One of nightlife’s first contemporary personalities to really challenge the gender norms of drag, the non-binary identifying Dakota Bracciale–whose stage name was/is Azraea–contributed so much to the face of queer life. With fierce paint and an entirely unique stage presence, Azraea–along with Veruca la’Pirhana and the famous Thorgy–co-founded the now-deceased Our Lady of Saliva, a legendary monthly pageant that brought drag creativity to an all-time high, and birthed many of nightlife’s greatest artists today. Since then, for a variety of reasons which they discuss here, Azraea has scaled back a bit… but you can catch them leading several witchy workshops at the Catland bookstore in Brooklyn this month, starting tonight! Read on for more on the incredible Azraea!
Thotyssey: Hi Dakota, thanks for talking to us! How was your Pride this year?
Azraea: It was fantastic. I skipped Manhattan and the parade and all that. I walked– or was on a float–in the parade in full drag for six years running, and was absolutely not interested in either this year. Partied with friends and chosen family all weekend, and then spent all day at Riis Beach with all the other queers. It was great!
Sounds heavenly. So as Azraea, you’ve been a very prolific drag queen in NY nightlife, but it looks like you’ve taken a big step back from performing. Why?
Last fall I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, as well as a few other things.
I’ve had the symptoms since I was about 18, and they continued to escalate throughout my early twenties.
I was in drag one-three times a week for four years and change, with virtually no breaks. I was also working full time.
When Saliva ended, so did my momentum, and I just couldn’t do it anymore physically.
It’s been a long road to get to where I am today, to learn how to say no, how to ask for help, how to listen to my body and know when I’m trying to do too much. I’m still figuring it all out.
This must have been quite a journey for you. How are you feeling these days?
Well, I have an incredible doctor – Emmett at APICHA, in Chinatown. APICHA has a trans health clinic, and my doctor is non-binary, like me, which since I’ve always been freaked out by medical settings was a huge relief.
They helped me get to where I’m at now; my meds are pretty solid and I’m leading a pretty happy, well-adjusted life.
Of course, that wouldn’t be possible without all the support I get from my partner, my Brooklyn family, my cats and my community.
I’m glad you have that support. Let’s go back for a bit. When I first saw you perform years ago, you were the only drag queen I had seen who didn’t shave, who didn’t have a very glamorous costume (it was basically black rags), and who lip synced a male vocal (I wanna say it was Social Distortion). Your paint was fierce, though. Were you conscious of really standing out aesthetically at the time?
When I started, no one was doing drag in Brooklyn. I went to Amanda’s Big Top at Carnival (the legendary summer party of 2010) and met Thorgy and Veruca and everyone there. I also met bacKspace there, and Krystal Something Something invited me to perform at their contest “Gimme A Drag Bitch” at Sugarland.
I went, performed and met Lady Blue that night, and she invited me to perform at Cherry Pop! Wednesdays, the underwear party at Sugarland. I did, and I met Misty Meaner and Mocha Lite, and the next week I brought Thorgy and we became this ragtag bunch of queens performing for singles, leaving with like $6 and carpet burn, but we always loved it.
Later, I went to the Ritz to support Krystal when she was spinning at Queef, and that’s when I ran into Tommy the owner, set up a meeting and made Saliva happen with Thorgy and Veruca.
As far as my aesthetic, I’ve always worn all black, I think it’s classic and it’s comfortable. As far as the beard and the body hair, I’m trans, specifically I’m non-binary, although I wasn’t using those words at the time, but I knew I was being honest. Azraea was never a character that I put on, Azraea was me turning myself inside out.
It was pulling out all of the viscera and painting my face with it. It was never intentional since I never saw another choice to be honest. Basically, I never cared about pleasing anyone. I never cared if I got tipped. I was in a dangerous, scary part of my life and nightlife and drag were my escape. It was free therapy. I was tearing myself apart on stage so I could get through the next day in one piece.
That sounds very raw…. Being in a different headspace now, could you ever recreate that period as a performer if you wanted to?
I don’t see why I would want to. I’m an Aries, we’re so focused on changing and shaping and setting things on fire and challenging everything that I really don’t understand. Why I would want to replicate something I’ve already done?
Also, if I’m not inspired I just don’t do it. And that was the problem with me and drag: the last stretch of it for me, I wasn’t inspired and I didn’t stop. I broke my own rule. So i started to resent it.
