You have probably seen her at drag events and monthly bingo games around. Known, as ‘a goddess with a mouth of a sailor’, she is the legendary queen, Ava Clear.
Charles Starks, who has been performing as Ava Clear for years shares what’s it is like to be a drag queen.
How did you get your start in drag? How old were you?
I was 20, which is late for this game. Most of the queens tend to start dressing up young, going to the clubs, performing in talent shows. I was in college and had a friend who was performing at Patricks. They had a fundraiser for Lowcountry Aids Services, the Palmetto Community Care. Veterans would take someone who had never been in drag before and dress them up to stick them on stage to make money. At the time, I was a costume design major at CofC. The bug just kinda bit after that night. Being on stage is a natural high. After that, my friend became my drag mother and started teaching me the ropes. I did a couple of talent shows and then got offered a spot on cast at Pantheon.
Has Drag changed your life? If so, how?
It completely changed my life. It became a passion. Even after 15 years, I spend at least 40 hours a week working on costumes and numbers. I have 2 full bedrooms of my house dedicated to just “Ava”. It also influenced the path my life took. I started learning make up from doing drag and that lead to many years of doing make up professional. I started doing wigs and selling them online. I am now a flight attendant and I got the self confidence to do that from performing. Before I started performing, I was very shy. I couldn’t even get in front of my class to do a presentation. Now, I can get on a mic in front of hundreds of people and not even hesitate. So I would consider Drag to have changed my life completely.
On how much do you usually spend on drag?
I just added up my expenses from last year for my taxes. I spent $9,271 in 2017 on drag. I have always said that it is very hard to make drag a full time career because of the low pay and personal cost. Most of the performers who have made Drag full time for them do many other things than just the on stage performing. They set themselves up selling jewelry, hair, doing make up, etc. They use the skills they learned as a performer to make money on the side.
For some, Drag is a hobby. For some, Drag is a career. Do you have a day job(s) that you do besides drag? Does this day job affect your Drag life?
I am a flight attendant for my day job. As well as I do taxes during tax season. It does affect it sometimes, in that it makes for some very long days. There are times where I have a show at night. Get home and showered late, then I get a couple of hour nap, and then I have to be at the airport at 5 am to catch a flight to Charlotte to work a trip. So unfortunately, a couple of times a month, I will have a 24 hour day, but it is the cost of doing something you love.
Why is tipping important in drag?
We are typically paid very little to be at a gig. Many girls work in most cities for free or $25. National Titleholders are working for $50to $75 is Atlanta. With the cost that we put into what we do, tips are a sign that you enjoy what you see, and you want to see more. It helps us to get more costumes, hair, shoes, make up, jewelry, and that much needed duct tape to hide the fun stick. Even the gas to get from one gig to another. Breast plates have become popular over the years and when they first came out, mine cost $850. People don’t realize the cost of what goes into what we do.
What is something you wish everyone knew and understood about drag?
All drag queens are different. Many of us do this for different reasons. Some transgender people found drag as a way to have a job when they weren’t accepted into society many years ago, and some found it as a way to help them transition into their true gender. Some do this as a job to make money and others do this as a hobby. To me, this is a creative outlet. I don’t get to use my degree in my current job, so I get to use it when I am working on stage costumes. Something can be very cathartic about coming up with a design concept, then sewing it, then stoning it to all get out so it blinds and blinds on stage.
Drag is becoming a pop culture item with people using drag culture Metaphors in their everyday lives, such as saying “Yasss Queen” or even using the word “slay” in their everyday Vocabulary. How do you feel about this?
I am all for acceptance. To me, RuPaul’s Drag Race has been both good and bad. It’s definitely propelled drag into mainstream culture. Over the past 15 years of performing, I have seen a huge shift in where we work. 15 years ago, the only shows were at gay bars.Now, there are cabaret style shows, Brunch shows and many straight venues getting into what we do. I have been hired to even just go to a party in drag and walk around to liven up the evening. I have seen drag queens who officiated weddings. It has given us a bigger “stage”. At the same time, I often hear newbies who watched RuPaul’s Drag Race say how a show wasn’t what they were expecting. What we do in our shows is not shown on RuPaul’s Drag Race until the last couple of minutes when they lip-sync for their life. That show is there to make good tv, which includes drama, and finding girls who will be petty and talk shit to each other.
In your eyes, what is the future of Drag?
I think that the future of drag is moving into more cabaret/theatre style show. I see less and less shows happening at gay bars. I see more and more starting at comedy houses and restaurants (good for me cuz I like to eat). The gay community has seen drag for so long, that it is almost as if they are tired of it. The biggest boom of drag over the last 5 years has been the Drag Bingo and Restaurant Shows where people come in to see a show as they eat dinner and brunch. I also see
drag moving away from the typical “female impersonation” that it used to be where you had to look like a woman to be a performer. I see more and more interesting looks. Drag Queens with beards, Drag Queens who don’t wear breasts. It is more about a gender bending performance art experience.
Do you have any tips for anyone inspiring to be the next drag superstar?
Listen and Learn. Also, know that drag is going to take A LOT of time and money if you want to do it right. Even if you have a full time job, this will become a second full-time job that doesn’t pay. Pay respect to the queens who came before you because they might just give you a booking or a costume. This is a hard industry. Brooke Collins is currently the only queen in Charleston who has been here performing longer than myself. When I started. I would go in the dressing room and just watch her. See how she did her make up. How she worked a crowd. How she handled the business of a show. I contribute most of what I have learned over the years to her. When the newbies come in, just learn from the more seasoned. Doesn’t mean you have to be like them, but take away from them the good and discard the negative. Even if you hate someone or someone isn’t nice, there is always a lesson to learn, even if it is to not treat others like that person did.