—by Josh Steichmann for The Picture Professional, Issue 3, 2015.
“The whole thing started as a joke: ‘I’ve discovered the culture of New Hampshire. It’s covered bridges and drag queens,’” photographer Andre Rosa explains.
Rosa had just moved to New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project, an effort to bring 20,000 libertarians to the state, hoping to influence local politics. A gay man from California, one of his first stops was The Breezeway, a hole-in-the-wall gay bar in Manchester. He was looking for community but didn’t expect much. What he saw blew him away.
“It’s THE form of entertainment and performance for the gay community in New Hampshire,” says Rosa. “There’s a lot of pride in it. There are drag shows almost every night of the week.”
Backed by a Kickstarter campaign, Rosa grabbed his D5100 and a couple of lightboxes and set out across the state. “New Hampshire has a lot of history, and I love so much small-town history juxtaposed with glam.” And so The Drag Queens & Covered Bridges of New Hampshire project was born.
Not everyone was welcoming. Clark’s Trading Post in Lincoln yanked approval after finding out Rosa was going to shoot a drag queen on its bridge, the only railroad bridge in New Hampshire. Rosa scrambled to find a replacement, ending up with the cover image of Amber Alyrt in front of Fisher Bridge in Wolcott, VT.
“There’s not many covered bridges with railroad tracks, and I knew I wanted to have the damsel in distress,” says Rosa.
“The worst one—I literally cried all the way home,” says Rosa, about the Bartlett, NH’s Bartlett Inn. “They said they were uncomfortable with the photo shoot happening on the bridge. [They] denied me permission because his bridge was a ‘wholesome place.’ I drove away weeping; I didn’t know those two words could strike so hard.” The next day, Rosa moved the shoot with Laila McQueen to the nearby Swift River Bridge in Conway, NH, and got a much warmer reception.
“We got to this bridge right after a couple finished shooting their wedding pictures. We were shooting and this guy and his daughter came up. His daughter thought Laila was Lady Gaga,” says Rosa. “[The father] said ‘Well, this is wonderful. You don’t see this sort of thing up in Conway!’”
Part of what makes the calendar work is its vibrant range of performed femininity—in front of the traditional, romantic set piece of a covered bridge, Miss Toni sits in genteel pause from an imagined cotillion; Cherry Lyquor pops as an iridescent green diva. The breadth of the New Hampshire drag community gave Rosa the ability to showcase a wide variety of gender play, from the damsel trope to the sexy models to the forlorn heroine in quiet thought.
“There’s this group, the Plastics—Britney Lynn, Nicohl D Lafontaine—very ‘fishy,’ very glam. And the other faction is girls like Violencia Exclamation Point. Her friends use drag to say, ‘How do I push the limits with makeup? How do I push the limits with fashion?’” The latter are clearly influenced by John Waters and Divine, with a kind of audacious nastiness that holds power in well-defined brows. The makeup and costuming are no joke.
Rosa himself performed once as David Boobie, a Diamond Dogs vamp. “Getting into makeup took two hours, getting into costume took another hour. I Naired my hair—everything.” It’s a testament to the grueling beauty regimes to which some women have resigned themselves, and by performing that part of femininity, the queens get little tastes of the daily pains of being a woman within traditional gender confines.
The calendar was successful, but Rosa sees it as a one-off, not wanting to be just known as that “queens and bridges photographer.” He’s running for alderman in Manchester, and is working on The Travel Car, a mobile, modular art gallery that can bring art to people throughout the state. With Rosa in town, New Hampshire is about to loosen up its collar and let down some big, fake hair.