By Jie Jenny Zou
It all started with a song about some single ladies.
In 2009, Justin Diaz headed out to the Bunk House, a local gay bar in Sayville and entered his first drag competition. He lip-synched and danced his way straight to second-place with a rendition of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” by the multiplatinum-selling artist, Beyoncé.
“It was right when ‘Single Ladies’ came out and everybody was doing it on Youtube,” Diaz said, referring to the song’s iconic music video, which featured the singer and two other women in leotards dancing to a very fast-paced choreography. The video went viral with millions of views and was followed by a string of imitators and parodies.
While Diaz admitted that he “was a little bummed out” that he didn’t nab first place, he still looks back at his first crack at drag with nostalgia. “It was amazing, having never done that before and getting second-place,” he said.
Like other drag performers, Diaz goes by another name, Sasha—something else he picked up from Beyoncé in addition to dance moves.
“Before Beyoncé even came out with her album, ‘I Am…Sasha Fierce,’ all her real fans knew that she called her stage presence Sasha,” he said matter-of-factly. “And that’s how I feel. When I’m onstage I’m a completely different person and when she’s onstage, she’s a completely different person”
The self-proclaimed “super-fan” has since gone on to perform at several different venues across Long Island, including Stony Brook University, where he is a fixture at the annual LGBTA Drag Show in Tabler Quad. His performances as the diva songstress earned him standing ovations two years in a row.
“It was a great experience, both years,” Diaz said, with the intention of returning for the 2011 show in the spring.
But drag performances are more than fun; they’re also a lot of work, insisted Diaz.
“It’s definitely something you have to want to do,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll rehearse a number like 30 times in one day, just to make sure, you know, that I get it right.”
The transformation from Justin to Sasha happens overnight, but it’s not easy.
The process involves shaving, picking an outfit, planning and rehearsing a routine, makeup, hair and learning the lyrics to a song—all for a three minute performance.
“You have to want to put the time into it,” Diaz said. “There’s not a lot of people who’d be able to sit there for two hours and put on makeup.”
A few hours before show time, Diaz sits down to his computer desk which doubles as his makeup table. A picture of the inspiring diva serves as the wallpaper for his computer screen and a plaque of the singer performing also hangs on the wall, overlooking the desk.
Diaz unfurled a large fabric roll to reveal an array of assorted brushes, the tools to creating his makeup masterpiece. He starts with the eyes.
“The eyes are the most important part of this,” Diaz said as he began to apply black eyeshadow to his upper lid. “As long as you have good eyeshadow on, that’s all that really matters.”
He peered into the lighted mirror, working meticulously with a jar of loose iridescent silver glitter. Using a pair of tweezers, he carefully glued false eyelashes to both eyes. His eyes now resembled two glittery large fans, batting slowly against a wand of mascara.
Diaz insisted that it’s a painstakingly long process that most women wouldn’t even endure. “There are some girls, real girls, that don’t even like putting on makeup because it takes too long and they would only need to put on 15 minutes of makeup,” he said.
As a newbie to the drag community, Diaz knows that it’s all about respect and support. “Don’t come in with a cocky attitude,” he advised, “You have to work your way up.”
He also attributed his success to the support he gets from family and friends. “My family is so supportive of everything, especially this career,” Diaz said. “Not a lot of other drag artists have support from their families.”
While Diaz considers it a compliment when he gets mistaken for a woman while in drag, he also wanted to dispel some misconceptions associated with his profession.
“When they see a drag queen they automatically think, ‘Oh, that’s a tranny,’ but there’s a whole different definition between a transsexual, a transvestite, and a drag queen,” he explained.
“Drag queens just do it because it’s a job, or you know, if they’re very theatrical and they like to perform, ” he continued. “Normally we live as men, but transsexuals and stuff like that, they want to be women. We don’t want that at all.”
For Diaz, it’s all about putting on a show.
“Dancing, if anything, is my biggest passion,” he said. “Performing is just a way I can get out creativity and have an audience.” When he’s not performing, Diaz said that he lives a normal life with friends and his boyfriend, James. He enjoys painting, art and the occasional Disney movie.
Before long, it’s time for the show to start.
Inside the drab exterior of the Bunk House is an active nightlife scene that regularly showcases local drag talent. The dance floor pulsates along to the rhythm of the surround stereo system, enveloping club-goers with the latest dance beats. Tonight is cabaret night and Diaz is returning to the same place where he debuted as Sasha over two years ago.
Diaz shimmied along to Beyoncé’s cover of “Fever,” a sultry jazz standard, while dressed in black sequined hot pants, a vest, and a top hat.
“Sometimes people think that drag is their life,” Diaz said. “When 90 percent of the time, this is just a small part of who they are.”
With his lips synced to the music and his flowing brunette wig, the transformation is remarkable; giving life to the old adage that there’s more than meets the eye.