Scroll To Top
Arts & Entertainment

Cynthia Lee Fontaine is telling this historic Texas drag queen's story in a new documentary (exclusive)

Cynthia Lee Fontaine and Barbette
Courtesy of Arco Iris Productions & Blue73 Creative

The RuPaul’s Drag Race season eight Miss Congeniality winner tells The Advocate about a new documentary she's part of that follows the life of drag legend Barbette.

Cynthia Lee Fontaine has more in common with a 1920s trapeze artist than you might think.

Keep up with the latest in LGBTQ+ news and politics. Sign up for The Advocate's email newsletter.

The iconic drag queen and RuPaul’s Drag Race season eight Miss Congeniality winner began her career in Puerto Rican television, where she was never “masculine enough to be in front of the camera.” It was only after she embraced her femininity through the art of drag that Fontaine began to feel not only accepted, but respected.

“In that search to find my own identity and also acceptance in the performing arts area, that's how I found drag,” Fontaine told The Advocate. “I found my safe space and niche that I can identify myself with, but also that I could be accepted in the performing arts, being a dancer, being a singer, maybe doing acting, too. It was a moment of validation.”

Fontaine’s career took her from the Caribbean to Texas, where she began working with countless other prominent drag queens in her community and across the country. But no other artist would impact Fontaine more than a Texan performer that she never even got the chance to meet.

Barbette, born Vander Clyde Broadway in 1899, was a Vaudeville high-wire and trapeze artist, as well as one of the most influential "female impersonators" of all time. He grew up in Texas with a love of the circus, and began his career when he auditioned for a San Antonio show during his teenage years. The group, who was looking for a female performer, asked if he was willing to dress in women’s clothing. Barbette’s agreement would end up breaking down barriers for generations of performers to come.

Finding success in the circus, Barbette would soon after adopt his stage name, and develop a solo show to take across the United States and Europe. His act featured trapeze and wire stunts performed in full drag, with Barbette only revealing his gender at the end by taking off his wig and striking exaggerated masculine poses.

“His career was totally brilliant,” Fontaine said. “His vision and perspective of society and artistry was more than beyond what we have in 2024.”

Fontaine is now working to ensure that the world will always remember and revere her Texan sister. To do this, the drag queen has teamed up with CBS Austin anchor John-Carlos Estrada and a team of creatives to produce a short documentary not just about the legendary performer’s life, but also about how his legacy still impacts the lives of artists today, including Fontaine’s. Barbette + Fontaine weaves together the stories of the two titular drag artists, drawing parallels between their experiences in the Texas performing arts scene in spite of the decades separating them.

“Cynthia just seemed like the perfect person,” Estrada told The Advocate. “I told her about Barbette, the project that I wanted to do, and she immediately was like, ‘I know exactly who this is. I've been waiting for this moment. Thank you so much.’”

Estrada, who had previously produced a short segment about Barbette for his local station, said he was inspired to continue sharing the artist’s legacy after Barbette came to him in a dream and asked him to “tell my story.”

“I was so immersed in the Barbette story that I had a dream that I was at a performance of his in the audience, watching him do his high wire in his trapeze,” he said. “And then all of a sudden, we were face to face with each other backstage, and he was asking me, ‘Tell my story, please. It's been 100 years. I think people have forgotten about me.’ So, this documentary is that promise to Barbette that I made in that dream, and it's just been a wonderful ride ever since.”

Barbette + Fontaine is only 14 minutes in length, which Fontaine explained is a way to pay homage to the artist. “Her act was always 14 minutes, which is why our short documentary is only 14 minutes, because we want to embody her, even just by how long it was,” she said.

The film also explores both Barbette and Fontaine’s shared struggles with their health. Barbette’s performing career ended in the mid-1930s after battles with pneumonia and polio. He later died by suicide in 1973 when the chronic pain left from his illnesses became too severe to manage. Conversely, Fontaine has been open about her fight against cancer, which cut short her run on season eight of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and re-earned her spot on season nine.

While there are many similarities between the artists’ stories, there’s one glaring difference Fontaine highlighted between her and Barbette’s times, as she said “100 years ago, we had the opportunity to have freedom of expression.”

“It's important to see how in the era of Barbette, they didn't care about her gender at all or her sexuality. They care about the artistry,” Fontaine said. “They accept and love what she does.”

Estrada also noted the importance of the time in which Barbette + Fontaine is premiering, as he said the documentary was “coming together just as [anti-drag] legislation was being presented at the Texas legislature.”

“These issues aren't going away,” Estrada said. “Even though a federal judge did strike down the drag bill in Texas, it's just an issue that's going to keep going on, especially if certain things happen in November.”

For Fontaine, it’s ironic that there seems to be more pushback against the art of drag today than there was in Barbette’s era. Even if being queer wasn’t accepted a century ago, she noted how “respected” Barbette was as a performer.

“That's what we need to lay back. We need to lay back respect. We need to lay back acceptance,” she said. “We need to lay back the opportunity to recognize that we are part of this nation, as another citizen, as another part of the society here in the U.S. We deserve those rights, and we deserve that respect.”

“Drag is not a crime. Drag is art, and drag is love,” Fontaine said.

Barbette + Fontaine is showing at several film festivals over the summer and into the fall, but is still looking for a host streaming platform.

Barbette + Fontaine Official Trailer (2024)

If you or someone you know needs mental health resources and support, please call, text, or chat with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or visit988lifeline.org for 24/7 access to free and confidential services. Trans Lifeline, designed for transgender or gender-nonconforming people, can be reached at (877) 565-8860. The lifeline also provides resources to help with other crises, such as domestic violence situations. The Trevor Project Lifeline, for LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger), can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Users can also access chat services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or text START to 678678.


30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Ryan Adamczeski

Ryan is a staff writer at The Advocate, and a graduate of New York University Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing, with a focus in television writing and comedy. She first became a published author at the age of 15 with her YA novel "Someone Else's Stars," and is now a member of GALECA, the LGBTQ+ society of entertainment critics. In her free time, Ryan likes watching New York Rangers hockey, listening to the Beach Boys, and practicing witchcraft.
Ryan is a staff writer at The Advocate, and a graduate of New York University Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing, with a focus in television writing and comedy. She first became a published author at the age of 15 with her YA novel "Someone Else's Stars," and is now a member of GALECA, the LGBTQ+ society of entertainment critics. In her free time, Ryan likes watching New York Rangers hockey, listening to the Beach Boys, and practicing witchcraft.