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New generation of Colorado teen drag queens learn from a longtime performer

Sam Charney, 15, in an Ursula costume. Sam made the skirt.
Courtesy Lynn Kutner
Sam Charney, 15, in an Ursula costume. Sam made the skirt.

The birth of Viola Eccentra, 15-year-old Sam Charney’s drag persona, happened in seventh grade.

Charney had been looking for an opportunity to wear a dress and heels. They realized a Halloween drag queen costume was the perfect excuse.

Charney’s mom bought them the garment and shoes. Charney rocked the costume, and a few short weeks later, they signed up to give a drag performance at their school talent show.

“Since I’m nonbinary, I kind of started drag as my gender journey,” Charney recently told KUNC’s Erin O’Toole on Colorado Edition. “I was able to use drag as a toolbox to be able to become who I want to be.”

Charney, who is also majoring in theater in the Denver School of the Arts, is always looking to push their work forward. This month, Charney is getting help from Denver drag queen Diamond Starr, who has been performing in the city for 18 years.

Starr is helping run a series of classes for young queens to learn the ins and outs of drag. Their classes on wig maintenance, makeup, performance and sewing are being held at the Factory Fashion art hub in Aurora, which is part of the Aurora-based community arts collective Factory Five Five.

Denver drag queen Diamond Starr at a recent Factory Fashion class they are helping run for teen and tween drag queens. Starr has been performing for 18 years.
Courtesy Jessica Nelson
Denver drag queen Diamond Starr at a recent Factory Fashion class they are helping run for teen and tween drag queens. Starr has been performing for 18 years.

For Starr, the class is an opportunity to pass along LGBTQ+ history and knowledge to the next generation.

“There’s so much history that’s lost, and so many battles that we’ve had to fight as a community,” they told Colorado Edition. “I don’t want that history forgotten.”

In 1954, Denver passed an ordinance that made it illegal for "any member of the male sex" to appear in public "in the dress of the opposite sex." This meant that drag queens were arrested for simply being seen in public.

Denver stopped arresting drag queens in 1973. And in recent years, drag events — gay bar performances, brunches and even sober shows — have moved from counterculture to more mainstream life.

When Starr first came to drag 18 years ago, their welcome was not a warm one. A friend of Starr’s dared them to perform at a club they frequented. After the performance, the club MC brought Starr on stage, scolded them and told them never to perform drag again.

“I had to prove her wrong, and I did,” Starr said. “It’s very cathartic that I get to teach these classes because I think about that a lot. I don’t want anyone to feel like I did.”

Through the years, Starr has also seen drag become more inclusive and understanding toward nonbinary people. When Starr started out, they didn’t have terms like “nonbinary” and “genderless” to describe how they identify today.

“I’m able to finally accept the fact that I’ve always felt different than other drag queens,” Starr said. “For me, I felt the same whether I was in drag or outside of drag. I’ve come to terms with my nonbinary-ness and genderlessness because of drag, and because it’s more open now.”

One of Starr’s main goals for the Factory Fashion class is giving young queens the safe space to explore gender identity and expression that Starr didn’t have when they entered the scene.

For Charney, the class is a chance to recognize that struggle, and honor queens like Starr who pushed inclusivity of the art form forward.

“As a younger queer person, it’s important for me to embrace my history and the people that fought for my right to be me publicly and openly,” Charney said. “I get to learn from one of the best drag queens in Denver to be able to better me and pass that along to future generations.”

Charney, Starr and the rest of the class are gearing up for their capstone performance on Jan. 30 at Stanley Marketplace in Aurora.

Charney plans to pull from their love for theater and Broadway for Viola Eccentra’s performance. They have been working with Starr on a sketch for their costume that includes a neon rainbow swirl corsage made out of a plastic bag.

“Viola is me but 1,000 times magnified, so I’m able to express how I feel on the inside to other people,” Charney said. “Drag is my journal to the world.”

You can hear Colorado Edition’s full conversation with Sam Charney and Diamond Starr by clicking the player at the top of this page.

As a producer for Colorado Edition, I pitch segment ideas, pre-interview guests, craft scripts and cut audio. I also write tweets, build web posts and occasionally host.
As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.