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As 16-year-old Anita Kiss prepares to make her drag queen debut at Seasons & Sessions in front of a mix of strangers, friends, and family members, an undeniable energy pulses through the establishment.
The lights dim at the Adams Morgan newcomer, and the DJ slowly increases the volume on a classic ’80s hit. The crowd stands up and cheers. Then Kiss starts in on her routine, lip-synching, dancing, even doing splits on the ground in time with the music. A sea of cellphone lights help illuminate the scene.
In the crowd, Kiss’ parents are recording the show, trying to contain the tears running down their faces as they watch their child express themself in a way they’ve been dying to for so long. As Kiss finishes her performance, she receives a standing ovation. Friends and family laugh and embrace each other.
This is only one of the numerous drag shows that now take place in the D.C. area on any given Sunday. The city’s drag scene has exploded in the last few years, but at the heart and soul of the rise of the drag fad is the drag brunch, which attracts people from all different backgrounds seeking out a joyous time over music, food, and an uninterrupted flow of alcohol.
The origin of the drag brunch in D.C. can be traced back to Perry’s in Adams Morgan, which launched its service in August 1991. “When the riots came to [Adams Morgan], business dropped dramatically,” says Perry’s owner Saied Azali. “So we needed something to bring back the clientele, especially on the weekends.” Azali says his knowledge and understanding of the drag scene came from his days in New York City as a punk kid working different party scenes.
Many other local bars and clubs have followed Perry’s lead within the last ten years.
Since brunches traditionally take place on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, it brings steady business to a restaurant or bar that might not otherwise be open. Breakfast dishes and booze have the highest profit margins, and if done right, a drag brunch can be a lucrative shift. But it’s about way more than money. “It just brings a new level of fun, excitement, and creativity to an already enjoyable dining experience,” says Seasons & Sessions owner AJ Fastow.
The joy is evenly dispersed between patrons and drag queens themselves. “Performing in drag has been a type of extrovert therapy for me, as we get to truly be ourselves and get cheered for it,” says Miss Davenport, the co-host of drag brunch at Nellie’s. “These performances helped my transition as I became older, and helped with my depression.”
Nellie’s has run its drag brunches for nearly a decade. Similar to Perry’s, they offer a large buffet with free-flowing drinks to go with an extensive drag show. Just make sure you arrive on time or expect to be greeted with a chorus of “Bitch! You late!”
“In this day and age, what could bring more joy than just people wearing what they want and freely expressing themselves?” asks Nellie’s owner Doug Schantz. “Look around. There is nobody here without a smile on their face!”
As the popularity of the drag brunch scene continues to rise, so does the number of businesses that offer it around the city.
Shi-Queeta Lee’s drag brunch at Chateau Remix in Northeast has become one of the most popular locales. Those shows go beyond singing and dancing to include celebrity impersonators and special guests, all with high production value. Restaurant drag shows have made their way across the Potomac— Freddie’s Beach Bar & Restaurant in Arlington hosts various drag events including drag bingo.
New audiences are finding their way to drag brunches. “In the beginning, drag brunches were [for] mostly gay clientele,” Azali says. “But now, it’s mostly straight people. It doesn’t matter what drag brunch or show you attend. The city as a whole is starting to embrace the positivity of the scene and how much fun it brings.”
If you haven’t been to a drag brunch before, you’re missing out on what it would be like if Willy Wonka ran a bar for a day. A colorful array of characters in all shapes and sizes sing and dance all around you as you dig into food and sip brunch cocktails. The drag shows don’t call for audience participation, unless you volunteer to be part of the shenanigans.
Washingtonians have also started attending drag brunch to mark various celebrations from birthdays and anniversaries to baby and bridal showers. “This was the first drag brunch I’ve ever attended,” says D.C. resident Sarah Ebrahimi at Seasons & Sessions. “I never in a million years would have expected this amount of happiness and positive energy from this.”
“These drag shows bring such a need of relaxation to a city so stressed out,” says Seasons & Sessions general manager Michael Richardson. “To have such carefree fun, not judging what sex, race, or political affiliation the person you are partying with, is truly what these shows are about.”