In the early ’90s, drag star RuPaul was dazzling the club scenes in Atlanta and New York City and Jennie Livingston released her award-winning documentary Paris Is Burning, which captured the culture of New York drag balls.
In Eugene, the first Damsels, Divas & Dames drag show was performed at the Hult in 1992.
In 2000, Imperial Sovereign Court of the Emerald Empire — one of Eugene’s oldest LGBTQ organizations — revived the show and it has continued to be an annual event benefitting HIV Alliance.
Originally there were only lip-sync performances by female impersonators, but it’s now evolved into a variety show, including performances by Work Dance Company and Trai La Trash, who sings live. The show celebrates its sweet 16 Saturday, April 4, at the Hult with a dozen performers; local drag star Diva Simone Slaughter and Marc Mullins, a former Eugenean and now an Indiana news anchor, will emcee.
By day, Bill Sullivan, current Empress of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Emerald Empire, is the valiant show runner. For the past 10 years he has organized the entire event, from drag and dance acts to ad sales and coordinating volunteers.
But by night, Sullivan’s fiery red-headed drag persona Daphne Storm dazzles with Cher numbers. Sullivan first started dressing as a female impersonator on Halloween in 1980.
“It put me in a corner,” he says. “But it’s evolved, and it’s been almost 35 years now.”
Cornel Hardiman has performed as his drag persona Karress Ann Slaughter in nearly every Damsels, Divas & Dames show. “It’s like a family reunion with all my sisters and brothers,” Hardiman says.
As the queer rights movement has progressed, Sullivan has noticed an increase in audience numbers.
“The audience members have grown, but there are faithful followers who come every year,” he says. “The 1990 one was way before its time because before we had just done drag shows in the gay bar. And that was the first time it was at a big public venue. I think it was a big groundbreaker in the beginning and now people look forward to it.”
Hardiman also notices the change in audiences. “I think there are more people in the crowd who are comfortable being there,” he says.
By this point, Sullivan has locked in the process of creating a successful drag show. In the future, however, he says, he’d like to get more corporate sponsorship to help bring one of the drag queens from the show RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“I always joke about how I want to retire but I know in reality that as long as it’s going, I’ll be involved in some way,” Sullivan says. “It’s always been very dear to my heart.”
The Imperial Sovereign Court of the Emerald Empire and HIV Alliance present Damsels, Divas & Dames 7:30 pm Saturday, April 4, at the Hult Center; $25-$30, college and youth discounts available.