Anywhere But Here
Down the runway with Paloma LaMona.
By Hart Hallos
Are you pro or anti gender norms? If yes, you might have heard of a little something called drag, which has been sweeping New York City ever since Season 10 of Rupaul’s Drag Race aired in 2018. Kidding! The drag scene’s recent influx of performers is no joking matter. Local competitions offer students, artists, and twinks vital exposure and connections in an industry where Exxposure and Connie Xtions might be the names you need to know to get booked.
Enter Paloma LaMona, CC ’23, who started performing in drag in June of 2021. In her first competition that September, she placed fourth and earned the judge’s gushing praise. But Paloma doesn’t just perform—she designs and makes her own costumes, does her own hair, and mixes her own performance audio. To walk into Paloma’s room is to walk into a veritable drag atelier: Wig heads gaze proudly over a floor dotted with pins and sewing patterns, and the entire back wall disappears behind a packed clothing rack.
It’s a slight change from two years ago, when Paloma and I (famously) lived on the same John Jay floor. But there might have been signs: Juliàn, Paloma’s out-of-drag identity, didn’t not wear heels to our 8:40. Since Paloma’s birth, I’ve followed her to gigs and competitions around the city—including last month, for a preliminary round of Lady Liberty on the third floor of the Q. Maybe it was food poisoning from the night before, or maybe it’s because I’m an empath, but something about the night felt special. You want to find out why? Okay, but you’ve got to control your erection.
5:39 p.m.: Paloma and I decide to meet at an up-and-coming psychedelic brunch palace that plays God to day-in-my-life-NYC TikTok: Carlton Arms Suite 8A. It’s also where we both live, and where I often run into Paloma and their whirring sewing machine on late-night trips to the bathroom.
6:52 p.m.: A knock on the door reveals itself as Dominique: Paloma’s roommate, a makeup artist, and SEAS student. She’s shimmering in a mint-green slip and matching sparkly eyeshadow, sipping Fireball from a Dixie cup. I opt for blue Gatorade, memories of vomiting in the communal bathroom still fresh.
7:10 p.m.: The next knock is Paloma and her boyfriend/dutiful drag helper, Julian. Both carry a huge bag stuffed with supplies; I spy an entire roll of paper towels, some boating tape, and a lavender Telfar mini. My eyes refocus on the huge pink poinsettia in Paloma’s hair—somehow chic when paired with a black knee-length down jacket and hot pink Crocs. We walk briskly to the subway, Paloma nervous about missing the 7:30 call time.
7:25 p.m.: We discover that we’re missing black eyeliner, which Paloma had planned on using to add a beauty mark. Possible solutions include a packed eyebrow pencil or Dominique and I doing a mad CVS dash, but the pencil is too light, and Paloma wants us to be able to enter together. The beauty mark is abandoned.
7:39 p.m.: Paloma goes straight to the dressing room upon arrival. Dominique, Julian, and I check out the empty second floor, which will host the sex party Qruisers later tonight. The floors and walls are Despicable Me black, decorated with graffiti and papered with posters of Elvira and hunkily-rendered cartoon characters. Passing by a Ned Flanders with particularly bulging pecs, I realize it’s okay to be gay.
8:06 p.m.: The third floor is also classic Gru-core (Grore?): cold black walls, vaguely industrial fixtures, and a high ceiling where iridescent plastic snowflakes dangle loosely. The pre-show crowd is us and the DJ, who sways somberly while puffing on a Juul. He’s wearing a cropped gray hoodie and black mesh boxer briefs layered over white cotton briefs, so the pre-show music is incredible. A club mashup of “good 4 u” and “Watermelon Sugar” plays, and everyone in the room simultaneously cums. Shaken from the collective orgasm, I stagger down blue-lit stairs to the first floor—a jazzier vibe, think big velvet curtain—to get cash. A possibly-bearded man (though I could be projecting) performs intensely on the piano, but no one is paying attention. Above the bar, stock footage of Earth as seen from outer space plays.
8:15 p.m.: Dominique and I decide it’s time for a drinkey-poo (industry term!) at the third floor bar. I ask someone whose porn I’ve watched on Twitter if he is in line, and he replies, “Yes,” in a way that makes it clear he is extremely attracted to me. In a pleasant and possibly sex-party–related surprise, I spot blue Gatorade behind the bar and get one, receiving with it a small gray puzzle piece. The mural across from the bar features two boys in medieval-esque attire (neck ruffles and jockstraps).
8:25 p.m.: I ask Julian how he thinks Paloma is feeling. “Nervous,” he replies. Tonight’s prelim consists of a runway, a performance, and a lip sync between the two top-ranking contestants. Lady Liberty is a staple competition in the NYC drag community: Winners earn scene recognition and have been known to appear on a certain RuPaul drag show. Tonight’s hosts, Brita Filter and Nicky Doll, introduce the judges, seated with a bird’s-eye view above the stage.
8:34 p.m.: The first contestant walks the runway in a satiny, pastel bodysuit embroidered with rhinestone avocados. Midway through, she pulls an actual avocado out of her bra and hands it to someone else in the front row. Obviously, I am crushed. I realize the “runway” of Lady Liberty is a small stage three feet above the ground, which contestants ascend via apple box and descend via shaky staircase. Brita offers an arm to contestants who seem like they might snap an ankle.
