In a short, multicolored dress cinched tight at the waist to emphasize her curvaceous hips and bust, dramatic orange eye makeup and a voluptuous blond wig that cascades past her shoulder blades, Rock M. Sakura looks ready for a starring role in a J-pop video. Alone on stage, she teeters comically on her high heels as she lip-syncs to the soundtrack of an instructional dance video, encouraging her audience to follow along. Instead, they stay seated, chortling and clapping appreciatively.
Undeterred, she continues, demonstrating a series of moves from an unladylike squat to an even more unladylike repetitive gesture that leaves the audience shrieking with laughter. A man in baggy jeans and an oversized flannel shirt pulls a $1 bill from his breast pocket and tosses it onstage where it lands, crumpled, at her splayed feet.
It's past 10 p.m., and with every swing of the bar door, a gust of cold air sweeps in, carrying with it a draft of cigarette smoke. Sakura doesn't seem to notice. She's in full command of the room, a campy Japanese queen holding court at a dive bar just off 101 in Mountain View.
For Bryan Bradford, aka Sakura, the art of drag is all about performing for the audience.
"I look for an excited, confused look in their eyes," he explained shortly before the start of the Game of Hearts drag variety show earlier this month. Sitting in a dingy, windowless back office at King of Clubs nightclub in his khaki shorts, bare-chested, his face already prepped with cake makeup, Bradford described the feeling he gets onstage.
"Putting on a wig and makeup makes me feel fearless," he said.
Getting to be a woman for one evening a few times each month has given him a confidence that colors the rest of his life, he explained.
"I identify as a gay male, but I never really had a connection to the gay community before. Drag has pushed me to be more involved in the LGBT community."
It sounds great -- and it looks fabulous -- but Bradford made it clear life as a drag queen isn't all glamour.
"I do not feel sexy when I'm in drag," he explained. "I feel like a sweaty old couch you find at the Goodwill that smells like Cheetos. I feel like a glammed up dishrag."
The "sweaty old couch" sensation may well be due to the foam padding, pantyhose, waist cincher, makeup, hairpieces, clothing and accessories he uses to transform himself from a muscular man into a hyper-feminine woman with an hourglass figure and a porcelain doll face.
Bradford is not alone in going to such lengths to create a feminine persona for the stage. He's one of eight regular performers at Game of Hearts, a semimonthly show that launched at the Leong Drive nightclub more than 12 months ago and has attracted a loyal following.
He's also part of a much older and larger tradition.
According to Peter Goldblum, Ph. D., director of the Center for LGBTQ Evidence-based Applied Research (CLEAR) at Palo Alto University and a specialist in gender expression and gender identity, Bradford is participating in a social and political practice that dates back at least to the 17th century and gained prevalence in Germany in the 1930s, as depicted in the Broadway musical, "Cabaret."
"In the 1940s and '50s, drag became one of the central forces within the underground gay community," Goldblum explained in a recent phone interview. "Partly it was just fun and something that people enjoyed doing, but it was also very connected up with early gay liberation." Referencing the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in which the LGBT community in New York staged violent protests against legal discrimination and social marginalization, spurring the tradition of Gay Pride marches, Goldblum said. "Stonewall has often been attributed to drag queens finally coming to the point of being tired of being harassed. So there is this long history of political involvement."
Yet for most drag queens, Goldblum acknowledged, drag is primarily a social practice, one that embraces camp humor, satire and a simultaneous celebration and mockery of extreme femininity.
It's little secret that San Francisco is an international epicenter of drag royalty. Just 40 miles to the south, Mountain View is better known for its high-tech workers than its drag queens. Yet the Silicon Valley city has both -- and some of them are one and the same person.
Alexia Fuentes is among the regular performers at Game of Hearts. A petite woman with big brown eyes and a quick smile, she joined the cast six months ago. It's here, surrounded by her chosen family, that she feels like her true self.
For Fuentes, performing as a drag queen coincided with the discovery that she was a transgender woman: Although she was designated a male at birth, her gender identity is female.
By day, Fuentes is a senior software engineer known to almost all of her colleagues as a man. But being on stage as a woman has helped clarify her desire to transition; she's now in the process of hormone replacement therapy, and has begun sharing her gender identity with trusted friends and loved ones.
It was drag, she explained, that helped ease this transition.
"I felt like a way to express my femininity in a very safe space," she said. "Support groups were not the same. I am fully free on stage to be as sassy, campy or offensive as I want to be. Here, I have friends who I consider family."
Fuentes also performs in San Francisco, but said it's here in the unlikely setting of a bare bones Mountain View dive bar, among a cast of characters who range from amateur to experienced, glitzy to gritty, where she feels most at home.
"The performers there are more competitive, there's a lot of talent, and the drag community is big," she said. "But that almost works in our favor down here. The best kinds of creativity happen when there are constraints applied."
Though she's not yet out at work, Fuentes said, she plans to tell her superiors in the next month or so, and hopes they will put in place appropriate sensitivity training for her colleagues.
While performing in drag has been instrumental in helping Fuentes transition her gender identity, she made it clear that drag can be many things, and that it's impossible to generalize about those who participate in the art.
