Filmmaking takes some interesting turns.
For testimonial, meet Megan Wennberg. The television veteran has spent most of her career working as a script supervisor on shows like Quantico and Trailer Park Boys, as well as directing several short films. Now, what began as a short television documentary rockets Wennberg into feature documentary territory with her debut Drag Kids.
The centers on four 9-year-old drag queens from around the world: Stephan/Laddy Gaga of Spain; Jason/Susan Bee Anthony of Missouri; Bracken, a female hyperqueen in Canada and fellow Canadian Nemis/Queen Lactatia. The pint-sized drag troupe comes together to learn from one another and perform during a Montreal Pride event, and plenty of glittering, heel-wearing hijinks ensue.
Queerty tracked down Wennberg to chat about her first sojourn into feature film territory, the drag personas of her subjects, and how a 9-year-old becomes a drag queen in the first place. Drag Kids has its stateside debut at NewFest in New York on October 24. A wide release will follow next year.
So how did you learn about this drag quartet?
Well, it started out with Queen Lactatia, in Montreal. She certainly the most famous of the four of them. My producer, Erin Oakes, had done a video on Queen Lactatia. I’d seen that, and she asked if I would be interested in doing something on drag kids in general. So then, we asked Nemis’ mum, and she knew some other drag kids. We started researching it a bit more and finding others around the world. I did full interviews with several before we narrowed it down to the four in the film.
Terrific. Now, when I was 9—and I’m guessing this is true for you and most of our readers as well—I didn’t even know what a drag queen was.
Oh yeah, same.
I’m still processing that 9-year-old drag queens exist. What was your reaction?
I think my initial reaction—I was interested immediately. It was like oh wow this is a world I know nothing about. I did not know this was a thing. Then, I guess out of curiosity, I wanted to know why these kids, what it was about drag that they were so passionate about, what it added to their lives.
So then after talking to them, and their parents, and hearing the four different stories, it seemed to be a real, genuine interest that had come from each kid. And it seemed to be something they didn’t understand officially. They didn’t quite know what it was. But since they could walk and talk, they were always reaching for glitter and sequins. Heels. It was really cute: they have old pictures of some of them just in dresses, borrowing a sister’s Halloween costumes. It was something they always liked, and the parents have been supportive. They’ve come around in certain ways. One of the moms says she actually used to hate drag, but because her son loved it so much, you just get on board with what your kid likes. Now she loves it.
That’s wonderful. But I’m still curious—where does that love come from? Or, rather, how do these kids build up acceptance from their families? Sociologists talk about “the Will & Grace effect;” how a hit sitcom radically changed perceptions of LGBTQ people in the zeitgeist, and helped pave the way to everything from Queer Eye to marriage equality. So, my question is, is this the Drag Race effect?
They were all at the very least aware of it. But yeah, Drag Race and YouTube.
They can access makeup tutorials. Because makeup tutorials are a big thing.
So they all—most of them had favorite drag queens. Bracken and Nemis—the two Canadians—love Drag Race. That’s definitely a big passion for them, whereas Jason [who lives in Missouri] draws inspiration from locals.
Oh wow, ok.
So he has an extensive drag family. He has drag mothers, drag grandmothers, drag aunties. It’s a really nice community there, I think, just because it’s still dangerous. They’re just closer.
Were their families reluctant to allow filming?
I’m always surprised that anyone wants to be on camera. They were all really into it. We were a pretty low-key crew. Obviously, we didn’t want to push anything or anyone to do anything they didn’t want to. We just sort of let the kids direct what was going on on whatever different day.
There are times, watching this, it feels like watching the most glittering fabulous slumber party ever.
These four kids have an instant rapport with one another. They’re very much kids, but so into drag and drag terminology that it’s shocking.
So for you as a documentarian, because the subjects are kids, did you ever feel like you needed to hold back, or that there were times when the camera was too invasive—that you needed to censor yourself?
Not really, just because it was already directed by what they wanted to be doing. I could see that happening if the kids or the family were involved in something problematic or dangerous, but in this case, we didn’t feel anything like that was really coming up. If something came up between a kid and the parents, we were sort of there to follow and empathize. We were lucky they all got along. We had no idea: seeing them meet on camera is seeing them meet in real life. That was the first time.
We’re lucky it went well. It would be awkward and boring if they hadn’t liked each other.
Well, and that speaks to one of the sort of subliminal lessons for the film, which is this need we all have for community, to find our people.
These kids just understand each other in a really intuitive way. But to my earlier question: during the dance sequences, there are times when the kids really struggle and it gets hard to watch.
