NYC’s drag mothers are raising the next generation of icons

This Pride, we’re celebrating the queens who are keeping the art form alive.

Plasma and Selma Nilla (Fire and Ice)
Photograph: Justin Wee for Time Out New York
Ian Kumamoto

Mothers are the vessels from which all life emerges: In Western culture, we refer to the source of all living beings as “Mother Nature,” and before that, the Greeks had Gaia, the ancestral source of all life. In ancient Egypt, there was Isis, and the Incas had Pachamama, or Mother Earth.

In modern queer culture, the term “mother” has taken on new meaning: It’s what we use to refer to women who can’t help but be iconic. Mothers are those who serve as markers of confidence and authenticity, traits we strive to embody in our lives every day. When someone is really giving it their all—and succeeding—one can say that Mother is Mothering. 

But the meaning of mother extends far beyond slang. As much progress as we’ve seen in the past decade when it comes to queer visibility, we continue to live in a world where queer people are too often alienated from their immediate families. In the absence of support from biological parents, many queer people’s lives become driven by a desire to find their “chosen families”: People who are committed to loving them because of their queerness, and not in spite of it. From my perspective, few communities embody the complexity of chosen families as tenderly as New York City’s drag community. 

Drag mother and daughter dynamics are especially important now, when there are people all over the country hellbent on ending the artform altogether.

If you know anything about New York drag, then you know that most of your favorite queens have drag mothers. These mothers pass down knowledge and resources, making them the vessels through which the art form can continue. Drag mothers serve the same purpose that all other mothers have throughout time: They give birth to new life in their likeness. Drag mother-and-daughter dynamics are especially important now when there are people all over the country hellbent on ending the art form altogether. 

At the time of this writing, the ACLU is tracking 515 anti-LGBTQ Bills across the U.S.; many of them are attempting to ban drag from being performed in public spaces. These laws are part of a concerted effort to frame drag queens as child groomers who are spreading a corrupting gay agenda. The undertones are that all queer people—especially trans people—are predators just waiting for the right time to pounce. 

And so this Pride, like all other Prides before it, will be inherently political. But what it also will be, and always has been, is defiantly joyful.

And so this Pride, like all other Prides before it, will be inherently political. But what it will also be, and always has been, is defiantly joyful. Despite the fact that there are people in power committed to making queer people invisible again, you would never know it if you didn’t leave New York City, where drag queens are booked at brunch spots all over the city; where RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni are treated like A-List celebrities at the most exclusive clubs; and where baby drag queens are born every night in dive bars stages and Brooklyn apartments.

All of that is to say that the state of New York drag is stronger than it’s ever been, and we owe it all to drag mothers. They’re the ones who teach the next generation how to stick on their lashes, walk in heels, and dip from a countertop to Kylie Minogue without snapping their necks in half. More often than not, drag mother/daughter duos also have close relationships outside of nightlife: They call each other when they’re down. They have dinner together. They put each other as their emergency contacts.

For our Pride cover story, Time Out New York gathered four mother/daughter duos that epitomize why New York City drag is the best in the world and asked each iconic pairing to choose a duo in pop culture and beyond that reflects something about their own relationship. Visually, we wanted to convey the vintage textures of a JC Penney commercial mixed with the nostalgic aura of high school yearbook photos to show a softer side to the queens—some of whom you’ve only seen be fiercely on their A-Game on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Queer photographer Justin J. Wee welcomed them into their Brooklyn studio and photographed them on a sunny day in May while we asked them questions about the state of NYC drag, chosen family, and what it takes to be a mother.

Meet the Queens

Plasma and Selma Nilla (Fire and Ice)

Q: How did y'all meet?

Selma: We met at Industry Bar and I asked her if she had a drag mother and she did, so that was that. 

Plasma: I had a drag mother when I started drag in Oklahoma but when I moved to New York and saw Selma, it became clear to me that Selma’s drag, wisdom, and experience far surpassed anyone in the drag community that I knew in New York and beyond.

Q: How did you come up with your concept for the iconic duo fire and ice?

Selma: We were looking for something that complemented each other in texture and in shine. 

Plasma: Both of these garments have been a significant part of our journeys in drag together and it made a lot of sense. I think our mother-and-daughter relationship is less about the higher and lower form and more about the sisterly relationship we have as people who complement each other.

