Lighting a Fire

UWEC’s Fire Ball more than a drag show

Katie Vagnino, photos by Randy Lee, Luong Huynh

IMAGE: LUONG HUYNH
IMAGE: LUONG HUYNH

It was one of those bleak January days when it’s dark by 4pm and you wonder if the weather is trolling you. I had just finished teaching my last class of the day at UW-Eau Claire and was trudging through Hibbard Hall when something pinned to a bulletin board caught my eye. It was a poster featuring a glossy full-color photo of Cher, looking resplendent in a bedazzled leotard and thigh-high boots, her signature black tresses framing her angular face majestically.

I thought I might be hallucinating. Cher was coming to perform in Eau Claire?

“ ... the energy in the room – it’s joyful, it’s inclusive, it’s almost euphoric. The show isn’t just entertaining spectacle; at times, it can be downright moving.”

No, not Cher – Chad Michaels, one of the world’s premier Cher impersonators, a superstar in the drag world, the first queen crowned on RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars. Chad Michaels, who sells out shows in L.A. and Vegas, was coming here to do a show. I still thought I might be hallucinating, especially when I saw the date: Saturday, March 1, 2014. My birthday.

I immediately texted my best friend (and fellow Drag Race super fan) in Chicago, and sent a picture of the poster. Within seconds, he responded: “Booking my flight right now.”

And that is how attending The Fire Ball became my annual birthday tradition. It’s something I look forward to all year. In September, I anxiously await the announcement of the headliners. In December, I check every day to see when tickets are going on sale. And as February draws to a close, visions of wigs and platform heels dance through my head.

For those who have never have experienced it, let me explain: The Fire Ball is both similar to, and totally different from, every other drag show I have ever seen (and I have seen a few in my day, honey). It gives local Eau Claire queens like Ophelia Junque and Jem Stone the chance to share the stage with bonafide drag celebrities who tour nationally. The performers accept cash tips from the crowd as they lip-synch and strut their (padded) stuff. Although it’s an all-ages show (with a very family-friendly start time of 6:30pm), the humor sometimes skews a little blue, and the choreography, risqué. But there’s a philanthropic twist – ticket proceeds from the two-night event go toward UW-Eau Claire’s Gender & Sexuality Resource Center. And during the show, a shirtless man with an oversized wine goblet circulates around the Ojibwe Ballroom collecting money for the Campus Harvest Food Pantry.

IMAGE: RANDY LEE
IMAGE: RANDY LEE

What really sets The Fire Ball apart, however, is the energy in the room – it’s joyful, it’s inclusive, it’s almost euphoric. The show isn’t just entertaining spectacle; at times, it can be downright moving. Once, in between drag numbers, the audience was treated to video segments featuring the queens being interviewed alongside members of their families about why and how they started doing drag. Another time, we got to see behind-the-scenes footage of the queens “beating” their faces (which is slang for putting on makeup). Every Fire Ball has a theme chosen by the event’s creator, Chris Jorgenson, and in 2017, it was “Pulse.” The show began somberly with the sound of 49 heartbeats, one for every person killed at the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016. Towards the end of the night, when Jorgenson came out to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the significance of supporting the LGBTQIA+ community in this particular cultural moment was thrown into sharp relief.

Which is not to say that The Fire Ball isn’t fun and fabulous – it has all the pageantry you would expect from a big-budget drag show. If you want sequins, death drops, dramatic entrances, and gag-worthy (that’s a compliment) looks, you won’t be disappointed. But another pleasant surprise is that it’s not just what most would describe as conventional drag (i.e., men impersonating women). On the official Fire Ball website, it says, “Come as you are. Come as you want to be,” and this motto is reflected in the artistic diversity of the show. Some acts celebrate, and exaggerate, gender and queerness in unexpected ways – the Justin Bieber routine done a few year ago by a drag king who goes by the name of Vinny, for example. It was subversive and sexy, and much more interesting than actual Bieber.

This year, the theme is “Revolution,” which Jorgenson says is “a demand that insists each of us speak up and speak out.” I am excited to see how this gets interpreted, especially by the Saturday night headliner Sharon Needles (get it?), whose high-concept alterna-goth drag breaks all the rules. This Revolution may not be televised, but you can be sure it will be fierce and drenched in glitter, baby. 

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