It’s understandable that you’d need to walk away, or at least scale back. So I believe you grew up in Arizona before moving to NYC?
I was born in Arizona, and lived there for some years as a kid and as a late teen, but the in-between period was in south Jersey.
Everyone thinks of Arizona as being this really repressive, conservative wasteland. Is that unfair?
The Arizona I knew wasn’t like that. I’m from Tucson, which is in Pima county. It’s the only blue county in the whole state, so it’s worlds apart from the rest of Arizona. It’s like an overgrown hippie trailer park. But, I’m white. And my Native friends and my Mexican friends definitely had a very different, less positive experience than I did, even in Tucson.
Is that where you were exposed to your spiritual beliefs and interests?
Hmmm… that’s a very interesting question. My spirituality was always around, it just took me awhile to get there. And going to Arizona was part and parcel to my escaping from what I had known – a very strict Born Again/Evangelical upbringing. So, like, finding who I am today has been an ongoing journey for as long as I can remember.
I wanna get back to Saliva for a sec. Our Lady of Saliva is arguably your greatest contribution to nightlife. This was a monthly drag pageant at the Ritz that encouraged competitors to really stretch the boundaries of their imagination… and taste! Many careers were born and refined in Saliva. When you, Thorgy & Veruca la’Pirhana created it, did you have any idea what it was going to become?
Honestly, we just wanted to offer the new queens something different to do.
When we started Our Lady of Saliva, all there was in the city was Tranimal and Star Search and both were open mic style where you would perform, and at the end whoever got the most cheers would win. Of course this is great for the bar because whoever brings the most people wins, but it’s pretty awful for the queens.
So we came up with a monthly pageant. 3 Rounds: Q&A, Performance and Runway and we always had 4-6 Celebrity Judges. Saliva was always intended to be a show by queens, for queens, and we wanted the queens to get judged by their peers in nightlife.
As to what it turned into, I have to say it’s still one of my proudest achievements in life. It effectively changed drag in Manhattan. Saliva was already changing Hells Kitchen, which at the time was just picking up speed as the post Chelsea gayborhood, and we always had an open stage policy where any queen could come and perform any night. But Our Lady of Saliva really took everything to places none of us could have predicted. And the fact that people still talk about it makes me so happy.
Kari Kerning, who just won Ms. Barracuda, told me that she has the highest Saliva score on record.
Kari Kerning was a tour de force as far as Our Lady of Saliva goes, and that owes to how brilliant she is as a queen. She’s unbelievably talented, but her biggest strength is how much she learns and what she does with it. She watched OLOS month after month and supported other queens who competed, who in turn supported her when her turn came.
I really admire her.
Have you seen any sessions of the Ms. Barracuda pageant over the past three years? Do you think it’s the closest thing now to what Saliva used to be?
I don’t know anything about Ms. Barracuda. Has Ari Kiki won it?
She was the first winner!
Any contest that crowns Ari Kiki is golden as far as I’m concerned.
What was the craziest thing you ever saw go down at Saliva?
I don’t have one answer to be honest. Girls literally set themselves on fire and released fruit from their assholes to win.
I’m sure that was all Ari!
[Laughs] Neither were Ari.
Did you think Thorgy was edited into ridiculousness by The Powers That Be at RuPaul’s Drag Race this season?
Look, I love Bob, and I love Thorgy and I was super nervous about two of my closest sisters being on TV in general, but specifically because of how awful RPDR is in editing. I want someone to paint Thorgy as the Madonna. She is the Blessed Mother of Wayward Queens, if there ever was one. NYC drag could not be what it is today if that queen wasn’t around.
As far as how it came out, I won’t lie – I will always be Team Thorgy because that’s my sister, but I was so happy that Bob won. I actually stopped watching the show the episode before Thorgy was eliminated. I still haven’t seen that episode or the rest of the season.
I just rediscovered your epic rant against the Mc Queen drag family from 2013, after their hijinx regarding a drink ticket controversy from a drag contest they wer ein with Monet X Change. That was, like, a defining moment of social media-meets-nightlife! And you had hundreds of people jumping on board with you, it was a demolishing. Have you run into any of the McQueens since than?
Nope, haven’t heard of them since then.