"It's not all Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj," she said. "Drag can be political, messy. It can make a statement. It's not confined to the LGBT community; it's a medium. People bring their own palette to it and do what they want with it."
"I don't know that you can generalize anything from the practice of drag," he said. "You can say, to some extent, that it is a way of coping with misogynist views or hyper-masculine expectations. Drag queens have a long history of being truth tellers to the rest of the community. Through camp humor, they put a mirror to the hyper-masculine world in which we live. They are saying, 'I don't fit that view, I don't want to fit that view, and to some extent there's something really squirrelly about society's vision of how women and men are supposed to be.' So if you can make any generalization about people who participate in drag, it would be that they are people who have the courage to step outside of social expectations about gender and to be themselves, even though society may condemn them."
The image of gender as "squirrelly" is clearly one that makes sense to Joel Newlyn, stage name Glitter E. Vortex. A stocky 24-year-old man with a day job at a leather fetish store in San Jose, Newlyn not only rejects traditional gender roles; he doesn't even identify as a drag queen when he puts on a dress and goes on stage.
"I identify with 'drag monster' because I'm a little trashy," he explained shortly before going on stage for his first number of the evening, for which he wore combat boots, a nondescript gray cotton dress and a hood shaped like a squirrel head. As he darted around manically onstage, the hood slipped down to cover much of his face, but didn't entirely obscure his thick beard, which was coated in silver glitter. It sparkled in the light of the disco ball as he finished his number lying supine center stage, snoring: a narcoleptic squirrel with breasts and dazzling facial hair.
For Newlyn, drag is not necessarily about beauty at all, nor is it limited to people of any particular sexual orientation. "Drag is not necessarily just for gay people," Newlyn insisted. "It really is for everyone, and we exemplify that."
Drag may be for everyone, but even some drag queens admit to approaching the art form with skepticism or even fear at first. Among those in this camp are Joseph Pequero and Jonathan Ruiz, a gay couple who both perform at Game of Hearts as well as at various clubs in San Jose.
"It was just too weird for me," remembered Pequero, stage name Niya La Rey, of his first encounter with the art form. A high school actor who came out as gay at age 19, Pequero discovered drag through Ruiz, who performed as a woman, but only once a year: on Halloween. Pequero did not approve.
It was Ruiz who convinced Pequero to take part in a "closet ball" -- a fundraiser for the LGBT community that features first-time performers. Pequero proved to be an instant natural. Soon, he was hooked.
"I got to know the artistry of it," he said. "It's an amazing outlet for people who have a passion to express themselves with music and performance."
For Ruiz, stage name Sativa Bankz, seeing his boyfriend flourish as a drag queen inspired him to get more involved. He refers to himself as a "pretty" drag queen, but says it's Pequero who has the real talent.
"He's a lot more passionate than I am," Ruiz noted. "He's more into performing and showing people how good he is."
On stage, both Niya and Sativa are beautiful and feminine, but Sativa's style is more sultry (her nickname is J. Lo), while Niya is more sexually explosive -- think Miley Cyrus meets Christina Aguilera for a pole dance contest. Sativa tends to select songs she feels will connect with "older people: Donna Summer, Chaka Khan, Celia Cruz," while Niya likes to surprise her audiences with everything from "Hairspray" numbers to Disney tunes. "I like to make people say 'Wow!' instead of saying, 'I saw another queen do this piece the other night,'" Pequero said.
As a self-identified "older" performer -- he's 30 -- Ruiz offered advice to those who are considering performing in drag for the first time.
"For anybody that's thinking about doing it: Do it," he said. "There's no harm in trying."
Those intrigued might start by attending a Game of Hearts show and meeting the organizers: host and talented performer Kai Kai (officially a "faux" drag queen -- she was born female, though she identifies as gender queer), DJ Scroto T. Baggins and bartender/drag king/general support person Emily Rogers. Don't forget to bring a stack of $1 bills for tips, and most importantly, bring your sense of humor.
At King of Clubs, the fun extends from the performers to the audience, which earlier this month consisted of smattering of men and women, some older, some younger. As the night wore on, the crowd grew slightly. At one point, audience members were invited to come on stage to celebrate DJ Scroto's birthday with an impromptu lap dance contest; at the end of the show, there was an open invitation to come onstage to spank the birthday boy. Both activities garnered enthusiastic audience participation.
As Dr. Goldblum put it, "We miss the boat if we don't understand that drag is just fun. Of course, some people take their drag very seriously and others take it with a big dose of irony, but if you only look at it from an anthropological or sociological perspective, you miss the most important point, which is that it's people who are having fun together and enjoying their lives."
From campy to politically charged to sexy to downright strange, there's no doubt Game of Hearts is offering fun for everyone involved, and also that it's a tight-knit, caring community. Emcee Kai Kai laid to rest one last common misconception about drag.
"Drag queens are not all bitchy," she noted. "Most are really sweet people. All in all, I love the people I perform with."
What: Game of Hearts Drag Variety Show
Where: King of Clubs, 893 Leong Drive,
When: Every second and fourth Wednesday of the month, 9 p.m. to midnight. Next show: Wednesday, Nov. 25.
Cost: No cover charge. Open to those 21 and over only.