Sequins, Drama, Gold Nipples, and Gravity-Defying Hair: Welcome to Critical Mascara

At Time-Based Art’s annual competitive drag spectacle, the stakes (and surrealism) run high. Plus: a dive into the fashion behind Portland’s vogue balls.

By Fiona McCann and Eden Dawn August 15, 2016 Published in the September 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

A ninja with a spinning ponytail duck-walks alongside a death-dropping dancer in a long, black wig.

That’s the kind of sentence you can really write only about Critical Mascara, the drag-themed showdown that annually shines as the Time Based Art (TBA) Festival’s wildest late night. Since it joined the lineup in 2013, Critical Mascara has drawn ever-growing crowds to its annual catwalk competition, where drag queens and dazzling divas throw down in full costumed finery for a panel of judges, in categories such as Next Level Femme, Glamor Gore, Power Word: Protest!, and Haaaaiiirrr. In past years, audiences have thrilled to six-foot queens strutting in fishnets and foot-long lashes, leather-clad lip-syncers, full nudity (in one costume category), and an emcee borne aloft by glitter-filled balloons.     

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Pepper Pepper (Kaj-Anne Pepper)

Image: Holly Andres

It’s a vision of Portland you won’t get anywhere else: a combination of artful costume, sweat-meets-sequin aesthetic, political performance, and athletic dance-off drama—a nigh-on essential cultural experience.

“It’s a hybrid of performance art, drag, and vogue,” says Pepper Pepper, the event’s creator and a local choreographer, performance artist, and drag queen. But popularity—last year, Critical Mascara drew more than 1,000 ball goers to the Redd on SE Salmon Street—has not forestalled criticism. The event has come under fire for failing to acknowledge its roots: In some ways, Critical Mascara offers an art-world gloss on much deeper traditions—the queer ballroom culture which has been around since the 1800s, and the pose-based dance style that was, according to educator and choreographer Kumari Suraj, created in the ’70s and’80s in New York prisons, and inspired by photo spreads in fashion magazines (though many will know it from Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue”). “The vogue dance community was built on the backs of black and Latin transgender women,” says Suraj. Even the host of Critical Mascara himself cops to “essentializing and appropriating” a culture about which he had limited knowledge.   

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Dieana Dae (Kyle Smith, left) & Faun Dae (Kayleigh Nelson)

Image: Holly Andres

“If I put the word ‘Critical’ in my Mascara then I have to take a certain level of criticism,” says Pepper Pepper. “It’s important for me to prioritize seats at the table for queer people of color.”

Which is why Pepper Pepper took on two new coproducers this year: Suraj and beloved cabaret and drag performer Isaiah Tillman (a.k.a. Isaiah Esquire). They’ll keep the bar high for the “looks” that have made the event such a hit, while injecting new rigor into the dance competition. 

Voguing, it turns out, can have all the competitive complexity and stylistic variety of an international figure skating championship. There’s Old Way Vogue, New Way Vogue, and Vogue Femme, with dancers incorporating various “elements” into their freestyle choreography: hand performance, catwalks, duck walks, floor work, and death dips (spin around, drop to the ground in a face-up fake-faint, hold the pose), all performed in styles that include “dramatic” and “soft and cunt.” The result is a fast-paced whirl of sweeping arms, spinning hands, sexy floor dives, and some serious strut. 

And it’s going off in Portland right now, with classes, club events, and practitioners throwing down on dance floors all over town. For proof that this one-time relative obscurity is tipping into mainstream, check out the viral video picked up by BuzzFeed of three grocery-toting dancers voguing their way through a Portland QFC.

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Hydrangea Strangea (Brandon Harrison, standing) & Daniel Girón (seated)

Image: Holly Andres

“Vogue is trending hard,” says Suraj, who has a YouTube channel that includes tutorials on the history of voguing and waacking, the East Coast style’s West Coast counterpart. Waacking emerged from LA’s disco era, and was inspired by old Hollywood films. “It’s about being theatrical while articulating intricate arm patterns to complex rhythms," says Suraj.