Uncomfortable. Were there things you felt pressured to cut because these were kids? Stephan, Laddy Gaga—which is one of the best drag names ever—he has some fits.
What’s it like when you’re shooting and someone has a tantrum?
Again, they’re kids. So it wasn’t unexpected. We knew in advance that Stephan was pretty highly strung, and potentially have meltdowns. It was something he had told us about. It was something his parents had told us about. So we all knew. And actually, we were more accepting based on some of the stories we heard. It was a stressful situation, especially for him. Like at the Vogue Ball—he’d never done anything like that before, and didn’t understand what he was supposed to be doing. Then he was very upset that he didn’t win, kind of like a kid at anything else like a soccer game.
So no, I don’t think we really held back on anything. I didn’t feel there was anything that would be embarrassing to the kids. We talked to Stephan, because he was initially very embarrassed by it. But these kids are so incredibly self-aware of their own behavior. They’re able to talk about it. Even Bracken, when she found Stephan with her makeup, she was really upset. And she was worried how that scene would play out, but having talked to her and when she saw it, she actually comes across really better than most adults would. She was very calm and handled it really, really well. But she was worried she would come across mean.
Her reaction is very mature. She seems to be the drag mom, the de-facto leader among these kids.
Absolutely. They all gravitated toward her. She is the most mature out of all of them, and the most organized. She was always keeping them on track, wanting the show to be good, wanting to practice. She’s going to be an amazing drag mom someday.
So I suppose we have to address one of the spectres in the film, which is the notion that the kids might be gay, or trans or queer. Their families seem to adopt the wait and see option, which makes sense given their ages, and given how much other people really harass them about their kids’ hobby. They’re constantly being told, “You’re making your kid gay, you’re making your kid trans.” It’s typical homophobic stuff queer people are used to hearing, but seeing it directed at parents and kids is tough to watch.
That said, their hotel suite has a giant pride flag. They’re living within queer culture, going to drag balls and gay events. Did the kids ever say anything about how they identify, or how that identity is developing?
We discussed it a bit. It was led by the kids, something they brought up. In Jason’s case, he’s now come out as gay. Stephan is gender-fluid. He hasn’t decided if he likes boys or likes girls or likes both, but he says there are days he feels like a boy, and days he feels like a girl. He balances accordingly. Even the scene where he’s packing his suitcase to go to Montreal, he was a boy that day and he wanted none of the drag stuff. He wasn’t packing any dresses or anything like that. It was like I’m a boy. It was all onesies and tracksuits.
Bracken isn’t sure. Nemis says his pronoun hasn’t been invented yet. Which is awesome.
It’s fascinating to see these identities developing. Most of us who are queer know we’re queer from a very young age. It’s interesting to watch, as an adult, watching kids find the language and discovering that part of themselves. And it’s inspiring.
I’m sure you developed relationships with the kids. Are you still in touch with them?
We’re still in touch. It’s more the parents, because any initial contact was always through the parents. I’m actually going to get to see Bracken and her mom on Thursday. They’re going to come to NewFest, which is awesome. It’ll be great to see them again. And then we’ll see Nemis and his mom in November in Montreal when [the film] is at a festival there. So it’s nice to get to see a couple of the kids. No one lives in the same areas. But I’m hoping for the kids, they’ll all be able to get together. For the premiere at Hot Docs, they all got together.
Did they perform?
Yeah, they did a drag brunch.
Oh my gosh…
That’s awesome. So the subject matter of the film, and it’s your first feature…
And it was only supposed to be a TV hour. After the kids came together in Montreal, we felt like it was something bigger.
Oh, wow. Ok.
So the producers were awesome and just let me go for it.
That is awesome. So going through this whole process, what most defied your expectations? In terms of subject matter, you’re really in uncharted territory.
I think it was just—what blew me away on a regular basis was the kids’ self-awareness.
Their self-knowledge, how strong they were. They knew who they were, what they felt and how they wanted to express that. They were just really inspiring, and it was humbling as an adult to see that force so strong in people so young.
So what’s next for you, this being a first feature?
It was such an amazing process making Drag Kids, and it was so positive. I’m working on another feature documentary now, but the subject matter is so much darker.
And what is that?
It’s looking into a vigilante murder in Nova Scotia.
Oh dear lord!
Yeah, it’s a total 180.
Though the one interesting thing that has come up: the trolls have lost their minds over Drag Kids with all that child abuse bullsh*t. But the film I’m making now in rural Nova Scotia in a religious community, it’s like, there’s the child abuse. Which is where it always is: in small isolated places, not in the queer community.
Drag Kids has its stateside debut at NewFest in New York on October 24. A wide release will follow next year.