By Kendall Tamer
BU News Service
BOSTON – A tall, thin young man sits at a corner booth in a bright, white cafe. He’s wearing a long black coat and a dress shirt, and he has brown, short hair and pale skin. He’s tucked out of the way, looking down at his phone unassumingly.
Will Dempsey seems just like any other young man in the coffee shops and cafes in the Fenway area, but Dempsey isn’t just one person, not really. Most weekdays, he’s a 27-year-old social worker from Long Island, New York. But when the sun sets on Boston, he becomes Ramona Mirage, the fabulous comedy Drag Queen.
Dempsey discovered drag when he was getting his master’s degree in social work at Fordham University. Since childhood, he’d been interested in theater and performing. He’d dabbled in community theatre in graduate school, but it was too hard to manage, and ensemble roles weren’t enough to satisfy him. With drag, Dempsey discovered he could be center stage, and he could build his own schedule. Ramona Mirage was born.
“I’m not afraid to say I love attention,” Dempsey said with a laugh. “I want to be center stage.”
But drag isn’t just a way for Dempsey to bathe in the warm glow of a spotlight and revel in laughter and applause, it’s also a form of therapy.
“When I was in my closet, it was to the point that I wouldn’t even cross my legs because I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what women do,’” Dempsey said, legs crossed as he speaks. “I thought people would know I was gay.”
But through the hyper-femininity of drag, he’s able to lean into the opposite side of the spectrum and be someone different from how he presents in his regular life. It’s a freeing, cathartic form of self-expression that allows Dempsey to release himself from internalized homophobia and sexist mentalities.
“You’re almost like a different person,” Dempsey said.
He compartmentalizes the things in his life in order to deal with everyday stressors like his job. Dempsey explained that at the end of the day, he leaves work at work in a box, and then he goes home or goes to a show and can just “be.” That is also why Dempsey says he prefers to be referred to as Ramona whenever he’s dealing with something regarding his drag life.
Ramona Mirage appears in a variety of nighttime drag shows here in Boston. Most recently, she sported her glitter and heels for “The Boston Drag Gauntlet: All Stars” at Club Cafe, an annual competition where Boston Drag personalities come together to battle it out in the style of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” Biweekly, the contestants are asked to create makeup looks based on preselected themes, perform original skits and strut live on the runway.
Unfortunately, the competition could not continue once COVID-19 hit Massachusetts. But before the ban on gatherings took effect, the “Gauntlet” was able to hold the first few rounds.
For the first challenge, the contestants had to design looks based on ensembles previously donned by former winners. Ramona Mirage chose Drag Queen, “Majenta With a J,” and emulated her “Red Queen” look from the 2019 Gauntlet.
When the night of the competition arrived, Romona Mirage graced the stage in a crimson gown, with a cowl neck and open, billowing sleeves. The skirt was layered in red and black chiffon. The dress was paired with red heels, black satin gloves and a glorious spectacle of a wig. Curls like an 18th century aristocrat were piled atop Ramona’s head in that same bright crimson. The look was topped off with a headband that placed a red rose and two black feathers in the center of Ramona’s Marie Antoinette style “fontage.”
Other rounds have consisted of designing looks based on tarot cards or even dressing up a bearded Rugby player. There is never a dull moment, on or off the stage.
“There’s always drama,” Dempsey said. “There’s always infighting.”
But that’s to be expected. Many members of the drag and LGBTQ community don’t have supportive families. By proxy, the drag community becomes their family, and like with all families, there are emotions, estrangements, breakups and reconciliations. Still, Dempsey said despite the squabbling that happens beyond the velvet curtain, he knows that if he ever needed anything, they’d have his back. For him, drag isn’t just a show. It’s art, it’s therapy, and it’s family.
All in a day’s work
Ramona Mirage the comedy Drag Queen often finds herself in the center of large circles of children. She sits crosslegged on the floor with round-faced kiddies who are mostly too young for school. Parents watch from about a foot away as Ramona and the little ones are cutting up construction paper crowns, bedazzling them with glue sticks. The kids often ask her questions like “Are you a girl or a boy?”
This is all in a day’s work. When she isn’t dazzling adoring audiences with bodacious curls and glitzy gowns, Ramona is reading to children for an organization called “Drag Queen Story Hour.”
“Drag Queen Story Hour” is a nonprofit organization that started in San Francisco in 2015 and has since grown internationally. The idea is pretty much what it sounds like: a bunch of drag queens reading to kids in local bookstores and libraries.
