On a recent sunny Sunday, a group of children gather on the patio at Rise Coffee House for a day of family-friendly fun. It's the Grove cafe's second-annual Pride and Joy event, a Pride month celebration specifically geared toward kids. The afternoon's programming includes youth yoga, led by Maplewood's Complete Harmony yoga studio; a sing-along dance party, courtesy of children's entertainer Celia Shack Attack; and drag-queen story time with popular St. Louis performer Maxi Glamour.
Glamour cuts a striking figure, clad in a pink dress with blue makeup and pink hair styled straight up in a manner that would make Marge Simpson jealous. At one point, the classically trained flautist pulls out their flute and improvises a tune, to which the children respond by dancing and clapping to the rhythm. It's a surreal sight, to be sure, but one that the kids seem to enjoy.
In a video from the event shared on social media, Glamour summed up their thoughts on the importance of performing for the youth.
"Kids are future rockstars, they're future painters, future museum curators or even future art critics," Glamour wrote. "It's important they grow up in a world where art is all around them, because in the future they'll be the ones keeping it alive."
In recent months, drag-based performances geared toward children have become the latest front in the United States' ongoing culture wars, with some on the far right lobbing accusations of "grooming" at drag performers and those who host such events. In Texas, Republican state Representative Bryan Slaton went so far as to announce that he will propose a law that would prevent minors from attending drag shows, allegedly aiming to protect children from what he calls "perverted adults" who are "obsessed with sexualizing young children." That came in response to a drag event held in Dallas that brought out a throng of protesters and quickly drew national attention, as well as plenty of debate.
Glamour, obviously, does not share Slaton's view. But the "Demon Queen of Polka and Baklava," Glamour's own moniker for themself, is hardly an absolutist when it comes to drag and kids.
"Not every experience is monolithic," Glamour explains. "I think that there's some parameters in which children shouldn't be at drag shows, but that's contingent on their parents, what their parents approve of."
Glamour's art dwells in the realms of absurdism and fantasy, and they frequently appear otherworldly, with blue skin and pointy ears and a level of costume design that is itself a remarkable feat of artistry. The prolific multidisciplinary performer has seen great success with this approach, landing a slot on season three of the horror-drag competition Boulet Brothers Dragula. They achieved international fame while bucking more traditional forms of drag to appear, in their words, as a "fantasy creature that's talking about sociology and philosophy while in a sparkly gown."
Glamour also plays that unconventional approach as a strength in their performances for kids. By appearing as that fantasy creature, they're able to open up a conversation about the things that we fear, and how confronting our fears can make us stronger.
"I take themes of monsters and weird things that they can see with me, and I use that as a way to talk about people that are weird," Glamour explains. "So I talk about how monsters aren't actually that scary, and how monsters can relate to emotions, and how, when we actually look at our monsters, we can become bigger people."
Glamour says they have faced plenty of criticism. Just the day prior to our interview, a group of hecklers showed up to an event Glamour was hosting. But Glamour used the tense situation as an opportunity to try to educate the group, and says they wound up having a productive conversation.
"It's really hard to hate up close," they muse.
That ease with the politically charged nature of drag comes naturally to Glamour, who has made activism and intersectionality a core part of their art. Seven years ago, Glamour founded the queer arts festival Qu'art as a way to help promote financial stability for artists who identify as queer, as well as to provide a platform for social change. Additionally, Glamour has been a prominent organizer, and even helped to set up a protest at former St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson's house in June 2020, at which Glamour marched in full drag.
Glamour's interest in politics traces back to 2007, when they took on the unenviable role of canvassing for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in rural Missouri. That's an experience that proved deeply influential for the artist and activist. In something of a full-circle moment, facing their fears in rural Missouri helped them to become the "bigger person" that they now work to teach children to be.
In some ways, then, the manner by which Glamour faces the politics of drag in 2022 head-on comes naturally, and the demon queen has no plans to stop.
"After I survived that, I was like, 'You know, not as many things seem as scary,'" Glamour says. "And I've just been at it ever since."
We will honor Maxi Glamour as the recipient of our inaugural ChangeMaker Award for performance art at RFT's Art A'Fair on Thursday, June 23, on Cherokee Street. Catch Glamour performing a set of their original music at the upstairs stage of the Golden Record (2720 Cherokee Street) at 8 p.m.