For the best, maybe! By the way, you and B. Hollywood look cute together! If you don’t mind me asking, how did you two meet?
We met on Tindr. He came over for an evening of Netflix & Chill and we’ve been together ever since.
He is absolutely my other, better half.
Aw, congratulations! Now, can you talk about Strega Babe Spiritual Supply, and the Catland bookstore?
Sure! Strega Babe is my company, and I produce a limited range of ritual baths and condition oils carried exclusively at Catland in Bushwick.
Catland is a bookstore/witchshop/esoteric extravaganza. It’s a great, neighborhood-centered place where all kinds of folk can gather, not just to shop but to learn, to share and grow, to find fellowship and common ground and guidance.There’s the shop, then a large event space and a fantastic little backyard.
As far as my affiliation goes, I’m on staff as a reader and I teach classes and facilitate workshops regularly. I’m actually teaching three classes this month: Queering the Divine (July 6th), Saintcraft (July 13th) and Reconstructing the Etruscan Religion (July 20th).
Queering the Divine seems to delve into the relationship between mysticism and dual gender identity. It is interesting how often this theme presents itself in lore and history, especially within the beliefs of the Native Americans. Where do you think this connection comes from?
Well, that’s what the class goes into, there are stories, legends and lore from all over the world featuring all sorts of gods, goddesses, deities, folk heroes, spirits that act as a reflection of our identities.
These stories need to be told. I’ve been working on amassing them for the better part of two years, and I’m about 60% of the way through compiling them into my first book.
Oh, tell me about the book!
The book is called When God Was Queer and it will feature about 100 of these stories I mentioned. It’s an anthology that I believe absolutely needs to exist, and needs to be *accessible.” No one has time for academic jargon and forbidding, elitist bullshit. I barely graduated high school and never had the chance to go to college, and so it was absolutely imperative to me that this book be accessible to anyone and everyone.
You must be highly self-taught them, because you’re very articulate and well-spoken. I take it you’re an avid reader?
I’m a voracious reader; I consume information constantly. I’ve got a YouTube documentary on in the background. and I love to read Wikipedia all the time. I love learning. I love researching. And I love sharing what I’ve found.
That’s probably one pro from stepping back from nightlife, because it’s so easy to get trapped in that bubble of limited info.
I’d have to disagree to be honest. “In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.” That’s a quote I strongly believe in. I also don’t think learning is for everyone. I think we have to evaluate how and why we value some avenues of learning, and some content to be learned, over others. So much of this is rooted in white academia, and how that bolsters up many of the systems of oppression so many of us are trying to survive.
The only learning I feel is really necessary is how to get along better with those around you. How does your ignorance hurt others who are different than you? That’s what’s worth learning the most about.
Academia is definitely its own little bubble.
Right. So why not be where the freaks and the whiskey are?
Truer words have never been spoken! So, what’s the second workshop Saintcraft, about?
The Romans were pluralistic. They absorbed the ideas and the gods of those they conquered. When they Christianized, this continued in the form of saints. There was very little streamlining done in the church until the past 200 or so years in reference to the saints, and it all crystallized in the late 60’s with Vatican II, in which hundreds of saints–including almost all of the most popular saints–were struck down from the official canon. The church recognized that the popularity was drawing power, money and influence away from the Church instead of toward it, and how they could not actually justify the status, let alone the hagiographies of these Saints any longer.
Sounds like a really interesting discussion! And tell me about the third workshop on the 20th, about the Etruscans.
The Etruscans were the people who came before the Romans, the indigenous people of Italy. They invented wine, worked iron, gold, alabaster, had running water and sewage, were the first to implement the arch in their buildings and architecture, and most of all had an incredible religion, as well as one of the most complex and involved systems of ritual, divination and service to their gods – all of which the Romans got wholesale, and were able to take credit for after absorbing the Etruscans.
The Romans basically invented cultural appropriation! I look forward to learning more about them at your workshop. So, any closing words of wisdom?
Nothing is as certain as it seems.
It certainly isn’t! Thanks again, Azraea!
Dakota Bracciale/Azraea is an on-staff reader and workshop presenter at the Catland bookstore in Brooklyn. They are presenting workshops there on July 6th, 13th and 20th, all at 8pm. Dakota/Azraea can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube, and their business Strega Babe Spiritual Supplies can be followed on Facebook also.