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.