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Performers bring pride to Albert Lea

Pride, albert lea, drag brunch
Drag brunch draws criticism, praise
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

For people who were condemned to hell, the crowd at the Freeborn County Historical Museum, Library and Village certainly seemed to be having fun.

Their sin: Attending a drag brunch in conjunction with Albert Lea’s Pride Festival.

June is Pride month, designed to celebrate the impact of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people in history.

Now in its second year, the community festival was the brainchild of Holly Babcock, executive director of the Albert Lea Convention and Visitors Bureau.

She and Bob Furland, the city’s recreation manager, work together on many events, most of them music series and community festivals.

“We’re both very excited about DEI-inclusive events, things that would really make a difference,” Babcock said, referring to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In the past, that has included celebrations for Cinco de Mayo and Juneteenth, as well as a polka party.

They also facilitate Wind Down Wednesday, a summer market and music festival that features shopping, food, entertainment, and activities for children. It’s held the second Wednesday of June, July, and August.

Blowback mountain

In June 2022, Babcock asked Dylan Kaercher-Berthiaume, of Austin, who performs as Roxi Manacoochie, to entertain the crowd over the lunch hour.

“I set off a small nuclear bomb,” Babcock said, “and that was a life-check for me.”

She was naïve about the community’s reaction, which she said drew “a mountain of blowback, and it was very personal. I apparently have too much hope that love, grace and acceptance are what we have in our pocket at any given time.”

But if the critics thought it would end any notion of Pride activities, they were wrong.

“After that, Bob and I realized we’d ripped off the Band-Aid,” Babcock said. “We felt like we’d already come this far – we needed to do a Pride festival, and we needed to have the city behind it. This is a community event.”

Meetings with the city manager, communications director, and members of the police department followed.

Last year was the first-ever Albert Lea Pride; the die was cast.

Change of plans

The city doesn’t celebrate all month; this year’s event was June 15.

The drag brunch was well-received last year, prompting organizers to plan another. It was to be held at a local golf course – but about a month before the show, the venue pulled out.

A few phone calls later, and the event was rescheduled at the Freeborn County Historical Museum.

“Our board is great,” said Stephanie Kibler, of Ellendale, executive director of the facility. “Not one person said we shouldn’t do it. They’re a really good group of people that are dedicated to community.”

Some of the volunteers, she said, “are very conservative, but are open-minded and welcoming.”

Staff members fielded calls from members of the community who were upset that the event was occurring at FCHM.

“I had one yesterday,” Kibler said. “When is there going to be heterosexual story-reading at the (public) library?”

Babcock rolled her eyes.

“Every … day,” she said.

Rachel Cole, a member of the board of directors, was surprised there were no protesters outside the building.

“We were prepared for that,” she said.

She agreed with Kibler’s assessment of the other board members as welcoming.

“Some are more quiet than others, as far as their opinions,” Cole said, “but it’s mostly because they aren’t sure what it’s about.”

What it’s about

They aren’t alone.

Using Wikipedia’s fairly straight-forward definition, a drag show is a form of entertainment performed by artists impersonating men or women, typically in a bar or nightclub.

The entertainers are typically not transgender. They often wear elaborate costumes and over-the-top makeup, and sing or lip-synch to songs. Humor is sprinkled throughout, and audience participation is usually encouraged.

Throw in some egg bake, fresh fruit, pastries, and mimosas, and you’ve got a drag brunch.

In Albert Lea, attendees might see a familiar face.

Kaercher-Berthiaume worked in the city for about six years.

But his foray into drag, albeit unintentional, began when he was cast as the Wicked Witch of the West in a seventh-grade production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

In high school, he began traveling with a musical group called the DC Drifters. He also worked at the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center in Albert Lea, doing a Patsy Cline tribute show.

“When I graduated, that’s when I learned what a drag queen was,” Kaercher-Berthiaume said. “So I’d been doing it for all those years not knowing it was an actual thing – and now it’s my fulltime job.”

Roxi Manacoochie was the host for the drag brunch.

“I think that something like this is a steppingstone for people to experience it” in a way that may be more comfortable, she said. “Like, ‘we’re just going for brunch – we’re not going to a real drag show.’”

Patty and Dave Larson, of Conger, were perfectly comfortable going to a drag show.

“We have family members that are LGBTQ, so we want to be supportive – and see a good show,” Patty Larson said.

Their presence, she said, is “to prove to the community that it’s not a scary thing.”

It’s about “acceptance and awareness,” Dave Larson said.

The performers

That acceptance is something Ivy La Voix Principle – “government name” Zachary Steward – didn’t find in Roland, Iowa.

“Events like this … it’s amazing to see this happening,” he said before the show. “Growing up in a small town myself, seeing any kind of queer visibility or representation is phenomenal. There’s someone out there who needs that.

“So many people are telling them, ‘you can be here, but on our terms.’ Drag is just unabashedly, ‘nope.’ We’re here on our terms.”

