Ona Louise is a Brooklyn-based drag queen who is also the co-founder and Deputy Director of Drag Queen Story Hour New York. During WorldPride week, she and five of her drag queen sisters participated in Drag Queen Story Hour at Macy's Herald Square for kids and their families. Here, she talks about that experience, about Drag Queen Story Hour in general and about her personal journey and viewpoints.
What is Drag Queen Story Hour?
It’s drag queens who read to kids in public schools and libraries and bookstores. Basically, we read anywhere we can get kids and drag queens together. We read books about inclusion, diversity, love and acceptance.
Drag Queen Story Hour was founded in San Francisco by writer Michelle Tea. I went to one of the first readings in the Castro Library branch and thought it was amazing. I had just started drag myself and I thought, we need this in New York. So, I met with my friend Rachel Amy who worked for Feminist Press with NYU and we teamed up and did Drag Queen Story Hour at a bookstore. It just took off. We were in the public library system and got lots of press. And now, we just read to kids.
The purpose of Story Hour is to have positive queer role models for kids. All children need role models and especially LGBTQ+ kids need positive queer role models. There really is a lack of that in the world and I think a lot of times, queer people and queer culture are deemed as not family friendly.
Why do you personally do Story Hour?
I do Story Hour because as a young kid, I would have loved to have had a positive queer role model like myself. I think it’s important to show kids a lot of gender presentation and diversity so that they can grow up and be tolerant, loving adults.
How often do you do Story Hours?
For Pride month, we’ve done readings in multiple locations per day.
How do you choose the books you read to the kids?
At Drag Queen Story Hour we have a library of books that we choose from. They range from classics like “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” or “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to other books that are more modern that have to do with inclusivity and love and diversity. We read “Julian is a Mermaid” or “Neither” or any Todd Parr book. We kind of have our Drag Queen Story Hour favorites that we read.
My favorite book to read is “Neither” by Airlie Anderson, which has to do with a bunny-bird mixture that doesn’t fit into this rigid world and has to go find somewhere else to live and finds her own chosen family, which in a way is my own personal story.
And you conducted a Drag Queen Story Hour at Macy’s?
Yes, we got the amazing opportunity to do a Drag Queen Story Hour at Macy’s Herald Square—the major flagship on 34th Street in New York. It was really awesome to spread awareness of our program and read to kids there. We had six drag queens—they were so diverse with many different talents. It was so cool to be on the stage together, taking turns reading books, lip syncing, doing Hokey Pokey. It was a lot of fun and the crowd was amazing. It was cool to see families come in and stay and get excited about it.
How did the Macy’s Drag Queen Story Hour go?
It was really awesome. It was such a cute space—the colors, the rainbow and all the kids. I read “Neither” by Airlie Anderson. After two hours, they just wanted more and more books.
I’ve been going to Macy’s for school shopping since I was a small child, so getting up in front of those kids was like, Oh wow, I was barely your age getting back-to-school clothing and now I’m here in front of you, a fully actualized drag queen, about to read books to you.
What would it have meant to you as a kid to have attended a Story Hour like this?
I’m from a small town in Georgia. I had no support and was told ‘no’ my whole life—to showing my femininity or showing any gender fluidity whatsoever. Now I stand here shifting paradigms and being one of many great leaders in the queer community who is helping the children by reading to them and just showing them that it’s okay to be different and to be yourself and not have someone tell you otherwise. Who knows where I would be today if I had had the support or gone to Story Hour as a kid since what I do now has grown from the cracks of adversity.
How do the audiences at Drag Queen Story Hour typically react?
The kids love Drag Queen Story Hour. They love the theatrics, the hair, the makeup, the shiny jewelry. I don’t think kids are exposed to live performance enough. Everyone’s on phones. Storytelling to them in person, in real time, with their parents beside them is so powerful. And they really love it—it’s like having a Disney Princess in front of you, come to life. And then when you lip sync Moana or some Disney song, they really go crazy.
Share your thoughts about this statement: The beauty you’re born with is the most important kind of beauty. But it’s also important to learn how to make the most of it and let it shine.
That’s how I found myself doing drag. I started to look within and through finding self-love, I was able to express myself truly and show gender expression in a fun, creative way.
All drag starts with the beauty within. You pull out all the stuff that’s inside of you and you externalize it. You really have to get in touch with yourself, know who you are and be really confident in that, pull it out and then show it to the world.
Finding inner beauty is not an easy road. But I think you can get to it the more contemplative you are and the more you think about how much value you bring to your family and community and about what you can give back and put out there. The beauty you discover in this way is what you should be grateful for and love and cherish every day.
Where did you grow up and what was your experience like as a young boy?
I grew up in Georgia in a fairly small town and in a very conservative home with very traditional gender roles. I grew a lot from where I came from in the rural south and then found my own chosen family and community in New York City. I moved there when I was 21 and never looked back. But growing up and being told you can’t express your femininity or can’t express yourself in certain ways was kind of damaging and it took a long time to get past that and get past the self-hatred and really get into a space of loving myself.
I was a big theater nerd; I loved theater. I wanted to become a costume designer or an actor. Or I thought I’d move to the East Village and become like the characters in Rent. I had this whole picture that changed once I moved here and realized that New York is a little more expensive and cutthroat than it was in these magical movies. But I had a really wild journey in New York, working in fashion and then moving on to drag and then to Drag Queen Story Hour.
How did you get started doing drag?
I feel like they’re two types of drag queens. There are drag queens that say, ‘You should do drag. Here’s the opportunity.” Or, you’re a Halloween drag queen. I’m definitely a Halloween drag queen. I did Lana Del Rey six, seven years ago and I was like, yeah, this is it. And then ever since then I’ve been doing drag.
How important is the outer garb, the makeup and the hair style?