Suraj, who recently returned to Portland after eight years in Los Angeles, runs a monthly club showcase for the two styles called Nostalgia. Portland’s voguers and waackers now get to “walk”—i.e., dance for an audience—and be critiqued by experts in the field in advance of the annual Critical Mascara extravaganza. Tillman, a member of acclaimed cabaret troupe Caravan of Glam, says Portland’s drag scene has traditionally prized highly produced looks and lip-syncing skills. Now, dance is rising.

“Movement hasn’t been very valued here in Portland, until now,” he says.

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Kumari Suraj

Image: Holly Andres

With two new creative forces joining the founder at the TBA Festival, Critical Mascara promises a magical mix of dance, drag, and drama this year—with a clear focus on diversity. And given what’s been happening on the national stage over recent months, a collaborative dance party all about inclusion and glamour feels more important than ever right now. “Any platform that supports healthy growth and healthy art is fantastic,” says Suraj. “Especially this year, to put out LGBT voices of color and trans voices. To really make a rainbow.” —FM

The Rebellious DIY Fashion of Portland’s Voguing Scene

“Fashion is the ultimate self-expression,” says local choreographer Kumari Suraj, who has worked in 30 different countries over the past 12 years.. “I like our LGBT and ballroom culture because we don’t give a fuck. Fashion is art and the way we feel on the inside. It’s a form of rebellion and a form of freedom.”

Any stage performer will tell you how important costumes are to character, but when it comes to local drag balls—specifically, Critical Mascara—style has become a defining characteristic of the Portland scene. “What’s going to make our voguing different is the fashion behind it. I’m not saying that other places don’t have that element, but that is going to differentiate us,” states dance darling Daniel Girón, whose ensembles have ranged from full Mortal Kombat chic to a sheer black mesh bodysuit with matching thigh-highs and heels.

The look—and how it plays with perceived dress codes—has a long history in ballroom culture. Critical Mascara creator Pepper Pepper believes that pushing boundaries through what you wear is an essential part of the drag ball appeal. “I think camp and clown and gender confusion are all viable if not really critical and crucial aspects of our culture. It really pushes a button on normative society around what is acceptable, around self-acceptance and presentation—and that’s fashion,” he says. “To have the agency to dress how you want, to the heights that you want, that’s glamour in action.”

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Isaiah Esquire (Isaiah Tillman)

Image: Holly Andres

Bringing that fashion to fruition requires a crack combination of imagination and ingenuity. A handful of local designers have been known to churn out a stage look or two—V Thongrivong, Desi Designs, and Bryce Black among them—but more often performers build their fashions through an amalgamation of vintage clothing, creative styling, and straight-up craft nights. For local dancer Isaiah Tillman’s perfect peacock ensemble, that begins with intent.

“Everything I’m doing is matching the feminine and the masculine powers together, because if you’re a cis man and effeminate in any way when you’re younger, you’re targeted for it and bullied for it,” Tillman says. “For me it’s been really important to say I don’t think femininity is weak. I think of it as a real big power source. It’s about owning the feminine power source and the masculine power source and having the freedom to go with whichever I feel more that day, that second.”

Building upon that androgynous base, Tillman harnessed a host of Portland talent for his look: a friend from the burlesque community and her artist husband molded a fiberglass mohawk base to his head, allowing for interchangeable pieces that include flaming rods for fire dancing. The corset? Embellished by a retired female impersonator. Pin-up artist Karina Dale decked out the intricate beaded bib necklace, and Tillman’s husband, Johnny Nuriel, bedazzled the hell out of it all in the name of style.

“When it comes to fashion, when I go onstage as an entertainer, it’s all a journey about embracing me,” says Tillman. “I don’t come from a place of trying to be popular or be famous. It’s just a journey to accept and celebrate all of me, all the time.” —ED

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Image: Holly Andres

On-set styling by Eden Dawn/Photographed on location at Pittock Mansion

To be a part of this year's Critical Mascara, find more info here.

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