A new drag dynasty is thriving in Miami.
The neighborhood of Wynwood has gained worldwide acclaim for its street art and vibrant murals. Now, every weekend, artists with a very different type of brush are painting for the gods — or in this case, the “Greek Goddess,” Athena Dion.
The Miami drag diva hosts and produces shows at R House Wynwood and has, in collaboration with owners Rocco Carulli and Owen Bale, turned the restaurant into a destination for anyone who loves a high-energy drag extravaganza. In the process, she’s also creating a family of queens determined to put Miami drag on the national radar.
“I never really thought I would be a drag mother or have this legacy of kids. I don’t think you should really go out looking to create a drag family. It happens naturally. We’re all actually friends, and we spend a lot of time together and we call each other. It’s not just for a namesake. We just so happen to be really fierce entertainers as well, but there’s also a real bond there,” Athena told Queerty. “And now it’s grown into this kind of infamous name in Miami. I never saw that happening … we just became this little troupe of queens.”
And the troupe is triumphing — creating a supportive chosen family, proselytizing queer joy to audiences that extend beyond the LGBTQ community, and succeeding as professional drag performers outside of the Drag Race universe.
The “infamous” House of Dion began as a classic love story: boy meets boy, boy puts boy in wig, they kai kai, and form a family for all eternity.
For Athena, who identifies as non-binary and is comfortable with either he or she pronouns out of drag, it was love at first sight for both drag and Vegas Dion, the first of the Dion dynasty.
“I went to my first gay club when I was 20 [the now-closed Discotekka in Downtown Miami]. I met Vegas and just fell in love with drag. I still can’t put into words the attraction I have for it — to see people in drag,” she said. “I feel like there’s just so much liberation involved with it. I feel like you’re actually getting who the person really is when they’re in drag. And I think that’s what attracted me to it.”
Vegas Dion has since retired and Athena, now 34, works year-round as a drag performer in Miami, with summer residences in Mykonos. She’s an entrepreneur who created Dream Queens, an entertainment company that develops individualized drag experiences for all types of events; and she’s a community activist who works closely with SAVE (a South Florida organization protecting LGBTQ+ people against discrimination), hosting fundraisers for LGBTQ-supportive politicians and campaigning to increase voter registration within the queer community.
She is also now housemother to over 20 children.
Prosecco is thicker than blood
“My mother’s crazy bananas. You get a little prosecco or tequila in her and she’s adopting kids left and right,” joked Morphine Love Dion, 25, who has been doing drag for five years.
“Miami is filled with such amazing queens and being a baby queen is so intimidating,” Morphine told Queerty. “One time [at a gig] I introduced myself. We were getting ready backstage and I remember I wasn’t able to bobby pin my wig correctly. She was like, ‘Sweetie, come here, let me bobby pin that for you.’ And that’s when I knew she was my drag mother — because my wig never came off.”
Born and raised in Miami to Nicaraguan parents, Morphine describes her drag as “very Latina-based” and shares Athena’s affinity for deities. “I see myself as the painting of a beautiful, feminine Latina goddess,” Morphine said. ”I always like to look sexy, show some skin, and give complete and utter showgirl.”
Morphine also built a familial bridge for Athena and one of the youngest members of the Dion family, Juicy Love Dion.
Juicy, the self-described “Afro-Cuban Dancing Doll,” 21, went to Hialeah Gardens High School in Miami-Dade County with Morphine, overlapping as a freshman when Morphine was a senior, and solidifying their bond by performing together in the school’s dance program and at a local dance studio.
She has been working as a drag queen since she was 18.
“My senior year of high school, I reached out to Morphine and I was like ‘Hey, I wanna watch you in one of your shows’,” Juicy told Queerty. “My friends forced me to go up and dance and that’s when Athena saw me and she was like, ‘Girl, we’re just gonna throw a wig on you and put you out there.’ Morphine put me in drag for the first time and the rest is history.”
