Blue and red lights flash around the room, reflected by a disco ball dangling from the ceiling. After a round of whooping and thunderous applause, the crowd falls silent as Emily Fitzgerald lip syncs the lyrics to Cher’s cover of Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!

The 21-year-old is dressed to the nines in a floral dress and towering stilettos, glittering make up and a skyscraper wig. Emily, known by her drag name Jenna Rogue, has all the makings of a classic drag queen – except for one notable difference. Unlike most of her peers, Emily is an AFAB (assigned female at birth) queen. While most queens are traditionally gay men dressing up as women, Emily is a woman dressing up as a man dressing up as a woman!

She’s at the Imperial Hotel Erskineville in a room filled with larger-than-life characters and lots, and lots of sequins. It’s an extraordinary scene, but really, it’s just an average Sunday night at The Imperial – or The Impy as it’s tenderly called by its regulars.

She’s performing at The Impy’s weekly ‘Lip Sync Heroes’, an open mic event held every Sunday from 7pm. It’s MC’d by Farren Heit, a drag queen who has been performing for over 27 years and seen the scene evolve dramatically in that time.

“When I first started doing drag, no, there were no female performers,” he says.

The Imperial “has always been an all inclusive venue” according to Farren, but since it changed ownership four years ago, “there’s been a lot more inclusivity”.

There are “a lot more bio queens [biological female queens] and a lot more Indigenous queens as well, which back in the day you didn’t see a lot of around here,” he says.

Some drag queens may find it offensive that women are taking their escape and art form and just having fun with it.

This atmosphere is especially important for Emily, who is a cisgender woman performing as a drag queen. Her experience, especially at The Impy, has been overwhelmingly positive, but she acknowledges “there are definitely other drag queens, mainly older drag queens, who don’t really accept female drag queens into their spaces”.

“They’ve kind of grown up with drag as an escape from the male world…. Some drag queens may find it offensive that women are taking their escape and art form and just having fun with it,” she says.

While drag has been traditionally dominated by gay men, lesbian women have been performing as drag kings since the early 1980s. Trans and non-binary drag performers are also increasingly common. While some queens are reluctant to accept diverse performers, The Imperial welcomes them with open arms.

“It’s great to see some girls getting out there and they’re killing it. They’re doing a really great job,” says Farren.

This change is being mirrored in drag communities throughout the globe. Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK has just announced its first cisgender or AFAB (assigned female at birth) contestant will compete in the show later this year. The TV series is hugely influential; its American counterpart has been variously credited over the years with bringing drag into mainstream culture. Victoria Scone, 27, will complete against 11 other contestants in September and hopes “there’ll be a million more AFAB drag queens, drag kings, non-binary performers on the show in future”.

For Emily, drag is less about subverting gender and more about art.

“Drag, for me, is more the performance side of things rather than the gender performance… it’s more like an art form really, and it’s about expression and about how you portray yourself through this kind of character and story that you create,” she says.

Two drag queens lean against the bar of The Imperial Hotel.

Farren Heit, being photobombed by Ruby Slippers. The pair host Lip Sync Heroes at The Imperial hotel. Photo: Phoebe McDermott.

Her story with drag actually began at KFC, where she was working at the time. Her manager, Daniel Kitty, invited her along to his gig at the Imperial.

“He was hosting viewing parties of Drag Race the TV show… and he’d do a spot before the show and then we’d watch the show and he’d do a spot after as well,” she says.

When the season ended, Emily’s interest in drag did not, and she soon became a regular fixture at The Impy.

“When the season of drag race wrapped up I just didn’t stop going, I went to all the other shows at The Imperial and saw all of the other drag queens and the different styles of drag and what everyone else had to offer,” she says.

Daniel was also responsible for Emily’s very first time wearing drag make up and a wig.

“She put me in drag for the first time and we went to go to the club together and we just had the best time,” Emily remembers. “I felt like it really was kind of a shift in mentality, that first time in drag.

“It was like, I’m here with these people and they’re kind of seeing me in a different light and I’m seeing myself in a different light.”

Drag became a safe space for Emily: “It really was the only thing that brought me joy for a while – it sounds so weird, but it was just an escape from the reality of my situation, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.”

The passion that drag ignited in Emily was infectious and spread to other areas of her life, eventually motivating her to quit her job at KFC and seek more fulfilling employment.

I put on the wig, I looked at myself in the mirror and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so beautiful’.

On the weekend of her 20th birthday Emily put herself in drag and “had the best time performing” at the Imperial. She remembers this first time in drag fondly – “the first time I did my own face, the whole time I was doing it I was like, ‘oh no, this is so ugly, this is bad I’m not gonna look good at all.’ And then I finished the face, I put on the wig, I looked at myself in the mirror and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so beautiful! I’m the most beautiful woman alive’.”

When Emily started performing as Jenna her passion was taken to “a whole new level”.

“I was excited to do something, and I was getting out of the house and I was really passionate about something for the first time. And so, it was really life changing to have that escape from not really doing anything to finally be able to do something and do it well,” she says.

Emily can see the positive impact her drag persona has had on her: “I learned to be more confident in my abilities and just in general because the way people reacted to Jenna was so positive and uplifting it made me feel secure in who I am, even though Jenna is only a part of me.”

She shared her love of drag with high school friend Sarah Collins, 20, who quickly became just as invested as she was. Emily became Sarah’s drag mother, encouraging her to attend a one-day drag make-up and performance course. Like her friend, Sarah is a woman performing in drag, but unlike Emily, she performs as a drag king.

Sarah Collins poses in the hallway of The Imperial Hotel in her drag make up and costume.

Sarah, as Dack Janiels, posing in The Imperial. Photo: Phoebe McDermott.

Sarah, or Dack Janiels as she is known at The Impy, has always been drawn to performing as a man and enjoys subverting traditional gender conventions.

“When we were at school and we did Popstars – the musical Popstars – and I played a male lead, and I really loved it because I could explore that more masculine side of being a bit of a dude bro,” she says.

While she has done burlesque and cabaret style performances as a female persona, Dackequline Janiels, Sarah prefers to perform as a king.

“I really want this drag persona to be completely other than me and myself so if I was to be a female drag queen… I find I get too in my head about it, I’m a bit awkward in it,” she adds.

As young female performers Emily and Sarah are definitely in the minority when it comes to drag, but at the Imperial they’ve found a place that not only accepts, but celebrates them.

Main picture by Phoebe McDermott of Emily Fitzgerald, aka Jenna Rouge, fixing her lipstick in the bathroom of The Imperial Hotel.