The INTO Interview

Inside Darcelle XV Showplace and WILDFANG’s Guinness World Record-Breaking Drag-A-Thon

· Updated on October 4, 2023

On July 10, inside Portland, Oregon’s legendary cabaret Darcelle’s XV, patrons were seated and waiting for the show to start, as if it were 8pm on a Friday night. The nightclub was carefully set up with red cushioned chairs lined up in rows throughout the space, all facing the stage with the name “Darcelle” spelled out in illuminated crystals and “WILDFANG” in yellow neon lights, both hanging above drawn curtains. The former was in reference to the nightclub and the Guinness World Records’ oldest living drag artist of the same name. The latter referred to the queer-inclusive clothing company sponsoring the event. 

Together, the venue and the clothing company teamed up to promote drag, raise awareness towards LGBTQ+ issues, and to break the record for the world’s longest drag show. The record, which was 36 hours, 36 minutes, and 40 seconds, was set 6 years ago by Anthony Wallace in Melbourne, Australia. But a team of over 120 drag performers (including Drag Race’s Peppermint, LaLa Ri, and Eureka!), celebrity guests (including Frankie Grande, SNL’s Punkie Johnson, and Portlandia’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein), and emcees were determined to break this record over the course of 48 hours. To perform drag nonstop with over 600 songs and 700 set changes, let alone getting into drag at a 5am call time, is pretty challenging, but as these fabulous drag performers kicked-off the glittery extravaganza, the only things that were on their minds to were make history, put on a stellar show, and honor the memory of the drag artist that helped many of them get their start in drag. 

Photo credit: Holly Andres

Darcelle XV, aka Walter Cole, was a legend within Portland’s drag scene. The illustrious drag artist performed on-stage, six days a week, up until she passed away in March at the age of 92. The emcees of the event spoke lovingly about how Darcelle knew about the Drag-A-Thon, which took place a few months after she passed away. 

“I think that we all miss Darcelle so much, but the legacy that she left behind continues,” said Molly King, one of the emcees and executive director of QDoc Film Festival in Portland. “Darcelle wasn’t just a performer, but someone who actually changed the landscape for queer people in the Portland community decades ago. So it is important to keep institutions like this alive and thriving. And as you can see, Portland keeps showing up. So I think we’re just showing that it’s important to support queer institutions, queer performers, and to elevate the events.”

But even with her absence, the drag performers who flew under Darcelle’s wing took to the stage to perform a rousing rendition of “A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place.” Once the festivities began, there was no turning back on event determined to stake its claim in the history books.

The Drag-A-Thon was put together by Wildfang and Darcelle’s to not only break records, but to also stand up against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and raise funds for the queer community. The Drag-A-Thon’s fundraising efforts brought in $309,000 for the Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization supporting queer youth with crisis services and legislative work, with an additional $50,000 donated by WILDFANG. In this country, LGBTQ+ youth and drag performers have felt the incessant onslaught of conservative backlash as of late, but one thing that Portland’s drag scene is known for is building community, especially in times of need. 

Some might deem Portland weird, a label it proudly wears with “Keep Portland Weird” being its unofficial motto. Others will call it unapologetically authentic. Known for its unique arts scene, craft beer, abundance of coffee, and love of nature, Portland’s drag scene is just as unique as its culture. Drag queens, kings, and a variety of other drag performers of all ages, races, and genders call Portland home and many got their start at Darcelle’s.

“Because Portland drag has no formula, I have seen so many different kinds of drag queens coming from so many different walks of life and jumping into drag at different phases of their life,” said BinkYee Bellflower, one of several drag performers on Darcelle’s roster. “Like me, I got into drag in my late thirties. Some of these drag queens started doing drag since they were 12 and once they hit the age at 21, they wanted to be on the stage. Also, because Portland is so weird, queer, and inclusive, it’s the perfect grooming ground for drag performers of any kind of expression.”

No two drag artists are the same, but they do have one thing in common: their love for community. 

“I’ve been here for about 15 years, and Darcelle was the mother of this community, took us all in, and really taught me how to be an entertainer,” said Cassie Nova, one of Darcelle’s many drag performers. “We have a show here, three nights a week, and it’s just amazing and the community is so good here in Portland. In Portland, you can throw a cat and hit a drag queen. There are so many drag queens, but there’s space for us all, which is so nice.”

