Editor's Note: The Changing Face of Drag is a five-part KQED Arts series spotlighting innovative performers pushing the boundaries of drag in the Bay Area. Click to read more about the series.
The winning number, the showstopper that led Jay Mercury to be crowned winner of San Francisco’s 2017 Drag King contest (a title shared with performance artist El SeVan), involves two miniature sombreros, a chest hairpiece, a Mexican flag that comes out of Mercury’s pants and Vicente Fernández’s mariachi classic “El Rey.”
“I remember thinking, 'They don’t even know what the f-ck is going to happen right now,'” Mercury says.
At the end of the performance, the crowd erupted into screams and applause, securing Mercury’s claim to the crown. For Mercury, the drag king persona of Oakland-based Rebecca Salas, it was a validating moment as someone who identifies as Latinx and takes pride in her Chicana heritage.
“There’s no kings of color, practically, especially Chicana or Mexican,” she explains. “I remember doing it and feeling like, ‘Oh god, I’m being such a token Latin person right now.'” Then she realized the audience was singing along; the act resonated with them.
Salas found her way to drag through what might seem like an unlikely route: burlesque. Just before her debut as her burlesque persona, Emjay Mercury, at the 2016 Folsom Street Fair, Dahlia Kash a.k.a. Javier Miguel, Salas' burlesque mom/drag dad (or the person who initiated her into both art forms), encouraged her to get on stage at the venerable Oakland gay and lesbian bar, the White Horse, during a night hosted by the drag troupe Rebel Kings of Oakland (RKO). In need of another stage name, Salas dropped a few letters and Jay Mercury was born.
After that initial show in August 2016, Salas was hooked. “I just kept going back.”
Mercury is now an official member of the RKO troupe (initiation looks like a group marriage proposal, bended knee and all). To produce their shows, the members of RKO communicate via a Slack channel. “It’s a job!” says Salas. The group hosts shows at the White Horse every first and third Wednesday of the month, an event billed as “not your average drag king show!” And as Emjay, Salas performs at burlesque nights like Hubba Hubba at San Francisco’s DNA Lounge.
Differentiating between Emjay and Jay, high-femme seductress and macho drag king, might seem confusing, but Salas says it's emblematic of her own gender fluidity, something she's discovered through performing. “I do a lot of gender-bending acts, and sometimes the lines get blurred between the two personas,” she says.
At Hubba Hubba, where Salas says “people go to see boobies and butts,” she sometimes takes the stage as Jay, stripping down to a taped chest adorned with pasties that look like a man’s nipples. And the audiences cheer just as enthusiastically.
“I just like to keep pushing and pushing those boundaries of what a woman is expected to do and what a man’s expected to do, or what anyone in between is expected to do,” she says.
Please note: The video below contains partial nudity.
Salas grew up in Fresno and moved to the Bay Area to study philosophy and ancient Greek at St. Mary’s College of California. And while those areas of study might seem far removed from bar stages, stripteases and Jay’s charming, mustachioed swagger, Salas’ classical language degree focused on performative recitation. And crafting an argument in philosophy, she says, is weirdly similar to the process of building an act for a stage persona.
So how would one describe Jay Mercury now, two years into his existence? “He’s kind of a creep. Sometimes we call him tío, uncle. At least in my family, you’re always going to have the crazy drunk tío,” Salas explains. Think Cheech Marin for looks, body rolls as a staple dance move and a face animated by plenty of waggling eyebrows. “He’s the amplified little man inside me.”
For Salas, the mainstream popularity of drag and the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race is a double-edged sword. “A lot more intersectionality in the drag world is happening and it’s super awesome, but I will admit it’s more so for the queens,” she says.
In 2016, when The Advocate asked RuPaul if drag kings would one day appear on the show, the host responded, “Maybe on another show, but if you mix it up it’s like trying to make a Mac computer compatible with a PC—they don’t really mix.” Then, in a March 2018 interview with The Guardian, RuPaul further ignited the queer community by stating that he would "probably not" allow a transgender woman to compete on the reality show.
“Personally I don’t watch the show as much after that happened, because it leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” Salas says, “but that doesn’t negate everything that that show and that person have done for the queer community.”
“All drag is valid, all drag is beautiful,” she continues. “Nobody should be out there trying to enforce whatever their ideas are.”
Salas says watching the next generation of drag kings coming up in the Bay Area scene is both exciting and scary. “I gotta step up my game,” she says. “Because they’re just blowing it out of the water over here.”
She sees a shift from presentations of male illusion—acts that focus on “passing” as a cisgender man—to performances that complicate traditional ideas of masculinity. “I’d say there’s a lot more emotion in drag and people aren’t afraid to share their stories,” Salas says.
With Jay Mercury, part of the story Salas hopes to relate on stage is being a drag king of color. “It took me a while to kind of find my voice on that, because I didn’t realize there’s not that many of us,” Salas says. Her family is supportive of what she calls “my very fun hobby,” but she has many queer Latinx friends who no longer have relationships with their parents or families.
“The fact is when you grow up in not only a culture but a religion that is generally not very accepting of those things or understanding, it’s very difficult,” Salas says. “That’s why I never saw drag kings in Fresno, ever.”
Salas believes in the possibility of shifting the way her culture views gender roles, one drag performance at a time. “There’s so much love and passion in Latin culture, especially for your family. There’s just lessons to be learned, and if I can do anything, not necessarily in teaching people but showing them my story, hopefully that can make an impact.”