The queer community has long admired drag performers and are only recently (with the arrival of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race or POSE) coming to widespread appreciation. Although the audience’s appetite for drag has grown, it remains a niche art form, often looked as being to0 flamboyant to be a serious art form. Covering amateur and professional shows raises awareness of these artists whose art form encompasses costuming, choreographing, writing, staging, and performing. It is this all-encompassing reality of drag performers that we wish to focus on in a special series on Queer Kentucky’s storytelling platform, supported by the Snowy Owl Foundation. Queer Kentucky is committed to supporting drag as an art form in Louisville through raising the visibility of performances and performers.
So I write about other people a lot, what they do and why they do it. This time, however, I’ve been asked to write about myself, as an introduction to a limited series of columns I’ll be writing about drag artists in the Bluegrass. At first I wasn’t sure writing about myself was appropriate, but since I’m both my biggest fan and also hyper aware of each individual flaw, I feel I possess the duality necessary to accomplish the task at hand. Besides, it’s camp, and I love committing to a stupid bit… so, let’s get to know me before I interview me.
Sydni Hampton was born to lower-middle class parents who were devout Christians. I grew up in a not too unfamiliar rural area in Bullitt County, Kentucky. I went to a Christian school where I was taught things that are not science-based. Instead, I was taught what were at best, well-intended faith-based opinions about the location of Noah’s Ark and creationism, and at worst, harmful encouragement of social and racial biases, including being taught to believe that feminism, critical race theory, and queer liberation were all the devil’s doing and we were meant to fight it in the name.
Growing up, I often felt out of place, as most queer people do. Christianity was very central to my personality and my worldview, but the way I interacted with it was very different from the way the person on either side of me at the altar on Sunday would. I often felt like by being kinder and recognizing nuances in the outside world, I was a ‘bad Christian.’ This led to me ultimately leaving the church altogether when I was 15. As I struggled to embrace my queerness, I was completely alone, with no guidance or empathy from my friends or family, and especially not from the tight-knit congregation that “welcomed all” (except XYZ).
I went to a public high school for one year, where I was bullied mercilessly and dropped out 3 months into my Junior year. I quickly got my GED 6 months later and dove into the workforce. Once I began working and making my own money, I was able to move out. After turning 18, I got to be in the real world, free of the constant influence and pressure of my past. I met a chaotic lesbian elder who took me under her wing and introduced me to some of the people who’d shape me in what I consider my formative years.
I met Christina at age 18. Feeling unloved and unwelcome in the family and community I once knew, she introduced me to the legendary, then-standing, Connection nightclub. On nights when I’d be allowed to attend the Connection with a ‘sponsor,’ Christina would gleefully bring me to see the life-changing La Boy Le Femme drag show. There I developed a love for drag, captivated by the absolutely breathtaking Ceazanne, the statuesque squint-and-it’s-Lady-GaGa-in-the-flesh Vanessa Demornay and the legendary Mohka Montrese. I was so enamored by these otherworldly goddesses that I’d dream up and excitedly share concepts for numbers I’d do if I ever did drag after leaving the bar with Christina.
It wasn’t long before I was introduced to my drag mother, Mitzi Hampton, and she brought me to the family of trans dolls that would become my new home, an offshoot of the House of Delarouge. It was awe-inspiring to see these women, who were so glamorous and, to me, celebrities, who worked so hard creating costumes, hair and props for one another. It was mind-blowing that someone like me, a ‘boy,’ could live life as a girl.
It would take many years before I was able to break free of the shame and guilt I left home with; before I could truly find a place in this new world, where I had permission to be whoever and whatever I wanted to be. In the process, I was able to help rhinestone fabulous gowns, leotards and catsuits, and watch as 3 flat wigs became one giant, sculpted masterpiece. I learned a lot of small trades that would serve me well as I began my journey with drag.
With the Haus of Delarouge’s guidance, I performed my first drag show in 2014, held at the Elizabethtown Community Technical College’s annual drag fundraiser. In my first ever performance, I accidentally knocked down a partition wall, causing a loud thud and triggering my flight-or-flight reflexes. As Ariana Grande’s rendition of ‘Only Girl in the World’ began, I stood for what felt like 10 minutes frozen and embarrassed at what had happened. Upon watching the video, I must have stopped time itself to process it all because I didn’t miss a beat, I shrugged and moved on. I think this set the tone for how I’d maneuver through the world over the next decade of my life.
INTERVIEW PART 1
SH: Sydni, how did you feel the first time you performed?
SH: Thanks Sydni for the question and might I add you look amazing today.
SH: Oh stop, YOU look amazing.
SH: Of course, babes. I think the first time I performed I felt like I was really doing something. I felt like I’d just stepped on the stage at the friggin Opry. You couldn’t tell me that I wasn’t the most cookin’ thing to ever hit a stage. I got humbled pretty quickly.
SH: What was your first setlist?
SH: I did “Only Girl in the World,” the Ariana Grande cover and “Mama Knows Best” by Jessie J.
SH: Not the Jessie J, sis.
SH: Yes, I followed that one performance up a year later for auditions at Play for Sunday Funday with Kylie Minogue’s “WOW” and 24K’s “Don’t Go There” which I think really rounded it all out.
SH: Obviously you don’t do that kind of music anymore.
