American Kabuki

Tom Zimberoff
8 min readMay 15, 2024


Delilah Blackheart / Treavor . . . ©2024 Tom Zimberoff

I think of drag as American Kabuki. Both are performance arts that employ spectacular costuming, stylized storytelling, and actors who blur gender distinctions. This project acknowledges drag’s foremost exponents in the San Francisco Bay Area and worldwide. With its presentation of portraits in diptych format — a “twofer”, if you will, it attempts to show character over caricature.

These diptych portraits appear enlarged at the end of this article.

The affinity of Drag Culture with portraiture seems natural to a photographer like me. However, despite contemporary depictions of drag on TV shows and Hollywood’s venerated portrayals, photographs of drag queens are typically rendered with high-key lighting, busy (over-propped) backgrounds, and over-the-top poses that leave the public with a gaudy and imprecise visual stereotype.

Stereotyped portrayals aren’t inherently wrong; they fulfill specific publication and promotional needs. They are wonderfully entertaining, too. But clichés can be unfair. Despite the spectacular contemporary portrayals of drag on TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Hollywood’s venerated depictions, including Tony Curtis’s and Jack Lemmon’s performances in Some Like It Hot, Robin Williams’s performances in Birdcage and Mrs