The Editors | Essays

Queens for a Day

Nic Heller is a New York-based filmmaker who turned his attention from music videos to documentaries after returning to his hometown of New York City from a stint in Los Angeles. He began focusing on the eccentrics that populate the city, and profiling them in as simple and truthful a manner possible. The result was a series called No Your City in which Heller traveled from Jackson Heights to the Bronx to Union Square, producing short documentaries on self appointed guardians of the street to dreadlocked Jewish rappers. 

Last year, Nic’s partner on No Your City, Evan Zampella, approached him with the idea for a new series that aimed to capture the character of Brooklyn’s established drag community. He says, “At first, I didn’t really have too big of an interest, I just needed the work, but after shooting the first episode, I fell in love with the scene. I never realized how much creativity and hard work went into it. Before shooting, I thought it was as easy as putting on women’s clothes.”

Charlene in a scene from Queens of Kings

In a similar fashion to No Your City, each episode in Queens of Kings focuses on one drag queen. Timothy Slaght, a friend of Zampella’s, who is heavily involved in the queer nightlife scene helped to get the filmmakers in touch with a number of the people they wished to profile. According to Heller, none of them were reluctant to talk openly about their alter egos: “As far as I am concerned, they put it all out there. They are all really proud and confident people and more than happy to share their stories.”

Most of the profiles raise the question of whether drag should be viewed as performance, lifestyle, and/or identity. There is inarguably a foundation of performance in the practice of drag, but does drag imply performance? Is that all there is? Heller says of his encounters: “I would say that all drag queens would consider themselves performers. But I would also say that they would consider it a lifestyle, too. They tend to get so immersed in their drag personas that in some cases they blend into one another.” In one of the films, Heller finds that Untitled Queen has more of a conventional idea of the word “artist.” Her day job, it turns out, is as a graphic designer. When she comes home, she paints, and as Heller points out, “a lot of her drag looks come from her paintings.” Untitled sees no distinction between how she makes her art and how she creates her drag persona.

Queen Untitled

Queen Untitled's sketchbook 

Heller also profiles the funny and moving relationship between Misty and Mocha. Are these sorts of couplings the norm? “This is pretty rare, at least from what I have seen,” says Heller. “But like they say in the piece, it is hard for a non-drag performer to date a drag queen for numerous reasons. It takes a lot of understanding, patience, etc. If both partners participate in drag it makes things a whole lot easier and more convenient.”

Misty and Mocha 

It doesn’t take being a local to appreciate the unique stories of the New York lives that Heller captures in No Your City and Queens of Kings, but perhaps it is the eyes and ears and sensibilities of the native that Heller is to recognize—and celebrate—the characters that make New York the city worth staying in. 

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