Once a month at Luckey’s bar, a 22-year-old drag queen performs at GLAM Night. She stands at about six feet, seven inches tall in her black stiletto ankle boots and handmade skin-tight black leotard, which is studded with iridescent rhinestones. Long curls fall from her blonde wig down to her waist. Her face is painted with heavy, dramatic makeup – high eyebrows arching above thick black lashes that contrast her piercing blue eyes.
The lights on the stage dim as the hostess announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, Rhea Della Vera!”
Rhea walks on stage, strikes several seductive poses, stroking the sides of her face, neck and body with her long, jeweled fingernails as the hypnotic beats of her song speed up. She struts into the crowd and extends an arm out to be handed crumpled dollar bills from hollering fans before prancing back on stage to finish her routine.
Stage makeup, flawlessly contouring imaginary curves, and the dim bar lights distract from the fact that merely three hours ago she was a he.
By day, Reyes Rivera is a recent college graduate who works as a delivery driver at Papa’s Pizza when he’s not spending time with his boyfriend at their small Eugene apartment.
Before running track at Lane Community College, Rivera lived most of his life in Riverside, California. He grew up with his two half sisters, who were very close to him, and later, three stepbrothers when his mother remarried.
Rivera and his sister used to sneak into gay bars in downtown L.A. to watch drag shows. There was one in particular he called VIP, where he said several drag queens from the popular reality TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, got their start. He often fantasized about being on stage instead of in the audience.
“I never in a million years thought I would be,” Rivera said through pursed lips as he applied bronzer beneath his cheekbones before his next show. “But lo and behold … I got the nerve to try it one time.”
The first time Rivera dressed in drag was his freshman year at LCC. He and a friend went to Luckey’s and approached the hostess, Diva, telling her he wanted to perform in her show. She looked him up and down and said, “We’ll talk.”
“I thought I looked fucking amazing, of course,” Rivera said. “I really looked like an 80-year-old woman.”
So he continued to practice on his own as a hobby. He quit running track to pursue dance instead, which he said improved his technique.
Most beginner drag queens are taught to perform and dress by “drag mothers,” who act as mentors. Rivera, however, said he taught himself through observation and YouTube tutorials.
Rivera pointed out that in the drag community, he’s seen as unique because of how advanced he is for such a young age and high-level of independence. Drag queens, for the most part, are competitive, and because Rivera likes to play by his own rules instead of following tradition, others often see him as a threat.
“I’m known as a bitch,” Rivera said. “But I don’t mind it because this bitch is going places.”
Rivera now performs in cities across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and California. One of his ultimate goals is to be a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. He thinks he could be an instant success for simply appearing on the show.
Rivera said a large part of his success is also due to his ability to make connections with people who host shows at other bars, as well as drag queens who he thinks have potential. He is in a travelling group called The Lipstick Divas, with Mark Harbaugh (known on stage as Nicky Serene) and Matt Brown (known on stage as Ivanaha Fusionn).
Brown said he and Rivera were “mean-mugging each other” when they first met in Portland. Like several others, Brown initially felt intimidated by Rivera. After starting conversation, however, they realized they had a lot in common and became friends almost instantly. They now call one another “drag sister,” meaning they host and perform together and always have each other’s back.
Rivera took Harbaugh, the third Lipstick Divas’ addition, under his wing when he won a drag competition that Rivera hosted, and from there he became Harbaugh’s “drag mother.”
“The people closest to her get to see her amazing warm heart,” Harbaugh said. “She always has a desire to help the new queens who she thinks deserve it, and gives opportunities that many performers may not get without her.”
A typically more timid guy, Rivera admits dressing in drag brings out a different side of him – one that’s confident and feisty, and largely the reason why he is so passionate and dedicated to pursuing it as a career.
“I don’t think I’m perfect – but I think I’m pretty damn close,” he said.
The fledgling drag scene at the University of Oregon still needs some work, but Elle Mallon, ASUO’s Gender and Sexuality Diversity Advocate, LGBTQA’s education coordinator and a drag enthusiast, said they would like to start planning more events for students that are accessible and alcohol-free.
“We live in a very complicated drag scene,” said Mallon. “On the one side, there’s a couple shows every week and some special events that happen every once in a while, and it’s amazing to live in a community where you can find that space, but on the other side, access is not universal.”
The LGBTQA hosts a student drag show once a year, usually during winter term. Mallon, however, would like for that to happen more often, in addition to all-ages events in the downtown area, so that drag enthusiasts of any age can experience this community that Mallon loves so much.
“There’s a lot of compassion in (Eugene’s) drag community, and a lot of people who genuinely care about each other,” Mallon said. “Those are the people I look up to. The ones who rock it on stage, and then use the power that gives them for good.”