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There's a momentary pause in conversation when the door to the patio opens. The patrons of Little Rock's Club Sway have been clustered about, chatting and smoking, when each head turns to take note of who's standing in the doorway. They're silent before calling out. Everyone wants to say hello, get a hug, compare shoes.
It's somewhere after 10 p.m. on Friday night and Symone has arrived. She's dressed in a caramel-colored pantsuit serving Whitney Houston-gone-Wall Street. It's a special night, a night where she is the club's focus, its temporary raison d'etre. Tonight is "Symone Says," a monthly night of drag performances starring and emceed by Symone herself.
In Little Rock's small but thriving drag scene, Symone occupies a unique position, being a relatively young performer but also at the top of her (and everyone else's) game. After winning Fresh Fish, a live competition for drag queens, she's been hosting "Symone Says" on the last Friday of each month since the summer of 2015.
Earlier in the week, I went to visit Symone at her dorm room on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's campus. As I sat in a small, mass-produced desk chair, across from me on the bed was Symone's shadow: Reggie Gavin. He's a UALR senior studying mass communications, and, two-inch red fingernails aside, he's indistinguishable from any of the other students on campus. He's dressed in all black: tight jeans, a tank top with the larger-than-life visage of Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick blazoned across his chest, a backward baseball cap. His dorm room is like all others, a confusion of things, schoolbooks, makeup, wig stands and clothes.
Gavin was almost instantly attracted to the art form of drag when he first saw RuPaul guest star on a rerun episode of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch."
"A few years later, when I first saw "RuPaul's Drag Race" [a competition for drag queens on TV], I thought, 'Hmm, I could do this.' "
At 16, when he got his first job, his paychecks went to nothing except makeup, and he would practice his technique after school before his parents got home from work. "I had a two-hour window that I could practice in the mirror, and then when I'd hear the garage door open, I'd know to hurry up and take it off."
Symone is "this culmination of Rihanna, the soul of Whitney Houston in the way she can captivate an audience and Naomi Campbell with the fierceness, the attitude," Gavin says. She's a stark contrast to Gavin, a self-described "quiet boy," who seems grateful for Symone both as a creative outlet and as a protective wall between him and the outside world. As I talk to Gavin, it becomes clear how closely Symone exists beneath his surface. In the moments when Gavin hesitates to answer a question, it's Symone's body language that answers for him. On social media, though both Gavin and Symone have Facebook and Instagram profiles, Symone's are updated most frequently. She is the one, by design, who receives the attention, the fame.
Gavin says Symone's confidence has bled into his own life. "Sometimes, I'll even wear her clothes to class, and I've got these," he says, holding up his red-nailed hands. "We're more blended now than we used to be; she's helped me overcome the shame I used to feel from doing drag." The symbiotic duality of Gavin and Symone belies the fact that Symone is still a detailed creation of Gavin's, an outward manifestation of his desires, but also a protective layer of persona. In performing as Symone, Gavin finds an elusive, almost self-manifested power. "It can be addicting," Gavin acknowledges, "being the center of attention, everyone's focus for those couple of minutes." It's a power that, without Symone to act as conduit, Gavin might not manifest.
Back at Sway, Symone is in the upstairs green room with the other girls. They're all preparing for the evening's show, an eight-number set in which each queen performs twice. The queens are all changing from their preshow outfits. Symone quickly shucks her pantsuit, while another queen gets a friend's help to unzip her fringed and bedazzled Mexican flag unitard. "Papa Don't Preach" is on full blast. With her outfit changed, now in a black leather skirt and top, Symone waits behind the stage to be introduced. A giant ceiling-mounted video screen is playing a video of Britney Spears singing karaoke, but no one can hear it over the house music, which is fine; her countenance is enough to reign over the proceedings. This is the only part of the night that makes Symone nervous, the five seconds behind the curtain before Gavin's doubts give way to Symone's control. "When it's time for Symone to perform, she just comes out of me. There's just no doubt that I can do it. That's never been a question; once I get on the stage it's just second nature."
Her lip-sync is to Jazmine Sullivan's "Mascara," but the performance recalls the best parts of Ciara's criminally underloved "Body Party" music video. She saunters around the stage, on top of and under tables, giving the audience what they came for: a three-minute vacation into her existence, to imagine themselves in her shoes, dancing for the pleasure of another, being the focus of someone else's desire. The power she holds over the audience is tangible and, for Symone, intoxicating. Flouncing and purring across the stage, she's earning her tagline, "The Ebony Enchantress," flinging herself against the stage's mirrored backdrop, making eyes at the audience in front of her and also their reflection.
The song ends and Symone shifts gears, no longer lustful and bawdy, but cheerful and cajoling as she flirts with the audience, welcoming them and ushering on the next queen to perform. The night proceeds without incident. A range of queens perform, their looks ranging from grunge to disco, each of them momentarily being taken over by their own inner drag self.
Symone closes the show with another performance. She wears a canary yellow suit with animal print shoes. She dances to a mix of songs — Rihanna, Britney Spears and Fifth Harmony. The performance is athletic, reaching a crescendo with the final hypnotic drum beat. The song ends, the spotlight leaves her and, sweat covered, she leaves the stage.
In his dorm room, I had asked Gavin if he thinks he's the best drag queen in Little Rock. Gavin had demurred, hands covering his face as his skin attempted to blush. "Well," Gavin had finally allowed, "I'm on my way." Symone's smile let slip that her answer might be different. "I still have a lot to learn," he had said, and surely it is Gavin speaking, "but do I think I'm one of the best? Absolutely. No question."
Gavin likes being the queen to set the bar. Gavin knows that, for Symone, Little Rock is just a stepping stone. Eventually, in order for Symone's career to grow, she'll have to move to another city, work herself up from the bottom all over again. "I'm not going to get complacent," Gavin says. I have lot more that I want to do. A lot more to prove." He says it like a challenge, as though Symone is daring Gavin to push harder, to take her, and him, further. Symone's smile takes over his face again. "This," he motions to the sparse dorm room around him, wigs and makeup scattered about, "it's just the beginning."