Drag culture is intrinsically tied to the LGBTQ community, from Stonewall to the life-dependent lip-syncs now featured weekly on VH1. Now more than ever it borders on the mainstream, with the art form highlighted (and contoured) on televisions worldwide and available now on iTunes.

As drag paints itself even further into the history of pop culture, it can be easy to forget that it has its detractors, often found in the safe spaces drag performers share. It can lead to camaraderie amongst entertainers as they gravitate toward one another for belonging and assistance, creating both a sense of family and of home.

Drag Houses were born over 50 years ago in the ballroom community of New York City’s drag scene, both out of necessity and as a form of sorority. With those families came drag mothers: those more experienced in the culture who were willing to grab a fledgling goddess and teach their newfound daughters the tricks of the trade.

The houses began within the LGBTQ community as a series of counterculture events, like those detailed in Jenni Livingston’s acclaimed documentary “Paris is Burning.” The film showcases the culture and many of the scene’s drag families, including the Houses of Aviance, Ninja, Xtravaganza and LaBeija, all of which are still thriving.

You don’t need to go much further than your favorite LGBTQ hotspot, however, to see some of the brightest houses in the United States. From Central Florida to Tampa Bay, drag culture and families remain a vital part of the community—and Watermark spoke with some of the Sunshine State’s most fabulous.

KATHRYN NEVETS & GIDGET GALORE


Tampa Bay entertainer and Lakeland’s “Princess of Polk County” Kathryn Nevets is an accomplished celebrity impersonator and an incredible original in her own right. As 2014’s “Miss National Comedy Queen,” Nevets credits her own drag mother for teaching her to “Be You! Do YOU! And don’t hold back!”

She took that mantra and passed it on to her own drag daughters, including Orlando’s Gidget Galore. “All three of my daughters are amazing people and I’m so very proud to be their friend,” Nevets says.

Nevets and Galore met in 1996. “It just kind of evolved after being friends. She wanted to get into drag and so [we] put her in it all. She looked just like Sierrah Fox,” she says. Nevets notes that Galore was so young at the time that the hardest part about training her young protege was getting her past the doorman.

“We had many mutual friends,” Galore adds. “I used to ‘gal pal’ around with Kathryn at Wylde’s Bar in Orlando and she showed me the necessary basics and how to get started.” With a smile, she recalls that Nevets “taught me how to properly paint eyebrows,” noting with a laugh that her “first attempts looked like literal upside down check marks!”

With a mutual love for comedy as a bond between them, the mother and daughter recall evenings at Galore’s home as some of their favorites together. “We were drinking and decided to put on the ‘Cirque du Soleil’ soundtrack [that] had just come out,” Nevets says.

“We decided to put on a show in the living room, alone, costumed only in pieces of fabrics, throw rugs and whatever else we could get our hands on,” she continues. “Basically, anything on her bedroom floor. So we had to run up the stairs, come up with an outfit and run back down before the other completed her number. Needless to say, we were two drunk, out of breath queens with one hell of a mess to clean up.”

“We would put anything on our heads and bodies and diva out,” Galore says. “No lampshade was safe from our creative and twisted minds.”

The relationship between them was better for it; Galore holds her mother close. “Even though we are sometimes far apart in distance, I know I could always call Kathryn for advice or just to chat,” she says. “Bonds of friendship that mean so much are why we choose to call our closest friends family. I LOVE YOU, MAMA KATHRYN!”

ALEXIS & VICTORIA S. MATEO


Alexis Mateo took Tampa Bay by storm years before appearing on the third season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and Season 2 of its “All Stars” spin-off. Since then, she’s formed her self-described Mateo Empire, which includes Season 10’s viral sensation Vanessa “Miss Vanjie” Mateo and her fellow Hamburger Mary’s Brandon cast member Victoria S. Mateo.

“I had been so busy with ‘Drag Race’ and my own journey that I didn’t realize how talented my best friends were,” Mateo recalls, noting now that “the Empire has taken over.” In part, she credits her daughter Victoria.

“Victoria and I have a different connection from everyone else,” she says. “Her personality’s so quiet so I get to be more connected with her. I see her going to big, big places when it comes to drag. I would not be surprised if she’s the next girl from my empire that will be on ‘Drag Race.’”

“We started off friends before drag,” Victoria adds. “I feel like that’s pretty much typically the case with all of the Mateo Empire. In some form or fashion we were all friends before a drag family. I think that always creates a stronger bond.”

Much of the bond was cemented during late night pageant sessions at Alexis’ home. “Instead of watching movies like a regular person we would sit there and watch pageants,” Victoria says, “and from there we would get inspired to do different things. Dancing routines would be made up in the living room, concepts would be made up in the living room… there were just so many creative ideas flowing.”

