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Ashland’s drag community thriving, despite challenges

 A drag queen wearing long, neon pink hair, latex shirt and corset and glitter leggings strikes a pose in front of a small stage. Behind her to the left, is a crowd of people sitting in chairs, cheering and screaming.
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Local drag queen Miss Jaxon performs in front of a crowd at the SOU student union, April 2023

Despite being a small town, Ashland is home to a thriving community of drag queens, kings and everyone in between.

Ashland has more fans of drag than you might think. The artists who produce today’s shows are just the latest building on a rich but tenuous history of drag in the small Rogue Valley town, population 21,000.

At times, it was at risk of dying out all-together if not for a handful of dedicated drag artists.

“I was really the first person to come into that performance already knowing that I wanted to do it professionally,” said Maisie Smith, who goes by the drag name Bettie Wood.

Wood was referring to the annual “Winter’s a Drag” show, hosted by SOU’s Queer Resource Center. When Wood first participated in 2016, the show only featured people who were new to drag and trying it out for the first time.

In time, more drag performers would join her, including Austin Ewing, who goes by Dandy Lyon.

“I could see that there was such a demand and a support,” Lyon said. “We would fill the Rogue River room with people who wanted to see this show once a year.”

 A drag king, wearing exaggerated makeup, rainbow suspenders and a black netting shirt. They are singing into a fake microphone with crowd of cheering people in the background.
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Local drag king Flynn Boyant performing to a Queen mix at SOU's student union in April, 2023

The group of friends eventually formed a drag family called the GreenHAUS, which, alongside Wood and Lyon, included local drag artists Daddy Devito, Holly Hazmat and Sammy Drake.

Lyon said in the ensuing years, the world of drag opened up to them. Lyon inherited a show called Dancing Queens, held at what was once Ashland’s Vinyl Club, and was reopened as Trapdoor after the pandemic. The drag family also started an all-ages show in 2019 at the Black Sheep pub, opening up drag in the community to those who were not just students or over 21.

“That’s when I saw a lot of the appeal not only come from SOU, but from community members,” Lyon said. “That’s when I saw a lot of diversity of the Southern Oregon drag scene. A lot of people started coming out of the woodwork there.”

“Because Ashland is seen as the liberal bubble, it does draw performers from the rest of the Rogue Valley to come and perform here,” Wood said.

But, Wood said just as they were building a thriving fanbase for drag in Ashland, the COVID pandemic struck, putting things on hold.

“When I left, and when the pandemic shut everything down, everyone who was in my era of drag left; just scattered to the winds,” she said.

Wood says she was already worried, because most of the drag performers she knew were graduating from SOU at the same time, and there wasn’t a guarantee that there would be a next generation of drag in Ashland.

Aside from a few one-off shows like virtual performances Wood organized, drag became rare in Ashland during the pandemic. Lyon said they were lucky to be able to start an annual Halloween drag show at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in late 2020.

Chance McCloud, who performs under the name Bleu Dinah, started doing drag right before the pandemic, and built an online following during the lockdown. She says she wanted to create a more accessible drag show than the ones that used to be run out of Ashland’s clubs, an event where SOU students and others under 21 would be allowed.

Her new show, now called Bleuprint, started in January of 2022, as a birthday celebration. Bleu now organizes the Ashland show from Portland, where she lives after graduating from SOU.

 Two drag queens wearing identical white glittering dresses, blonde wigs, and are tied together at the hip with a shiny blue ribbon. They are standing in front of blue lights in a pub.
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Drag queens Jenna Saisquoix and Bleu Dinah, performing a number together during a May 2022 Bleuprint show

“I have my friends here and I’ll bring them down, they will even say, ‘Wow, that was the most fun I’ve ever had in drag,’” said Bleu. “The people in Portland, they see drag all the time. And so in Ashland, we’re creating something different and new.”

Bleuprint is still the show that gets her excited. She brings in a nearly packed crowd to the Black Sheep pub in downtown Ashland every month. Bleu’s childhood friend and drag partner Jenna Saisquoix also helps with the show’s production.

Bleu says she decided not to make her show open to all-ages, like the show once hosted by the GreenHAUS, because of the politics surrounding drag right now. State legislatures across the country have passed laws banning drag performances in public.

“We will at some point,” she said. “But the political climate is really rough right now. Consistency is key, and I think if we can start with our 18+ crowd right now and make sure that college students are accounted for, then that’s a good starting line.”

All-ages shows are also more difficult to plan, according to Wood.

“That was a show that we really monitored the content of,” she said. “No explicit swearing or sexual content, anything like that. We had regulars who were bringing their six-year-olds to come see these shows.”

Despite the worries that drag would die out after the pandemic, you can find a show in Ashland nearly every week, sometimes multiple on the same day, which is more common in a bigger city.

“I think we have a very special scene here,” said local drag queen Andrew Jackson, who goes by Miss Jaxon.

Jaxon is a senior at SOU and the drag queen producer who recently hosted a show at the student union, designed to bring more performers onto the scene.

She also produces a few others, including the show originally called Dancing Queens, now called Pride Night, which Jaxon inherited from Dandy Lyon.

“The people in Portland, they see drag all the time. And so in Ashland, we’re creating something different and new.”

Jaxon is graduating this June, and plans to stay in Ashland for just a few months to continue producing shows.

“I love Ashland, been here for four years,” she said. “But, now that I’ve lived in Oregon my whole life, I’m ready to spread my wings.”

That’s why Jaxon has been trying to make sure there’s another generation of drag performers behind her when she has to leave Ashland. She says the recent show at SOU was a success, and inspired a few new drag artists who are interested in taking their performances to a bigger stage.

Jaxon says Ashland and the Rogue Valley as a whole is cut off from the rest of Oregon’s drag scene. Ensuring a long-lasting future beyond the career of any one drag artist means building more connections.

“Because right now it’s just Ashland knows Ashland,” said Jaxon. “But I want Ashland to be connected to Portland, Eugene, Salem, Bend. Wherever else there’s drag in the state.”

Resilience, creativity and acceptance remain at the heart of what makes Ashland’s drag scene special. These artists are dedicated to keeping their art alive through any future challenges that come their way. Bleu Dinah wants to inspire new drag performers to leave a lasting legacy.

“I just want to inspire people to do drag,” said Bleu. “And I know that Bleuprint probably won’t last forever, but I’m still living every show like it was our last.”

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.