Pageant winner plans drag show at Identity Inc.

Mike Easterling
measterling@daily-times.com
Lady Shug poses for photographer Megan Riggs of Mirrored Moments Photography Dec. 11 at San Juan College in Farmington. Shug was named Miss New Mexico Pride 2016 in November.

FARMINGTON — Her recent victory in the Miss New Mexico Pride 2016 pageant in Albuquerque taught local resident and drag queen Lady Shug a valuable lesson about being careful about the promises she makes.

Earlier this fall, Shug told officials at Identity Inc. that if they would let her hold a fundraiser for their organization at their downtown community center — a prerequisite for any contestant hoping to compete in the pageant — she would stage another benefit for the group before the end of the year if she won.

Identity Inc. is a local nonprofit group that supports the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning community and its allies in San Juan County by providing a safe space and opportunities for growth through education, training, self-expression, and links to community resources.

Shug figured it was a safe bet. After all, the pageant always has been dominated by drag queens from the Rio Grande corridor cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. A Four Corners resident had never won, and the 29-year-old Shug had no illusions about being the first, despite the fact that she once earned a Miss Las Vegas Gay Pride title when she lived in that city.

All the same, she rejected the idea that she’s a pageant veteran and insisted she wanted to compete strictly for the fun of it.

“I always enter myself thinking I’m going to learn something or build a sisterhood,” she said. “I try not to take it too seriously. For God’s sake, we’re drag queens!”

But when the pageant winner was announced Nov. 21 at the African-American Performing Arts Center in Albuquerque, Shug was stunned to find all eyes on her — so much so she’s still not even sure how she reacted.

“(When the announcer said) ‘Your winner is …,’ they called my name, and they were all looking at me,” she said. “In my mind, I imagine that I turned to my left to see who they were looking at. But there was nobody there. That’s when I realized, ‘It’s you.’”

Lady Shug adjusts her Miss New Mexico Pride 2016 crown before a Dec. 11 photo shoot at San Juan College in Farmington.

Caught up in the thrill of her unexpected victory, with its flood of celebratory hugs, phone calls, texts and emails, it took Shug a few days to realize she had some more work to do — as in quickly organizing and pulling off another drag show for Identity Inc. She intends to make good on that promise with a show this weekend at the group’s community center in downtown Farmington that features a number of her fellow competitors from the November pageant.

Shug has dubbed the event the Victory Drag Show, partly in honor of her win at the pageant, but also as a means of emphasizing to LGBTQ young people that they needn’t feel isolated in the Four Corners — or in any other less-populated part of New Mexico.

“I want to do something different for my platform,” she said. “People from big cities don’t realize it’s really different for somebody (from the LGBTQ community) out here. There are no LGBTQ-friendly establishments in the Farmington area, and most people feel like they have to drive three hours to Albuquerque.”

Shug intends to spend her one-year reign as Miss New Mexico Pride supporting the Identity Inc. Community Center, both financially and otherwise, as well as inspiring other smaller communities around the state — Gallup, Las Cruces and Roswell, for instance — to create similar gathering spots for LGBTQ people.

Judy Palier, the president of the Identity Inc. board, said she jumped at the chance to help Shug when she called her earlier this fall about staging the benefit drag show. The event was held in October and raised more than $1,000. Even after Shug’s entry fee for the Miss New Mexico Pride pageant was deducted, the organization pocketed approximately $700, Palier said — a much-appreciated sum for a fledgling organization still struggling to cover the basics.

But Shug may have helped accomplished something more substantial in the process. That show was the second drag show held at Identity Inc., and both have been successful. Palier said the first one attracted a little more than 100 people, including some families. By the time Shug staged the second one in October, the show already had quietly become one of the hottest tickets in town, attracting a good mix of gay and straight couples. The event was so crowded, Palier said the performers — who were using the center’s kitchen as their green room — struggled to make their way through the audience to the stage.

Lady Shug, Ms. New Mexico Pride 2016, prepares her makeup for a photo shoot Dec. 11 at San Juan College in Farmington.

Palier loved that atmosphere and said it strongly reflected the roots of drag performance.

“Drag has traditionally been performed in little tiny bars, little tiny stages,” she said. “It’s a very intimate experience.”

And with the smallish, storefront space from which Identity Inc. operates, the organization is very well set up to provide that kind of atmosphere, she noted.

The October show was so successful, in fact, paying customers had to be turned away at the door, and many of those who weren’t fortunate enough to get in responded by digging lawn chairs out of their car trunks and setting up camp in front of the center’s window so they could watch the action, Palier said.

