In 2004, The New Yorker published a story entitled “Homecoming Queens.” “Compared with most Midwestern towns,” writes author Mark Singer, “Omaha has an active gay demimonde that’s not so demi.”
Well, it’s been around for a long time, Mark. Take, for example, the Miss Max pageant. Rumored to be the longest-running drag queen title in the United States (though who first said this and where remains to be discovered—still, it’s a nice story to repeat), the pageant is produced every January at The Max on 14th and Jackson. It’s been that way since 1984.
“It’s kind of a coveted title,” says Chad Bugge modestly. He’s Miss Max No. 26 and the recipient of three of Omaha’s biggest drag titles. He won his first, Miss Divine Diva, six years ago, followed it up with a Miss Max win, and finally reigned as Miss Gay Omaha in 2011.
Or, rather, Anna Roxia did. “I started out as Anna Rexia,” Bugge explains, “because I used to be really, really skinny. But Anna Roxia is a little more rocker chick.” Anna is a shock queen with edgy performances to match. She’s been birthed on stage and shaved her head in front of a live audience, all while maintaining a high-level of makeup and body—the pads, hair, and so on. “It’s not beauty,” Bugge says, “not true female impersonation. It’s more of an artistic expression.”
Expression is what drag boils down to and what Omaha has fostered in its gay heart for more than 30 years. For Bugge, drag was the chance to overcome a shy persona and rock some confidence with an alter ego. For Steve Knox, it was about revisiting the allure of theater.
Knox is Miss Max No. 28, the current Miss Gay Omaha, holds a degree in theater, and calls himself Nicolette NuVogue: The Actress of Omaha. “He can probably recite every Miss Max by name and number,” says Bugge with a smile. “Drag is almost romantic for him—when you talk with him, you can see it.”
“If you ask anyone who came to the bars here 30 years ago, they would be talking about the Miss Max of their day. They were the top thing in Omaha their year. Everybody in Omaha knew who they were.”
— Steve Knox
Knox does have a bit of an encyclopedic knowledge of the names in Omaha drag over the years. “If you ask anyone who came to the bars here 30 years ago, they would be talking about the Miss Max of their day,” he asserts. “They were the top thing in Omaha their year. Everybody in Omaha knew who they were. The minute you’re Miss Max, you’re a celebrity in gay Omaha. Reina del Mundo, No. 23…she was 21, nobody knew her. The night the crown went on her head, everybody knew who she was, and it changed her life.”
Each city’s drag scene is different, Bugge says. “In Omaha, it’s very close. We help each other run for pageants, and the formers of all the pageants are a sisterhood. And then there are the families and houses that are all there for each other. And then not having as many bars to perform in, well, we’re all working in the same place.”
But, he adds, it’s becoming less of a stigma for gays, specifically queens, to be in straight bars. He compares the older years of Omaha drag to the pre-WWII years of the geisha. “It was this secretive, artistic performance for the elite,” Bugge says. “After the war, it sort of broke out and became more mainstream. That’s what’s happening right now with drag. Before, a queen would walk down the street, and people would be rude and catcall.”
He adds that negativity still happens, “but now more than anything you get stopped for pictures. The crowds that we get are mostly straight at, like, the casinos. And when I travel out of state, those crowds are mostly straight.”
The fascination with men dressing as women is certainly nothing new. “Drag hails from Shakespeare,” Knox says, matter-of-fact. “Men would go on stage to play women’s roles, and the script would have a note that said Drag. Dressed As Girl.”
Omaha’s drag scene may not quite go back to Shakespeare’s days, but Knox and Bugge are nonetheless proud to add to its history. “You want to share your art with everyone,” Bugge says.
“To be part of the legacy….” Knox shakes his head. “Alexandra Stone, No. 14; Dominique Divamoore, No. 19; The Amazon, No. 17. Those girls are the ones I used to watch and be like, you are so amazing.” He’s still not quite used to younger queens approaching him for advice. “It’s so weird! But it’s a level of respect now. I’ve earned my place in this.”
Like any subculture, drag has its own vocabulary. Chad Bugge (Anna Roxia) and Steve Knox (Nicolette NuVogue) shed a little light on a few phrases.
Audience whoring. “I don’t audience whore,” Knox says. “That’s when you go into the audience and flirt with the tables to get tips. No. You have to come to me.” Tipping is of course good form, but Knox and Bugge agree that if someone is clearly enjoying the performance, that’s perfectly acceptable. Just don’t try to have a conversation during a queen’s show. “It’s no different than being at a dinner theater,” Knox says.
Bio-drag. When a bio woman or trans-woman performs in traditional drag. “It’s turned into a melting pot,” Bugge says of Omaha’s drag scene. “I can’t speak for other cities, but if you wanna be on stage here, you’re welcome to, you just need to have something to show.”
Fish. The opposite of the old way. “It’s more of a natural girl look,” Bugge says. “Not the huge hair, not the crazy costumes, no body.” The word comes from fishy, as in “something’s fishy about that girl.” The more fish a queen is, the more she looks like a real girl.
Mothers and daughters. A more experienced queen will sometimes take a newcomer under her wing to teach a few tricks of the drag trade. “I’ll answer any questions and occasionally lend some things out,” Knox says. “But don’t lend anything out if you don’t trust them! Queens are shady—you spend two hours backcombing hair, you lend it out, you get it back, and…that’s not what I gave you at all.”
Nationals. These are the big, nationwide pageants, like Miss Gay USofA, Miss Gay America, Entertainer of the Year, Miss Gay United States, and Miss Continental. “Those queens are spending, gosh, over $50,000 for their dress, their package, their talent,” says Knox. “I went to EOY, and these girls were coming out with like Broadway revues.”
The old way. “I consider it the only way,” Bugge says. If a queen follows the old way, she puts on full body along with full makeup. Hip pads, breasts, the nails, the hair—it all goes toward a general polished look of perfection.
Shock queen. “Eye makeup to Jesus,” Knox explains. “Everything is over the top.” Edgy hair, edgy costume, edgy makeup, edgy performance.
Tipping around. “Not performing, just going out in drag,” Bugge explains. It’s a way to get a few supporting fans before trying out for a pageant. “Letting people soak it in, asking who you are. You get a buzz going.”
Unclockable. “Nobody can top what you’re doing,” Bugge says. “You are perfection itself.” In pageants, judges clock every mistake by a contest. “If you got the hemline just right, if there are no loose threads—you’re unclockable.”