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Trans drag performer Pearl Teese on how there’s more than one way of doing drag

Courtesy of Pearl Teese

With campy outfits, over-the-top makeup, and sky-high wigs, drag sells a fantasy of how to become a larger-than-life character and a big dose of escapism. But fantasy met a big dose of reality a year ago when world famous drag queen RuPaul defended his decision to not allow openly trans drag queens on his show, RuPaul’s Drag Race.

That story first aired in 2019. After facing backlash, RuPaul apologized for his comments and noted “the trans community are the heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement.” Since we aired this story, Pearl Teese has become the host for “Trans Voices” at Strut in San Francisco. You can learn more at kalw.org.

I get off at Castro station and make my way up the escalators to Harvey Milk Plaza. It’s kind of windy, so the neighborhood’s massive rainbow flag is flying freely. I walk down Castro Street — past Soul Cycle and the iconic movie house —  and make my way to the Strut, Castro’s health and wellness center for the queer community.

As I walk up the stairs, I hear some music being played. People are talking among themselves, grabbing food and drinks. I’m swaying with the music and making sure I don’t drop my drink. Trust when I say: I am not tipsy enough to spill a drop. The announcer gives an introduction to the hostess of the night, “So, I’m going to introduce you all to our hostess of the night. Her name is Pearl Teese. She’s an amazing performer and I’m sure she’s going to show some skin. So welcome to Pearl Teese.” I’ve been to a lot of drag shows and let me just say I love the energy of the crowd and the outside personas of the performers. They’re living in and for the moment.

Credit Courtesy of Pearl Teese
Pearl Teese

And from the looks of her outfit, tonight’s theme is sexy realness. Our host Pearl Teese is wearing a pink, snakeskin top with black patent leather booty shorts. She’s killing it with her matching black thigh high boots. Strutting up and down the runaway grabbing everyone’s attention. The spotlight and all eyes are on her. Pearl’s whipping her ponytail back and forth. Like Ms Beyonce would say: she’s feeling herself. Now, Pearl may look like a typical drag queen, but she doesn’t see it that way

Pearl: “I don’t consider myself a drag drag queen per se because I’m not a cis male but I do perform in drag. I was considered a drag queen even before I even started my transition. I’ve probably been a drag entertainer or entertaining for eight years. I’ve only started my medical transition three and a half years ago. So i’ve been entertaining long before I transitioned.”

Born and raised in San Francisco, Pearl first got into drag in her twenties when she and her friend experimented just for fun.

Pearl: “Like I initially wasn't like thinking about doing it wasn't anything I really really wanted to do but my friend was like come on. Let's dress up. And so we dressed up and I kind of got addicted just because I liked what I saw in the mirror and then eventually we would go out and stuff and we would see shows and in high school. I was always into theater. I was a dancer and to be able to dress up dance and use theater all-in-one gave me the chance to use that on stage and get paid for it.”

And how did the name Pearl Tesse come about? Well, it’s definitely a nod to her culture. 

Pearl: “When I started entertaining I had this really long drawn out name and I came across a mentor, I guess you can say. Or kind of like a coach. And we came up with Pearl Teese because I’m both black and Filipino. A pearl tea...do you know those drinks that have boba in it like Quicklys? That’s a pearl tea. So we figured the tapioca, the pearl would represent my Filipino side and black tea would represent my black side. And we would add a little bit of sex in there and it became Pearl Teese.”

While many are familiar with cis males performing as female drag queens, it should not be mistaken that being a trans female and drag performer are one the same. Drag is an art and for some a full-time job, but trans is a gender identity. For Pearl, it helped her find a way to describe her transition.

Credit Courtesy of Pearl Teese
Pearl Teese

Pearl: “I feel like I’ve known forever that I was a trans person. I just didn’t have the right words for it. It didn’t help me find my identity, but it did help me come in terms with it. And I think once I reached adulthood and kind of found out what a trans person was and being an entertainer it just helped me come to terms with it.” 

Why is it a big deal that Pearl is a trans woman performing in drag? Well, legendary drag queen RuPaul caused a big stir in the drag community when he talked about queens who have transitioned and asked if he would accept a contestant who had he says, “Probably not. You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing. We’ve had some girls who’ve had some injections in the face and maybe a little bit in the butt here and there, but they haven’t transitioned.”

As drag becomes mainstream, largely due to RuPaul and his show, it may have inadvertently created an expectation of what is and isn’t drag, as well as who can and can’t do it. Well, Pearl’s not letting RuPaul off the hook… 

Pearl: “Trans women were accepted into drag before RuPaul’s drag race. I think RuPaul’s Drag Race kind of has tried to redefine drag to its own standard. So I do think drag is, has been, and always will evolve. Just like fashion. Just like makeup. Just like hair. All of those things. You know even theater. All of these things are parts of drag and as they evolve I think drag evolves also. But there are different forms of drag. There’s drag queens, drag kings, trans queens, bio queens, faux queens. There’s all kinds of queens.”

For Pearl, the othering of trans queens is part of a large mucher issue….

It's just another thing where people are trying to tell women, specifically trans women, that no you can't be part of this. We don't think you have what we believe is required and I just couldn't disagree more with that.

And some people will love it. Others not so much. 

Pearl: “I think drag fans are. I’m not sure about drag race fans. Because I think they are two very different things. There are people who are fans of drag and are out in their own communities or cities or wherever they are. Go to drag shows. See their local queens. Versus people who are not necessarily say fans of drag just fans of the characters of RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

I’m with Pearl on this one. And after talking with her and getting a better sense of how fluid drag really is, I really appreciate the show.

Porfirio Rangel is a Producer for Sights & Sounds