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One of the newest faces of Colorado’s Drag scene is not simply one of beauty and elegance; it is one belonging to a provocateur, an elegant disruptor, and a gracious entrepreneur. Jeremy Haig, perhaps better known as Betty Swallows, has only resided in Denver a mere 12 months, but he has embarked on a journey that will undoubtedly leave a long-lasting impression on the city’s drag scene for years to come.

Haig swooped onto the scene, from what appeared to be out of nowhere, and made a splash that rippled over 17th Avenue and far beyond. Originally from Boston, he worked his way through the local scene and found a home within the Pride & Swagger family. Although he just launched the weekly competition series So You Think You Can Drag, life for this power-ballad queen was not always smooth sailing.

“I’ve experienced first-hand what it feels like to not be supported, to feel like there is no chance for growth; I know what that feels like,” Haig said. Draped in a January-appropriate knit sweater and finely pressed slacks, he sat upright and eager at the mahogany conference room table of OUT FRONT. Polite and reserved, he appeared contemplative and introspective; an intriguing contrast to the persona of the stereotypical drag queen.

 

Raised in a strict, religious household, Haig has seen the worst of the worst when it comes to oppression and suppression of personhood. He was subjected to various forms of conversion therapy as a youth over the span of several years, equally damaging and detrimental, which led him down a path of ex-communication and isolation.

“My parents and I parted ways not-so-amicably when I was 18 years old,” he said. “I have no hard feelings or bitterness, because they thought what they were doing was the best and most loving option, but I have hurt feelings.”

After having to drop out of the musical theatre program at Temple University due to financial strain, Haig found himself at his lowest of lows. Without theatre and performance, he was lost and longing for a community and any semblance of a creative outlet. Beaten down and discouraged, he felt like he didn’t have much to get up for in the morning anymore.

“I was working a serving job with a homophobic boss who was verbally abusing me on the daily and ended up firing me because I was gay,” he said.

“It was a very dark time in my life; I didn’t feel like I was good at anything.”

In order to make ends meet, Haig picked up a job as a go-go dancer at iCandy, a popular gay club in Philadelphia. It was there that Haig befriended Philly drag queen royalty Aloe Vera-Stratton, who agreed to take him under her wing and show him the tricks of the trade.

“I would go over to her apartment and sit on the floor; she would paint one half of my face, and I would paint the other half,” Haig said. “If it wasn’t good enough to represent her as her daughter, she would have me wipe it off and start again, over, and over, and over again, until I had mastered her face.”

Haig found a look and character befit to carry the Stratton name and began performing under the monaker Betty Swallows. He found comfort in transforming into this new person, someone who carried the confidence that he wished he could find in himself. When he created her, at last he could see something beautiful.

“I would look in the mirror, and I didn’t see myself looking back; it was one of my favorite moments when I first started doing drag,” he said. “It’s a weird feeling, looking in the mirror and not knowing who is looking back at you, but who I saw was gorgeous and fierce. I saw someone who was so strong and self-assured, so confident and sexy, everything that I wanted to be in myself.”

Often, people utilize the art of drag as a way to access a bigger, brighter, and authentically uncensored version of themselves. Haig, however, found solace in escaping into a character and an unbridled courage when Betty came to life. He found confidence in his voice and opinions, a start at repairing the damage from his tumultuous upbringing.

“Emotion is something that, as an actor, I can use in drag,” Haig said. “I put myself in an extremely vulnerable place on purpose. Generally, that keeps me safe, ironically. I dive down into myself; fear goes away once I’m on stage. I have a couple conversion therapy numbers that I do, and sometimes I don’t feel like they go over very well, especially for people who haven’t experienced that; it’s hard for people to fully appreciate that.”

“I dive down into myself; fear goes away once I’m on stage.”

Due to the lack of venues that appreciated anything other than Top 40 drag numbers in Philadelphia, the attitude, grind, and hustle of the East Coast eventually became too much for Haig. He grew weary and discouraged, thus beginning a hunt for a place where he could foster a fresh start. He arrived in Denver at the end of 2017 and happened to land in the thriving, alt drag scene at Gladys’ Weirdo. This was exactly the kind of art and community that he had been looking for; he was in the right place at the right time.