Darcelle’s has been a haven for many of these drag artists seeking community. The drag performers that took to the Drag-A-Thon’s stage to lip sync to hits from Dua Lipa, Tina Turner, Sadé, Diana Ross, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Lopez, and more, at one point were drag artists either new to Portland’s drag scene or new to drag entirely. But at Darcelle’s, drag performers at the famed cabaret are family, with many of them having to fill in for different Drag-A-Thon shifts left open, because family takes care of its own. And under the roof of Darcelle’s, the drag performers, the bar staff, and the audience are one big community celebrating Portland’s queerness and weirdness. 

“It’s such an honor to be here to try to break the world record,” said Meesha Perú, one of Portland’s resident drag performers. “I’m going to say thank you, Poison Waters, because she pushed me to do this. But if it wasn’t for Poison, I would not be here. It’s such an honor to be a part of this amazing event.”

While acclaimed drag artist Poison Waters has enjoyed her success with virtual and in-person shows via “Poison Waters & Friends”, she has been the co-hostess at Darcelle’s for many years. Since the drag performer’s passing, Poison Waters took on the de facto role of mother to the drag community that Darcelle cultivated at her eponymous drag cabaret.

Darcelle’s started in 1967, when Cole purchased a small tavern in northwest Portland. Soon after, that would turn into the illustrious venue named after Cole’s drag persona. Since its inception, drag artists like Poison Waters, BinKyee Bellflower, Alexis Campbell Starr, Bebe Jay, Summer Lynne Seasons, Cassie Nova and performer Mr. Michell have all called Darcelle’s home and have drinks named after them to prove it. For them, Darcelle’s isn’t just a space for drag performance, it’s an institution for queerness, authenticity, and community. All of which are in need of amplification during a time when anti-LGBTQ+ legislation continues to increase within the United States. 

A part of it is very happy, and a part of it is very sad because so many things are happening, but [Darcelle] is not here to see it. But I know she’s in heaven, looking down on us and happy that we are keeping the legacy going.

Alexis Campbell Starr

To date, the ACLU has tracked 492 anti-LGBTQ+ bills across the nation, many of which attack LGBTQ+ youth and drag performers. Currently, Oregon has 7 anti-LGBTQ+ bills active, all of which deal with either healthcare or education. The number pales in comparison to other states’ anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, such as Mississippi with 25 bills, Oklahoma with 35, and Missouri with 38. Interestingly enough, Oregon doesn’t have anti-drag legislation introduced within the state.

But drag performers aren’t beholden to one place for a performance. The nature of their work can bring them across the country and into states, like the aforementioned, that deem their honest work a criminal offense. For many of these performers, drag is their primary source of income. So for these bills to come out against them it’s not only an affront to their way of earning money, but also an attack on their identity as LGBTQ+ people. 

Therefore, working at Darcelle’s, an active and popular queer establishment honoring the traditions of drag, is an act of defiance against any anti-drag bill within the United States. And with Darcelle and WILDFANG’s Drag-A-Thon, the performers continued to defy conservatives and their ideologies by simply spreading joy, confidence, and love through performance. Each performer at the Drag-A-Thon came to not only help break a record, but to take a stand for queer artistry and the queer community. Through their actions, they not only entertained the audiences that flowed into Darcelle’s over the course of those few days, but they also showed them the resilience, strength, and support of the queer community. 

“One thing that I see, when I go to other states, is that the drag communities are very separate,” said Bebe Jay, another Darcelle’s queen. “Here in Portland, the community is very close. There’s unity.”

The unity Bebe Jay spoke about helped the collection of drag performers to hold out long enough to break the previous world record for longest drag stage show. On Wednesday, July 12, the Darcelle crew took to the stage with an official Guinness World Records announcer to hear a sentence that forever changed Darcelle’s history. 

“Today in Portland, Oregon, USA, you had a time of 48 hours, 11 minutes and 30 seconds, and you have the new Guinness World Record title,” said the announcer. 

The world record was broken, but spirits weren’t. As if the drag artists hadn’t been performing around the clock, they rallied together onstage for the monumental feat. Still, this achievement wouldn’t have been possible without the legendary drag performer Darcelle and while she wasn’t there in person, her spirit was felt in the drag community she fostered. 

Photo credit: Holly Andres

“You know, we talk a lot about giving people their flowers while they’re living,” said Alexis Campbell Starr, another drag performer on the Darcelle’s roster. “A part of it is very happy, and a part of it is very sad because so many things are happening, but [Darcelle] is not here to see it. But I know she’s in heaven, looking down on us and happy that we are keeping the legacy going.”

Albeit bittersweet, the crowd, staff, and drag performers brimmed with excitement, as cheers resonated throughout Darcelle’s and tears fell down painted cheeks. History was made with the help of numerous performers, Darcelle’s staff, crew, and adoring fans and it all started with one drag performer envisioning a brighter future for Portland’s queer community. 

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