For a man who appears onstage several times a week dressed like a woman who stuck her finger into an electrical socket after getting bitten by a zombie, Matthew Mendoza is shy. His voice is a whisper. This is surprising because Mendoza—known to his friends as Matty and to a fan base that inhabits dozens of bars, performance halls and coffee shops across a swath of fashionably shabby Brooklyn neighborhoods as Matt.com, Matty Beats and Horrorchata—is currently the most popular hairy, tattooed, horror-movie-character-turned-drag-queen in New York.
“We’re backyard drag queens,” says Mendoza, twenty-eight, who smiles often but avoids direct eye contact. “The Manhattan queens are all about polish, and we’re definitely not. You can have a beard and put on some glitter and call it drag.”
Mendoza is a founding member of House of Bushwig, an informal group of about forty drag queens and a few kings and their friends. Bushwig evolved out of a series of regular parties with names like Krunk and Hot Mess, which included burlesque performers and sight gags like drag queens stuffing their bras with tomatoes. The first official Bushwig show, held last September at the Bushwick nightclub Secret Project Robot, was an all-drag event. It drew a crowd of 800 people. For New Year’s Eve, Mendoza and his friends wanted something more intimate. They invited 500 people; a thousand came. The party started at two p.m. and was packed beyond capacity all night, with after-parties running far into New Year’s Day.
“It ends at eleven, and then you go to the after-party, and that’s another crazy thing,” Mendoza says. “It’s a long day. I got sick after that.”
Mendoza earns most of his income hosting regular shows around New York, and he’s toured Europe, twice. Pretty much by accident he’s helping to build a new drag culture, one that is less polished, less rote and less bitchy than the traditional Manhattan scene—and more spontaneous, more artistic and, its members hope, kinder. It’s composed primarily of young people in Brooklyn who see gender not through the binary lens of gay and straight but rather like the click wheel of an iPod, spinning clockwise and back to encompass an infinite array of options concerning dress, hairstyle, self-image and sexual partners.
In a traditional drag show, men dress up as women, often taking on hyper-feminine identities that are caricatures of actual womanhood. There’s strong emphasis on “passing”—removing hair, dressing elegantly, sometimes getting real breast implants—to further the illusion of womanhood. Performers lipsync to music and dance, often strutting around stages like fashion models. Most have a few signature moves that are precisely timed to the music, perhaps a synchronized hip-hop juke or doing the splits. But the dancing is often tightly controlled and proscribed, since performers avoid splitting their hose or spraining their ankles on platform heels.
Dancing in the Bushwig scene is a much looser affair. There is a lot of falling. Many performances include dramatic releases of fake blood or glitter as drag queens stagger around the stage. Costumes are torn, and sloppiness is encouraged. Macy Rodman, the queen who organizes the Bath Salts drag night at Don Pedro in Bushwick (which organizers advertise as “A Drag Show for Fuckups”), often performs with a fake leopard-print hunting cap pulled down over her head and a can of beer in her right hand. By the end of a performance marked by lots of stumbling around the stage, most of the beer has sprayed out of the can all over her costume.
“Older drag queens say we’re not real drag queens,” says Mendoza. “A bearded drag queen? They’re just like ‘NO!” And we’re like, whatever.”
* * *
Mendoza grew up in San Antonio, Texas, the son of two emigrants from Mexico. He loved to play dress-up, loved the Latina singer Selena, and even won a spot as an extra in the Selena movie starring Jennifer Lopez.
“Growing up I was always like, ‘Oh my God! She’s my number-one,’” he says. “My parents have always known that I’m different.”
Mendoza became involved in the punk and goth scenes in high school, and at age twenty-one he broke up with his girlfriend and told his parents that he’s gay. He moved to Austin and started performing in drag shows as Matt.com, an effeminate punk rocker with a mohawk. Soon he was promoting and hosting his own shows, plus working two part-time jobs to afford regular trips to New York.
Almost simultaneously, both jobs laid him off. Desperate, Mendoza moved home with his mom, but then his boyfriend at the time bought him a one-way ticket to New York. He arrived with a small duffel bag, no job and no money. He stayed with a friend, who kicked him out after a week.