Selma: I think my floor-length gown is more of a matriarchal dynamic whereas hers was a shorter, hipper silhouette which speaks to the younger generation of drag. 

Plasma: In terms of the ice, Selma’s had to cool me off from a couple of my drag instincts because I get really excited. She’s the balancing act between my fire and ignition. I’ve found in our relationship I have access to make Selma laugh in certain difficult, tricky, dark, cold moments and get her out of her icy cave emotionally. 

Q: What legacy do you and your family want to leave in NYC drag?

Selma: The love we have for each other is really unique. I just know that we are each other’s family. I don’t see families celebrating each other the way we do.

Plasma: I don’t see a lot of people who have a drag family that continually and consistently inspires more, and better and more fun drag. Doing drag with her consistently makes the hustle of everything else worth it because I know it’ll be fun and inspiring. Drag families should be about encouraging the joy of drag to inspire more of it: More artists, more joy, more freedom and more opportunities. 

Q: Can you talk about how you felt in the shoot in the context of mother/daughter?

Selma: Once we were doing the really snuggly mother and daughter poses, I really felt connected and those felt really beautiful.

Plasma: Some of the positions we were in is not what Selma or I do in our typical photo repertoire. There was a little bit of awkwardness that we nonverbally exchanged with one another but at one point it just became so fun.  

Catch Plasma perform at “The Drowsy Chapelle Roan” on June 3 at Red Eye at 8pm.

Nancy Nogood and Reina No Buena (The Sopranos)

Q: How did y'all meet?

Nancy: So much of my drag family I met through theater and that’s where I met Reina. We met at a show by the National Queer Theater that a mutual friend was directing.

Reina: I think a lot of the show’s success came from our chemistry because we had to hate each other, we had to fight each other, but we also had to love each other unconditionally within that story. 

Q: You've talked about being sober drag queens. Why was it important for you to be sober?

Nancy: The impetus was for health reasons, but what was really hard to overcome was in a nightlife setting, which as a drag artist ends up being so much of your time. There’s this need to drink or use something to be the artist that you are and be entertaining. One of the things that helped me was finding other people in the community who are also sober and connecting to those people, and I realized you can find strength in numbers. We as queer people are trying to find that community outside of bars and outside of drinking, and what that can look like.

Reina: Sobriety has helped keep my relationship with drag special because we’re working late nights, we’re working sometimes day shifts. I’m so used to wanting to drink as a way to feel together with people and there was a fear that if I didn’t drink while doing drag I wouldn’t feel connected with the audience. But the reality is that drinking isn’t bringing us together, it’s our drag and how we’re interacting with other people. Nancy being sober is so inspirational for me and makes me more comfortable with making that decision. 

Q: Why did you choose The Sopranos for this photoshoot?

Nancy: It’s an extension of the characters we created throughout our careers.

Reina: Carmela Soprano is the matriarch of TV and is just so inspirational, she’s complicated, she’s flawed, but no one can tell her anything. Adriana La Cerva is known as the heart of the Sopranos and she’s someone who doesn't really want to be in the mob. The way she models and shapes herself is really based on her relationship with Carmela and she learns how to be a powerful woman and mob wife through Carmela.

Q: How did ya’ll feel at the actual shoot and interacting with each other as mother/daughter?

Reina: There were moments where Nancy just kept reassuring me and saying you’re good, just be present. Just let it happen. All of this feels special and cosmic. After the shoot, it hit me and I was like I cannot believe that I’m able to work creatively with someone who is not only my drag mother but also my best friend. It’s a dream.

Nancy: It’s the best feeling in the world. I feel like being an artist in New York, you can feel very stagnant in your work and this dynamic that we have where I’ve been pushing Reina as this blossoming drag artist has helped me revitalize my own work as an artist and has reminded me of the joy of why I love drag in the first place and how exciting it can be.  

Reina is a finalist at the Ultimate Diva competition on Tuesday, July 16. You can catch Nancy and Reina perform together at Pride at the Coney Island sideshow on June 14.


Kandy Muse and Xunami Muse (Princess Peach and Daisy)

Q: How did y'all meet, and can you describe your relationship?

