By Ryan Howe
Originally published on Advocate.com February 19 2014 6:00 AM ET
Above: A drag queen performs “I Will Survive” on February 8. Interestingly enough most of the performances were done in English rather than Russian.
SOCHI, RUSSIA — There was no place to stand in Cabaret Mayak without blocking someone’s view of the stage, stepping on a foot, or inhaling cigarette smoke. Patrons sat at tables surrounding the dance floor in the small, dark room. A man in a suit started to shuffle dancing visitors off the stage. A young, blond girl holding a balloon in the shape of a heart flashed to life on a screen.
She began to sing Russia’s national anthem in a mousy voice and was soon joined by most of the customers, who held their drinks and fists in the air. It isn't what you'd expect to hear at an American drag show. But here they belted the words, showing off their national pride. Afterward, people chugged their drinks and cheered, and two men kissed at the bar.
The drag show at Sochi’s most popular gay bar was starting.
Cabaret Mayak’s popularity snowballed with its hometown hosting the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. As co-owner of one of the few “out of the closet” gay bars in Russia, Andrei Tanichev (pictured right) has been interviewed more than 200 times, which is likely far more than most Olympic athletes.
His "popularity" was spawned last year by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s signing of a bill classifying “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” as a punishable crime. Those who make pro-gay statements are at risk of getting arrested or fined. The law, however, is often overlooked in Sochi, Tanichev assures reporters.
“Sochi is just like all other parts of the world,” Tanichev said. “We have gay people here, and we are not hiding.” At a time when Putin is doing his best to make a good impression on the world, Tanichev can sometimes sound in sync. “Sochi is a very open-minded city; it’s very multicultural and young and forward-thinking.”
Tanichev’s club has attracted the spotlight during the games, and Cabaret Mayak puts on a good show.
Above: Opening the door while getting ready, Miss Zhouzha inquires who’s outside. Zhouzha was in the army years ago, before falling in love with a fellow soldier.
Sochi's Original Diva
Andrei Sargisyan stood in the doorway of Cabaret Mayak’s dressing room dodging cameramen. Standing in a two-foot-by-two-foot room, he used a tiny mirror to put on his earrings. His contoured face scrunched as a photographer bumped into his back.
“We have been getting a lot of attention from the media,” Sargisyan said. “But we are not surprised or turned off by the attention we get. In fact, it’s not that different from the rest of the time here. We are superstars here.”
Sargisyan has been dressing in women’s clothing since he was in second grade. Growing up in Armenia, he would change his clothes when no one was home and perform in front of the mirror. Practicing his performances only in private would continue until he saw a man singing in front of Lakomka, an ice-cream shop in Sochi, in 1996. The man stood on a bench wearing a wig with split ends, an oversize dress, and sneakers. People on the street tipped him as he performed, and Sargisyan’s eyes opened.
It was the first thing in Sochi he saw that made him feel better in his own skin, he said.
“I still don’t know if he was an actual drag queen or just a straight man having a little fun,” Sargisyan said. “I remember watching him sing terribly and getting paid for it. I thought, I have been doing this my whole life: it’s time I make some money.”
One month later, at age 22, Sargisyan was on the stage at Lakomka for the first time as Mijuja. He pulled various necessities from girlfriends — he borrowed shoes from one, a dress from another — and bought a wig. After the first show, he knew he could make a business out of performing.
He began appearing in cafés, parks, apartments, or wherever he could find a crowd willing to watch and tip. It wasn’t long until others began copying what Sargisyan was doing. They would use the same songs and mimic his costumes, but no one asked for help until Gdyan Bartan Bartanovich saw a performance. Afterward, he approached Sargisyan, who agreed to mentor Bartanovich because he was also Armenian.
“We share the same blood,” Sargisyan said. “I let him perform for me and saw potential, so I decided to help him. Plus, I was the only consistent queen of the time. If we performed as a team, the shows would run smoother.”
Sochi’s first drag family was born.
Above: A couple of drag queens talk to each other and the audience February 8. Many drag queens see themselves as entertainers and wear their comedy on their sleeves.
The Talk of the Town
Bartanovich stood holding a Parliament Light cigarette in Luna Park. He talked on his iPhone, stopping only to ask people walking by for a light. After the third letdown, he swiveled on his wedge sneakers and began walking.
“You would think someone here would have a lighter,” he said as he walked past Lakomka, where both Sargisyan and Bartanovich remember seeing their first glimpse of public drag. Today, children play on the monkey bars and swings instead of the carousels that filled Lakomka. “This is where gay men would come watch drag shows and drink and do dirty things,” Bartanovich said.
Bartanovich first performed on Lakomka’s stage as Roxanne in 1999, but drag was not a foreign concept to him. When he was young, he would put on his mom’s heels and dresses and sing songs into the mirror. With Sargisyan’s help, the diva Roxanne was pulled from the shadows.
The pair started performing at Lakomka’s, but as the shows got better, the fan base grew. People started requesting them for private parties or asking them to give tours of the area in full drag.
As Bartanovich walked through downtown Sochi’s busy streets, he pointed out his favorite restaurants and the hotels and clubs where he performs. He greeted people on the street and even stopped for photo ops along the Black Sea. Not a negative word was said about the women’s coat, jeans, shoes, and sunglasses he was wearing.
“We are really popular here, me and Mijuja,” he said. “No one messes with us like they used to before we got so popular. A lot of these people have come to our shows and tipped us really well. We have a really good business going on.”
Above: A drag queen takes a smoke break while getting ready for a performance. Drag makeup is an intricate art form that sometimes takes hours to perfect.
Both Sargisyan and Bartanovich rely on drag as their full-time job. They can walk out of a performance with anywhere from $5 to $500, depending on the venue and who shows up. Both perform in private shows as well as at Cabaret Mayak and Zerkala, the only other drag bar in Sochi.
In the early 2000s, Sargisyan bought a small section of land to start building a house. Because he couldn’t afford to buy a house outright, he started with just the land. Then he constructed the kitchen and expanded from there. Now he is a homeowner, with a garden.
For a while the only permanent Sochi drag queens were Mijuja and Roxanne. Others would occasionally come from Moscow to perform. It wasn’t until 2006 that more drag queens started appearing on the Sochi scene. They looked to Sargisyan and Bartanovich for guidance and help, Bartanovich said.
“We want the community to keep growing, and we both had help getting started, so we love to help the younger divas,” Bartanovich said. “Of course, they won’t be as big of stars as we are.”
The Olympic Games, however, have affected their cash flow. Since the government started building the structures, business has been slow. And even though the Olympics are stealing their customers, the performers are grateful for the attention they receive, said Bartanovich. Maybe just because it would be entertaining, or maybe because of what it would have meant for him to see it years earlier, he daydreams about a parade.
“I would really love to gather all the drag queens, lesbians and gays and lead a march while everyone is here,” he said. “We could dress up in sport uniforms and carry a torch. I think that would be hilarious.”
RYAN HOWE writes for BSU at the Games, a freelance news agency operated by 41 student journalists reporting from the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games through an immersive-learning program at Ball State University.