Shakespeare once said, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” However, don’t tell that to Vivian Vaughn, the current Miss Gay NC America. She makes wearing that crown look too damn easy.
Vaughn, one of North Carolina’s premier female impersonators, allowed us rare access behind the curtain to learn more about the trials, tribulations and triumphs amidst the art and craft of being a drag queen.
By day, Justin Natvig is a logistics import/export manager, certified in dangerous goods and international shipping. In his spare time, he’s a chair for the Crape Myrtle Festival, an all-volunteer nonprofit that supports persons living with AIDS and HIV and supports outreach and education within the LGBT community. In his spare-spare time, he is a certified queen.
With so many things going on, it’s difficult to imagine that he has time to sleep, let alone take on the work and duties of being Vivian Vaughn.
For more than 17 years, Natvig has been doing female impersonation, but he says, “It’s something I was always doing as a kid and just didn’t realize I was doing it. Dressing up was just fun.” However, his journey to the crown was not exactly smooth.
Homeless and a high school dropout at age 16, Natvig discovered the art of drag and put a name to his passion. “I was different — not wanting to be a woman, but enjoying this type of entertainment. I wanted to take my situation and make something of it.”
Still performing at an amateur level, he began preparing for the Miss Gay NC America pageant, a system modeled after Miss America that requires contestants to be male and emphasizes the art of illusion and female impersonation. Competing for the first time in 2004, Natvig placed almost dead last.
“Back when I was coming up, there were no tutorials. There was no internet. I would go watch shows and just try to do what they did. It took me three hours to look like hell. Nobody told me that CoverGirl does not cover boy,” he laughs. “So I took some time to think about it, and I realized: I can’t be good at anything until I get my life together.”
After getting his GED, he got his two-year degree from Pitt Community College and eventually graduated with his bachelor’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill — a first for his family. With his life a bit more settled, it was time to try again.
“My dream has been to be Miss Gay NC America, but North Carolina is one of the hardest states to win,” Natvig says. “We have some wonderful talent and entertainment in North Carolina.”
Eight years after Natvig’s first attempt, Vivian Vaughn made the top five. The next year, she was named second alternate. Determined to win, Natvig took a year off to learn and watch. He went to the pageant as Justin and committed every pose, every dance move, every winning act to memory.
“A lot of people have drag mothers, but I’ve taught myself everything — makeup, wigs, everything,” he says. “And you have to have money for this, so Vivian has a separate bank account, and all of her fees, bookings, and tips goes back to Vivian.”
After years of preparation — the interviews, the dance lessons, the custom Jimmy Wang gown that needed 10,000 rhinestones added by hand, the new wigs, the fundraisers — this was Vaughn and Natvig’s year. He now travels the state every week performing as Vaughn, sometimes driving three or more hours in a single night to fulfill his reigning duties. He performs at drag brunches and more, raising funds for HIV and AIDS causes.
While Natvig doesn’t know exactly where he wants Vaughn to go in the future, he could see her competing again at a national level. Throughout it all, however, his mission has been simple: “I just want to do a really good job and make people proud. The most important thing for me is giving back to the community, and bringing Vivian into that and supporting HIV awareness.” he says.
His advice to others? “My only message is to be yourself at any cost.” And that’s an art worth chasing.