Kandy: Our relationship is dynamic because before we became mother and daughter, we were friends for a long time. A lot of little children go out in the wild and want a drag mom but before you have a really strong drag family, you need a really strong friendship.

Xunami: I think that’s why people like us so much because we can show up anywhere and people will just leave.

Kandy: I saw something in her when I first saw her at a competition at Pieces Bar. She won that night and then she won the next five weeks and I thought this bitch has something in her. I reached out to her and it snowballed from there. 

Xunami: One of my favorite things when we started drag together was all the things I was learning from her. It’s definitely passing down the torch and the knowledge and the connections and tricks. 

Kandy: You need a dynamic duo where you will steer each other in the right direction. When we get into it, we get into it, but deep down we know it comes from a place of love. 

Xunami: I might not like you right now, but I will respect you. 

Q: Talk about the challenge of putting your looks together.

Kandy: As we were thinking of iconic duos, we wanted to find something that resonated with us. One thing that struck me was the times we had the most fun was when we’re at home super lit playing video games.

Xunami: Everybody recognizes these characters. Who didn’t have a Nintendo in their house growing up? 

Q: Why does Pride matter especially this year?

Xunami: As you can see, people are trying to get rid of what we do but Pride is our moment to stand up loud, stand up proud, stand up bright and we’re not going anywhere.

Kandy: This year is an especially important year because it’s an election year and a lot of our legislators are trying to pass bills on banning drag and we know deep down it’s not about drag but about our trans brothers and sisters which is why it’s so important to donate to the ACLU. I remember going to my first Pride and thinking “Whoa, this is a world I would have never imagined being a part of.” There’s kids at home who are fighting from their family who they really are. As queer people, we are stronger together than we are alone. Pride is about chosen family.

Marti Cummings and Peachez (Milkmaid and Cow)

Q: How did y’all meet?

Marti Cummings: Peachez and I met at one of my gigs and I very quickly was like oh my god, this queen is next level. I think I said it on a Live during the pandemic. Peachez is more than a drag daughter to me, she’s a best friend and family. 

Peachez: Marti for many years hosted a competition called The Ultimate Drag Pageant. Towards the end of 2019, I had just barely started dabbling in drag. I went to one of her shows and she asked me if I was a drag queen and I said “I guess!” So I ended up showing up to the competition. I didn’t win a single week of that competition. 

Q: How does your mother/daughter drag dynamic manifest itself?

Marti Cummings: As a drag mother, I’m not gonna teach you how to do your makeup, but what I will do is teach you how to run this as a business. There will be a lot of people who will want to take advantage of you and influence you in a negative way, and you have to negotiate contracts, you have to know how to present yourself in different settings. 

Peachez: We’ve gotten to the point where Marti and I are almost sisters. Marti has influenced me outside of drag just as a citizen of the city and during the pandemic, Marti and I just started going out and bringing unhoused neighbors food and socks just out of the street. To use our drag as activism as was always intended was really important to us.

Marti Cummings: If you’re not uplifting people or saying people’s names in the room when you’re not around, what a disservice to drag because there’s so many incredible drag artists out there. Peachez has taught me so much about uplifting others and being a cheerleader for others.  

Q: What is something that having a drag mother helps you do?

Peachez: In New York, there’s a long process for getting to know what bars you should be working at, and how to connect into those bars. When you have someone who is established and has been working for so long and can give you a phone number to a bar manager, and even tell you which bars not to work with, that’s very invaluable. When you are starting out and you’re just some person who shows up in a wig, it’s hard to convince people. If you don’t see the opportunity, create the opportunity. And Marti is very good at how to structure things and how to be a producer.  

Q: What advice would you give to queer people struggling to find that chosen family? 

Marti Cummings: As you’re going out and meeting people, you’ll start making those friendships and those relationships and through those, you can seek mentorship in a way that is very fluid and organic. Stick with the people who make you feel good. If something’s not jelling, that’s not it. 

Peachez: I think it’s important not too put too much pressure on joining a specific drag family. The key is to become a part of the community and you’ll find your niche and group inside of the community as long as you’re being a good person and making friends and that’s hard sometimes, but there will be people. 

You can watch the documentary about Marti’s campaign for city council, Queen of New York, on Advocate Channel until June 30.

NYC Pride

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