By Gina Pedano
“Being a woman is not easy,” explained Craig Stastny, a 26-year-old drag queen.
Two years ago Stastny, an Omaha native who grew up in Minneapolis, came to New York for a fresh start the death of his mother. He stumbled into a drag show at The Ritz, a gay bar on West 46th Street in Manhattan, and never left.
The show at The Ritz, called Saliva!, changed everything. Stastny saw guests ripping clothes off, doing back flips and making obscene jokes, and decided he wanted to be a part of this life. So Terra Grenade, his alter ego, was born.
“I bought some couch foam and I made some hips, then I put on a dress and a terrible $15 wig, thought I knew what I was doing with my makeup,” he recalled. As far as Stastny knew, that was all it took to become a drag queen.
What he eventually learned was that it takes time, practice, dedication and the ability to not take oneself too seriously.
Terra Grenade has put her time in and is now a “polished” queen. On a recent night her look was that of a showgirl: a lot of leg leading to a black one-piece with gold fringe on the hips, and a cutout top to reveal just enough of what would be breasts, if she had them. The goal is to “look like a lady, act like a tramp,” he explained.
Though Terra Grenade has had gigs at Boots and Saddle in the West Village for over a year, this is not Stastny’s first time in the spotlight. Performing “as a boy,” Stastny has been doing musical theater since he was 15, and he graduated from Minnesota State University in 2010 with a B.F.A. in Musical Theater.
Like a “good little gay boy,” he first began taking dance lessons, then singing lessons, though neither are incorporated into Grenade’s routine. “Mostly I make fun of myself, make fart jokes, very inappropriate things. I like to push the envelope,” said Stastny.
Queens vary in their performance personnas. Some are comedy queens; the seasoned ones can leave the audience in stitches. Some emulate a woman quite well; the good ones can confuse many men. Some are campy, and others won’t make you think anything other than “there’s a fat man in a wig impersonating Cher” – but that’s the point. Drag is all about expression, said Stastny, and from one queen to the next, styles can be polar opposites. It depends on who created the character, and how she is received.
“I don’t like being in drag everyday, it’s painful,” said Stastny. “I’ve given myself a hernia doing the splits every day of the week. I’m going to have huge waistline markings and cuts, the wire from the bra digs, and my balls are inside of me.” (This common practice to flatten a man’s bulge is called “tucking.”)
Stastny believes a successful career is based on calculated decisions. “What you do on Instagram and social media, how you book yourself, choosing the right places to perform and not being an alcoholic,” he added jokingly, all factor into the potential success and longevity of a queen’s career. Though the queens rarely show anything other than a good time, drag can be… well, a drag.
Terra Grenade has performed at many different bars, even ones that don’t have proper show essentials, such as a DJ or good lighting. The mood of an unhappy audience falls on the drag queen, even if the bar is ill equipped to host a performance.
Many drag queens don’t make much money. In the middle of a number, a queen can take bills, usually singles, offered by the audience. According to Stastny, the money will often “let you down,” because it’s typically not enough to provide a living.
But being a drag queen has its compensations. Stastny believes that drag saved him from terrible depression after the death of his mother two years ago. Moving from Minnesota to New York allowed him to start a new life, surrounded by other artists.
“Today I’m on the cover of a magazine,” said Stastny, referring to his December 2013 feature in Next Magazine. “And I’m working at every bar in the city!”
One recent night after a performance, a fan came up to Terra Grenade and handed over a wad of cash. One of the most rewarding aspects of being a drag queen, Stastny said, is the positive impact he sometimes has on his audience.
Frank Celaya, another fan, was pleased with Terra Grenade’s performance, and stopped to speak to Stastny after the show. “She is so alive, and so professional and so inspiring,” Celaya said.
Moments like these, Stastny said, reaffirm his decision to do drag.