West Dakota is sculptural. She often embraces angles: the blunt edges of bobbed wigs, the sleekly structured silhouettes she dons onstage. And then there are those sharp cheekbones. I wasn’t surprised to learn that her drag is influenced by visual artists—Cindy Sherman and Nadia Lee Cohen are among her favorites—and by the fashion world, where she once thought she’d make a living. “I worked a couple of jobs and was disillusioned by the whole thing,” she said. “It was bringing someone else’s vision to life. I wanted to bring my own vision to life.”
The vision has been realized, now that she’s one of Brooklyn’s biggest up-and-coming drag queens. This winter alone, she’s moved in on Wednesday nights at the Rosemont, her de-facto home bar, to co-host their popular weekly drag show “Oops”; she’s shared the runway with Sasha Velour and other drag royalty at New York Fashion Week (and walked for Gypsy Sport, too); and she was photographed for Vogue, in various states of dramatically lit, gender-fluid glam.
Dakota’s work draws on a mix of things: in addition to art and fashion, she’s interested in the world of advertising, in varying color and texture, and in exploring androgyny. “There are histories of formalism within drag that go along more with female illusion,” she said, slipping briefly into the language of art history, where she’s comfortable (she studied art at Columbia University, from which she graduated in 2016). “But my drag isn’t about presenting as a woman.” Many of her looks are unpadded, boyish, or otherwise uninterested in straightforward female impersonation: “Gender is on a spectrum, and drag is not necessarily about opposites,” she said. For her, “it’s about finding someplace in between that’s comfortable.”
Her star has risen astonishingly quickly; her Brooklyn drag career only dates back to late 2016. She was no stranger to the stage back then, as a former musical theater kid who at one point had me chatting about Ben Platt. But the prospect of doing drag initially terrified her. “I was apprehensive and intimidated,” she recalled. If you’ve ever seen her brash, twitchy facial expressions onstage, or her voguish sweep across a crowded room, that reticence is hard to imagine. But Merrie Cherry, who became her drag mom, had to practically push her in front of a crowd for her first performance. “It was worth it,” Dakota said, remembering with seeming pleasure. “She created a monster.”
The third time she ever performed, it was at the Mr(s) Brooklyn drag pageant, in which she competed against performers from all across the borough for a crown. And won. “It’s been very eye-opening, having younger people coming up to me and saying that I’m someone that they look up to,” she said, even though she’s young herself—just 25.
Part of what defines her drag persona—likely what grabbed attention at that early-career pageant, and helped propel her into the spotlight in just over two years —is that she gives off the air of an artwork, rather than an artist. Something thoughtfully and boldly constructed, not unlike the Amit Greenberg-designed look she wore when recently photographed by Oliver Mint. The piece, entitled “I See Flamingos,” was comprised of individually laser-cut strips of pink plexiglass pinned to tulle, which exploded outward from her body like a sharp-cornered pom-pom. Here and elsewhere, she becomes like a lean-limbed canvas, trying out aesthetic concepts on herself.
This feels true even when she’s not made up for Vogue. I recently glimpsed her at the Rosemont in a slouchy crop sweatshirt, perfect for trudging to work in the freezing dark. But it read “MACHO” across the chest in a blush sans-serif font, and she’d paired it with a choppy Kris Jenner-ish wig and a thick gold-link necklace. So it wasn’t just a sweatshirt. It was a cheeky nod to dispatching with gendered expectations, made fashion. It was, like everything she does, part of a larger artistic project.
“I’m really drawn to the idea that identity is created,” she said, in meandering answer to what that project might be. “Through costumes, through appearances, through our mannerisms—my drag is getting at the idea that identity is constructed socially, through different signifiers. What I like about drag,” she added, “is that on any given night, you can transform yourself.”
Dakota is recommitting herself to this thesis about identity, fluidity, and transformation whenever she sculpts a new aspect of her drag persona, or manifests a new visual concept on her body. Or when she plays with gender: she once began a performance of “Let It Go” in a chicly hideous women’s snowsuit from the ‘80s (those nylon neons!) and ended it in only a thong, shedding and switching gender indicators within the space of a single Idina Menzel chorus. We can explore and enact different expressive impulses all the time, she insists—we can fiddle with them, stretch them, scrap them, move between them. That’s a very drag-esque idea. And, in and of itself, it’s an art.