If I could turn back time: drag queen racing in Dupont Circle

October 29, 2009

Call me old-fashioned, but I think there’s something special about a middle-aged man wearing a halter-top, garter belt, and high-heeled shoes. Throw in a gimmicky competition that draws a crowd, and I’m sold. I went to the annual High Heel Race in Dupont Circle this Tuesday, eager to watch the ladies (in costume, none of the participants are men) run up and down 17th Street in elaborate costumes. (Full disclosure: I still enjoy The Birdcage and Mrs. Doubtfire, so maybe everyone doesn’t share my interest in drag.)

I would never dress up myself—I don’t have the figure, and I look terrible in high-heels—but year after year, I’ve always wanted to go to the High Heel Race. Past attempts to attend during my freshman and sophomore years were foiled by pneumonia and the flu, but this year would be different. I would get to the area early, stake out a spot in front of JR’s resturant, and settle in for what would surely be an entertaining race. Except I have a night class on Tuesdays. Fuck.

After a short Metrobus ride and a long walk through the rain, I finally arrived in Dupont. In the distance, I heard crowds shouting, “HIGH … HEELS! HIGH … HEELS!” Groups of people jogged toward the chants, arguing about what the most popular costume would be this year. The general consensus was that an army of Lady Gagas would storm down the boulevard, blasting “Poker Face,” leaving a wake of techno bump’n’grind in their path. I imagined a six-foot four-inch Sarah Palin pulling the wig off of a three hundred pound Jackie-O, all whilst sprinting in heels. It was an atmosphere I previously felt was reserved for the World Series, March Madness, or any elimination battle on The Real World/Road Rules Challenge. How could I not be excited?

My excitement didn’t last long. When I reached 17th Street, a wave of umbrellas stood between me and the high-heeled, lipsticked competitors. Any vantage point—trees, street signs, window ledges—were occupied by observers much more prepared than I was. The countdown to the start of the race begun, and I could barely make out the torch on a Statue of Liberty costume. I hadn’t been this disappointed since Hulk Hogan ditched the American flag and became Hollywood Hogan in the mid-nineties.

I saw exactly five seconds of the race. A Tootsie wannabe attempted to sprint along the edge of the road, caught her heel on the edge of the sidewalk, and tumbled into a fresh puddle. A few of the other drag queens who weren’t racing snickered at their fallen comrade in between puffs of Camel Lights. There’s just no damn sportsmanship left in high-heel races anymore.

The race ended soon after Tootsie tumbled. I don’t know who won, but I can only imagine the winner was dressed as Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The crowd surged into the street, and then the real madness started—camera phones flashed left and right in futile attempts to snap photos of the ladies. Between the pouring rain, dancing queens, and umbrellas, I felt like I had walked into a surreal music video collaboration between Gene Kelly, ABBA, and Rihanna. Instead of icing their knees and hitting the showers, the sprinters basked in the glory of the moment, posing for photos and embracing their adoring fans. I don’t think I truly lived until a mustachioed Audrey Hepburn blew kisses and winked at me, repeatedly.

Although my time in the world of high stakes and high-heeled drag queen races was short-lived, I still learned some important life lessons. When it’s raining, don’t wear mascara and your finest negligee at the same time. Always test a costume before a race to avoid any embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions. And when all else fails, root for Cher.

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