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‘Freedom of Expression’ : Drag Performers More Than Just Pride Month

By Nathan Christophel
June 30, 2022, 4:30 PM HST
* Updated June 30, 6:12 PM
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Aaries Judd-Sombrio as Aaries the Extra. (photo courtesy of Aaries Judd-Sombrio)

They are the quintessential image of Pride Month — almost like mascots for the LGBTQ+ community. They come in all shapes and sizes, each as diverse and colorful as the outfits and makeup they wear.

Yas, queen! They are the people who get into drag to not only perform and entertain, but to show the world that it’s OK to be who you are.

“Drag is a freedom of expression,” 28-year-old Aaries Judd-Sombrio of Hilo told Big Island Now.

Judd-Sombrio, who’s drag persona is Aaries the Extra, started doing drag in 2015 when he was invited to be part of a pageant in Kona. He was vying for the title of Mr. Big Island Pride.

“I was like, I guess. OK. Why not?” he said.

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He started getting involved with drag as just an audience member, going to shows around town, and didn’t really ever think he would start doing full blown drag like he does now.

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“I was just so intrigued by it and so entertained,” Judd-Sombrio said.

He was named the runner-up in that first pageant he participated in, which didn’t sit well with him — the whole point was to win, he said. So he decided to participate in the Mr. Big Island Pride competition again in 2016 and won the crown.

“That’s really when it took off for me,” Judd-Sombrio said.

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He recalled that at one point while he was deciding he wanted to become a drag performer, he assumed he would go more toward female impersonation drag. The opportunity to compete for the Mr. Big Island Pride crown came at about the same time, sending him in a more male, or drag king, direction. So he decided to stick with that.

Aaries the Extra poses for a photo June 25 during the Pride Festival in downtown Hilo. (photo by Nathan Christophel)

Over time, however, Judd-Sombrio started to develop more of a fashion sense when came to his drag and found himself doing a little more makeup than just glitter eyebrows and a glitter beard. In 2017, when it came time for him to relinquish his crown, while there were plenty of participants for Miss Big Island Pride, no one turned out to compete for the Mr. Big Island Pride title.

So he continued his reign. The same thing happened in 2018 and 2019.

“At that point, I kinda was like, I guess we’re not gonna have it again,” Judd-Sombrio said. “That’s when I kinda was like, you know what, I’ve been reigning for over two years already, I’m just gonna do what I wanna do now.”

That’s when he began to develop his drag more from a fashion sense, using items he wouldn’t normally and getting more comfortable wearing women’s clothing, even though to him there are no gender-specific clothes — “it’s whatever you feel comfortable in.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic began at the beginning of 2020, his drag became even more fashion-centered as he practiced while being stuck at home so much. Once everyone was able to get back outside and be around each other more — and drag shows started happening around the island again — that’s when his drag really took off.

“That summer that came after when COVID had hit, we had the drive-through Pride and it’s like, I don’t know, I had, like, an awakening when it came to my makeup and my drag,” Judd-Sombrio said. “I don’t know what it was. The makeup I had did for the drive-through Pride was very different than what I normally ever did. I don’t know where it came from. I really don’t. I don’t know how to explain it. I just remember that look being big glow-up from what I was doing before.”

He said it was like an awakening.

“You see something and it gives you that spark, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna start going this direction, that direction,'” Judd-Sombrio said. “And then I started noticing that the type of makeup and outfits I was using was very gender-bending, very club kid, very extra, very loud, and I was like, ‘You know, I’m gonna stick in this direction. I’m enjoying it more.'”

His drag is now a little more creative than just trying to buy something off the rack. For the majority of his drag outfits, he will buy something off the rack and alter it. In fact, he said 95% of his outfits he rhinestones himself, a process that sometimes can take hours or days.

One of the last pageant outfits he wore had some 9,000 rhinestones that took him a total of more than 24 hours to complete. He would even take it to work with him and work on it during his lunch break because he knew he had so much to do.

“I didn’t have to, but that’s just the extent that I go because when it comes to me rhinestoning, it saves me a lot of money instead of somebody else doing it,” Judd-Sombrio said. “But when it comes to more of those extravagant, three-dimensional outfits, then that’s when I’ll source out if I need to.”

He now has a “walk-in closet,” a spare room at his apartment, where he keeps about two full racks of drag outfits along with his day-to-day clothing, which is also very colorful and unique to him. He participates in at least two shows a month now between Hilo and Kona, and if he’s not performing in a show, he often still gets into drag and attends.

For Judd-Sombrio, and other drag performers, drag is about more than just the clothes and makeup. It’s about who they are.

