Curtis Hammond looks nothing like a woman. On a recent visit to a local patisserie, he wears green trousers, a green sweater and a pea coat. There is not a hint that Hammond, a social-services provider with a boy-next-door smile, might don a corset with a pair of 40DDs sewn in, throw on a shiny pale-green ball gown and transform into his drag queen alter ego, Ophelia Uppe-Bouviér, reigning empress of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the State of Montana (ISCSM).
And when mother and home health-care provider Winifred Bonacci is home watching “Law and Order” with her daughter, there’s little in the domestic scene to suggest that she’ll later pull on trousers and button up a pin-striped vest to become an even rarer beast: Myles Long, drag king.
On Saturday night, March 5, ISCSM will hold its annual Mr., Ms. and Miss Gay Missoula pageant at AmVets on Ryman Street.
ISCSM, a charity organization, has been active in Montana since 1987. Five years ago, the all-volunteer nonprofit donated a record $15,000 to charity. This year is shaping up to be another high point. So far, halfway into ISCSM’s fiscal year, fund-raisers have brought in more than $8,000. While ISCSM has just 50 dues-paying members statewide, its pageants can draw as many as 400 paying spectators. With dollars tumbling into its coffers, an anecdotally rising number of straight supporters and the recent appearance of a drag king, the Imperial Sovereign Court of the State of Montana may be hitting its stride.
Hammond and Bonacci are two of ISCSM’s current reigning royalty. Hammond, as empress, holds ISCSM’s highest title. Bonacci, Montana’s first elected drag king, is currently crown prince. Both empress and crown prince are close to the heart of Missoula’s drag scene. They know, if anyone does, drag’s raison d’etre in the Big Sky state: It’s about community among the courts, charity for Montana and having a blast. Even when your wig is upside down and beer is foaming in your false mustache.
Winifred Bonacci perches on the couch in her West Riverside trailer and brushes her short dark hair back with her hands. She wears “Hog Wild” pajamas and teddy bear slippers, just back from a 24-hour shift as a home health-care provider. Bonacci has been “out” as a lesbian for years. Last June, during Pride week, she decided to venture into territory that, for Montana, was relatively new: king drag.
“It’s something I was stewing on for a long time,” she says. She watched Showtime’s “The L Ward” and a character named Ivan inspired her. Then former Missoula resident and gay activist Cat Carrel, who had once performed as a drag king, convinced Bonacci to give it a try.
Bonacci’s voice speeds up when she talks about her first foray into king drag. She spreads a collection of pictures on the couch and fingers one. In it, she is wearing trousers and a vest—inspired by Ivan—and a Fu Manchu mustache. “This picture right here is my debut, the first time I ever set foot on that stage,” she says.
Now she is proud. At the time, though, Bonacci was a wreck.
“Oh, I was like, panic attack,” she says. “My heart was pounding, I was racing.”
She had already faced at least one challenge in her first attempt to pose as an authentic man without surgery. Before her debut as Myles Long, Bonacci and a friend took a joint mother-daughter trip to purchase a strap-on for Bonacci. Her three helpers voted on a hefty purple contraption. Later, at home, her new prop would not zip into her trousers. Of course she couldn’t size down: “I’m supposed to be Myles Long!” So she went without. Then, during the pageant, Bonacci experienced a mustache malfunction. She had grown out her hair for the occasion and her daughter had clipped the longer curls behind her neck and fashioned them into a real-hair mustache.
“I was in there snipping off hairs going up my nose, I was spitting out hairs, I’d take a drink of beer and I’d have beer foam in my whiskers…I think half of [the mustache] was gone by the time I was done.”
She never rehearsed her number—“I’m your Man,” another Ivan inspiration. She performed it cold. Myles Long was an instant success.
Drag kings are relatively unheard of in the International Court System’s smaller courts, says ISCSM Board President Steve, who prefers to use only his first name. Once Myles Long performed his debut, friends immediately encouraged him to run for crown prince come September 2004. Myles Long did not refuse. Myles Long, this time in a daring getup of black leather fingerless gloves, vest, chaps and whip, was elected. ISCSM’s shows have historically been dominated by gay men and drag queens, Steve says, but the introduction of Myles Long has changed that.
“Our prince, who is a lesbian, has brought on a lot of the lesbian community by doing what they call king drag. It’s got a lot of the women involved, whereas before, a lot of the women kind of shied away from the drag queen aspect of it,” Steve says.
He’s seen the audience grow, too. Over the course of the years, he’s noticed more and more straight people coming to ISCSM’s fund-raisers, more bisexuals who, he says, “want to experiment,” and more “people wanting to come out of the closet.”
The International Court System’s roots are in San Francisco. A political activist, comedian and cross-dresser named Jose Sarria—known as Mama Jose, the Widow Norton—started the organization in 1964. The court system, Steve says, was a way to link homosexual communities across the country. Today it has more than 50 chapters in the U.S. and Canada. Spokane serves as the mother court overseeing the activities of ISCSM, which is based in Missoula. Ogden, Utah, is Missoula’s sister city. Being elected to office means responsibilities to ISCSM and to partner cities. “It’s not just putting on the crown and standing in the spotlight,” Hammond says.
Elected titleholders are required to travel to a certain number of partner cities’ fund-raisers and coronations. Bonacci pulls a vest from the closet with 16 pins—all souvenirs from other cities’ coronations. Her favorite trips have been to Ogden, “Where the trailer park meets the temple.”
“I love it because I live in a trailer park,” Bonacci says. (So far, she says, she hasn’t been able to get any Ogden queens to admit to being Latter Day Saints.)
