Equal parts Good Christian Girl & Freaknasty Queen, this Long Island native actually got her drag start in the bars and on the pageant stages of Iowa–where she took a leadership role in a megachurch. With her weekly show “Worship” here at the West End, she gives us the best of both worlds–Church and drag–and we are singing her praises. Now with a huge new pageant she’ll be co-hosting next month, and the hint of other big stuff in the works, it might not be long before the entire world is worshiping Miss Nedra Belle!
Nedra Belle: It was really great! There were a lot of new faces, which is great because I love calling people out who have no idea what to expect. Stella was awesome, and it was a pleasure to finally have her guest the show.
The West End is such an interesting place to see a drag show, because it’s way out of the gayborhoods and the shows there attract a pretty mixed crowd. Were you able to find your groove there right away, or did it take a little time?
At first it was easy, because it was mostly friends (who sometimes are my harshest critics) who come to support. Then after awhile, when friends can’t make it every week, you have these faces in front of you that you’ve never seen before. And especially at the West End, you have a mix of gay and straight people who will stumble upon the show. At first it was always a thought of “Will this translate well to a mixed audience?” Then you realize it’s your show, and if the straight people don’t get it they will laugh out of common courtesy.
Okay, we’ll get back to the show in a bit, but let’s get to know you first! Are you a native Iowan? Also, I’ve actually interviewed someone from Iowa– Ian-Michael Bergeron of Get Out Magazine–and he says that he runs into Iowa natives in NYC all the time. Do you find that also?
Oh, Ian! We used to party together at Le Boi Bar (may she rest in pieces) in Des Moines… aka, I use to try to have him [laughs]. While most people think I am from Iowa, I am actually from Long Island, born and raised. I moved to Iowa in 2006 for college, and ended up living in Iowa for eight years. But back to your question: you do run into a lot of Iowans here, and it’s never a FB message or text. You can just randomly be at a club or outside smoking a cig, and BOOM someone from Iowa.
You’re a native Long Islander? We’re learning things today! What neighborhood in LI are you from, and on a scale of 1 to 10 how terrible was it? (Sorry, I have a grudge with pretty much the entire Island).
I am from Freeport. It actually wasn’t terrible, but when I moved back I vowed to never move back to Long Island. I can tell you though, there is nothing like an Italian man from Long Island! That is the only reason I’d move back.
So, what made you want to stay in Iowa after you graduated?
Well, I knew I didn’t want to move back to New York, and I had spent four years building lifelong relationships, so I didn’t want to leave right away. I ended up taking a very prestigious position at Subway for a year while I worked out some degree issues. Then I took a job at a megachurch of approx 13,000 members in West Des Moines as a worship leader, and ended up staying there for three years.
That must’ve been an interesting experience. I know you are very closely associated with ministry and spirituality, but did you have to repress your orientation when you were at the church?
I tried to, but it was hard because I was just getting in the gay scene and really getting to know myself while working at the church. So it became this conflict of “I’m gonna be who I am” versus “Bitch, you wanna keep this nice apartment and pay your bills?!”
I mean honestly, even when I tried to repress, I wasn’t fooling anybody. I used to always say “I’m sure if I came out to the whole church one Sunday, no one would clutch their pearls in disbelief.”
Was it basically, like, an open secret then? I understand that a lot of these megachurches have situations like that: Don’t ask don’t tell.
I mean, I guess. The people I worked with at the church never would approach me about it–except that one time! But I’m sure they had their questions.
And would you say you felt a sense of community and peace there, despite having to hide that part of yourself?
A sense of community, yes; peace, meh. Do you know how hard it is being a drag queen doing 2-3 shows a week and being a worship leader at a church that doesn’t condone it? It’s no easy task, I will tell you. But the more I went out to the gay bars and built relationships with confident gay men, I in turn became more confident.
Did you ever run into anyone from your church while you were in the gay bars?
Numerous times! I went to a church with 13,000 members, it was bound to happen at some point. This is what lead to my decision to leave.
What did you mean by “except that one time” earlier? Did somebody ultimately confront you?
I’ll never forget the night my supervisor gave me a ride home (which I thought was odd) and told me “I’ve been getting a lot of calls from people saying that saw you drunk at the gay bars…”
Yikes. So, how was Nedra created exactly? And how did you drag name yourself? PS, I always mispronounced your name Neh-dra, but it’s NEE-dra, I just found out!
Bahahaha, happens all the time! Well, I just thought maybe I might wanna do this someday, and I was hanging out with my straight friend Matt who suggested that we look up names. That way, if I ever do drag I have a name already. So we pretty much looked through old 70’s girl groups, and he listed off names and he came to Nedra, and I was kind of feeling it.