He was also expecting protesters but had no intention of fighting fire with fire.

“I always make sure that if I’m going to interact with them, it’s always something kind,” Steward said. “We’re out here expressing what we believe; they have just as much right to express what they believe. As long as they don’t interfere with the event, by all means, have at it.”

He described a show he did in Pella, Iowa, where he attended college.

“There were prayer circles outside,” Steward said. “I’ve seen it all. I mean, I’d rather they weren’t there, but at the end of the day, the world can always use a little more kindness.”

Josh Bilskemper, a native of La Crosse, Wis., brings Allota Shots to life in his performances – and arrived at the FCHM in full character.

It’s quite an about-face for someone who “wanted nothing to do with drag. I thought it was weird,” she said. “Then friends convinced me to run in a pageant during La Crosse Pride. I ended up winning, and the rest is history.”

Allota was initially created as “a hillbilly,” she said, “but now it’s like, this auntie who likes color and doesn’t care about anything. It’s helped me to be more confident in myself as Josh, as well.”

Separating their drag characters from their personal lives is important, the three entertainers said.

Pronouns can admittedly be confusing; they all believe female pronouns are appropriate while they are in drag.

Allota realizes her form of entertainment isn’t for everyone.

“It’s like anything else – it’s not for everybody,” she said. “I know gay people who aren’t into going to drag shows. It’s like people who want to go to a sporting event or theatrical performance; this is another form of entertainment.

“Some people get into it and some people don’t, but like anything, it’s worth giving it a try, and you might be surprised,” Allota said. “If there’s an event like this in your area, go to it with an open mind.

“Give it a shot,” she smiled.

Getting personal

All three performers are college-educated and have strong religious backgrounds.

Allota, who went to Catholic school for 12 years, spent the last nine years as a middle school science teacher. She has degrees in biology and geology with a masters in tech integration.

Her students knew about her part-time job, “but I didn’t talk about it much. I was there to teach science.”

She taught for four years in Grand Meadow, where she “never once had an issue being gay or doing this,” before accepting a job at White Bear Lake.

As for parents, “if they didn’t like me, it was because I was strict. I was a tough teacher.”

She left education last summer “for the same reason every other teacher leaves – I know my worth.”

She now works for an off-campus housing program near the University of Minnesota and is a host and cast member at the Gay 90s, a sprawling LGBTQ nightclub in Minneapolis.

Roxi runs the K-12 drama department at Prior Lake Public Schools.

“I get more complaints from my (students’) parents that I’m strict than that I do drag,” she said, commiserating with Allota, “but a bunch of my parents are actually season ticketholders for Roxi shows.”

She comes from “a very religious family, who are supportive.”

Indeed: Her grandmothers does the bookkeeping for her business; her mother runs all of her merchandise stands and online ticketing for shows.

“I don’t think protesters are ready for my religious knowledge to come into play,” she said. “It throws a lot of people off.”

Roxi has been doing story time at the Austin Public Library since 2019. After the third year, she said, “it became a witch hunt. Behind closed doors … it’s rough.”

She tells the story of a former Sunday school teacher who saw her – as Dylan – in a parking lot.

“He was screaming at me, ‘how dare you read to kids,’ and then he said, ‘I hope you enjoy hell.’

“And I said, ‘well, I’ll be standing next to your wife, who’s wearing mixed fabrics and has been dying her hair for the last 25 years.’ You don’t get to cherry pick,” Roxi said. “If you’re going to believe, you have to believe it all.”

The Q&A

In response to a question after their show, Ivy provided what was clearly a well-used response.

“Yes, my Irish Catholic mother knows I play dress-up,” she said. “She comes to most of my shows wearing a T-shirt with my (drag) face and name on it.”

Steward sells diamonds as his full-time job.

The performers accept tips during their numbers, money that “goes right back into the art form,” Roxi said. “Classes, lessons, wigs, clothing, make-up, padding, duct tape… Don’t ask about the duct tape.”

As she said during the show, “it costs a lot to look this cheap.”

Humor is used frequently, especially to poke fun at themselves or each other.

Roxi opened the show talking about moving the event inside because of the weather.

“A drag queen in the rain … just does not work. A wet drag queen is just a man. It’d start as Roxi, and you’d get Dylan real quick,” she said, dropping her voice a few octaves.

“Drag entertainers know how to play to their audiences,” Ivy said. “We ask, is this an all-ages event, or is it 21-plus? That informs my music choices. I knew there weren’t going to be kids here today, so my songs were a little more fun, a little more raunchy, a little more stupid.

“If this had been an all-ages event, there are all sorts of Disney songs, fairy tales … so many options to make it family-friendly and age-appropriate,” she said.

“We are people, too, under all this makeup,” Allota said. “We do (Q&As) so you can go out into the community as soldiers for us. There’s a lot of ignorant people out there, and education is the best cure.”

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