The drag community in Denver has been booming over the past decade. The reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race has been introducing audiences from all demographics to the myriad personalities, costumes, looks and vernacular that makes drag queens so. While the idea of a male dressed as a female still rubs some people the wrong way, there’s no denying that a drag show will be fun and entertaining. For almost 20 years, drag legend Kiera Sexton has been performing in Denver and has become one of the most important queens for the community.
On June 26, we sat down with IT Cosmetics makeup artist Walter Ramos as he transformed into the seminal Kiera Sexton and talked about her career, style and the current state of drag. He was preparing for a performance for the inaugural Makeup Artist Prom at Lipstick Nightclub, which was benefiting the Colorado AIDS Walk.
303: How long have you been performing?
Sexton: Well, I started when I was 18. I’m 42 now. I started it as a hobby. I did it to raise money for charity for the local places that raised money for HIV and AIDS awareness, and then it just stuck. I started doing talent contests at the local bar, which was insane because I literally could not believe that I was doing that. And I started winning, which is even funnier, to the point where they told me that I needed to take a break from doing it.
303: Have you always done your own makeup?
KS: At first, I always had somebody paint me because I didn’t know anything about makeup. I wasn’t doing makeup then; I was a customer service type of a kid. Back home in Corpus Christi, Texas, the girls were a lot different than they are here. They were very helpful when it came to helping you to get ready with makeup, coming from that to basically starting my life here was a little bit different. It’s weird to be here and see that not a lot of them are, but a lot of the old school girls and queens are, which is great. It was an adjustment, but I came from a state where there were a lot of drag queens.
303: How was Kiera Sexton born?
KS: Oh, gosh. Well, my name actually used to be Kira Essex but we would shorten it with an ESX. That’s what I became known as because the girl that took me under wing was Jasmine Essex, but I turned out to be prettier than I think she expected, so she kind of withdrew. She distanced herself from me. And I don’t know if I would say that in a bad way because I have a good relationship with her now, so I can’t really say we don’t get along, but something happened within that situation where she just disappeared. I really wanted to perform and thought, “This is might be something. I might be good at it.”
Then I was out at a local club in Corpus Christi that had built these stairs that went upward but they were all wide and the queens came from a huge flat area on top, so you would see them come down those stairs. There was this queen, her name was Tabitha Sexton, and that’s where my second name came from. She was doing Marilyn Monroe; she was Native American and dark skinned, but she looked exactly like Marilyn Monroe. She walked down the stairs, did the mannerisms, did her number, and I was just throwing money at her, like I couldn’t believe it – I was so impressed.
Then she disappears, some other performances happen and they say, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage Tabitha Sexton as Miss Liza Minnelli.” She came out wearing that penguin-tail jacket Liza wore with the bodysuit and just looked traditional, and I think I was enamored that this person went from a white chick to all of a sudden this Jewish, short-haired chick that looked exactly like her. And she stayed in character the whole time, she did the stairs and used the stairs to her advantage, and did “New York, New York”.
That night I got the balls to ask her to be my drag mother, or to help me with makeup. I really wanted to be an entertainer and I wanted to learn, and I told her that my drag mother stopped helping me out so I didn’t know what was going on and I was a bit confused. She thought it was the coolest thing that this young little drag queen she didn’t know was asking her, so she took me under her wing. We videotaped her painting me a couple of times and from there I evolved into creating who I am.
Who I became really close with was the Latin community and they always called me “Keela Sixtons” – it always sounded like “six tons”, so I was like, “Oh, bitch, I got to change that.” So I changed the spelling to Kiera and I felt like if people pronounce it better, they’ll probably call me the right name. It worked and it didn’t – it was what it was. They still say my last name like that, but I don’t correct it as long as they know how to spell it. And then I started growing my drag empire – my drag kids. My family grew. There were 27 of us. Some have moved away. Some don’t do drag anymore. I joke like, “Ten of them were deported back to Mexico.” Ever since then, it’s been like a family – everybody knows who I am.
303: Who are your fashion icons?
KS: You know who I really fell in love with was Alexander McQueen. He was like my real fashion icon. He’s the only one that I really love. I thought that he created some really different things that people look at a little weird, but you either like it or you don’t. What he designs is very outrageous and out there, which is pretty cool because it’s different from what everybody else does. He doesn’t want to be like everybody else. Nobody ever likes anything that’s different anyway, so it’s not like they’re really trying to fight for it. They’re not really doing it for you to like them, which is like me.
