Behind the Lashes

A series that looks into the world of drag through the eyes of eight queens.

Drag Queen, Reign, 25, sits backstage on April 22, 2017 at The Menagerie in Riverside, California.

Written by Brigette Lugo. Photos by Pablo Unzueta.

Glitter. Wigs. Heels. Lipstick. The art of female impersonation, also known as drag, was brought into mainstream culture thanks to the reality show hit, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” However, this form of entertainment and performance goes much deeper than what is displayed on the screen every Friday night on VH1. There are drag clubs, bars, and competitions across the United States, and Southern California is no exception.

In the corners off the gritty streets of Los Angeles County, venues are filled with males performing lip syncs in drag to engaged audiences. From the freeway exit of Mission Inn in the Inland Empire to Hamburger Mary’s in coastal Long Beach to Toucan’s Tiki Lounge in the desert oasis of Palm Springs, the artistry of drag performance is in bloom. But behind these smokey eyes and press-on nails are stories of sacrifice, struggle, and personal evolution. This series offers a glimpse into the lives of eight queens and will go beyond the stage and behind the lashes.

She walks slowly to the stage toward the crowd. Majestic, with the straightest hair draping over her shoulders like a dark shawl. She shimmers from head to toe with jewels, her shiny silver gown fitting her curves like a pair of new silk stockings. Her long eyelashes frame her eyes and are the envy of her fellow queens. Her name is Reign and she is royalty.

Andrew Iopu may be new to the drag scene after performing at clubs for only two years, but he is no stranger to the culture of drag. His drag queen persona, Reign, has quickly become royalty in the local scene.

Iopu, 25, began performing shortly after his brother began doing drag in the local clubs.

“I was kind of the scared one, the shy one, so when it came to doing things, he was always the first one to do it. He kind of pushed me to start my drag career,” Iopu said.

Iopu may be shy, but it has not stopped him from branching out of Pomona from the 340 Nightclub where he performed his first drag show. He has now added The Menagerie in Riverside and Hamburger Mary’s in Ontario to his list of performances. He said that it is through these performances as “Reign” that he has begun to discover a new part of himself.

“Drag kind of became more of an art form. I felt like when I performed, I relieved something. It was like a different side of me. That’s what I feel like. And that’s what made me launch out and do it more.”

Reign recently participated in an 11-week competition at The Menagerie where queens battled it out in various lip-sync competitions. Reign performed an emotionally driven lip-sync of Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper.”

The expressions on Reign’s face during the lyrics, “You can take everything I have/You can break everything I am /Like I’m made of glass / Like I’m made of paper,” seemed to echo the struggle that several of these men face when they are out of their drag personas.

At a young age, Iopu knew he was gay, but didn’t realize he would be looked at negatively by some until his family pointed it out.

“I didn’t know what gay was, so when I was little, I was just like, ‘I find guys attractive.’ I thought that girls were pretty too. I didn’t know the difference until I was older.”

When Iopu was younger, he would listen to Britney Spears. He said his mom recalls him wanting to be the pink Power Ranger.

“I guess I always put a towel over my head. I don’t remember that, but there’s pictures of it,” he said as he laughed.

Iopu was not teased in school like many other kids in his situation, but instead, by his family. He said his family members would ask him about his sexuality but he didn’t know the answer. They would often ask if he was gay, which he said hurt.

“I was like, ‘What’s gay? I don’t know what that is,” Iopu said.

Iopu said he was scared to come out to his mother because he didn’t know how she would react. His brother had already come out and his mother was having trouble dealing with it.

And then one day, in the kitchen of his mother’s house, his mom asked him the question. He was 21 at the time.

“[My mom] was like, ‘Are you gay, Andrew?’ I just stood quiet. She kept asking all my friends, ‘Is he gay?’ I came out, and it was like all at once. It was put on the table all at once.”

Iopu said his mom didn’t know what to say.

“I told her that I didn’t want her to be ashamed of me.”

The final blow came at age 22 when he was singing lead in a band, one of his biggest passions.

“I was really into [the band] and all of a sudden something happened with me and my bandmates,” Iopu said.

Iopu said it was during the time that he came out. He doesn’t want to believe that the band didn’t accept him being gay, but said they became distant and started forming another band.

“It just fell apart,” Iopu said.

Since coming out, Iopu said he began to feel more comfortable with his sexuality. But things were strained at home. At one point, Iopu and his brother was forced to leave their home because his mother could not accept them both being gay and she refused to let them do drag around her.

“At first, when we had mentioned that we’re going to be drag queens, she said, ‘Not in my house. You’re gonna have to get dressed somewhere else if you want to do that.’”

They ended up moving back in with their mother after she accepted the truth about her sons. He understands why his mother had a hard time with his and his brother’s sexual identity and drag queen lifestyle.

“She was raised against this but she’s not going to throw us out into the streets for it. I think that’s mostly what I’m thankful for,” Iopu said.

But things have gotten much better, so much so that Iopu says he does his makeup in front of his mother.

“I’m just like walking around the house like Beyonce now.”

As for Iopu’s father, he had no issue with accepting his sons coming out. He has a gay sister, and according to Iopu, he was not bothered at all.

“He told me straight up, ‘I accept you for who you are. I love you. You’re my son.’ Not a lot of people will have that support from their family,” Iopu said.

But doing drag as a career is not easy. He’s had to make sacrifices to perform, which include giving up his shifts at Starbuck’s, where he works as a supervisor, and giving up his “cute” car for a cheaper one.

“Drag is important to me. I have to sacrifice other things so that I can be successful so I’m just hoping that in the end, it’s worth it, “ he said.

As for Reign, Iopu said she is royalty.

“Reign represents a queen or king. I feel like a queen is confident. That’s why I made my name Reign. I want to represent that.”

Iopu said it’s been a bit of a struggle for him to communicate the same confidence when he’s out of drag, but being Reign has helped him.

“She has brought out sides of me that I never knew I had. I’m confident in other ways as Andrew, but as Reign, I’m sexy and confident. I kind of feel like I’m unstoppable. She gives me that kind of energy.”