8:42 p.m.: Paloma is the eighth and final contestant to walk the runway. She’s adorned in cascading tiers of ruffled bandana fabric: blue, pink, white, pink, and blue again. Brita clocks the trans flag reference immediately. What Brita doesn’t know is the painstaking process and repeated dorm floor consultations that went into choosing each specific shade. The judges don’t know that each tier was hand-ruffled by Paloma over weeks of late-night lounge sewing sessions, or that the entire outfit, including matching headband and shoes, was rhinestoned by Paloma and Julian during finals season. Still, I watch the crowd nod approvingly as phones are rushed out of pockets to record the moment. As Paloma exits the stage, Nicky Doll reads the description she wrote for herself: “A little hood, a little classy, and proud of it.”
9:10 p.m.: Performances begin with live singing that leaves the audience unstirred. After each number, contestants walk around collecting tips in a plastic fish bowl. Audience favorites include the highest jump split I’ve ever seen and a TikTok-themed performance.
9:39 p.m.: Paloma is the final performer of the night. When she walks out in full Dora costume to the Dora theme song, a judge rushes down from their seat to tip her before she has even started lip syncing. The performance follows Paloma as a grown-up Dora: working at a job she hates, getting fired from said job, disappointing her parents, and drinking tequila. One of Paloma’s earrings—a gold bamboo hoop, worn for both the runway and performance—falls off midway and clatters to the ground. But when she kicks it determinedly offstage, sending it flying into Julian’s lap, the audience cheers. I glance at Brita, whose beam is unmistakable.
9:47 p.m.: Dominique and I nab another round of drinkey-poos during votey-poo time. Every puzzle piece cast into Paloma’s fishbowl fills me with a little bit of hope—until I notice one contestant’s bowl is conspicuously empty. It’s almost as chilling as the half-shaved head I just spotted in the crowd. Dominique and I savor the final minutes of votey-poo time by dancing alone near the bar (in a cool way), and I spot a Grindr match but don’t approach after convincing myself he was catfishing me. Cue the And Just Like That … theme song, hun!
10:02 p.m.: Brita and Nicky call the contestants up on stage, where Paloma, who drunkenly “fell” at the end of her performance, has a spot of blood forming through the knee of her tights. After a lot of gay drumrolling (in which gay people do a drumroll), the top four are announced: the second contestant, the fourth, the one who performed the TikTok number, and … Paloma! We absolutely lose our shit. Another round of drum rolls (less gay but more vers), and the fourth- and third-placing contestants are eliminated—leaving Paloma, holding hands with the other TikToking member of the top two. Later, Paloma will tell me that “people in the scene” told her to prepare for the top two lip sync after her Dora performance, but onstage, her surprise seems genuine.
10:13 p.m.: The top two lip sync is a classic drag anthem—“Levitating” by Dua Lipa—that even Brita admits has too many words. Both of Paloma’s knees are bleeding through her tights now. Still dressed as Dora, she claps to the beat, mashes my face with her hand, and steps over her opponent’s onstage barrel roll. Before I can process what’s happening, the song is over and Nicky and Brita are announcing the winner of Lady Liberty: PALOMA LAMONA! I watch Paloma’s face crumple as the space around me dissolves into cheers. Dominique and I jump up and down together; I get squashed amidst a crowd of people trying to get pictures; DJ Double Briefed-Up whispers (shouts) into my ear: “Your friend is such a fucking star.”
10:30 p.m.: My proposal of c’mon guys let’s just check out Qruisers for a little bit is roundly rejected (virgins!), so Dominique and I chat with contestant Lori Lu as we wait for Paloma. She teaches music to children, and says that they love her drag—“they want to touch everything.” As we leave the bar, someone hands us t-shirts wrapped in plastic. I ask what they’re for, and he mentions something about it being our lucky day. When I see what’s on them—No SHIRT, No SHOES, No GENDER, with a small Corona Beer logo underneath—I can’t help but agree.
10:52 p.m.: Paloma’s blood spots are growing slowly, but she’s more focused on recounting the night—were people living, can you believe that judge tipped her, why would someone barrel roll? Most importantly, she is already starting to plan what to wear for the semifinals. There’s a future here that is impossible not to feel excited about. A name—Rupaul—flickers excitedly and nervously on our tongues as we fantasize on the subway ride home.
11:34 p.m.: Paloma gets her first taste of the glamorous life of a Lady Liberty winner—a wig cap duct-taped to her hair. Quora offers no help, so Julian takes matters into his own hands, cutting Paloma’s hair in the dorm bathroom. Paloma winces as she cleans her knee scrapes. She will later reflect on the evening as “pain. But also good things happened.”
1:07 a.m.: We end the night in the lounge of Carlton Arms 8A, eating Koronet Pizza and watching Too Hot To Handle. If I were more poetically inclined (sorry: lame), I’d highlight the circularity of the moment: The very space where Paloma made her runway outfit from scratch, mixed the audio for her performance, and so often works on her craft is, for tonight, the space where she can just enjoy the win. But all I can think about is the delicious taste and widespread variety of Corona©’s new line of 2022 Pride Products! With new Hard Seltzers That Use They/Them Pronouns, everybody can join in on the fun—because life is a cele-GAY-tion! #Ad.