Hidden Queen

A young man’s discovery that half of his identity belongs in a wig, fake eyelashes and high heels

Words by Erin Turner  | Photos by Alex Powers

Even as the 2018 titleholder for the longest-running youth drag queen pageant in the world, it has taken Jacob Smith his whole life to develop his current level of confidence and self-worth. Beginning at age three, Jacob used to try on his mother’s boots and strut down the hallway of his parents’ home. He would never have predicted that his guilty pleasure would ultimately evolve into one of his greatest passions.

Due to negative stigmas invoked by his surroundings and the desire to make his parents proud, Jacob initially found it very difficult to openly express himself and his interests. He spent the majority of his childhood questioning his sexuality and his identity. Now, at age 20, Jacob has discovered an equally substantial and significant part of who he is. That of which belongs in drag.

Scarlett Fantasia brushes her hair before her first performance of the night at Shotski’s Woodfire Eats in Salem, Ore. She crossed from the mirrors of the bathrooms to a staging area and back a handful of times before the start of an all-ages drag show.

Drag is often misconceived and stigmatized as just a hobby for only hyperfeminized gay men. Ironic, as it is not only a crucial outlet for self-expression for many of those who perform, but it is also one of the most inclusive and accepting communities of people. Stemming from his love for theater and infatuation with women’s fashion, Jacob’s immersion into the drag community has taught him not only to accept, but embrace who he is.

“I know I’m not a woman, I don’t want to be, but I love being a fake theatrical woman,” Jacob said. “Drag forces you to break out of your safe persona to become someone so entirely different.”

Although, Jacob’s road to self-acceptance has been anything but smooth.

Following his parents’ divorce, his mom moved their family from Oregon to Arizona when Jacob was five years old. With three biological sisters, two half-sisters and an adopted sister, Jacob found himself constantly surrounded by high levels of female energy. As a result of his household’s abundance of estrogen, he grew to prefer the company of women to men.

Jacob’s peers took notice of his hanging out with mostly girls and it bothered him to have his sexuality questioned as a result. Before Jacob even knew the meaning of the word gay, his surroundings taught him that it was not something positive to identify as. As a kid, he had only heard it being used in a derogatory way, leading him to assume it defined men who are inferior to others in some way. More than anyone, Jacob’s biggest bully was himself.

“I didn’t want to look different, I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be like all the other kids, like all the other guys,” Jacob said.

Scarlett takes cash from Nic Oakley of West Linn, Ore. Audiences at Shotski’s applaud and whoop for performers, but tipping is part of the dance—a source of connection between queens and crowds that triggers teasing and expressions of gratitude.

Growing up, Jacob wasn’t interested in playing football or basketball, like many of the other boys in his class. That is, unless it was to try to be more like Troy Bolton from High School Musical. Rather than pretending to have an interest in sports, Jacob joined the knitting club and the anime club. As his interest grew more toward stereotypically feminine activities, Jacob began feeling tension from his father’s influence.

Although Jacob’s father, Doug, didn’t live in Arizona, he remained extremely prevalent as a role model in Jacob’s life. Jacob wanted nothing more than to gain his father’s pride and approval. He was particularly influenced by the weight of Doug’s belief that men should not explore feminine interests, men should be masculine. To place further tension on their relationship, Doug had a strong connection to Christianity and an equally firm belief that love was meant to be shared between a man and a woman.

Due to his father’s disapproval of homosexuality, Jacob often attempted to repress and deny his interest in men. Desiring his father’s pride, Jacob chose to preserve an idealized version of himself that his father would approve of at the expense of his own self-expression.

“I noticed that I had to start acting a certain around my dad,” Jacob said. “Less like my normal self, and more like who I thought he wanted me to be.”

A love of theater was one of the few things that Jacob and his father shared, and was the only outlet Jacob felt he had to express himself. Doug was very involved in his own high school’s theater production, and was a major motivator initially for Jacob to pursue it. By gaining the ability to have a dramatic stage presence so unlike his everyday self, Jacob’s participation in middle and high school theater is what initially sparked his love for being on stage.

At the time of their newfound connection, Jacob’s father was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, when Jacob was 13. ALS is a disease that causes the gradual degeneration of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, of which there is currently no known cure. As Jacob began to grow more confident in his sexuality throughout high school, his father’s illness subsequently got progressively worse.

Amid the strain on his family, Jacob met Jagger, his soon-to-be best friend and future drag sister. Jagger was the first person Jacob could unashamedly talk to about who he really is. Jagger never had to go through the same level of inner turmoil that Jacob had experienced because his parents never enforced that being gay, or feminine, was wrong. His friendship with Jagger taught him to not only embrace his sexuality but have pride in it.

One of the ways he showed Jacob how to tangibly do this was by introducing him to drag. Although Jacob was familiar with the concept of drag due to RuPaul’s Drag Race, he had never been comfortable or confident enough to ever really consider pursuing it before meeting Jagger. Together, they began experimenting with clothes, which soon expanded to makeup and hair. Jagger helped Jacob realize that exploring his femininity didn’t make him any less of a man. He learned to be unapologetic for his interests and decisions.

