This spring, ISU Pride celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Charity Drag Show hosted by Illinois State alum and fan favorite SharonShareAlike. The headline act was Naomi Smalls from season eight of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The event drew over 1,000 people to the Brown Ballroom of the Bone Student Center. Profits from the event will support Friends of Central Illinois, which ensures people living with HIV receive essential resources.
“The ISU Pride Charity Drag Show is my favorite show each year,” said ShareAlike. “It is humbling to have the opportunity to take something I love doing, performing, and using it to help inspire, encourage, and enrich others.”
Twenty years on, the drag show’s biggest challenge is accommodating the growing community interest, but it wasn’t a hit overnight.
Barb Dallinger, associate director of events and catering, was advising ISU Pride in the run-up to the first show. She said the idea came from former Bone Student Center employee Carlitta Scott, who thought that it might be fun to have a drag show on campus.
“Frankly, I was shocked that she had that idea,” Dallinger said. “I didn’t know if we could get away with having a drag show on campus in 1998.”
A few months before, the Bone had booked a concert with the Chicago Gay Big Band that went over well with the community. Dallinger thought a little harder about Scott’s idea and decided that a drag show was something that the Illinois State community might be interested in seeing.
“I talked to the Pride students who all thought it was a wonderful idea,” she said. “We knew there would be challenges, but we pushed forward.”
Drag shows outside of bars and clubs were rare at that time, especially on college campuses. Former Pride member Tracey Vogelsang ’04 was part of the group that got the event off the ground. Finding performers was a big challenge.
“At the time, we had no money to offer, no promise that they would earn any decent tips, and no historical precedent for a successful show,” Vogelsang said. “We had to rely on them taking a chance, and luckily, they did.”
ISU Pride booked Canadian comedian Elvira Kurt to emcee the event. Kurt agreed to appear at Illinois State but didn’t know what she had gotten herself into until the day of her performance.
“She thought she was coming to do a stand-up set,” Dallinger said. “I picked her up from the airport and told her she was actually going to be hosting a drag show. She said, ‘I am going to be hosting a drag show at a college? In the Midwest? That is so fabulous.'”
Members of the LGBTQ Faculty Staff Association agreed to attend the first show to ensure a positive environment for the attendees. Additionally, Illinois State Police agreed to keep additional eyes on the Prairie Room during the performance.
“We knew it would come with risks,” Dallinger said. “But it was a wonderful night, and everyone had a lot of fun.”
That small group of happy attendees grew over the years. Soon, the Prairie Room wasn’t big enough to accommodate the show. The lower ceilings of the Prairie Room made it difficult for the performers to don their elaborate costumes. Moving to the Brown Ballroom allowed for ISU Pride to construct a bigger stage and get more people to the event.
Part of the reason the event has continued to be a success is that the current ISU Pride students recognize how far the show has come.
“They feel like they are standing on the shoulders of alumni who put so much effort into making the event accepted and appreciated in the community,” said Mandy Dartt, former specialist in Diversity Advocacy. “All of the members of Pride are involved in putting this event on. It is a massive undertaking.”
ISU Pride President Cassie Winters said planning for the show is nearly a yearlong process.
“Pride begins planning almost immediately after the drag show ends,” Winters said. “We need to be thinking a year in advance about professional performers so we can get contracts done and plans solidified.”
The show faces challenges as it continues to grow, but Winters said Pride is ready for the future.
“I couldn’t be happier with how well the show turned out this year,” Winters said. “The fact that we more than sold out is astonishing. We will certainly be making more room for people for the next year.”