“I was so overwhelmed,” Shug said. “I thought, ‘That was something, when people are willing to sit in the cold to watch me.’ When I was on the mic that night, I told people, ‘If I win, I’m going to have a victory show.’ So I kind of shot myself in the foot.”

Palier said most people don’t realize how hard Shug worked for her victory at the pageant, driving to Albuquerque and back over the course of several weekends for rehearsals, including the day of her October drag show here.

“I wish I had that kind of energy,” Palier said.

As much as Shug was surprised by her own victory, Palier acknowledged she may have been even more surprised — and delighted.

“I was on my feet and hollering and carrying on” when Shug’s named was called, she said. “She was good, but there were a whole lot of good performers there.”

But as much as she considered Shug a longshot for the title, Palier said it’s not as if pageant organizers simply handed her the crown.

“She’s a very good performer, and she really worked hard for this,” Palier said. “She deserves it.”

Lady Shug appears as Rosie the maid from 'The Jetsons' during the Miss New Mexico Pride 2016 pageant in Albuquerque in November.

Shug likely swayed the judges — and the audience — with her performance in the presentation category, when she donned an elaborate Rosie the maid costume from “The Jetsons” to correspond with the pageant’s theme of classic TV. The outfit included an enormous, robot-like box that covered her head, as well as an evening gown. Shug wore roller skates under floor-length gown and walked stiffly to the front of the stage to begin her presentation before suddenly pulling out a feather duster and gliding around the stage to clean the pageant tiaras that were on display.

The crowd went nuts, she said.

“I wish I could explain that moment,” she said, laughing.

Shug easily won that category, and that likely propelled her to the overall victory against the other five contestants.

That victory meant an enormous amount to Shug, a Bloomfield-area native who has struggled to find acceptance from her Native community, even some of her own family members. More than a decade ago, after graduating from a high school on the Navajo Nation and feeling alienated, Shug left the Four Corners and relocated to Long Beach, Calif., settling there for a few years before moving on to Las Vegas, Nev.

It was during that first stop that she picked up her new name, she said.

“Shug was given to me in Long Beach,” she said. “I had just turned 18, and it was the end of the club kids era in downtown Los Angeles, so you needed an alter ego. Everyone told me, ‘You’re really sweet, but your makeup’s not that good. So they started calling me Sugar Booger.”

Shug never took that as a slight, insisting she loved her new persona. But when she moved to Las Vegas and met her “drag mother,” the woman was appalled and insisted she shorten it to Shug.

It turned out to be a wise choice. Shug became one of the biggest drag performers in town, working six nights a week and carving out a long career for herself on the Strip as a show girl.

Lady Shug responds to a question during the interview portion of the MIss New Mexico Pride 2016 pageant in Albuquerque in November.

“It was a good experience, and I learned a lot about my craft,” she said. “Honestly, drag has empowered me.”

It also helped her become comfortable in her own skin, regardless of where she found herself living. By her late 20s, Shug was ready to come home and care for her ailing grandmother in Bloomfield. After a decade of life in two of the fastest-paced communities in the world, such a change could have been very difficult. But Shug said she made the adjustment pretty easily and has even managed to patch up her relationship with her mother as part of the bargain.

“It was refreshing, to tell you the truth,” she said of the change, explaining that while there are advantages to living in a city that can provide you with anything you want 24 hours a day, it also can be overwhelming. Shug said she realized she valued the opportunity to perhaps make life better for members of the Four Corners LGBTQ community more than she appreciated the glamour and action of her life in Sin City.

“I want people to think, ‘If she can do it, I can do it, too,’” Shug said. “I want to inspire people to make themselves better or their community better. And I want Identity to be better, to not go away, because that’s what a lot of these places do after a couple of years. And I want to glam it up, because right now, it still looks like a bookstore.”

Whether she’s ready for it or not, Shug acknowledged she’s become a bit of an inspiration for local LGBTQ young people.

“I’m going to have to — and that’s what I wanted,” she said.

Palier said the burden of being as a role model is one that’s shared by many people who no longer live in the closet, especially if they have a high profile, as Shug does. The Identity Inc. president believes Farmington’s new pageant queen is well suited for the job.

“She really wants to be a role model and wants to be a leader for this community,” Palier said. “And she can do that.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

Back home in the Four Corners, Lady Shug says she's ready to become a role model for LGBTQ young people in the area.

If you go

What: The Victory Drag Show

When: Doors open at 7 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19

Where: The Identity Inc. Community Center, 218 W. Main St. in downtown Farmington

Admission: $10 at the door, $2 off with a nonperishable food donation to the ECHO Food Bank

For more information: Visit identity-inc.org