Jared Waltrip, 30, was born in Flint and grew up near Detoit. He moved to Lansing after marrying his husband, Trennen Reich. Waltrip is a full-time drag queen who performs under the flashy and feminine persona Bentley James. As Bentley James, Waltrip tours the country to appear at drag shows and festivals and is a permanent cast member at Hamburger Mary’s dinner theater. Through drag, Waltrip has found a loving community and a way to fearlessly express himself.
How were you introduced to drag queen culture?
I was 18 and in college. I wasn’t even out of the closet. A roommate was gay, and he invited me to a club for his birthday. I was like, ‘Sure I’ll go, whatever.’ I was trying to play it like I was straight, and I was just cool with everybody. I saw a drag performer and I remember immediately forgetting about all of my problems. I was like, ‘I want to do that for other people!’ I wanted to make them happy and make them forget about all of the other crap in their lives. I started, and I never stopped.
How did you develop your Bentley James drag persona?
A lot of it comes from my appreciation of strong beautiful women. I get a lot of my style and the way I carry myself from my drag mother, Melony Munro. She is an absolutely stunning transwoman, showgirl and performer. She carries herself with a lot of femininity, beauty and grace. Things like that really inspire me.
When you came out, did you have the support of your friends and family?
I feel like I had it a lot easier than most people. When I came out, it was 2010. I told my parents over the phone, and the only thing they had to say was, “OK, cool. When are you going to be home for dinner?” I feel like it was something they already knew and were cool with. There was never anything issue with it. Since then, they have been my biggest supporters. My mom and my dad are my best friends.
Where do you perform as Bentley James? Where are your favorite places for drag shows?
I am lucky enough to have drag queen performances as my full-time job. I do a lot of traveling and I am a cast member at Hamburger Mary’s in Grand Rapids and Ypsilanti. I do shows out in Detroit, and I’ve performed out in Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Florida. But Hamburger Mary’s is my home base, I’m there more often than anywhere else. It’s really cool. It’s a restaurant that’s open seven days a week, and we have shows every night. It’s a dinner-with-a-show kind of vibe. In Lansing, we also do brunch performances at Ellison Brewery in REO Town. We started that last summer, and so far, it has gone really well.
What are some misconceptions people have about drag queens?
The biggest one is that all drag queens want to be women, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing, like we have a big crossdressing fetish. That’s not always the case. There are drag queens who are women, and we love and accept them. There are transgender drag queens too. For myself, I do it for a sense of artistic expression and to make people happy. I do lot of good with it too. We raise money for a lot of different charitable organizations. But when I come home, I am a man and I like that.
What is the importance of drag in bringing LGTBQ+ culture and acceptance to the mainstream?
I think that drag is a really easy and fun way for mainstream communities to see what the LGBTQ+ culture is about. It’s a big party, it’s somewhere you can relax and enjoy yourself. It’s a safe space. Usually, you can talk to performers after the show, which is a good way for the mainstream population to see that we’re just like everybody else. After getting to talk to us, people say, ‘OK, I understand more about who these people are. They’re just like me, but they’re in fabulous costumes and rhinestones.’
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