Busby-Smith wipes thick makeup from his face after the show. He undid several hours of makeup and costuming with a few wipes and a deep sigh after pulling fake lashes from his eyelids.

As Jacob was finally growing comfortable in his own skin, he didn’t feel the need to hide who he is anymore. His father began noticing a difference in Jacob’s mannerisms and personality because he stopped striving to keep up a false masculine facade. Once he knew his father’s influence would no longer dictate his decisions, Jacob told his father he’s gay.

While he agreed to love his son regardless, Jacob’s father remained loyal to his past religious beliefs. Shortly after, his father’s illness began affecting his vocals cord and he soon lost the ability to speak. During Jacob’s senior year of high school, his father died. Jacob was never able to fully establish whether he gained his father’s total acceptance. It bothers him knowing that his father can’t see the person he has become today.

“He didn’t know I was a drag queen before he died, and that’s something I really wish I could have introduced to him,” Jacob said. “If he knew I was carrying on his legacy as this theatrical performer, I’d like to think that would make him really happy.”

The September following their graduation, Jacob and Jagger moved to Portland, Oregon, to live with four of their other high school friends. Jacob immediately began cultivating ideas for his new alternate identity and how he wanted her to be perceived. Developing a drag persona can be incredibly time-consuming. For Jacob, it involved attaining a previously unreached level of self-discovery by trying to figure out who exactly his other half wanted to be.

“There are just so many social constructs and misconceptions about how we all have to act a certain way or dress to fit a specific gender,” said Jacob. “The whole beauty of drag is that you can be anything you want and be supported for it.”

Growing up and obsessing over pop stars such as Gwen Stefani, Fergie and Rihanna, Jacob’s drag aesthetic derives a lot of inspiration from early 2000s female icons. Their music and the empowerment that each of them stands for, both as women and independent artists, is the type of energy that Jacob wants to manifest when he takes the stage.

In December 2017, fully decked out in a wig, fake eyelashes and butt pads strapped to his thighs, Jacob was ready to finally hit the stage, only now, as Scarlett Fantasia. To fulfill Jacob’s inner childhood popstar, Scarlett performed to “Clumsy” and “Glamorous,” both by Fergie.

Scarlett dresses up before the show. The queen persona emerges with several hours of makeup and costuming. Smith switched mesh tops for loose flannel and patent leather for canvas Vans after his performance, getting comfortable as he exchanged Scarlett’s persona for “the boy beneath the queen,” he said.

“It was as if all the gears in my head that have just been collecting cobwebs, suddenly clicked into motion,” said Jacob.  

Jacob’s first performance verified the suspicion that he has always had. Scarlett was simply just a part of who he is, and has always been. Although that first show helped solidify Jacob’s love for drag, he had no idea how much he would grow and how much his confidence would build from then on. In four short months, Jacob would progress to win the 2018 title of the 42nd annual Rosebud and Thorn Pageant, the world’s longest-running underage drag queen pageant.  

Chance de Valmont has been involved in organizing the Rosebud and Thorn pageant for the last 19 years. Jacob met Chance while he was competing in the pageant last year. As a former Rosebud titleholder himself, Chance believes it is important for young people to be able to express themselves in a safe place and know that they will be accepted for it. He considers drag to be a mode of art, and a way of self-expression.  

“I was a lot like Jacob when I was young. If I hadn’t started drag when I did, I don’t know where I would be in my life,” said Chance. “Through art, it gives kids a safe and healthy way to express who they are, what they are feeling and what they are going through, without hurting anybody else or themselves.”

The main reason Jacob hadn’t found drag earlier in his life was due to a lack of opportunity in Arizona. Correspondingly, there was also a lack of role models who he could relate to.

“If I had known that as a kid I could’ve done drag, I feel like my whole life would be different. It has just taken me so long to get to this point in my life,” said Jacob. “I feel like I would have come to my sexuality faster and had so much less inner turmoil, inner denial and inner-everything else that comes along with thinking that a certain part of who you are, is wrong.”

Jacob’s love for performing has never been about trying to convince the crowd that he’s a woman. Instead, he just wants them to forget about reality for a second, where drag is often stereotyped and judged, to appreciate something that’s extremely vulnerable, personal and empowering. Many people in the drag community have been severely criticized merely for who they are. Drag shows allow for a group of people, largely comprised of the oppressed, to express themselves without having to worry about outside judgment.

A major motivator for Jacob to continue pursuing drag is to be a role model for any kid who may be struggling with similar insecurities that he experienced. He wants to be the positive advocate that he wished he had for himself. Jacob has produced and hosted two of his own shows within this past year in attempts to recruit as many youth drag queens as he can.

“Whenever a new youth queen comes to me asking for advice or guidance, it feels like I’m fulfilling my destiny,” Jacob said. “Mostly because I’ve finally gotten to a place in my life where I feel like I can genuinely give them that guidance.”

Jacob hopes to provide a voice for those who may not be able, or have the confidence, to speak up themselves. His goal is to increase the vocalization of drag to reduce its stigma, inspire other youth drag queens to pursue their dreams of being on stage and spread awareness of the importance of underage drag representation.