Soon after, Juicy began working at R House and the family relationship deepened.
“Athena was basically like, ‘You’re my child, I take care of you, I see you every day’,” Juicy said. “The House feels like a real family. I’ve been living alone since I was 18 and they’ve been my rock, the people I talk to every day, the people I go to for everything. Athena has helped me like you have no idea. She calls the doctors for me, she’s my emergency contact — like everything. It’s huge! It’s something I’ll never take for granted because I feel so blessed to have a family. I know a lot of gay kids don’t have this type of opportunity, to have people that love them like this.”
For Athena, the family she creates is vital.
“When you come out, and you start resonating with people in the queer community, you start to finally get people that understand you and can relate to your struggles.” — Athena Dion
“In the queer world, a lot of people escape their home lives and start living their truth for the first time. It’s almost like you’re out here on your own because it’s very rare that you have other queer people in your family that will help you navigate that world,” Athena said. “So when you come out, and you start resonating with people in the queer community, you start to finally get people that understand you and can relate to your struggles. And it’s really nice to have that kind of camaraderie. To say, ‘Wow, I haven’t been alone this whole time.’
“If you’re older, then you can kind of say, ‘This is gonna happen the first time you meet a guy or do drag or whatever.’ Because they weren’t raised that way in their families. They were raised heteronormative,” she said. “So when you find a gay family, you find people that are actually speaking your language. You’re like, ‘Oh my God, this makes sense, I get this.’ That’s how gay families form.”
Growing up in a military family, with strong Greek cultural roots, all expressions were not always celebrated.
“I’ve always been a little showgirl at heart. The desire has always been there. But then you go through puberty and you start getting that backlash — a little boy acting feminine was a no-no. So, I started to box it all back in and try to find another way to be.”
It wasn’t until after high school that Athena decided to release her inner showgirl: “I was like, well, we’re gonna go back to how we started.”
Talent is a family trait
In the Dion DNA, the performance gene dominates.
“Not a lot of the houses have the talent that we have, and I feel that separates us from a lot of them. Almost every single person in the House of Dion is extremely talented in their own way,” Morphine said.
Athena’s criteria for casting the queens at R House (whether a Dion or not): “First they gotta be easy to work with. You don’t want to share a dressing room with a b*tch. They have to have high energy and they have to have star quality. They have to be able to engage with a very diverse audience and manipulate a huge room and patio.”
“I feel like in Miami we’re very much centered around crowd entertainment. We perform more for the crowd than we do for ourselves,” Juicy said.
The crowd that Juicy references has deep roots. Miami’s drag scene dates back to the 1930s, according to Florida International University, when the city’s underground clubs welcomed tourists to watch female impersonators. Despite local laws banning “cross-dressing” and continued persecution over the next several decades, including the Purple Pamphlet, a 1964 anti-gay propaganda document spearheaded by then-senator Charley Johns, Florida couldn’t dampen drag.
The 80s and 90s saw the preservation of Miami Beach’s Art Deco architecture, Versace’s arrival and the rise of glittery nightlife with clubs like Warsaw and Paragon. In more recent years, Wynwood has become another neighborhood of artistic expression thanks to Art Basel and the 2009 opening of Wynwood Walls, a collection of ever-changing public murals. The revitalization brought more restaurants and nightlife to the area, including R House Wynwood, which opened in 2014. But when the venue started presenting drag shows, it was no longer in the confines of an old-school gay bar.
Athena and her roster of drag queens quickly learned that a new era had begun — one where the line between queer and mainstream culture had irreversibly blurred.
“I think it’s really important for any entertainer to know your audience before you go in somewhere. And this is something that a lot of entertainers have to learn,” Athena said. “Because drag is an art, but you have to understand sometimes you’re performing to express yourself and sometimes you’re performing to entertain an audience. And, yes, they can go hand in hand sometimes. But you have to really know, am I hired here to do one thing or the other? Sometimes you do have to give the audience what they want. If these girls want to see Britney Spears or long- a*s remixes of Lady Gaga, then you’re gonna do that and you’re gonna make money. And then you reap the reward.”
