From homelessness to pageant royalty, this Boston-based queen is a true icon of drag. Now having won the latest in a collection of coveted crowns, the ultra-classy Zola Powell reflects on her journey to get to where she is today, and what lies ahead for her. [Cover photo: Billy Hess].
Thotyssey: Miss Zola, hello and many congratulations on your Miss Fire Island win! How do you feel today?
Zola Powell: Thank you, Jim! I’m really happy! It’s been five long years: three times entering, two years off, and people who I thought would be on this journey with me are not. It was worth all of the struggle!
That was such a gorgeous gown you wore, Who provided it?
That was by Kay Rodriguez from Strugala Designs! She had a sample in the fabric store, and I fell in love with it immediately. I knew it was the one. I spent five days putting over 4,000 rhinestones on it! It was definitely a process, but it payed off.
A true labor of love! I remember way back in 2013 when I first met you, you won Ms. Fire Island, which is a companion pageant of sorts to Miss. What makes the Fire Island pageant so special, that you’ve stuck with it for so long?
It’s the community! I get to spend time with some incredibly talented people. When I first stepped foot on Fire Island, I knew it was something special… and so were the people. I feel embraced, loved, and safe on the Island. I get to be me, and I also get opportunities to elevate my drag. Miss Fire Island and the Coronation Ball (the next day) brings forth the very best in our community. And the Dolls don’t play! We come out guns-a-blazing to get that top prize. There are other prizes to win as well (Miss Cherry Grove, Miss Ice Palace, Ms. Fire Island, Performer of the Year, and Most Popular), so there is more than one winner for the day. Each year it gets better and better!
I stuck with it because I knew I had what it takes to win, but figuring out how to transform that into a win is the tricky part. Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don’t. The great thing is next year, you get another chance if it doesn’t work out!
You’re no stranger to the pageant scene by any means. Have you accumulated a mountain of crowns and sashes at this point?
I haven’t done a lot of pageants here in New York. In Boston I was Miss Gay Boston, Miss Gay Massachusetts, Miss Gay North Shore, Miss Gay New England, Miss Gay Dirocco’s and Miss Gay Jacque’s (my home bar). I was thrilled when I won Ms Fire Island! It had been many years since I entered a pageant, and I love doing them. It’s stressful, but a lot of fun!
Is Boston where you’re originally from?
Yes! But I’ve lived in Brooklyn, NY for nineteen years.
How did you first become a queen?
I was homeless and sleeping on the street on several occasions. I would go to Jacque’s Cabaret most evenings, and they were kind and excepting. I worked my way up from being a cast member to show director, and worked seven nights a week–way before social media! It was a lot of work, but a great training ground to create a better entertainer.
You must’ve seen so many different types of drag, and you probably met several legendary queens in that capacity.
Yes, I did! The scene in Boston and in Provincetown was quite different than it is now. A lot of us were female impersonators, meaning we looked like famous stars. I impersonated Whitney, Grace Jones, and Angela Basset as Tina Turner! I even did Janet Jackson in a short lived Vegas style review called “Boyrageous.”
Is it hard to transition from being a celebrity impersonator to performing as a completely original queen?
It wasn’t for me. After I finished my performance and in between the show, I’m my original drag self… so I don’t find it so.
There are lots of Powells out there… are you the original?
Yes, I am the first! There are [also my daughters] Dominique St James Powell, Zarria Powell, and Darkana Lovely Powell, who is retired. I have another daughter who I really want to come on the scene, so we’ll see how it goes!
You’ve always been very regal and poised. I remember one time you gently chastised another pageant queen for making a poop joke online! Do you think a true pageant queen has a responsibility to present herself in a certain way?
It’s easy to be crass, especially in these days and times. It takes work to take on the responsibility of representing this art of being a queen. It’s a blessing that has been given to us, and I feel it every time I put my makeup on. Being your best self pays honor to the blessing God gave me of being born, and the privilege the community bestows upon me! I try to encourage queens to keep the drama off social media, and to constantly push themselves to always be better.
The last time I saw you, you were performing at a wonderful immigration benefit at The Deep End in Ridgewood. We can all agree that everyone in nightlife should take whatever opportunity they can to raise money and awareness for the disenfranchised… especially in these times.
Most definitely! I think it’s our responsibility as humans to look out for one another and support them. None of us do this alone!
Marti Gould Cummings is running for a local office here in NYC. Meanwhile. Maebe A. Girl was voted into public office in California, and Salem’s Gigi Gill is seeking a City Council seat in your home state. Isn’t it about time Zola Powell ran for President?
Ummmm…..with my homosexual past, that won’t be happening!
Ha! But it’s fascinating to see that drag queens have come so far… not just as popular entertainers, but as activists.
With the amount of talent and passion we have, it was really bound to happen! The act of getting into Drag is activism. We do a glamorous and campy fuck you to who people say we should be–what it means to be male and female! Every day and in every way, we will always be activists.
What’s next for you?
I’m looking to do a few things! I’d like to do a Leather and Lace party with the leather community. My ultimate goal is a drag museum, so our rich history isn’t lost forever! There are some amazing queens who people don’t know about that should have their stories told.
For now, my immediate priority is to convince the Leslie Lohman Museum to make a permanent drag exhibit… and I have some historical costumes from my deceased sister and friend, Karlotta Houston. She meant the world to me. I want her story told as well!
That would be so wonderful! Okay, last question: what is your best single piece of advice for a new queen starting out today?
Get a therapist to talk to on a weekly basis! Drag creates a whole different set of problems that you are adding to an already complicated life. Learning who you are and why you do what you do is the single biggest gift you can give yourself.
The next bit of advice is do some research on the greats of the Arts–comedians, singers, painters, fashion designers–and gay history. Always be a student of the World!
Thank you Zola, and once again congrats!