Luis Hernandez sips bubbly rosé from a can to calm his nerves.
Hung bedsheets divided the entertainers huddled in the makeshift dressing room from the rest of the patrons inside The Cantina Grill, Bar & Lounge downtown. He was the first to arrive, but now performers flank Hernandez as he applies his contour lines. They have last-minute questions about the evening’s performance.
His purplish-blue, long-winged eye makeup gets finished. But before he starts on his lips, he takes a few more sips.
“Just enough not to be nervous,” he said with a giggle.
Hernandez, 29, is in the midst of a nearly hour-long transformation from a shy server at the Mexican restaurant to event organizer and elegant drag queen Zoria Garcia.
He doesn’t dress up as often as he used to, but the world of drag was where Hernandez first found comfort. He felt free to express himself and embrace his sexuality. Gone were the days when he would hide in his room and secretly play with makeup.
Nearly every other week, drag kings and queens perform at Cantina’s Rainbow Nights, and Hernandez plans it all. Even if that means finalizing setlist tweaks minutes before the show begins or cleaning up long after the audience is gone.
Hernandez is a driving force behind drag performances in Columbus, a large city in Georgia with an LGBTQ community that has seen strings of gay bars open and, eventually, close over the decades.
Hernandez moved to the United States from Mexico when he was 10, and his family started moving around the country. He’d live in Columbus twice, returning for good in 2002. It was here that he fell in love with drag.
Rather than being outside playing soccer, Hernandez spent his younger years brushing and dressing his sister’s dolls. As he got a little older, he eventually started buying clothes and jewelry to dress up his sister.
Hernandez was 18 years old when he saw his first drag show. He said he doesn’t remember the name of the gay bar with the red door that he snuck into on Second Avenue.
But he does remember the changes that followed. He secretly ordered catalog makeup for practicing. He’d do his work locked up in his room in the middle of the night. Eventually, he felt comfortable enough to tell his mother that he was gay. It was something that she already knew about her son, and she was supportive, he said.
At 21, he started going in full drag to Columbus bars with a few friends just for fun.
“It was just like a character I was putting on every single time,” he said. “I just liked to look pretty and get compliments.”
But in 2012, a local bar DJ pressed Hernandez to perform. A week later, he entered and won his first drag queen contest at the now-closed Foxhole. He started doing shows every other week at Cocktails before it too eventually closed.
Many gay bars have opened their doors in Columbus, only to close a short time later. The cycle of openings and closings eventually left Hernandez and others without a place to perform or express themselves.
“There was nothing here,” he said. “It’s sad … that there’s other little towns around Columbus that have all these gay bars and this gay scene and we have nothing. We tried. Believe me, we tried.”
Be free for a night
Hernandez is working to change that by hosting the drag shows.
It started when he hosted an LGBTQ after-party in 2017. Hernandez approached friend and former boss at Cantina, Marlene Aguirre-Lemieux, about holding the event at the restaurant. She agreed. He went back to work for her at Cantina in March 2019, and not long after, the Rainbow Nights drag shows started.
The events, he said, are not just for LGBTQ people.
“I thought it was important to have a staple place to have a drag show where everyone could come and just be themselves and be free for at least one night,” he said. “I was just hungry for drag.”
Hernandez’s shows feature local drag kings and queens like Candy Ohara, who has performed in Columbus since the 1990s.
“Columbus has quite the storied history of gender illusion,” Ohara said. “What (Luis) is doing is extremely important. ...Luis said he wanted to do (something) and he did. ... It’s wonderful to have someone who is willing to pick up such a large chunk of the LGBT community.”
At first, Hernandez wasn’t sure how well Columbus would respond to the shows. Some will travel to Auburn and Atlanta for events, but depending on the night, Cantina’s bar area can get full.
Hernandez doesn’t perform as often now. He’ll perform in drag only if there aren’t enough entertainers for the evening. The heels take a toll on his feet. That coupled with organizing the shows and staying after to clean is a lot of work, he said.
“I’ll do the shows and get out of it right away,” he said. “All that pressure, the wig gives me a headache. ... Everything is just too much.”
‘When I’m in drag, there is something that takes over.’
On a rainy Thursday, Hernandez arrived at the Cantina with his makeup and a suitcase filled with outfits and accessories. He’d worked a shift earlier in the day and was returning for a Rainbow Nights performance.
Hernandez was performing later that night. He’d laid out his makeup on a long black table and began applying foundation — the first step in the transformation process.
In between steps, he sipped rosé to loosen up. Space filled inside the makeshift dressing room as drag kings and queens began to get ready. He talked with some of the other performers slated to take the stage later that night.
He spoke less and less as showtime approached. His eyesight focused on the mirror in front of him as his hands sifted through a series of brushes, pens and other makeup tools for final touches.
Tweaks and changes to the evening’s setlist are finished. A crowd of 50 people — couples and single folks — found their places around the central floor. The show kicked off just before midnight.
Zoria’s first costume of the evening was the fictional character Maleficent as portrayed by Angelina Jolie. The final piece of the outfit was a set of horns Hernandez made out of Duct tape.
When Christina Aguilera’s “Not Myself Tonight” began to play, Hernandez parted the dressing room sheet and made his way to the center. With staff in hand, he approached eager patrons holding dollar bills — a polite acknowledgment that his performance was impressive.
He ended the first song by throwing his cash wad into the air. An audience member gathered up the dollar bills for him as he walked behind the dressing room sheet to make his next costume change.
His second outfit was a take on the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday. He donned a skeleton dress with a full face of smokey makeup. A blonde wig adorned with roses sat atop his head. His third costume was HIM, a fictional flamboyant demon character featured in the “Powerpuff Girls” cartoon. The character is one of Luis’ favorite, he said.
In the early morning hours after shows, Hernandez and several friends stay after to clean up the bar before going home. He’ll wake up in the late afternoon with no energy but memories of the night before.
The makeup and clothes mark not only a physical change but a mental transformation that shapes how his characters perform and respond to the audience, he said.
“Me, myself as a boy, I would never step on a stage. I would just freeze,” he said. “When I’m in drag, there is something that takes over. It’s like this ego that gives you the power to … just be crazy — in a good way.”
If you want to go:
The Cantina Presents Rainbow Nights
Doors open at 10 PM.
Shows start at 11:45 p.m.
Shows scheduled for:
▪ Nov. 9
▪ Nov. 23
▪ Dec. 7
▪ Dec. 21