The Miami drag scene is also very much modeled around diverse crowds. At R House that includes bachelorette and straight-identifying audiences.
“Gay people are not gonna keep our doors open,” Athena said. “Our shows introduce the straight community, or whatever community, that has never been exposed to drag. We get families, we get elderly people, people from other countries, and it’s an opportunity for them to experience it for the first time. I feel like they treasure it a lot more. People like to poo-poo on the bachelorettes but, honey, they tip the best and they’re there to have a good time.”
And a good time is good for business. The drag show that started at R House as once a month–seven years ago–has grown into sold-out weekend shows every weekend, providing performers with a steady income stream in an otherwise very unsteady industry.
The ‘Drag Race’ conundrum
For as popular as the Miami drag scene is, there’s been very little representation on RuPaul’s Drag Race. What’s keeping Miami from mainstream drag stardom?
“They can’t handle us. If you put a girl from Miami on the show, it’s over: personality, performance, looks. They would go on that show and tear it up. Though Latrice was representing Miami — and she did work here for a couple of years–there still hasn’t been a queen with the soul of Miami. You have to be raised here. Going to high school here turns you into a different type of person,” said Juicy, who is now finally old enough and plans to audition next year. Meanwhile, she’s continuing her career as a dancer and choreographer for artists like Azealia Banks (a headliner at this year’s Wynwood Pride Music Festival on June 10), while fine-tuning her drag.
“They can’t handle us. If you put a girl from Miami on the show, it’s over.” — Juicy Love Dion
“I keep learning and consuming a lot of media to build myself up as an artist,” Juicy said. “My friends and I will just sit on the couch, drink a little wine and watch runways and performances, looking for more things to teach ourselves, more art to get inspired from.”
“Every drag scene in every city is amazing but I feel like Miami just has this spice that I haven’t seen anywhere else,” said Morphine, who has auditioned and aspires to be on Drag Race.
Athena offers a more complex view of the show’s place in drag culture.
“Let me tell you something. You don’t have to get on Drag Race to be a successful drag queen,” Athena said. “If you want to be on Drag Race, fine. But if you think the only way to do drag is to be on Drag Race, you’re doing it wrong.
“People forget to define their own personal version of success. You’re able to do anything with drag. So if you want to be a drag queen, then create that world. What kind of drag queen do you want to be? What kind of audience do you want to have? What kind of show do you want to work on? As queer people, we’ve been allowed this opportunity to choose who we want to be and break all societal norms. And it shouldn’t stop just at our identity.
“And I’m not hating on the show. I would audition. I would consider being on it. But I’m gonna be a successful drag queen with or without it. I’ve always had that mindset. And not to toot-toot, but I am,” Athena said.
But even with a star attitude, drag is a labor of love and the daily grind can take its toll.
“I think audiences sometimes have an unrealistic view of drag. When you’re a working girl and you have 10 gigs in one week, babe, you’re gonna repeat an outfit, you’re gonna repeat hair. People don’t understand that it’s not easy. It’s not cheap. It takes a lot of work and a lot of self-discipline,” Juicy said.
So, be kind to your queens! And enjoy Miami drag’s rise to more revered recognition.
“Miami is in this place right now where it’s just soaring. There’s so much happening in this city. It’s exploding. People are moving here. Buildings are being built. There’s a lot of attention on us right now,” Athena said. “And it’s really fun to be here because we have this drag culture with really great entertainers and a lot of high-energy performers. We have really great showpeople living here in Miami and I think that’s what stands out. Miami just has these fierce queens and I feel like we have something to prove — like a name to live up to at this point. And I think all the queens accept that challenge really well… I’m just really proud to be a Miami queen.”
RuPaul, take note.