Nedra started at a result of a Halloween contest where I came in second place as Medea. Then one day, the show director approached me and told me I should do the benefit show for Toys for Tots. Of course I was like, “Hell no!” But they talked me into it, and the first time I got on stage I had a green wig and some lips on, and they introduced me as Christmas Medea.
After that first performance, the show director complimented my lip syncing abilities and painted me for my first actual show on a Sunday night, back when I was still Nedra Cox! And the rest is history from there; that was 2011.
You were a pretty big deal in Iowa! Where were you gigging while you were living there, and what’s the drag/gay scene like in Des Moines?
I was blessed to find more than friends, but family, in the gay/drag scene. The drag scene is pretty diverse: you have pageant queens, comedy queens, bearded queens, and Chloe Belle…BEAST [laughs]! There is never a dull moment, because new queens are popping up every minute!
How would you describe Nedra Belle as a queen?
I think Nedra is just an even more confident extension of boy me [laughs]. She’s sweet, sassy, loves a good read, and petty AF!
So, when did you decide to come back to New York?
In 2014, I was living in Iowa City. My lease was getting ready to end, and I wanted something more! So I jokingly talked about moving back to NYC (after I had vowed I would never move back) and next thing I knew, everything just started falling into place.
And how did Nedra come to the West End?
Last year I did [the West End singing competition] “So You Think You Can Belt?” and made top four. For our last number, it needed to be a production number. That was the first time I came to the West End [as Nedra]. Although I didn’t win that season, the next season of the show I was asked to host the finale, and we just kind of got into talks for a show and BOOM! Here we are! Shout-out to John Forslund and Peter Dunn!
How would you describe your Wednesday night show “Worship” to the uninitiated?
Worship is a very inviting show. Every Wednesday, I open up the show with a prayer that really sets the tone for the evening. Then I talk and talk and talk, and do a number, and talk and talk [laughs]. The misadventures of Nedra Belle really has become great material–and sharing points for people–which makes us an interactive show well. So no one is off limits.
Nice that you start with a prayer. Is it surreal to finally be combining and living the two worlds of drag and church?
No not at all, because I always have. I have become known for my gospel numbers and singing live. I have never felt a need to hide my faith in the gay community or the drag scene. It’s been a journey, and not always easy, but the thing that keeps me going is when I have someone come up to me in the club and say “thank you for not hiding your faith.”
I love that! We may need you now more than ever in the coming four years. Do you think your community role might change as a leader of faith in the LGBT community?
You know, it has crossed my mind, but I haven’t really thought about it in depth. I mean, I guess I wouldn’t mind it. Just because I think that people have been taught to see God in a certain light, and it doesn’t have to be that way. I often say when you really get to the core of that gay man or woman’s heart, you find it’s not God they are mad at. A lot of people have experienced church hurt, which is often why a lot of LGBTQ People leave the church and/or turn atheist. I’m not saying it’s everyone’s story, but I have encountered a few.
[Laughs] Yes! Not singing with her, but I was singing background for Alex Newell and was able to watch Bette from on stage. It was amazing! Bette, Nile Rodgers, Earth, Wind and Fire, Village People, etc.
Alex Newell… Unique from Glee! Did you know him before?
Well, I can’t give away too much, but we are in the final stages of reviewing videos and picking contestants.
Do we have a name for it, a start date a prize package, or all TBA?
It’s called The Ultimate Drag Pageant, and everything else is TBA! But we launch in December. It’s going to be eight weeks of pageantry! Being that I have an extensive background in pageants. I am sooooo freakin’ excited, and I am thrilled to be working with Marty!
What’s your pageant history?
I’ve run for three state pageants: Miss Gay Iowa USofA, Miss Gay Iowa at Large USofA, and Iowa All American Goddess. And one national title: All American Goddess. Never won any of them, but I got my name out there.
And what makes a good pageant queen?
Well, you have to be likable! There are various categories in a pageant, and they vary depending on the system. But it is great training and experience for any queen, weather you consider yourself a pageant queen or not.
I did my first pageant two months into doing drag, and out of 21 girls I went into finale night in fourth place. I beat the odds! Even if I didn’t win, I left my mark and made a name for myself.
Anything else coming up for you?
I do have a big show coming soon, details are too come! I just received confirmation!
And I am single, with no gag reflex. I think that’s about it.
Hear that, world? Okay, lastly: What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a drag queen?
The best thing is entertaining and seeing the reaction and response to your work. The worst thing for me in particular is: I MISS MY BEARD! [laughs]!
We appreciate all you’ve sacrificed for us, Nedra! Thanks again!
Nedra Belle’s show “Worship” is Wednesday Nights at the West End (11pm). Also at the West End, she will be co-hosting The Ultimate Drag Pageant with Marti Gould Cummings starting sometime in December. Nedra can be followed on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter.