Nights in Wonderland
She’s a registered nurse by day, but after the sun goes down
Cynthia Lau blossoms into a 1990s boy-band hunk
By Sarah Spisak
THE AUDIENCE goes quiet as the ’90s-themed drag show begins. A drag performer walks onstage and the lights go up. The Backstreet Boys blast through the speakers, and cheers erupt.
“You’re the one for me/ You’re my ecstasy/ You’re the one I need,” the performer lip-syncs.
His style is straight off a 1990s boy-band poster: oversized denim vest, black skinnies and a big smile surrounded by a drawn-on moustache and soul patch.
This is Cynthia Lau’s first time performing in her drag king persona, Alex in Wonderland.
“I got into drag because I was doing this fundraiser called the Ride to Conquer Cancer and was thinking, ‘How can I fundraise? I should do a drag show,'” Lau says.
“It was a competition at (Evolution Wonderlounge) and if I won, I was going to donate the money.”
Lau works at the Cross Cancer Institute and has been a registered nurse for the last eight years. She has been performing as Alex in Wonderland since last April.
“I didn’t win,” Lau laughs. “But Evo gave me $50 just to sponsor me for the ride, and that’s kind of how I got into drag.”
Thanks to such TV series as RuPaul’s Drag Race and its spin-offs, over the past few years, drag-queen culture has seen an increase in popularity in the mainstream media.
But the world of drag kings remains an uncharted territory –as other types of drag performers continue to be underrepresented in mainstream media. And that leads to many misconceptions about the art.
“When I tell people I do drag, they are like, ‘What!? Do you want to be a man?'” Lau says with a chuckle.
“My friends would ask me that. ‘So, you’re trans now?’ I’m like – ‘No, I don’t want to be a man. I just like dressing up as one and just playing with your mind.’
“It’s interesting, because it feels natural to me. So I can see why some people, when they’re doing drag, they might eventually end up transitioning.”
Lau says she was inspired to do drag after frequently being misgendered.
“Someone thought I was my sister’s boyfriend once. So, I just wanted to do drag to explore the idea of playing with gender.
“My friends joke that I’m a nurse by day and a drag king by night just for some extra coffee money.”
Lauren Barnhard, has known Lau for the past six years, from working with her at the Cross Cancer Institute.
“I remember my first reaction was being so excited when I heard Cynthia was starting to perform as a drag king,” she says. “It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there and perform in front of a crowd like that, and I definitely admire her for that.”
Like many people looking to start something new, Lau turned to YouTube for help with learning how to do her makeup and building her drag persona.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “I just learned on YouTube. Lots of makeup tutorials. For clothing, I already wore a lot of men’s clothing anyways, so I had stuff all ready to wear on stage. I didn’t have to go out and buy a bunch of stuff, like drag queens do.
“It’s not like it’s easier, but you’re portraying masculinity. You can play on the toxic of it. In drag, I’m mostly like a boy-band kind of feel.
“But I’m still trying to kind of figure out my persona.”
It was a drag queen named Teen Jesus Barbie who gave Lau the name Alex in Wonderland.
“I always liked the name Alex,” Lau says. “I was at a drag show once just helping out some guys and I said, ‘I’m doing my first drag show and I don’t have a name yet, but I want something with Alex.’
“They said, ‘How about Alex in Wonderland?’”
Although Alex in Wonderland is known in the Edmonton drag community, Lau says her mother is unaware of his existence.
“I live with my mom. My mom doesn’t know I do drag. It’s kind of hard because then I have to do it mostly at night – like late into the night, in my bedroom.
“She’s quite traditional. So, like coming out in the first place was hard enough. That took her a while to accept it. She’s fine now, but I don’t know if I told her I do drag, she’d be like, ‘What!?’”
Lau had just broken up with her girlfriend when she started doing drag.
“I invited my ex-girlfriend to my show,” she recalls. “We were still talking and still friends. One of the reasons we broke up is that she decided she wasn’t bi any more, and I was like, ‘Oh, come to my show.’
“I saw her after and she said, ‘I’m not impressed.’ So, yeah, anyways, I’m not going to invite her to another show. She thought it was really weird. It was really weird for her to see me as a different person.”
While Lau’s ex-girlfriend wasn’t a fan, Lau’s friends have nothing but love for her drag king persona.
“I loved when Alex in Wonderland was performing to ‘Whatever It Takes’ by Imagine Dragons,” Barnhard says. “He was riding one of those fake ponies on a broomstick on stage and also using it as an air guitar.”
Barnhard says one of her favourite moments was during Alex’s second drag show at the Yellowhead Brewery.
“He was performing a song and feeding everyone Twinkies in the audience. I was lucky enough to get one.”
Though Barnhard may have thoroughly enjoyed the Twinkie routine, Lau recalls it as one of her most embarrassing moments.
“I was supposed to open a Twinkie on stage, but then the package wouldn’t open, and I was just standing there struggling. That was quite embarrassing, but at least it made it funny. So that was good.”
Lau is at the beginning of her drag king journey, navigating the trials of dating and living her life as Cynthia and as Alex in Wonderland. But she says she has the support not only of her friends, but of the other performers in Edmonton’s drag community.
“I feel really comfortable,” she says. “They’re all really nice and supportive.
“There’s so many drag personas you can take on and I’m still trying to discover it. What you can’t be in real life, you can do in drag.”