It would be misleading to simply call Saint's Ball a drag troupe. Exploding out of Albuquerque's nightlife scene, the emerging
circle of unconventional drag artists has quickly made its mark on New Mexico in under a year with bookings now expanding to Colorado.
You may remember Saint's Ball from the Meow Wolf Future Fantasy Delight (the art and fashion brand of Santa Fe's Nico Salazar) SS19 collection launch party, or perhaps you've caught performances at Sidewinders in Albuquerque. Maybe you've even stumbled across the troupe's Instagram (@saints.ball). In any event, if you've seen them, you're sure to remember—Saint's Ball shows are more akin to unhinged, cathartic performance art than mere pageantry.
"I want the drag scene to get crazy. I wanna see it raw. I wanna see more than just lip-syncing—I want a show," says Liviana, one of Saint's Ball's queens, epitomizing the frenetic energy behind the group's diverse showcases. "Every time I go out there and perform, I always think of how I can shock, surprise or stun the audience."
Saint's Ball's artists are indeed wildly individual, but they are unified by a desire to undermine convention in one form or another. A drag renaissance has, of course, struck the globe. Library readings, documentaries like HBO's Wig and burgeoning troupes are more commonplace than ever, and it's no secret that RuPaul's Drag Race played a large part. The show premiered 10 years ago and has seen continued success, and while many Saint's Ball queens have been inspired by the program, they often took mentorship from more seasoned performers in their local sphere to cement their own commitments to drag.
"I watched Season 3 as a freshman in high school and was inspired by the winner Raja Gemini," says Saint's Ball performer Willow Heishii. "Later I got into modeling and actually met my first drag queen … Bonni Labell. She was the same age as me and a lot more skilled with makeup. She taught me some drag basics; she changed her name to Boy Izzy and got me my first gig at Sidewinders Bar, and I haven't stopped since."
Boy Izzy performs alongside Heishii in Saint's Ball to this day, and sees expansion to Santa Fe as a slow but steady uptick.
"People in Albuquerque are, in a sense, accustomed to nightlife. There are more bars and clubs than in Santa Fe; therefore, more opportunity to go out and see us LGBTQIA+ performers," Izzy explains. "They're used to our presence; now when we visit Santa Fe, it's a different story."
The general consensus is that while Santa Fe lacks a queer-designated nightlife spot, it hungers for one. Various venues have had to fill the void of queer nightlife establishments each Pride season; this year it's Meow Wolf, which features Saint's Ball among other performers such as DJ Oona and last year's Pride Queen Guava Chiffon on Saturday June 29.
"Performing at Meow Wolf is a whole world all its own," says Saint's Ball's Ryan Stone. "The incredible artists are one of my favorite parts of New Mexico, and drag is no exception."
Said artistry—the makeup, fashion and overall drag aesthetic—seems to be of particular import to Santa Feans.
"In Santa Fe, I feel that there is more appreciation towards the artistic side of drag," says Kuwani, who recently began performing at shows in both Albuquerque and at Second Street Brewery's Rufina Taproom in Santa Fe alongside local queen Bella Gigante. Kuwani advocates for alternative drag performances inspired by sci-fi and horror, and says there is a growing appreciation for drag's assimilation into mainstream culture.
"With drag becoming more and more mainstream, it really seems like everyone is pushing themselves to be the best," Kuwani says, "which is amazing."
Thus, an expanding drag scene is exciting to witness.
"I think Saint's Ball especially is trying to expose people to new styles of drag that may not have been showcased before. I think we all can learn from each other, no matter how new or seasoned each person may be," says performer Kayla Chingada. "There are so many queens, kings and people in-between whoall have a unique perspective on what drag means to them, and I would like to see us all band together to uplift one another."
Unity isn't necessarily congruent within the often competitive world of drag. Still, a thread of hope runs through Saint's Ball's members.
"I think I can sense a wind of change in that," Willow says.
Let's hope she's right, particularly since drag instills confidence alongside artistic and performative skills.
"I've always struggled immensely with body issues, my self-image and being perceived as a feminine male," says Kayla Chingada. "Drag has helped to alleviate that; I tend to showcase a lot of body and perform very sensually because I hope to show people that you should celebrate your body, your gender expression and live your life without limitations."
On a similar note, performer Stone wants to tell the audience "a story that might make them think about the fluidity of gender in a relatable way."
Ideally, this might inspire new varieties of drag artistry; RuPaul's Drag Race captures the masses' attention on screens, but real-life experiences make lasting impressions.
"I want people to feel inspired and strong enough to go out and pursue their dreams," says performer Nadia Bizness. "I spent too many years watering down myself because I didn't want people to be scared of me, but by being my true self and expressing my authentic art, I brought like minds to me and became a pillar of strength for them."
JC Gonzo is a photographer and writer interested in researching, documenting, and re-contextualizing sub- and counter-cultural histories as a form of meta-ecology. He has written for Sensitive Skin, White Fungus and Dandy Dicks.