It’s a Friday evening, and Bebe Gunn is choosing a wig. It’s between the short green one, the long, loose blond number and the black and white ponytail. Others lay in a black suitcase, tucked between ripped tights and hip pads.
“I want something I can whip around for ‘Mr. Watson,’” she said, pulling the blond number over her wig cap. She completed the ensemble with a gray, reflective bodysuit, asking her fellow drag queen and performing partner Cherry Possums to zip her up.
That night, the pair performed a drag show with two other queens at Glozet, a monthly pride event hosted at Crozet Pizza at Buddhist Biker Bar. It was the first of three shows they would host in Charlottesville that weekend, with drag brunches Saturday and Sunday, before returning home to Richmond.
Gunn and Possums have been running the Charlottesville drag scene for nearly two years, after the pair revived monthly drag shows at the Southern Cafe and Music Hall. Possums did shows with another queen at the Southern and Rapture back in 2017, returning in 2021 with Gunn at her side.
“One of the things that we kept hearing people say is that they’ve been dying to see a drag show here in Charlottesville,” Possums said. “So that’s why we’re bringing it back.”
The Richmond drag scene is already very established, according to the pair, who found it easier to make a name for themselves in Charlottesville. “We’ve really just built this huge following for ourselves here, and it’s incredible,” Gunn said.
The duo organizes, hosts and performs monthly shows at the Southern, Crozet Pizza and the South and Central restaurant at the Dairy Market food hall, and occasionally at other venues downtown such as restaurants Rapture and Umma’s and the Common House social club. They are also frequently asked to do private shows or pop-up events, Possums said.
The Southern, which regularly hosts live music events, is their main stage. It’s the most “immersive” drag experience of the venues in Charlottesville, Gunn said, where the queens can try out new numbers. Those drag shows are lively but can also get “pretty unhinged,” said Lou Wilkin, an employee at the Southern.
“I think allowing the queens a space to perform and having a reliable relationship with them, it’s a pretty cool thing to demonstrate that level of involvement in the queer community,” Wilkin said.
Once their shows are over for the weekend, they return to Richmond, where Gunn and Possums share an apartment.
At home, without the wigs and the heels and the lashes and the hair, Gunn is Thomas Lee, an AT&T employee, and Possums is Josh Austin, a fraud investigator at Capital One.
But then the weekend rolls around again, and Gunn and Possums are right back at it, lip-syncing, dancing and whipping their hair for Charlottesville crowds showering them with singles.
“This is a job that’s fun, it’s something that we enjoy doing,” Gunn said. “We feel like celebrities because there’s just dozens of people cheering for us.”
After turning 18, the young Lee became enamored with the queens at a gay bar in Roanoke, where he grew up. He started performing under the name Bebe Gunn not long after, to push himself out of his comfort zone.
“I have aggressive stage fright,” Gunn said. “I don’t anymore. That literally melted away as soon as I put the wig on. I was like, ‘OK honey, I can take over the world. Y’all can’t tell me nothing. I’m fierce.’”
At Gunn’s very first competition, she met Possums, who went by Cherry Poppins at the time.
“I had known of her, and I was in awe, I was starstruck,” Gunn said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, hey girl!’ and she was just like, ‘Oh my god, I see something in you,’ and I was like, ‘Paint me girl!’ And the rest was history.”
“In other words, I had a stalker,” Possums joked. “And I thought it’d be easier to just let her in than to get the police involved.”
The two learned they had graduated from the same high school in Roanoke four years apart, where both of them had been somewhat involved in theater. The future Bebe Gunn, still struggling with stage fright, painted the stone wall set pieces for “Beauty and the Beast,” while the future Miss Possums was Reporter No. 2 in “Bye-Bye Birdie.”
“I’m a really shy and reserved person,” Possums said. “It’s easier to be wild and crazy if people are saying that’s Cherry, that’s not Josh. It’s completely freeing. And you’re also able to support the feminine side of your personality without fear of judgment.”
“Shy” and “reserved” would be the last words used to describe Possums as she twirled to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” in a neon dress and green jacket at Common House’s drag brunch Saturday, letting the audience stick singles in the cleavage of her breast plate. Gunn performed next, cartwheeling to a Kelly Clarkson song. Three other queens completed the Saturday morning set, Gunn and Possums introducing each one at masters of ceremony, flirting with the audience and encouraging applause and tips.
“We need two things from you guys, OK?” Gunn told the audience at the start of the set. “I need you to cheer for your divas. We’re working, we’re twerking and you’re gonna love it. Also, we’re going to need your money, honey! We are walking it, we are hopping it and we need gas money.”
Most of the queens performing in Richmond, where the drag scene is “oversaturated,” can be intense and competitive, said Lavender Menace, one of the queens who performed on Saturday. Her rendition of “Copacabana” followed by “Jump In the Line” was punctuated with high kicks, hip swings and plenty of shimmies.
Darling Nikki, who performed “Only Love Can Hurt Like This” with a long yellow boa, was up at 6 a.m. in Roanoke to get ready for Saturday’s show in Charlottesville. In Roanoke the drag scene is “undersaturated,” and the stage at the city’s gay bar creates an unfriendly dynamic between certain queens, Nikki said.
It’s been years since Charlottesville had a true gay bar, after Impulse closed in 2020, Escafe closed in 2018 and Club 216 was shuttered in 2012. But that just means Charlottesville is a “melting pot” of different kinds of drag performance, with queens coming from Virginia, D.C. and even South Carolina, Nikki said.
“The crowds here are coming for the show,” Nikki said. “They give you energy consistently no matter what venue you go to.”
And Charlottesville’s drag duo makes it worth the performers’ time, gas and expensive wigs, paying their queens more than they would make for a show in Richmond.
Charlottesville is also more accepting than Richmond, Possums said. “I have never, not once, felt unsafe in Charlottesville. We’ve never had anyone say anything sideways to us. We feel comfortable going into the gas station without taking our makeup off, and we’ve never felt like that in Roanoke or Richmond.”
“There’s so much acceptance here,” Gunn said. A large part of their crowds consist of University of Virginia students, “baby gays” in their first years being a part of a queer community. “But we get a lot of middle-aged women, a lot of men. A lot of straight people.”
“It’s a lot of doctor’s wives,” Possums added. She remembered receiving a $40 Venmo tip from an older woman one night, specifically because she had performed a song by Kate Bush.
“With the political climate going on, it’s refreshing to have this queer space,” Gunn said. “A lot of people are sitting here and talking down on drag and calling it something that it isn’t. At the end of the day, it is an art form. It is a form of expression.”
Gunn and Possums are performing in a drag duo competition next month in Richmond called the “Perfect Pairs Pageant.” Within another year, they both plan to move to Charlottesville and will continue to run the drag scene side by side.
“She doesn’t want to call herself my drag mother, so I just say we’re sisters,” Gunn said on Friday, brushing a stray bit of makeup off of Possum’s nose.
“We’ve been really good friends since 2016,” Possums said.
“Since the dawn of time!” Gunn said, before strutting downstairs to set up before the show.