“It was a hard year,” he says. “I left everything behind.”
For his first drag show in New York, a friend gave him the name Horrorchata, combining her own love for horror movies with horchata, a traditional Mexican rice drink. Mendoza ripped a sheet from the wall of his friend’s house, draped it over himself and secured it with duct tape. “Oh gosh. It was a white fabric because I wanted to look like Selena,” Mendoza says.
* * *
Mendoza opens the door to his Bushwick apartment wearing a baggy New York Yankees jersey, athletic shorts and black socks. The only part of his costume that’s already in place are his contact lenses, which turn his eyes from brown to neon orange. He leans in to give a visitor a hug while keeping his cordless phone clamped between his shoulder and his ear, working out plans for the night.
“You should just come and perform!” Mendoza says as he walks over to the rack of clothes, which stretches down one wall of his bedroom and consumes much of the apartment’s hallway. “I’ll be doing two different shows back-to-back, so it’s going to be crazy. You should come do the first one with me.”
The first show is Horrorchata’s weekly gig at Macri Park, a bar on Union Avenue in Williamsburg, where he hosts a viewing party of the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Patrons watch the show on screens in the bar, and Horrorchata asks trivia questions about the show during commercial breaks. This calls for an outfit that is conservative by Mendoza’s standards, involving a black dress, wide sequined belt, black six-inch heels and an afro wig.
“It’s dark, it’s a Monday, and it’s Brooklyn,” Mendoza says. “I always get on the mic and tell people, ‘This is Brooklyn, this is what you’re going to get.”
* * *
The second part of the evening is more involved, but Mendoza is keeping the details to himself. He will take a cab from Macri Park to Bath Salts, where he will change into an entirely new outfit, which he describes only as “I’m gonna be like a mummy.”
A new look calls for a new wig. Mendoza tries on a frosted white one that he recently purchased and starts to fuss with it, trying to determine whether it looks best bouffy and high or matted and down. Between the wig, the stubble and his general dishevelment, this is the closest thing to a rock star Mendoza will look like all night.
“Why am I a drag queen and I’m hairy?” Mendoza asks out loud, looking in the mirror and playing with the wig. “I’m so jealous of other girls that don’t have hair. If there was a pill I could take that would take all the hair off, I would totally take it.”
When he started in drag, Mendoza didn’t shave at all. Now he shaves his arms, and he often wears thick cross-hatched stockings to cover the hair on his legs. “I don’t shave my chest hair, but I make sure not to show it,” he says. “Why? I dunno. I like looking more feminine. I’m wearing full wigs, doing the whole nine yards.”
He removes the white wig from his head and digs through a bin searching for the right wig for Macri Park. “Oh, I don’t know, is that one too yellow?” he asks. Even though he always performs under the stage name Horrorchata, Mendoza’s character takes on different looks depending on his mood.
“Sometimes I look scary. Sometimes I do feel like, ‘Fuck you, I’m gonna do this,’” he says. “Other times I look—I wouldn’t say clean from the Manhattan perspective—but more feminine, cleaner.”
The transformation from Matthew Mendoza into Horrorchata takes at least an hour, and that’s only for an informal night at a bar like Macri Park, with low lights and no stage. “An hour is rushing it,” he says.
Ideally, he likes to take two hours. After his contacts are in, Mendoza becomes a multitasker. He stares at his clothing racks, looking for the right dress. He finds a couple he likes, sets them aside, and then moves to the bathroom to begin applying makeup. The first layers go on thick. He paints white parallelograms with severe angles, using the straight edge of a torn magazine page to demarcate jawbone below and cheekbone above. Atop that and around his forehead comes a field of brown just a shade lighter than his own skin. His hair is long on top and shaved close on the sides. He holds it with his left hand and dabs makeup from a brush with his right, following the line of his widow’s peak.
Mendoza applies some blood-red lipstick, then draws a dark line around his lips to accentuate the color. Next comes heavy black mascara, lathered on thickly around his eyes and swooping into triangles across his temples, followed by another layer of lipstick. He puckers, squeezes his cheeks with his hand, and turns his head left to right.
“Oh my God, this used to take me forever,” he says. “It took me years to learn this.”
