Dancing in the Dark

How Does a Blind Drag Queen Do Her Makeup?

And other important questions for Alexis Nicole Whitney.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen February 5, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Clad in a strapless, sequined, body-hugging dress, Alexis Nicole Whitney is lip-synching to the dramatic strains of Celine Dion’s “Think Twice” onstage at TC’s Show Bar on Fairview, performing for a Tuesday-night crowd. When the song hits the chorus, patrons swarm around her, offering tips. For a moment, Whitney ignores the bills waving in front of her. Then her fans give her a gentle tap on the arm (and in one case, on her overflowing bosom) to announce their presence, and she leans down in her towering platform heels, taking the money and passing out kisses. Whitney isn’t always sure whom she’s kissing, however. She’s completely blind.

Whitney, age 39, hails from San Antonio. She began doing drag shows over 20 years ago, long before she lost her sight. “I did it for Halloween and I got a lot of compliments, so that’s how it started,” she says. “I always liked to be in front of crowds. I was a cheerleader and a drum major in high school. I love it; it’s my passion to be on stage.”

At age 22, only a few years after her first performance, Whitney almost lost that passion—and her life—when she contracted meningitis. The disease affected both her brain and her spinal cord, causing permanent damage to her ocular nerves and putting Whitney in the hospital in San Antonio for two terrible months.

“I was in a coma for two weeks,” she remembers. “My heart had stopped twice; if my heart stopped another time, they were going to let me go.” Though doctors told Whitney she might never walk again, she was focused on getting back on stage as soon as possible.

Less than two weeks after she was released from the hospital, Whitney made her way to a drag show, where she performed to Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love You’s” in her wheelchair, wearing a hospital gown and two patches over her eyes. “That performance was really what kept me going,” she says.

Whitney moved to Houston in 2011, after she auditioned for and landed her five-night-a-week gig as the show director and emcee at TC’s. She entrusts a tailor with creating her costumes—she explains the idea for each outfit, and the tailor does the rest—and has a friend apply her makeup before every performance.

For her playlist, Whitney favors a surfeit of emotion—Celine Dion ballads are her signature—but in between tunes she dishes out the zingers. On the same recent Tuesday, while emceeing a show, she jokes about a performer who got too drunk to go on stage. “She had to be carried out in her panties,” she deadpans. “Sometimes I thank God I’m blind.” Later, introducing a dancer, she plays coy. “You’re so cute; you’re adorable,” she purrs. “What are you wearing?”

Though she’s quick with a quip, Whitney is profoundly serious about her profession. “I legally changed my name to Alexis,” she says. “Most other people don’t use their stage name, but I’m always going to be Alexis. I speak my mind, and I speak from my heart.”

When she’s not at TC’s, Whitney performs in drag competitions. Winning sashes is fun, she says, but she most values the opportunity to encourage others. “My favorite thing about performing is that I get to inspire people,” she says. “People think they can’t do certain things because they’re too tall or too short or too fat or too skinny. I’m blind and I’m up here, so there’s no reason to let anything hold you back.”

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