’s stars, Debra Rapoport, allowed me to photograph them and learn more about the importance of acquiring and maintaining personal style.
Listen to my long-form audio story about the “Advanced Style” documentary:
On October 17, 2014, I photographed the acclaimed D.C. drag queens at Town Danceboutique. Earlier that day, they participated in a photoshoot for The Washington Blade after learning they won “Best Drag Show” in D.C.
The Talk of the Town: Lena Lett and the Ladies of Town Danceboutique
Photo Essay & Story by Alexis Williams
Sitting regally on a stool in a coat closet-turned-dressing room at Town Danceboutique, David “Lena” Lett removes his sky-high brunette wig. After their cabaret, his fellow drag performers at the popular D.C. gay bar episodically knock on his door to check in with him before heading home.
“I minister to them,” Lett says. “They’re part of my flock.”
The host of the weekly show has officiated over bass-bumping music beats to a devoted congregation of homosexuals for nine years.
“Scripture tells us that humor is as infectious as a disease, but unfortunately so is sin and sadness,” Lett says.
Behind his plum-painted, pursed lips hides a slightly chipped tooth. His physically abusive stepfather and former D.C. policeman left the battle wound. Lett says his scars allow him to empathize with the soldiers struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder that he counsels during the week through the Department of Defense.
“For me not to help in any way that I can with whatever gifts I have is completely selfish and sinful,” Lett says clutching his three-strand pearl necklace close to his chest.
Batting his false eyelashes, he recalls how three years in seminary school led him to a crossroads. As his ordination into the Roman Catholic priesthood approached, Lett chose to leave Saint Thomas Seminary in Italy due to his hesitancy to remain chaste.
“There was just something inside of me that knew that I couldn’t take a promise that I wasn’t going to be able to keep,” Lett says.
Diocesan priests make promises of obedience to bishops and chastity to God. While he could not commit himself to the latter, Lett says a chance meeting with a drag queen at the American Red Cross helped him see that service and commitment came in many forms.
“At that point, [the gay community] had high disposable incomes, no children, all this money was building up,” Lett says. “And he saw that as an opportunity to start putting our money to uses that were effective to bring about change in the world. And it was in that process that I thought, ‘You know that’s kind of what the priesthood was trying to teach me all along.’”
Motivated by his grandmother’s steadfast faith in God, Lett returned to the seminary and was ordained on December 3, 2011 in front of his Town family.
“I said to all of my drag queen friends that if you’re coming to my ordination, don’t come as some boy in a suit. That’s not how I know you. I want you to come in full drag. So they did.”
Lett is now a priest in the Old Catholic Church of the Americas, a progressive group that split from the Roman Catholic Church over conflicting views of marriage and papal authority. He serves as a spiritual and supportive guide to those in the D.C. metropolitan area—including the cast and staff of Town.
“It’s a three-ring circus,” Lett says, “I’ve got to make sure that the DJ’s got what he needs, the entertainers got what they need, the crowd is either engaged or at least not being an obstacle to the entertainers…Priesthood is a lot like that…You never know what’s going to be thrown at you, but you have to remember you’re the vessel at that moment that God’s chosen to use to get that person to wherever they need to go. And you can’t turn your back on that kind of responsibility.”
Lett is particularly protective of Town legend, Jerry “Shi-queeta-Lee” Van Hook.
“She’s HIV-positive and she’s very, very sick and has been for quite a while,” Lett says. “We almost thought we lost her last year.”
On one occasion, after Van Hook cut a 13-minute performance short, Lett overheard a disgruntled customer call him a “lazy bitch.”
“You have not walked in her heels; you don’t know,” Lett says.
Van Hook has performed in drag for 18 years. He is perhaps best known for his impersonations of Tina Turner, Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige. As a vocalist and actor, he participated in plays on and off Broadway, founded local beauty pageants and made special appearances in televisions shows such as, “Ugly Betty,” “America’s Got Talent,” and “The Wire.” Aside from Town, Van Hook hosts a weekly drag brunch at Nellie’s Sports Bar and advocates for HIV/AIDS campaigns. Most recently, he performed Diana Ross’s cover of the Gloria Gaynor classic, “I Will Survive,” at the Walk to End HIV. Despite his health issues, Van Hook uses as much of his enthusiasm and imagination as possible to bring his characters to life.
“You have to have a big personality,” Van Hook says. “You can’t be quiet; you can’t have a closed mouth. You have to be able to open up and be very excited, energetic and very creative.”
However, Lett says Van Hook is quite conscious of his mortality—a common sentiment the two discuss during trips to and from the hospital.
“I’ll sit with her for hours and we don’t talk about any drag,” Lett says. “We don’t talk about any drag queens. We talk about life; we talk about hopes and fears and her goals and what she’s got left that she wants to accomplish.”
Van Hook strives to impart his knowledge to his protégé or “drag daughter,” Riley “Epiphany B. Lee” Knoxx. As the only trans-woman performer at Town, Knoxx specializes in impersonating Beyoncé.
“Four years before I made my transition, I was already performing,” Knoxx says. “However, I do know for sure, that had I not become a woman, I still would have been an entertainer either way. Entertainment is the number one thing.”
At 16, Knoxx ran away from her home in Los Angeles to D.C. Although she says she never expected to be famous, she is comforted knowing Washingtonians embrace her for who she is.
“I did fight with a lot of people and fight a lot of things to be who I am but nothing stood in my way of me being myself more than me,” Knoxx says. “I just had to get out of my own way…to be brave enough to be this person.”
According to Lett, this introspection and self-affirming mantra is imperative because it counters stereotypes of drag queens as sissies hidden underneath a costume. Whether Lett is recognized in his priestly vestments or full drag regalia, he sees himself as a “work in progress.”
“It’s not about me being known; it’s about the mission getting done.”
Aside from hosting and aiding soldiers, he continues to deliver sacraments to the religious community at Saint Anthony of Padua parish in Centerville, Virginia and Saint’s Monica and James Episcopal church on Capitol Hill. With his girls by his side, Lett and the ladies of Town recently accepted the honor of “Best Drag Show” in DC by the Washington Blade. Lett’s infallible message of personal enrichment through unfiltered hilarity can be heard every Friday and Saturday at Town at 10:30 p.m.