Current Issue #482

Drawn to the City:
James Umpherston / Eve Elle, the drag queen

Leo Greenfield

As the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community improve internationally, drag culture and performance have evolved rapidly. James Umpherston is one of an extraordinary cast of queens delivering world class performances. To see Eve Elle in action is not to see impersonation, but rather a version of Taylor Swift, Madonna or Cher made ‘realer’ than the real thing. 

My gender illusionism is an extension of my ideas and inspirations,” says Umpherston. “I consider my drag shows pieces of performance art where I like to tell a story or share a feeling, whether it’s through high-energy movement or something more subdued with an emphasis on expression and emotion.” 

Umpherston’s shows are welcoming and draw the Mary’s Poppin community together, building not only a more empowered LGBTQIA+ base in Adelaide, but a platform on which to experiment with art. 

Umpherston, who has been performing for over 10 years, initially felt that drag was something to keep separate from daily life. “I used to keep the two very separate, but over the years I have accepted it is an extension of myself, a more ultimate version of myself.” Today he sees these performances as empowering. “In drag you are able to do extraordinary things, but more importantly it is about living authentically and inspiring others to do so. 

“While I had been doing drag for six years or so prior to Mary’s, my passion was never for the performance aspect, and I’m certainly not too proud to confess that I was a nervous and 

wobbly mess on stage back then. I threw myself into community events, competitions, often performed for free, but learned new skills and began to feel more confident and capable.” 

These days, Umpherston is far from wobbly. The performances are erudite and dynamic. Eve Elle moves with power across the stage while delivering seamless choreography. This is all self-taught and driven by wit and intelligence. 

“People often see a successful performance or a photo on Instagram and think how charming and glamorous it all must be, but behind the scenes there is always a great deal of focus, sacrifice, disappointment, rejection and persistence to get to that point. I spend a lot of time thinking and creating, which can be exhausting and expensive.” 

A strict regime of gym, yoga and pilates is essential for Umpherston who says, “I am quite obsessive about it, as it helps me so much in my performances. Under the lights it can be hot and uncomfortable, so being fit and flexible gives me confidence I’m not going to fail.” Umpherston also sees research as vital. Recent trips to Los Angeles to attend DragCon allowed for an immersion in the culture of this art form, and seeing legends like Cher live allowed Umpherston to observe with a keen eye. 

Umpherston also looks for inspiration in everyday life. “Things I am seeing, such as TV, movies, a woman in the mall, anything might capture my attention, and that could send me down a path. It could even be an object, a piece of jewellery or clothing that my mind will obsess over and start to build a story around.” 

The effortlessness on stage is due to hard work behind the scenes. “I usually practice at home, going over things in my bedroom mirror. I also have a 30-minute drive to work and that time allows me to listen to playlists and think over lyrics. 

“It’s such an incredible feeling when you see it all come together.” 

The artist’s shoe collection is massive, but perhaps the most important tool of his trade is the wig. “I have a lot of drag in general, but hair plays such a huge part in making the character. The wig puts everything in proportion, it is the finishing touch for me.” 

The costume isn’t armour, especially as the environment at Mary’s is one of warmth and support. “I don’t feel judged when I am on stage, I feel as if the audience sees me behind the pageantry. But the costume makes it all more dazzling.” 

Having grown up and grown into an artist in Adelaide, for Umpherston, “there is something quite nurturing about the size of Adelaide, you can explore things here and step out and be noticed.” 

For those who want to follow in the footsteps of these glittering boots, Umpherston’s advice is, “have courage in your convictions, do some research, practice like mad, take inspiration from everything you see, and always be kind to yourself and others.” 

Leo Greenfield

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Leo Greenfield is freelance illustrator. His work can be found at leogreenfield.com.

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