By Emily Mills | Photography by Hillary Schave
Very few of us can likely point to one, clear “A-Ha!” moment that changed the course of our lives forever. Harris can, though. As a teenager, she was surfing YouTube when she came across a video of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star Courtney Act.
“I’d never seen drag before,” Harris recalls. But something about it immediately clicked. “Drag was a revelation,” she adds. She’d had no role models growing up; no examples of the possibilities that existed, but says she always had a sense inside about herself that didn’t fit with who others told her she was supposed to be.
First, a quick lesson: Drag is an art form that can be performed by anyone, of any gender identity or sexuality. It’s played an important role in queer life for at least a hundred years, providing a means of personal expression and artistic creativity, while also subverting mainstream society’s expectations, often with a cheeky wink. Drag has long been an art form that blends performance art, theater, music, fashion, costume, makeup and wigs with one’s own body as the canvas. The idea is to play with, exaggerate and subvert gender stereotypes and norms.
Which is exactly what it allowed Harris to do. She says she spent three years doing nothing but learning, watching video tutorials on makeup and hair and costuming, before thinking about performing. When she finally did, she was instantly hooked.
“Being on stage, I felt so electric,” Harris remembers. Almost immediately, however, she felt a gulf between herself and the majority cis gay men who performed alongside her.
“We’d be in the green room after a show and they’d all hurry to get out of makeup and wigs, put on their ball caps and boy clothes, and I’d just sit there fixing my makeup and not wanting to take off my outfit for as long as possible.”
Eventually, she met Baby Bear, a queer performance and burlesque artist who hosted a smaller, alternative event. He invited Harris, now under her stage name Amethyst Von Trollenberg, to be part of the show. It was there that she finally met and saw performers who encompassed a wider range of gender identities and styles, everyone from singers and burlesque performers to drag kings and more.
“It was my entry point. As much as I love drag, it wasn’t enough.”
She changed her approach to performance, but it was also a turning point for her personally. She credits longtime Madison performer and emcee, Cass Marie, with helping nudge her, lovingly, to finally admitting to herself a truth long suppressed.
“Cass sat me down and told me to say it. Say it out loud. ‘I am a woman,’” Harris remembers. When she finally did, she says, it flooded her with emotions. The flood only intensified when Cass then asked her where and how she saw herself when she imagined the future.
“I’d never thought about getting older,” Harris admits. “I thought I’d turn 25 and that would be it. I never imagined a future for myself.” But finally admitting to herself who she was helped bring that future into focus.
Since then, Harris performed at and helped run the weekly Five Star Tease show alongside Mercury Stardust
and others that ended its run last November. She’s currently a co- producer of Bumday Productions, which runs regular burlesque and performance art brunches and shows at the Bur Oak and North Street Cabaret. She’s taken voice and sewing lessons thanks to Madison College’s continuing education offerings, working hard to expand and improve her already impressive skill set.
The community she’s found and helped to build among performers in Madison is one that’s more inclusive, more diverse, and more supportive than she could have ever imagined.
“I never thought I’d have friends like I do now,” she adds.
Now if you ask Harris about what she sees in her future, the picture is clear: “I see myself as one of those smoky jazz singers at the piano,” she says with a smile, “or maybe the old lady who runs a local karaoke night on a Wednesday. They’re the keepers of our community!”