He said a person learns things about themselves they might not have known until they go into their drag persona. Some people do use drag as a way to cope, but it’s really not about being another person for Judd-Sombrio.

“It’s an inner part of you that comes out a lot more when you’re able to express yourself that way,” he said, adding that even out of drag, he can be very out there. “I’m such an extra person out of drag already, so it’s like me being in drag just makes that 10 times more than I already am. Hence that’s the reason my name is Aaries the Extra. Being in drag puts that cherry on top.”

That extra-ness is just who he is. It also helps him express his creativity and artistry.

“I do drag because it’s a form of artwork for me, and I do enjoy arts and crafts and expressing myself through art,” Judd-Sombrio said. “And my drag is very, you could say, chameleon. It’s always changing. Normally, you’ll never see me in the same face twice.”

He gets excited for what he’s going to look like when he’s finished getting into drag, calling his form of the art like if club kid met Lisa Frank. It’s a different face staring back at him in the mirror when he becomes Aaries the Extra.

“I’ve never seen this face before. I don’t know what this look is gonna look like when I’m done,” Judd-Sombrio said. “So I still get a thrill out of what I look like afterwards. I surprise myself sometimes. I’m like, whoa, that does not look like me.”

Moses Lee, whose drag persona is Palehua, started doing drag four years ago with his brother, “Natalia Rose.” He started out by producing his own shows at various spots throughout downtown Hilo.

“I have always believed in growing the community here on island, creating more shows and opportunities for more queens to perform at and providing more representation in our community,” Lee told Big Island Now via Facebook Messenger.

Lee was born on O‘ahu and raised on the Big Island and plans to keep growing, inspiring and creating more opportunities for drag performers here.

“I do drag because I love performing. I have always been a performer since I was a child,” Lee said. “After discovering drag, I realized how freeing the whole art form is. As time progressed, as I grew as a drag queen and my love for the art grew, I fell in love with the power every drag queen has. The power to inspire people, to give people an escape from real life for a few minutes.”

Lee said attending drag shows has been a great way to remember that life doesn’t always have to be taken so seriously.

“And it makes me proud to offer that same feeling to people who attend my shows,” Lee said.

Drag is about more than wearing women’s clothes. People of all walks of life get into drag, including straight men, as exemplified in a recent season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” A spinoff show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race UK,” also included the franchise’s first cisgender woman. The franchise also has expanded what drag is with a trans woman winning last season of “All Stars.” There are even bearded queens.

“It’s become very evolved from what it originally was before,” Judd-Sombrio said.

“I want people to know that drag is an art form,” Lee said. “At its core, it stemmed from impersonation of the opposite sex. It has grown into so much more. Drag has no boundaries or limits. Drag is defined by the person doing it, and sometimes you won’t understand it and that’s OK. But you should always respect it. Being in drag is freeing. It’s like releasing an alter ego and you get to become an image of your imagination.”

Judd-Sombrio said there is no particular box or standard when it comes to drag — “drag is not just one way or this way or that way.”

“Drag is just expressing yourself like a different art form,” he said. “You don’t need to just be a female impersonator. You can be a drag queen, you can be a club kid, you can be a drag king — there’s so many different forms of drag it’s endless. It really is.”

During Pride Month, which ends today, the art of drag doesn’t just take center stage itself, it helps shine a light on the struggle for equality and inclusion — a constant struggle for the LGBTQ+ community. And drag performers are a big face of the community.

Judd-Sombrio said there is still some hatred when it comes to drag performers, specifically mentioning recent news out of Texas. He said Pride is an opportunity for all LGBTQ+ community members to really showcase that they’re here and they’re just here to love everybody equally.

“Pride is not just a month. Pride is all year round. It’s our whole life. There’s no right time or day to express yourself and who you are, but since we do have a month that’s designated for us, why not take charge and let everybody know that we’re here, we’re not going anywhere — we’re really not,” Judd-Sombrio said. “Pride means expressing yourself and who you truly are and not having any boundaries; just paving the way for the people behind you.”

Lee said Pride Month is important because it’s a time of the year where the LGBTQ+ community is encouraged to be as free and real as it wants, unapologetically.

“Pride festivals are a celebration of humanity, a place where everyone who attends can feel love, loved and special,” Lee said. “It is also a memorial of those who have fought tirelessly to get us where we are today. Pride Month is important because it provides unapologetic representation and visibility to everyone, especially those who are not yet out, that are scared and feel alone. They can see that there is a whole community out there ready to celebrate them when they feel the time is right. It is also important to remember that it’s thanks to trans women that this movement began over 50 years ago.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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