As Horrorchata takes shape, she walks around an apartment surrounded by reminders of Mendoza’s masculinity. To finish applying makeup, Mendoza squats open-legged on a short wooden stool in his shorts and socks. There’s a black bath towel crammed to the side, revealing a bathroom floor that once, in the last century perhaps, was clean and white. In the kitchen Mendoza’s roommate opens the refrigerator door, releasing a cloud of death scent that fills the apartment.
Horrorchata seems not to notice.
“New nails! I love them!” she says, holding up a package of white pointy press-on fingernails. “Makes me feel like a real woman!
She pulls on a black dress, a pair of six-inch platform heels and a stretchy sparkly belt. Horrorchata calls a car service to arrange a ride to Macri Park, and the Ford Explorer pulls up downstairs within minutes. A friend arrives. It’s time to go. Still Horrorchata cannot decide which yellow wig to wear. Finally she pulls on the poofier of the two. “Oh the hell with it,” she says. “Let’s go big!”
* * *
Horrorchata leaves for the evening. With her second, mystery outfit stuffed into a piece of rolling luggage, she and her friends cram into the Explorer for the short ride to Macri Park. The car ride is one disadvantage of living in this neighborhood. Macri Park is just a few stops east of Horrorchata’s apartment on the L line, but she doesn’t think of walking the few blocks to the subway dressed in drag.
“In this neighborhood I’m pretty comfortable, but I’m like, Oh my God, I have to be careful when I’m in drag,” she says. “It’s just more dangerous. I stand out.”
Would she feel that way if she lived in Manhattan?
On the other hand, it’s only in Brooklyn that Horrorchata has built a network of queer friends so close she calls them family. Traditionally, a drag house has an official application process, a tightly-guarded membership and its own codes and bylaws. The newly-formed House of Bushwig is inclusive and informal.
“We say it’s House of Bushwig because it’s like a family. We’re all together,” Horrorchata says. “My whole thing is, the door is always open. And it’s not just for drag queens. It’s for anybody who’s empty and they need to be part of something.”
The rivalry with more traditional, Manhattan-based queens can grow caustic. Horrorchata was judging a drag show at the Ritz on 42nd Street where a Manhattan queen kept tugging at her wig, threatening to destroy her entire costume. When Horrorchata left the room, a few of the Manhattan queens launched a tirade at one of her friends.
“They were all saying, ‘Oh, you can always tell from a Brooklyn Queen, all their gender studies bullshit,’” says Horrorchata. “I want to tell them that actually I’m a really nice person. In the drag world they don’t care about that. They want to eat you alive.”
* * *
Horrorchata arrives at Macri Park. It’s a quiet night so far, and a few of her friends are gathered at the far end of the room. Horrorchata greets each with air kisses as she walks around the bar to begin setting up her microphone and a box of prizes, which includes t-shirts and plastic whips and a cat-o-nine-tails from Pleasure Chest, a sex toy shop.
“Yeah, at about eight o’clock all the straight people leave when they see boys in dresses,” she says. “It turns into a gay bar instantly. It’s funny.”
Horrorchata’s friend Simon, whose stage name is Baabes Trust, fills bins of ice and starts pouring drinks as Horrorchata tells jokes.
“Oh my God, I was in a show last week and a sock fell out of my bra! And it was dirty!” she says. “And I was like ‘I don’t give a fuck.’”
RuPaul’s Drag Race begins. It’s a strange television show. Even for the genre of reality TV shows, which often feel overtly scripted, fake and canned, this one is intensely contrived. The eerie artificiality starts with RuPaul’s own smile, which resembles a white billboard with the lights turned on rather than any human display of amusement or delight. Repeatedly showing the same shot of an immaculately dressed drag queen named Roxxxy Andrews or Alaska recoiling in over-acted horror only makes the experience more discombobulating.
The show seems especially over-the-top here in this dark bar, as a few hairy drag queens and their friends drink beer and catch up on one another’s weeks.
“Oh my God! What drama queens!” Horrorchata says. “Too much!”
Then comes the first commercial break.
“Oh, I want to smack that cute bitch!” Horrochata says into the mic about LaToya Jackson, who is filling in as one of RuPaul’s judges. “O.K. y’all, how many times has LaToya judged?”
