Photography by Ian Argo
Whatever happened to baby Kaydence Jayne?
In three years, she’s gotten classier, nastier, and sassier. She’s Cleveland’s freshest face of entertainment in terms of being a triple threat: Actor, singer, and drag queen. No offense to all the others who make Cleveland a hotspot for LGBTQ events (think 2014’s Gay Games), but Kaydence Jayne just has a certain je ne sais quoi.
Breaking down misconceptions about drag queens is not an easy task, unless you’re Cleveland singer-songwriter Paul Douglas Kuznik. Three years ago, he began applying the final touches of make-up for his new drag queen persona, Kaydence Jayne, appearing at Northeast Ohio clubs catering to a built-in LGBTQ fanbase. In 2014, he won his first competition in Akron. Earlier this year, he won his audition to become the first-ever singing drag queen cast member at Pickwick & Frolic’s cabaret.
“It’s rare to find a drag queen that can sing,” Writer and Show Director Michael Rogaliner says, who, along with Music Director John DiSanto, has created and produced original shows for Pickwick & Frolic for over 15 years. They were looking for a singer to play the drag queen in Kimi’s Las Vegas Bachelorette Party Burlesque. They ended with a drag queen who can actually sing. How rare is it to be cast as a singing drag queen character when you are literally a living, breathing, drag queen? Rarer than diamonds or genuinely enjoying the prize in your Cracker Jack box.
“Most people are known for lip synching to Britney Spears, Madonna, and Lady Gaga, but I sing live,” Paul says. “I’ve been recording for about a decade.”
Paul began his singing career 16 years ago, releasing 2008’s solo pop album On the Scene. In 2010, he released No Apologies with his hip-hop group, Freedom. Paul’s group toured successfully for two years, including two sold-out shows opening for Cleveland rapper Machine Gun Kelly.
Paul’s “Kaydence Jayne” is a wink and a nod to his musical talents with “cadence” and his love for family (Jane is his mother’s name, Kay is his grandmother’s name). Along with clever names, drag queens often develop creative backstories explaining everything from where they grew up to what they’re wearing today. Drag queens are more than lip-synchers. They build model cars, play Xbox, cut hair, or dabble in photography.
Too often, drag queens are portrayed in mainstream media as stereotypes, wearing outrageous sequined gowns and lip-syncing to “It’s Raining Men.” Some shows spotlight theatrics and entertaining, but artists are not lip-syncing for lack of talent. Drag is a creative outlet for people who come from diverse backgrounds and unique talents and abilities; their common thread is the ability to tell a story and entertain through song.
“Defining the term drag is very personal,” Paul says. “Drag plays with gender but it doesn’t question gender; you get dressed up and go out and you lip-sync.”
Queer culture is mainstream now. The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage and Ru-Paul’s Drag Race has been a hit show for nine seasons. Naturally, drag show audiences have evolved. Years ago, Great Lakes Theater’s own Tom Hanks cross-dressed for ‘80s sitcom Bosom Buddies. Before that, Tim Curry was a “sweet transvestite” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a legacy which continues to this day at Cedar Lee Theatre’s interactive, ongoing viewings.
In fact, audiences have been enjoying drag performances for centuries; gender has always been fluid in performance art. Classical dance-dramas in Japan, Kabuki, was a woman-only artform. In 1629, women were deemed too sexual, so males took over. Centuries later, gender-bending artists like David Bowie, Annie Lennox, and Boy George also brought drag into the mainstream.
Cabaret is a game changer for Paul and Cleveland’s LGBTQ scene. Pickwick & Frolic made history writing a drag queen character instead of catering to a straight, cis-gendered audience. Regarding his specific talents, Paul explains it’s a way to “Expand into introducing something new to a straight audience, for something that brings musical talents not just to the gay community.
“This show brings the real feel of Sunset Strip,” he says. “If you can’t make it to Vegas, come see us because we brought Vegas to Cleveland.”
The show starts with Kimi, who is always a bridesmaid, never a bride, played by Pickwick regular cast member Adrienne Krol. Kimi is going to do her cabaret show, but some friends decide to throw her a surprise bachelorette party hosted by her best friend Dijonnaise (Paul). The audience is busy eating and drinking when the show they came to see is taken over by a show within the show.
The show is rounded out by a dance troupe (Dot King, Shrimp Cocktail, Ava Adore, and Gideon Lorete) and an intermittently-appearing magician Bryan Gerber, a.k.a. G the Magician. The tempo is held down by drummer and singer Andrew Rothman. According to the cast list printed in the programs, your host is Damian Henri. However, the real host for the party is Paul’s character, Dijonnaise. He literally takes over the show as both a drag queen in character and in real life. This is not the typical career trajectory of a drag queen, unless you’re Paul Douglas Kuznik.
At the tail end of Kimi’s party, attendees are asked to call out what they are celebrating. At one performance, there was a woman who was eight-months pregnant. With the enthusiasm of a powerhouse singer, Paul emotionally blasted into Etta James’ “At Last” and received the first standing ovation in Pickwick & Frolic’s 15-year history.
At last, a drag queen has come through to a mainstream audience in Cleveland who may not otherwise check out a traditional drag show. Kaydence Jayne: She’s here, she’s queer, and she’s fierce as hell.