The crowd at The Balcony Club on Feb. 11 was already on the balls of its feet during drag queen Nikki Grimm's striptease to a mashup of "Gimme More" and "Stronger" by Britney Spears, but toward the end, Nikki switched things up: Rather than tearing off her wig in a big reveal, she brandished a pair of shears and cut it off, along with locks of her own real hair, which flitted past her black lingerie and littered the stage as she finished her routine. The audience went off like a bomb.
"All I want is to make sure the show is the best it can be, and if I leave part of myself on stage, so be it," she said afterward. "And I do, every single time I get onstage."
At the end of Nikki's performance, Boise's Next Drag Superstar emcee Denimm Cain handed her a white, high-heeled shoe—a coveted honor from the stunned judging panel. Nikki had participated in BNDS in 2018, and had been nixed from competition early. Over the last year, she said, she "got enough [feedback from the judges] to build [her] persona and kill it onstage."
Now in its third year, BNDS, which continues on Sundays through March 24, is under new leadership, and has extended its themes from the campy, burlesque and overtly sexual to include the political, starting with 14 queens competing for a VIP trip to RuPaul's DragCon, and numerous smaller prizes to be given out over the course of the contest. One queen, Vice Squiglybone, performed as President Donald Trump, and finished off her striptease with a pair of backup performers chasing her across the stage, hosing her down with tanning spray. (After placing in the bottom two at the end of the evening, she volunteered to go home so Rari Doll could continue to compete.) Another queen, Penelope Windsor, appeared as Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra.
"I have a little more of a political bent with the drag that I do because I think drag is a really great platform for voicing my opinion on the issues," Crispin Gravatt, who performs as Penelope, said days before the Feb. 10 competition.
Political drag, Gravatt said, is tough work, balancing a stone-carved drag commandment to entertain with the social mandate to activate and inform. During the Feb. 11 "Snatch Game" contest, Penelope answered the question "Roses are red, the grass is green, I want you in my _____, if you know what I mean" with "My team, as long as you can stand me and you don't get dismissed for sexual harassment." It was a dig at Ybarra's only scheduled 2018 campaign event, which was held at The Gathering Place bar in Eagle and hosted by William McCarrel, a former Mountain Home principal whose teaching and administrative licenses were suspended in 2011 after he was accused of multiple accounts of sexual harassment.
The audience and judges got the reference, and there was plenty more where that came from, as Penelope slammed Ybarra's work ethic and the education department budget. At one point, emcee Denimm said, "I wish we'd invited that woman here. I want to see her in the front row," and revealed that Ybarra's Democratic challenger Cindy Wilson had briefly attended the show.
Not everyone was a fan of the political spoofs: Nick McClure, one of the judges, said the gags weren't his style, but the judges praised Penelope's wit and elegance as a drag queen, including Big Gay Paycen.
"You're accomplishing your mission, so good job," he said.
This is the first year that audience participation has played a role in the judging process—one of several innovations from the contest's new director, The Balcony Manager Rodney Busbee, designed to make it more audience- and contestant-friendly. Queens are also no longer eliminated from the competition in the first round to ensure they get enough facetime with judges to improve their acts.
"We knew [in 2018] that there were quite a few [queens] who'd never done anything on this kind of scale. ...Probably half of them, maybe, had done drag more than a handful of times," he said. "We wanted to make sure that this year, they got to be on stage two to three times, so they could get feedback."
The judges named Nikki and Penelope the top two contestants, and in a dramatic twist, Denimm announced they would lip sync battle, with the winner taking home a $350 gift certificate to Crazy Neighbor, and the loser picking one of the bottom-ranked contestants for elimination. The move took the audience and queens by surprise, but when Christina Aguilera's "Fighter" started over the speakers, Nikki and Penelope started to dance. Penelope, now dressed in a bright red fedora and overcoat, moved with practiced, restrained elegance, while Nikki, bound in a tight, black-lace bodysuit, danced an energetic and sexual routine. When it was over, the two winded queens stood for judgment.
"You just killed it on this stage," judge Nick McClure said to Nikki.
"When you're on stage, you light it up," judge Maliha Gemini told Penelope.
In the end, they awarded Penelope first place, and Nikki, standing before the assembled queens, chose who to send home.
"I love each and every one of you so much," she said, adding to another contestant, "Santiago, I've got to send you home."
The two hugged. "I'm just so glad I got to have this opportunity," Santiago told Nikki and the judges.Correction: In an earlier version of this story, we misattributed a criticism of Penelope Windsor’s performance to Big Gay Paycen. It was Nick McClure who said political drag was less to his liking.