The books they read are usually centered around themes of diversity and otherness, often with inherently queer messages, but not always. It’s an event that’s meant to engage children creatively with ideas of gender fluidity and being different. Ramona is the queen in charge of the Boston chapter, and that’s where she spends almost every weekend.
On Feb. 22, Ramona hosted a Drag Queen Story Hour at Trident Booksellers and Cafe with another Boston Drag Queen named “Kirbie Fully Loaded.” Kirbie was the reader that day, decked out in a magnificent platinum wig and silky lavender princess dress adorned with ruffles. She completed the look with bubblegum pink wedges and a statement-piece necklace.
The children at the reading that day were a young group, none over five-years-old. Their parents were mostly queer couples, who seemed like they’d attended readings before. The kids were fascinated by Kirbie in a way that they would be by any tall lady in a gown. They regarded her as Bookstore royalty and all vied for her attention with batted eyelashes and coy behaviors. They’d answer her questions shyly and nodded along as she read.
Ramona was not on the receiving end of these sidelong glances on this particular day. She appeared outside of drag, wearing jeans and a maroon hoodie from her alma mater.
“I only wear drag when I’m reading,” Ramona said. She wants to appear approachable when she’s in charge.
Still, she introduced herself as Ramona to the crowd. She considers story hour to be part of her drag life. She’s Ramona Mirage there, not Will Dempsey.
Ramona always wanted to get involved with Drag Queen Story Hour when she was living in New York. When she moved to Boston, she contacted the Boston Public Library and became a part of the chapter in the area.
Through her connections in the nighttime drag scene, she grew close to Kirbie, and other readers like “Robin from Human Resources” and “Just JP.” Each reader brings something unique to the table: JP performs her drag with a beard, and Kirbie is biologically female but identifies as nonbinary.
“She expects professionalism, and we’re friends so it’s easy for that relationship to translate,” Robin said when asked what it’s like working with Ramona. “We’re drag friends, and so it’s kind of like a coworker, but it’s more collaborative.”
Ramona and Robin bonded the first time they did a reading together. It was at one of the first readings for the new Boston chapter, and neither of them had any idea what they were doing. It ended up devolving into a hectic Disney song revue, and then they let the kids and parents ask them questions. It’s a memory that still makes Robin laugh when she recalls it.
Now that Ramona has the hang of the way things go with story hour, she makes sure every event is a success. She gets to choose most of the books, plan the crafts and correspond with the bookstores and libraries. She closes every event by reminding the kids that at Drag Queen Story Hour, they can be anything they want to be.
Not always fantasy
It isn’t always fantasies and paper crowns at Drag Queen Story Hour. Catholic protesters showed up to say the rosary on the sidewalk outside a reading at the Boston Public Library branch in Jamaica Plain in early February. They said they were opposed to story hour because it was trying “to destroy children’s innocence” and “promote the homosexual lifestyle.”
When these instances occur, Ramona is glad that she comes to the events out of drag. She talks to the protestors, asks them questions and hears their side of things. She said that they’re lucky — knock on wood — that the Boston protests have never gotten violent. Both parties are very receptive to one another’s side. They exchange pamphlets, and Ramona fosters conversations about mental health.
Ramona knows that she could just get angry or scream at the protesters, and some people do. But she feels like this would just prove to protestors that they’re “angry snowflakes” and prevent them from learning anything real about what gets taught during story hour.
Her fellow readers admire her for her fortitude. Drag Queen, “Just JP,” was the reader the day of the Jamaica Plain protest. She knows that Ramona talks to protestors and thinks it’s important and brave to invite open, peaceful discussion.
“She is basically bringing what we do in Drag Queen Story Hour into the real world,” JP said. “Because in story hour we build this world of fantasies for kids, and that’s how we teach them the basics about their own self-worth and that they can achieve anything.”
Ramona feels the educational portions of Drag Queen Story Hour aren’t just for kids. She refers to adults, meaning the protestors, and the parents inside with their kids who may have a hard time forgiving the protestors.
When Ramona reads she always tries to highlight the messages of the story at the end, and she often likes to make eye contact with a parent in the front row when she does. She said she’s gotten shocked reactions from parents when she reminds them that the lessons are for them as well.
She knows it can be hard, but she still wants everyone to understand that not all people know what really goes on at Drag Queen Story Hour, and they have to be ready for that.
“If they come back and are ready to be accepting, we can’t tell them, ‘ you should’ve been all along,’” Ramona said. “The point is about self acceptance, about loving other people and not being a judgmental ***hole.”