“I do think that is one of Denver’s strengths as a drag community,” he said. “The fiercely gender-nonconforming, fiercely trans, fiercely nonbinary individuals who perform. I also think that Denver is unique in the sheer number of performance venues that are available that allow performers to find the venues and producers that best work for them.”

After performing in several editions of Weirdo, Haig rediscovered his love for the art of drag and found a power within himself; a thirst to fully explore Betty once again. He began as a barback at Pride & Swagger, nestled into his new home city and a new home bar, and made invaluable connections that allowed him to work his craft on stages all over town. In January of this year, Haig was granted the hosting position of his very own show, So You Think You Can Drag (SYTYCD), a venture born from his vision of a flourishing and thriving collaborative, queer mecca.

“The most success that I’ve had here are things that I’ve made for myself,” he said.

Haig took on the task of inventing a competition show unlike any other in town, a task that he felt he was not only born for, but obligated to make.

SYTYCD is a weekly competition which runs on a four-week cycle, providing a blend of experts, booking agents, and promoters, as well as Denver’s finest queens, who mentor new as well as up-and-coming queens and kings of the city. The show provides a space for exposure, critique, and performance growth for each of the four contestants.

“I really enjoyed that no one was sent home or eliminated,” said Shannelle Kartrashian, winner of the first cycle. “I really liked that it was smaller, and that we got to be critiqued individually, week-by-week on things that we could improve on. We were able to put our abilities forth all month, to be helped and guided along the way.”

While Shannelle performed in drag throughout Pueblo and southern Colorado for the better part of five years, she came to Denver last year to pursue her career and take it to the next level. Like many new Denver queens, however, she discovered that the scene was an initial challenge to break into. The bigger stages were reserved for the city’s well-known, working queens with a following.

Yet, after claiming the title of the first-ever SYTYCD champion, Shannelle can’t impress enough how much the experience changed the trajectory of her career. It helped her grow, not only as a performer, but provided a channel to get in contact with those who would ultimately provide her performing opportunities in the community.

“It’s really important that we put the kings and queens that are booking actively, and active promoters, in chairs in front of the contestants,” Haig said. “It’s great that they are going to get feedback, but I’m also providing the opportunity for them to perform for these people each week and get that exposure.”

That is one thing that SYTYCD did differently than any other drag competition around. Most competitions fill the judging panel with seasoned queens who can provide critical feedback on the performance aspect, but the growth often stops there. Haig’s perspective is full-circle, not only providing a chance for the artists to fine-tune their craft, but to also connect them with the people who are in charge of booking shows and venues, truly providing a space for exposure, critique, and performance growth for each of the four contestants.

At last, Shannelle rose to the next level, and the competition gave her exactly that chance. She is now booked through the month of March and well beyond, all thanks to the network she created from competing. She was also granted the role of guest judge on the same panel she had been critiqued by, providing her a chance to give the feedback that was so imperative to her own development.

“I’ve met many queens in the five-and-a-half years since I’ve been doing this,” Shannelle said. “Betty is one of the most down-to-Earth that I have met; she always wants to see the best in people; she gives great advice, and she’ll provide resources to make things possible.”

The show is designed as a platform to promote the brand new, underserved, and unknown performers. The only criteria to compete is a desire and a drive to perform drag, and Haig has opened up slots for every kind of artist who believes in the craft.

“If you’re putting on a wig and dress for the first time in my competition, if you’re ready to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, that’s enough criteria from me,” Haig said. “If you want a stage to grow on, I have a stage for you.”

“It was one of the best experiences I’ve had as far as my drag career, and I would definitely do it again,” Shannelle said. “I would highly suggest this to any entertainer, either new or one who has been in the game a couple years. Honestly, it helped me grow exponentially.”

While the responsibilities of producer, promoter, judge, and host of SYTYCD all rest on Haig’s shoulders, he carries them with a solidly formed confidence that comes only from someone who has become an expert in creating something from nothing.

photos by Veronica L. Holyfield