“I was sitting on my sofa and we were having a house pageant at 3 o’clock in the morning and I was like, ‘oh, you guys have to make a gown now in an hour,’ and I realized how good everybody was,” Alexis says. “And that’s when I was like, I’m just gonna go ahead and call this my Mateo Empire and put you guys into competitions. We’re gonna make sure that everything is perfection.”

For Victoria, that desire for perfection has strengthened her resolve. “Alexis is not a ‘yes’ person,” she says. “He definitely has read me to the floor as far as makeup, aesthetic, costuming and then built me back up.”

She says Alexis “taught me what looked well for my body, what looked well for my face, and really just helped shape me by not letting me feel that everything I did was amazing. He helps me be the best I can be at whoever I want to be.”

SHANTELL & MILAN D’MARCO


National title holder and current reigning “Miss Continental” Shantell D’Marco has been grooming a burgeoning star in Milan. The younger D’Marco is a costume designer, an artist for “Boylesque” and member of The Peekaboo Lounge’s “Ladyboys” in Orlando.

“I was 18 and started dancing at the Parliament House,” Milan says about his beginnings with the House of D’Marco. He recalls that he had “a few talent shows under my belt” and had been approached to join multiple houses, “but I never felt they would be a good fit.”

Until he met Shantell, he adds. “I just kinda felt like she was my mother and then bam! I was born. She has since and always been focused on not just helping me grow as an entertainer but as a human being, all the while encouraging me to be the artist.”

“I didn’t actually have a drag mother,” Shantell recalls. “I started on my own, though there were queens who helped tremendously in the beginning.” Even so, she saw something special in Milan, quickly coming to see him as a family member within her inner circle.

“Milan’s a great performer, and his strengths as a costumer are strong, creative and formidable,” she says. “Much of his talent lies in his sensitivity.”

She says it’s that sensitivity that leads to Milan’s “very tender heart,” something she notes could easily be taken advantage of in the drag scene. “So I am quite protective of that, but it is one of his strongest assets.”

For Milan, it’s “a mutual respect for the beautiful things in life, the desire to live a life fulfilled in the outside world, and always love,” that drove the two together. In addition, he says with a smile that “neither of us have ever met a mirror we didn’t like.” And honestly, a mirror never disliked either of them.

KORI STEVENS & JAEDA FUENTES


Tampa Bay mainstay Kori Stevens never wanted to be a drag mother. “I wanted no part of it whatsoever,” she says. “I never thought that I was even worthy of being called a drag mom or a mentor or anything like that, because I’ve always just been me. Then it got to the point where somebody asked me to help them the first time, I gave them the advice I could give them, and it just kept coming back and kept coming back and kept coming back.”

Stevens has mentored many entertainers throughout the area, affectionately called “Kori’s Kids,” something she’s done to watch out for them. “You have to look out for their well-being and you have to kind of guide them in the right direction… not only in drag but also in life, period.”

One beneficiary of Stevens’ guidance is Tampa Bay’s Jaeda Fuentes. “We had a whole young group of Kori’s kids. We were all really good friends and started going out together,” Fuentes recalls. “We were always going to Georgie’s Alibi because of Kori.”

Fuentes soon joined Alibi’s cast of entertainers, leading to an even closer mother-daughter bond. “It turned into Kori being a really big mentor for me and everything I was trying to do in my artistry on stage,” she says. “It was more than her being a seamstress, more than her making clothes for us. Most important was everything she taught us as people, the humbleness that we needed to have offstage and on, and how we needed to be active in our community.”

The two have shared many milestones throughout the years, but none are sweeter for Stevens than when Fuentes won Miss St. Pete Pride in 2011. “I crowned her because I was stepping down,” Stevens recalls warmly.

During the pageant, Fuentes had been tasked to answer a question chosen at random and submitted by the community. She’d unknowingly chosen Stevens’ entry, in which she was tasked to define a friend and answer if she had found one.

“When she answered,” Stevens remembers with tears, “she gave her definition as somebody that will stick by you and be there for you always. She said she’d found several since she moved to the area, but one person in particular stuck out like a sore thumb. She didn’t say my name, but she gave a description and everybody knew exactly who she was talking about.

“And I cried and cried and cried in the corner, and she didn’t see me,” Stevens continues, “and then when she won the pageant and I put the crown on her head I think I cried more than she did.”

“It was an unforgettable moment,” Fuentes adds. “Kori is a great role model and mentor for me and for the community. What she does in the community is something we can all strive for.”

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