SH: Not really, no, I more or less now just stick to country and the occasional spooky set. I do keep Kylie somewhat in rotation, though.
SH: What kept you coming back to drag?
SH: I found family and community through drag, something I was sorely missing prior to being introduced to drag. I went from feeling alone to having a place I could go anytime to be around people who accepted me and gave me a sense of belonging. Now I’ve got some brilliant artists that I look up to and call sisters, brothers and am blessed to work with and create weird, fun events.
SH: What did you think you’d end up doing with drag?
SH: In the beginning, I was very pageant-minded. I started before RuPaul’s Drag Race really became the cultural reset it is now, and then pageants were still the most viable option to be known and get consistent work.
SH: Which is not at all what you’re doing now.
SH: Right, I didn’t take either path and instead have done my own thing. I did my one pageant, came in second place, won gown, called it a day. Rather than chasing an opportunity on a TV show and competing against others, I instead focused on using my voice for podcasting, creating events like drag brunches, dance parties, theme nights at the bars I’ve been on cast, bingo nights, and of course, my favorite baby, Reely Queer Movie Nights.
SH: What led you to doing movie nights?
SH: Well, I’d always had an affinity for horror, but having grown up very sheltered, I didn’t see a lot of ‘secular’ media. So once I was on my own, I started absorbing copious amounts of music, movies, audiobooks, television, etc. When I discover something new and exciting, I run to share it with others, and in doing so I found that a lot of queer people my age hadn’t seen movies that were considered ‘required viewing’ like Mommie Dearest, Serial Mom, Texas Chainsaw Massacre The Next Generation. So I created RQMN to make a silly event where I could show these movies and do them with a little Elvira stank on it.
In 2019, after a year long hiatus from drag, and after finding herself exhausted from the politics and mean girls who wielded the imbalanced power structure in the city like a tommygun, Sydni decided to come back to drag doing something that was solely her own, where she was the only queen that she had to clash with. In the year away from drag, she had grown attached to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and horror hosts from a bygone era of television magic. Rather than only showing duds, she instead showed movies she felt were ‘Required Queer Viewing’ such as Girls Will Be Girls starring one of her idols, Varla Jean Merman, and movies with heavy queer undertones like Daughters of Darkness, Jennifer’s Body and Carrie. She’d use a movie like The Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death to discuss feminism’s broader concepts; the infinite ways you can be a woman and exist in this world and how feminism gives men the space and power to exist outside of the rigidity of the patriarchy way before Barbie did it.
She began Reely Queer: An LGBTQ+ Movie Night in October 2019 just before we all got blindsided by the world-stopping Covid-19 Pandemic. Having lost the opportunity to gather up a bunch of film nerds and laugh and lampoon movies together at the bar, she started Reely Queer Podcast as an alternative to the event. She bought a microphone at Best Buy and hit the ground running. In doing so, she gained more confidence to use her voice outside of this event and made a return to drag in May of 2021, coming back many years later to perform on a Sunday at Play. This led to opportunities to perform with the best of the best in the city as a regular special guest at Play until June 2023, as a cast member at LeMoo Drag Brunch, hosting a Bluegrass Festival, Louisville Krampus Celebration, moving RQMN from an Indiana bar to Play, then to Bellarmine, and though, less active now, Syd kept busy writing for her favorite queer magazine and doing the work she’s always dreamt of at the Louisville Pride Center. All these things felt out of reach, but slowly as opportunities presented themselves, confidence was gained. Now life looks very different for the ‘Yee-Haw Outlaw’ and its all thanks to that long, wild hiatus.
INTERVIEW PART 2
SH:What was it like coming back to drag after such a long time?
SH: Not so bad, I’d been doing it for years, took some time to recalibrate and refocus. The real part that was scary was coming back to Louisville and performing, having essentially exiled myself. I felt like a fresh face in a way, because so many new queens had joined the scene in Louisville, but I was already known, having been a Sunday cast member before the competitions and new casts were established. I’d also had a welcome glow-up since I’d last performed in Louisville.
SH: Was the return what you’d thought it’d be?
SH: Not at all. For better or worse, I’ve had to march to the beat of my own drum. I’ll always deal with mean girls, and men who have all the power. That’s just the dynamics of our industry. I continue to try to bust down walls and make events that the community is missing. A dozen cis men have told me “No,” and to every single one I say if I have to, I’ll do it my own way. I didn’t anticipate how much hadn’t changed, and I got duped a few times by people I thought were in my corner, who ultimately were only thinking of themselves. Nothing has changed, but I have, and I’m so glad I have.
SH: You know what, Diva? I’m proud of you.
SH: Oh shut up I’m proud of YOU! Cute job, a writer, drag queen, ordained minister… you’re so verse!
SH: Don’t go starting rumors, you know we’re tops.
SH: Tea, sis. Tea.
SH: Ok last thing- what advice do you have for fledgling queens?
SH: Never do anything from The Greatest Showman, ESPECIALLY ‘This Is Me,’ it’s cringe and there’s nothing new you can bring to the number that hasn’t been done already. Befriend the weird girl, in my case, it was Stevie Dicks. She’s already claimed, so find someone else. Wash your tights on Monday. If you forget, they will smell like corn chips. Oh and be the change you want to see. Lead with KINDNESS and POISE and try only to get messy when you have to.