Missoula’s ISCSM royalty often hit the road together. They offhandedly mention names of infamous drag queens from other communities—Gabriella this, Bianca that—as if the queens’ very names are readily recognizable by people outside the ISCSM circle. At the same time, members seem somewhat in the dark when it comes to each other’s non-drag identities. Asked a question about Steve, president of ISCSM’s board, Bonacci blanks: “Who’s Steve?” She knows Steve as Marilynn Kirby Rockafellar. And while Myles Long and Ophelia Uppe-Bouviér are reigning together, neither is aware that the other also works in social services with the elderly.
Of course, it may be that the beguiling Empress Ophelia simply overshadows her creator. Maybe that’s the point.
Curtis Hammond relishes his creation, a “kooky” character named Ophelia Uppe-Bouviér. His eyes sparkle when he talks about her. He leans back into a cushy chair at a local pastry shop.
“Ophelia is a hoot because she’s so outlandish,” he says. While Hammond laughs often, he swears that in social settings he’s the shy guy in the corner. His and Ophelia’s proclivities and dispositions are, he says, worlds apart.
“I like to wear loose clothing. Ophelia likes to wear tight clothing. She’s got a great figure, a 40DD. She wears a lot of lycra and lycra-velvet. She likes big hair. Oh, and the cat-eye glasses. She is always seen in her cat-eye glasses. That’s kind of her signature.”
For the record, Hammond has closely cropped hair and does not wear glasses, stylish or otherwise.
Like Myles Long, who struggled to clean the beer foam from his new mustache, Ophelia had a difficult birth. As with most drag queens, Hammond says, Ophelia’s maiden voyage was on Halloween.
“I was a horrible drag queen my first time out,” Hammond says. “I looked like bitchy stewardess from hell.” Under a pink pillbox hat, he wore a blond wig upside down. “But I didn’t know it was upside down,” he laughs. His friends told him that he looked like a Russian body builder.
A drag mother taught him some tricks of the trade—“Shave in the shower, for God’s sake, shave in the shower,” he says—and then there’s protocol. Take the false eyelashes, for example.
“They say if you’re going to be a drag queen, you have to wear the false eyelashes, and they can’t be the wimpy little ones that the prom queen is going to try,” he explains. “They have to be a good, substantial, theatrical, show-girl quality, heavy-duty eyelash that weighs your eyelids down.”
Hammond, who has now been playing Ophelia for more than 15 years, no longer looks like a Russian bodybuilder when he dresses. He considers himself more actor than drag queen.
Because Ophelia is an act, a created character, he says, “people relate to her on a different level than they do drag queens in general.” Ophelia satirizes the “high-ended attitude” and snobbery common amongst queens.
Along with creating the character, Hammond makes all of Ophelia’s clothes. “Theater is my great unwinding,” he says. He can spend up to three weeks beading a single gown. Ophelia, though, is only one part of his life.
“It’s a hobby for me,” Hammond explains. “For some people, it’s a lifestyle. It truly is. It’s part of who they are, how they celebrate life, how they go out on Friday night.”
“For me, it was basically creating a character and seeing the audience respond to her because they fell in love with her, her kookiness,” he says. “I look at it as giving something back to the community.”
Ophelia is notorious among those in the drag scene.
“Nobody is safe when he emcees,” Steve says, dryly. “He’s humiliated me on many occasions.”
And why, pray tell, would the charming empress ever humiliate one of her fair subjects? Steve’s voice sounds wounded, but his face shows that he loves the attention: “Oh, for getting a laugh.”
While she’s onstage, Ophelia makes the reputedly humorless queens giggle at themselves, if only a little.
Saturday night’s pageant will be held at AmVets, the unlikely home of Missoula’s gay bar scene. The bar is officially an American Veterans post; it is frequented by veterans, gays and gay veterans. Some 20 years ago, the story goes, a lesbian bartender began bringing her gay friends to AmVets, and along the way an identity formed. That AmVets is underground, shielded from street-level eyes and ears, probably didn’t hurt. Steve prefers to call AmVets the “alternative bar,” he says, because bisexuals frequent it as well. Plus, Bonacci says, “We’re straight-friendly.” On a recent weeknight, just six people sit at the bar. Mandy—“I like to call her Man-Candy,” says the bartender with a wink—is the only cross-dressing customer tonight. She wears shimmering pink eye shadow, heavy foundation and a brown bouffant southern-girl wig. It’s her “lesbian look,” she says. Upon request from the bartender, she begins emptying the contents of her purse onto the bar. She pulls a Goody hairbrush from the dilapidated brown Liz Claiborne handbag. It’s her “woody-goody,” she says. “Get it?” She sucks air through her teeth when she laughs and answers all the questions addressed to the bartender. No, she says, not all drag queens are alike.
Bonacci and Hammond say they try to steer clear of the drama inherent in a community of drag queens. As empress, it’s part of Ophelia’s job: “You have to be a peacekeeper, because you know, we’re a very vocal group.”
Both Bonacci and Hammond say they dress in drag, travel and spend hours on behalf of ISCSM for both the fun and the charity.
“Charity really is a big reason,” Hammond says. “And I know that sounds, oh, ‘it’s all for the little children.’ But to me, if it weren’t for that, it wouldn’t be as appealing. That’s not to say we don’t have fun, because we do. We have a great time. But I really do do it for the kids.”
Again, he laughs.
And again, even several long hard looks into his boyish face reveal nothing of the reigning empress within, waiting to emerge, eyelashes batting.