Drag Life

A 1920s Texas drag star comes to life in a new documentary

A new short documentary is exploring the unsung history of 1920s vaudeville drag performer Barbette, as told by RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 8 star Cynthia Lee Fontaine. Through contemporary and archival footage, Barbette + Fontaine weaves together the story of these two Texas drag queens across the span of a century.

Vander Clyde Broadway was born in 1899 in Texas. After a lifelong love of the circus, he turned that passion into a career with an audition for a San Antonio troupe. Although he was informed that the show was only seeking female performers, he didn’t pesky details like that stop him. He auditioned in drag and took on the persona Barbette.

After a successful run in the circus, he advanced to international tours on the vaudeville circuit, dazzling audiences with trapeze and high wire acts. When the act was over, he would pull off his wig to cheers and applause.

“I was so immersed in the Barbette story that I had a dream that I was at a performance of his in the audience, watching him do his high wire in his trapeze,” Barbette + Fontaine director John-Carlos Estrada recalled in an interview with The Advocate. “And then all of a sudden, we were face to face with each other backstage, and he was asking me, ‘Tell my story, please. It’s been 100 years. I think people have forgotten about me.’

“So, this documentary is that promise to Barbette that I made in that dream, and it’s just been a wonderful ride ever since.”

Soon after coming up with the idea for the documentary, Estrada approached Fontaine to host. “Cynthia just seemed like the perfect person,” Estrada said. “I told her about Barbette, the project that I wanted to do, and she immediately was like, ‘I know exactly who this is. I’ve been waiting for this moment. Thank you so much.’”

“His career was totally brilliant,” Fontaine commented. “His vision and perspective of society and artistry was more than beyond what we have in 2024.”

A century later, Texas has markedly regressed in terms of drag performance. Or as Fontaine put it, “100 years ago, we had the opportunity to have freedom of expression.”

In 2023, the state advanced a ban on public drag performance, which a federal judge subsequently ruled unconstitutional. But the point was always spreading anti-LGBTQ+ hate, which very much remains. “These issues aren’t going away,” Estrada said. “Even though a federal judge did strike down the drag bill in Texas, it’s just an issue that’s going to keep going on, especially if certain things happen in November.”

Until then, viewers can learn a slice of Texas drag history in Barbette + Fontaine. The documentary has planned showings at upcoming film festivals and is in the process of securing a host streaming network.

Don't forget to share:

Tags: Documentary
Read More in Culture
The Latest on INTO