Getting a degree in drag
Open up Joseph Kent’s bag and you may be surprised at what you find.
For any other 20-year-old Belmont student, you might expect some pencils, a notebook or two, maybe even a musical instrument.
But Kent’s bag is weighed down with fake hips, seven layers of tights and — the crown jewel — his 4-inch high heels.
That’s because, in addition to studying theater production, Kent is in his fourth year as a disciple of drag. The Belmont junior leads a double life as a student and drag queen.
Through drag, Kent finds an outlet for his creative impulses.
“It’s a lot of self expression,” said Kent. “A lot of my looks kind of channel what’s happening in my head. Sometimes there’s just an idea and I’m like, ‘I have to do this.’ I have to find a song that fits this and create an outfit for it.”
Kent’s drag persona: Willow Wisp.
In high school, Kent was introduced to a television show that changed the trajectory of his life: “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.”
One of his high school friends, now a drag queen known as Cya Inhale, showed him the world of ‘lip synching for your life’. Kent was enamored by the show-stopping glamour and over-the-top personalities that danced across his TV screen.
“You have to be obsessed with it to go anywhere with this. And he really was obsessed with it,” said Cya Inhale. “I remember gently bullying him into doing it.”
But it took Kent a year to be convinced that he himself had the capacity to create a drag persona. He loved to perform, he loved to sew — but he had never touched a makeup brush.
That all changed his high school senior year when he made his drag debut. At a Pride festival in Nashville, Kent showed off his new persona: Willow Wisp.
“She’s one part spooky, one part glamorous and a whole lot of fun,” said Kent. “It’s just kind of like a weird melting pot of traditional glamour drag and spookier elements.”
The result is a drag character that is both bewitching and bedazzling — a result of Kent growing up watching horror movies as a kid.
“The first memory I have of a movie is watching ‘The Exorcist’ when I was 5,” said Kent. “So that probably tells you a lot about me.”
But it takes years to earn your crown. Since his debut, Kent worked to perfect all the skills that come with being a drag queen.
For one, learning how to death drop — a show-stopping dramatic fall backwards — was a must.
“I always started off on a nice carpeted surface with every pillow I could find,” said Kent. “And really there’s a science to it. It’s really intense.”
But the coveted choreography is just one of the keys to success in drag. A well-rounded queen knows how to do makeup, sew costumes, style wigs, run in heels, lip synch and own every inch of the stage.
All of which Kent had to learn while also being a full-time student.
“School honestly comes first. And I’ve had queens that ask, ‘Why weren’t you at open stages?’ And I was like, ‘I had homework.’”
Both take studying. For his theatre production degree, one can find Kent studying in the library. For his training to be a drag queen, you can find him sprinting in heels through school parking lots.
And drag is not a small time commitment, either. For Kent, transforming into Willow Wisp can take up an entire day.
He’ll often spend three hours on his makeup alone, contouring his face with a new look each time he sits in front of the mirror.
“I kind of just saw these drag queens and I would try and find time to emulate their makeup to figure out where things go on the face,” said Kent. “Because it’s a whole transformation process. You’re changing bone structure, you’re changing sizes of the eye and all sorts of stuff.”
“I’m also the kind of person who I’ve never repeated a makeup look. I’ve done something different every single time, really.”
Within his makeup box filled to the brim with different hues of highlighter, foundation and blush, there also sits a roll of tape, a bottle of glue and hairspray — the holy trinity of drag queen hair care.
Kent takes no chances when it comes to securing his wigs. He wraps tape around his head four times, glues down the wig, and sprays each pin curl to perfection so there’s no chance he’s caught onstage without his luscious locks.
“I think there’s something just — as cliche as it sounds — magical about a drag queen’s hair.”
There’s no way to just sprinkle pixie dust and create the perfect drag look. Perhaps drag queens know better than anyone that beauty is pain.
“Drag is painful. Excruciatingly painful,” said Kent. “There’s the corsets, which I pull as tight as I can. There’s the seven pairs of tights with two giant couch cushions on either hip so you can get that hourglass figure. There’s the duct tape with the wig. You get a headache really fast. It’s uncomfortable, truthfully.”
But when Kent is onstage, he’s not thinking about how painful his feet feel in his heels while he’s dancing. He’s not worried about the fact that he has four layers of fake eyelashes stacked on top of each other. He’s not concerned about how his costume hugs his ribs tightly.
He’s only focused on giving each performance his all.
“When I’m acting out on stage, it’s like I’m stepping into a role. I’m not Joseph. I’m Willow, in the style of whatever song I choose to do that night,” said Kent. “It’s honestly kind of like an out-of-body experience.”
Before COVID-19 limited live performance, Kent would spend most weekends at Play Dance Bar in Nashville. On Sundays, it boasts open stages giving newer drag queens the opportunity to demonstrate their diva.
As Willow Wisp, he typically performed two to three numbers a night, switching costumes to keep his fans’ attention.
“There’s cheering, there’s people just having a conversation to the side. You have to worry about making sure you’re looking at the two sides and the people in front of you to see who’s gonna tip your money. Because who doesn’t want money?”
After he graduates, Kent hopes to make enough money from his performances to have a career in drag — and even start his own business.
“I actually want to end up starting a business of styling wigs for drag queens. Because that’s kind of like where my passion lies is the hair and the makeup,” said Kent. “That’s where I want to take it, but also be able to perform at the same time.”
Until then, he’ll continue to work it as a drag queen while he works toward a degree.
And who knows? Maybe when he walks across the stage to grab his diploma, he’ll be wearing heels.
This article written by Kendall Crawford.