In a crowd of forty, a dozen people know the correct answer: Three times. Horrochata gives the person who shouted it first a Pleasure Chest t-shirt.
Because Horrorchata has a big night ahead, with a costume change and a performance at Bath Salts, she’s asked her friend Cherry Pepsi to perform at Macri Park. Cherry wears a long blond wig, a dress that’s black and tight, and a bushy brown beard. She starts by wobbling around the darkened bar on improbably high heels, and then collapses onto the ground and writhes. People throw crumpled dollar bills onto the floor around her.
Into the mic, Horrochata says, “That’s a bearded queen right there.”
After the TV show is over, Horrorchata, Cherry Pepsi and five friends squeeze into a yellow cab for the ride to Don Pedro’s. Horrorchata pulls her white faux fur coat tight around her, and exhales. She watched the sun come up this morning, and she may again tomorrow. Horrorchata hosts three regular drag shows of her own, organizes the Mr(s) Williamsburg drag pageant, and knows drag queens all over the city. She estimates that she could attend a drag show every night of the week and never leave Brooklyn.
“When I got to New York there wasn’t really a Brooklyn drag scene,” she says. “Now I have so many friends that do so many things. It’s crazy. Sometimes it’s hard to support them all.”
The cab driver gets confused on the one-way streets of Bushwick, leaving Horrorchata to walk a block in the cold air with her luggage and high heels. “Really? Ugh,” she says. “I mean, even in our group, we still get a little bitchy. People say, ‘I’m NOT going to walk a block in my heel!’ But for the most part people get along with each other.”
By the time Horrorchata arrives, Don Pedro’s is filling up. A drag queen in a black pigtail wig gives Horrorchata a kiss and says, “Hello! Oh my gosh, you are looking SO!”
“This is like a Bushwig family show!” Horrorchata says, descending to the basement and out of view just as an emcee in suspenders and a bowler hat takes the stage.
“All right, we have a shitload of fucking fearless queens tonight!” he says before introducing Macy Rodman, the host. Rodman climbs onto the stage wearing tighty-whitey underwear pulled up past her hips, over her green dress. She stands nearly six and a half feet tall in clear plastic platform shoes, which are strapped to her feet with black electrical tape. As Beyoncé climbs to the top of her register singing “This Girl is on Fire,” Rodman shakes as though she’s having an epileptic seizure and sprays PBR all over her hunting cap.
When the song ends, Rodman looks down, smiles, and cries a little. A longtime friend, a drag queen named Lula, is moving to another city. “The lovely Lula is leaving us,” Rodman says, wiping a tear from her cheek. “Lula, we’re gonna miss the shit out of you.”
Cherry Pepsy and her friend Merrie Cherry carry Horrorchata to the stage. She wears a white shawl over a white dress, and stage blood drips from her chin. The two Cherries lay Horrorchata flat on a table.
A clip from the movie “Frankenstein” plays over the speakers: “It’s alive! It’s ALIVE!” Horrorchata rises slowly, then jumps off the table and throws the shawl to the ground, revealing that she’s wrapped in white bandages (actually about half a roll of toilet paper). She twirls as she lipsyncs, but the song is so loud and the speakers so overloaded that the lyrics blur. Horrorchata steps backwards and takes a running jump, twirls in midair and flies backwards off the stage. She lands hard on the concrete floor and crumbles. She’s lost in the legs of the crowd. Then she pops back to her feat, leaps onto the stage, twirls right, and stops in perfect time with the music, facing the crowd. The song ends. Horrorchata pants, smiles, and looks out over her family of drag queens wearing beards and Oscar the Grouch t-shirts and kimonos and combat boots and pink tights over unshaved legs. She smiles. They scream back. Horrorchata turns, runs off the stage and disappears down the stairs, out of sight.
* * *
Anna Maria Hernandez is an NYC photographer. She has recently moved to Austin, Texas with her cat, Angela. You can follow her photo blog at my-other-eyes.tumblr.com.
Christopher Maag, a Features Editor at Narratively, is based in New York. He’s written about smart people doing dumb things for The New York Times, TIME, Salon, Popular Mechanics, and other fine places.