I always liked Chanel too, though. She always had a really classy look. What’s funny is as a queen, I’ve always been that classy type. I was never dressed very slutty in public. My costumes were never risqué. They were showgirl style, but they were never like, “She’s naked.” It was always very classy. I love blazers and rhinestone buttons and pants, but nothing boring. They were always really pretty suits, and that’s what I was going for every time I walked in.
“I never recreate my looks. They’re always different. I just love really glamorous looks anyway, but with custom wear, it’s just really extravagant.”
303: What inspires your looks?
KS: I pull them from magazines and nowadays there [are] so many drag queens that are completely amazing, like Roxie Andrews – I grew up with the Andrews family, Erika Andrews, and now we have Roxie Andrews. She’s been famous from being on the Drag Race, but she’s actually a pageant queen. I never wanted to be a really busted type of queen, I always loved glamour, so I liked the idea that you can be really beautiful but extravagant at the same time in your own way.
That’s how I create my looks, is by creating them by looking at something that inspires me. When I see pictures of her, I’m like, “Oh, god, look.” I feel like maybe I’ve lost touch with that part of it, but I really haven’t – I guess I just don’t do it often. If I want something specific, I can just pull up a picture and look at it and I’ll do it, but that’s usually for eye makeup more than anything else.
But I create my own character on my own when I get ready. I just think, “What am I going to wear?” and walk around and decide what I’m feeling. What song is in my number that makes me want to move? I don’t like to be boring and I get bored with people who don’t put creativity into their performances, so for me, it’s, “What can I do to get that crowd bumping around me?” Everybody likes to dance, but my form of dancing is doing a high energy dance performance and going hard on stage so I think of what I want to do.
I also make my own clothes, it’s all custom. If I can’t, I get someone to do it for me. It’s good. It makes you more unique, right? And my husband helps me – sometimes he dresses me. It’s good to have someone who can help you. I think the only things I buy are the expensive gowns, but since I don’t do pageants anymore, I don’t have to buy those anymore.
303: Do you have any favorite looks?
KS: I never recreate my looks. They’re always different. I just love really glamorous looks anyway, but with customwear it’s just really extravagant. My favorite looks that I do love is: I love glitter. I’m not the girl that puts all these rhinestones on their face, but I do a glitter lid and a smoky eye, and it’s sparkly everywhere. I always feel like my face is my little black dress, so I make my face look pretty amazing when it comes to the way I contour it or the things that I do to it. You’ll always see me in a glitter eye.
303: How has the scene changed since you’ve been in Denver?
KS: It’s changed a lot. Now you have 18-year-olds getting in drag or wanting to be in shows. There are so many drag families. You have the Staxxxes, and the Shears and the Sextons. Everybody wants to do it. There are just so many now. Back in the day the drag community was so small here. I love that it’s grown, don’t me get wrong; I think it’s great. There’s always going to be somebody younger and more eager and probably better, so you just let them move along.
303: Why is the drag community so important?
KS: We have a large following. It’s up to us to be scandalous or friendly or outgoing. The queens here do a lot of fundraisers, like today’s. It’s at the point where so many girls have a large following and it brings people into the club. It’s a lot more than it used to be. It’s not such a faux-pas – well, it still is: a boy who dresses like a girl – but when it comes to people knowing names, it gets them excited. If I hear that somebody that I like is going to be performing and is here from out of town, I want to go. I want to go see it because you know you’re going to get a good show. There’s something special about some of the people out there, whether it’s their costumes or just the way they perform. They can do a slow number and still do a good show. Now I think that the community has been trained to follow queens by the way they look. Like, RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Naomi Smalls – supermodel, skinny, beautiful.
303: Why is the Sexton name so important?
KS: We’ve built an empire. I started it here and it’s one of the biggest families in Colorado. I think it’s pretty amazing that everybody knows who we are. We’ve all come to doing fundraisers and shows. A lot of them are in Drag Nation and Manny Sexton is an emperor of Colorado. Aurora Sexton just won Miss Gay USofA, which is pretty amazing. That’s the biggest gay title for pageantries. It’s great what you can do when it comes to being known. She’s a pageant girl and that’s what she likes. I don’t want to be known as a pageant girl, but I used to be one. I love it.
303: You’ve always attracted a lot of Latin performers. Is that important for you?
KS: That’s where I started my family – we were all Latinas. That’s where we grew. It’s been pretty awesome because that’s who gave me my in. We were able to get into Latin clubs. I was never able to do Spanish numbers, but they liked me. I was able to get along with the whole community, except the ones who didn’t like me for whatever reason. I do me and do what I need to. Now I do it when it’s fun or when it’s going to be for a good cause.
Photos by Michael Ortiz