EL PASO – Dripping in diamonds, teased hair, and false lashes, she looks like a beauty queen singing and dancing, but the performer onstage is a creation by female impersonator Nathan Knight Jones.
“I’m very flirtatious when I perform. The music that I choose is usually music that is going to let me interact with whomever is in the audience,” said Jones.
Known as Serena when in drag, Jones has been a female impersonator in El Paso for the past two years. Competing against nine other contestants, he won the 2010 Newcomer of the Year title awarded by The New Old Plantation, or The Op, one of the more popular gay clubs in the El Paso’s LGBT scene.
Female impersonation, also known as “drag,” is a growing artistic culture in El Paso.
Transgender people say their biological gender does not match the sex they identify with, but drag queens are males who do not wish to be female, but enjoy wearing clothes typically associated with the opposite sex.
“Drag in El Paso is entertainment. It gives us something to look forward to on the weekends,” fellow drag queen Elvira said, standing in a white leopard print dress and six-inch heels.
“I love looking at myself when I start my makeup to the end result when I have the wig on, the earrings, the lashes. It’s like a painting. You’ve created art on someone’s face,” said Jones.
Jones lip-synchs and dances to a medley of popular songs in the crowded club. With a background in dance, cheerleading and theatre Jones said she has always enjoyed performing in public.
“It’s just like being a singer, a dancer, or a musician, you’re performing and giving you’re all on that stage for an audience. The only difference is that you are a man dressed as a woman.” Jones said.
These performances by some 15 regulars are scheduled weekly at the local gay clubs, The Mining, The Op, and The Tool Box.
Before a performance, Jones practices for hours a day up to the moment she is called onstage. “When Serena performs you can tell she practiced everything to a ‘T’ and always gives her all,” fellow drag performer Sasha says, towering over at 6”3’ in heels, long black hair, and tightly fitted black mini dress.
“I really respect her. I’m a new performer, too, and I hope that I can win Newcomer of the year in 2012,” Sasha said.
Jones said she does not wish to become a woman biologically, but uses his alter ego to shed the shyness that is Nathan. Jones does not feel a separation between the two personas and says that the two are intertwined.
“Serena is part of me. Serena is a part of Nathan. Except as Serena I’m a little more confident,” Jones said.
Jones came into the drag scene, he said, later in her life than most other drag queens.
“I started doing drag and started performing very late. I’m 29, so I started at a very late age compared to some of the girls that are 18, but I had personal reasons why. At 29, it took that long for me to perform and not worry for my family,” Jones said.
Jones said he was reluctant to tell his parents, pastors of a local Christian church, about Serena’s nighttime performances. Nevertheless, Jones was honest when his parents approached him with questions.
“I’m not going to deny it. There were mixed emotions. Pretty much, they don’t really say anything about it. It’s just there. My family is Christian so it’s a little hard,” Jones said. But he hopes to one day look out at a performance and see his parents in the crowd. “It would show that there is the effort to be a part of everything in my life.”
El Paso’s LGBT community is becoming more vocal and is actively participating in city government issues such as support for a city ordinance that allows same-sex domestic partners of city employees the right to health care benefits.
“Before, I didn’t feel comfortable walking around the city holding my boyfriend’s hand,” Sasha said, “but it is because of people like Serena that I feel more confident about who I am in public.”
Jones says he intends to stay true to who he is. “After a performance I had just washed my face and I was looking at myself in the mirror. In my head all I kept thinking was, ‘Once the makeup comes off I’m still just me.’ It feels good to look the part of Serena but it also feels good to just be me.”