Drag is all about self-expression. It’s definitely about what you put on your body and your makeup and your hair. But it’s also about your performance and your presence and what you’re giving to people who are watching you. I mean you can dress up a mannequin and put it in a window but there’s no soul or person there.
I think that the beauty of gender is that it’s fluid and it can change on a regular basis. This outfit and makeup and hair come off and I’m a totally different person, but I can still feel the same way. Just because I’m presenting differently doesn’t mean I’m a different person.
How do you come by confidence?
I think for me confidence comes from having self-respect and self-love. Doing drag, you have to look in the mirror and be, like, wow, this is a beautiful person. Then you walk out the door and you feel confident because you are sure in yourself and you love yourself.
Talk about the sense of empowerment you get from being yourself onstage at a Drag Queen Story Hour?
I love when you create this character and the audience connects with maybe not the whole picture but with at least one thing that you do—your hairstyle or your clothing or your song choice or your mixes.
Drag Queen Story Hour is really empowering for me because I can come in front of a group of kids and I can lip sync to Julie Andrews and read books and play games and spread literacy and love. That’s really empowering, more so than performing in a nightclub, which is amazing in itself. It’s so empowering to give back to a community and for kids to be exposed to performance and drama and theatrics and also read books and have a positive queer role model in front of them. That’s my stage.
But New York City is also my stage and every time I walk out of the house in or out of drag, all eyes are watching. We’re all windows and mirrors to each other.
What do you want people to know about drag queens?
For me, drag is an art form, and art is a mode of self-expression and it should be seen as such. One of the misconceptions is that drag queens are only for adult entertainment. That is a cornerstone of drag culture, but when we bring the drag queens out of the nightclubs to children and communities during the daytime, we are fierce leaders of the queer community.
Drag is so empowering for a cause or something you believe in. Drag is like this character armor that you can put on and then champion and speak for people who may not have the courage or voice to do that. You’re like this powerhouse.
You mentioned a misconception. What's the biggest misconception about you as a drag queen?
That I can be put into a box. I think that in this day and age with technology and social media we all want to be in this 4 x 4 box. But with drag I step out of the box every single day and I can be a multitude of things. I can read to kids at a public school or library or at Macy’s. I can also be Jonathan [his birth name.] I can entertain adults. I can do a lot of different things.
What’s hard about being a drag queen?
One of the hardest aspects of drags is the physical one—the abuse your body goes through walking around in heels is not always the most fun thing.
And reading to kids in the library at 11 a.m. is a lot different from performing for adults at 11 p.m. in a dark bar. It’s a whole different crowd and kids don’t pick up on subtleties the way adults do. You really have to bring a fairytale to life with them. So having that mindset and drawing on your inner child is important to performing.
Presenting as female or doing drag for me sometimes brings on an extra set of insecurities in a way. It kind of reminds me of how much misogyny is in the world still. Being in drag, you’re still being judged as female and you might take on these insecurities from other people’s judgments. That’s hard and I only do it part time, so it must be really hard for people who go out there every day.
What motivates you to play with gender?
The thing about play is you don’t think about it. You play on your phone. You play in life. It’s not work. For me, I never thought of gender as something I’m playing with. It’s like, this is who I am and this is how I express myself in and out of drag. When I’m not in drag, I’m still sometimes wearing women’s clothing and makeup. So, it’s just my truth. It’s just who I am on a regular basis, all the time.
I’m down for anything that messes with the patriarchy. I think it’s really empowering to put femininity on a par with masculinity and challenge that for people who are fearful and scared.
I think gender is a construct that society concocted to create some order, whatever that is. It’s made up. We created these really rigid boxes that say we can and cannot do certain things and this can be really damaging for a lot of people. Being told I couldn’t express myself in a certain way or sing or dance or be theatrical was damaging for me. Giving kids space, especially with Drag Queen Story Hour, lets them realize that the entire dress-up wardrobe is open to you and you can use every crayon in the box to color with.
Describe your drag persona.
My drag persona is Ona Louise, which is also my mom’s name. Ona Louise likes long gloves, lots of feathers. She’s ready to throw a cocktail party. She’s like this 1960s fun and crazy aunt from the big city that lets you stay up late and eat pizza on the pullout sofa.
I draw my persona and my look from things that inspired me as a kid. I guess that’s why I love doing Drag Queen Story Hour ‘cause I draw from things I saw as a young queer person on TV or in person and thought wow, this is amazing—my mother, my grandmother who wore a lot of wigs in the 60s, Endora from Bewitched, photographs by Slim Aarons—all of these late 60s cocktail party images, Mrs. Robinson, Barbara Streisand.
Using these things for my physicality in drag is a cool way to romanticize and show respect for people from my past that I may not be able to have totally healthy, close relationships with. I can connect with them on an outward identity level through their look and feel. I feel like I’m honoring my ancestors in a certain way if I’m preserving what they were putting out physically. They were queer icons for me without even knowing it.
When I performed at Drag Queen Story Hour at Macy’s, hopefully there was some kid who saw me as inspirational or as a fantastical and whimsical character.
How long does it take you to get in drag?
It takes me about two or three hours to get into full drag. You have to factor in time for any mistakes you might make and New York City traffic.
What’s your key message?
My key message right now, at 30 years old, is: Tune out everything and listen to what you really need and want for yourself, not what other people are telling you or what may be a Band-Aid for a certain thing, but rather what really makes you happy and what your true self is telling you that you need in your life right now. So, listening and then responding.
In general, with WorldPride happening, it’s really interesting to see so much queer visibility in the world right now. I never had cell phones, the Internet, or YouTube growing up and seeing these young people that have access to a whole world at their fingertips is kind of mind-boggling. I can’t wait to see what the next generation has in store for us.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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