Lady Camden, former Smuin Ballet dancer on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”
When Lady Camden first appeared in the spotlight on RuPaul’s Drag Race in the Season 14 premiere, proudly proclaiming “Hello, you sexy bitches!”, drag aficionados around the world finally got to meet one of Northern California’s most talented and popular queens. Although Lady Camden, whose name is Rex Wheeler, has only been in drag for a few years, he has built up a large and passionate local following.
As a former dancer and now frequent choreographer for Smuin Ballet, Camden’s fan community draws dance audiences from the Bay Area to club kids in San Francisco and Sacramento. With spectacular brunch performances at Hamburger Mary’s, crowds of tourists and former bridal processions encourage Camden to bring home the drag race trophy. Now Camden’s fanbase is exploding internationally following his splashy premiere on the show.
Wheeler’s journey from the ballet stage to the top of the drag world began during a dark time in her life. When the Bay Area Reporter first spoke to him in December 2019, as he prepared for his first performance as Lady Camden with the Smuin Ballet (as part of the company’s annual LGBTQ party), he said: “During my last year or two of dancing with the company I had a few back injuries. I really wasn’t able to do much for long periods of time. I started experimenting with flirting and makeup, and it made me feel like a kid again. It really helped me get out of that ‘wound funk.’ Drag was a way to connect my love of being the clown of the class in the studio with my creativity.”
After several years of juggling drag shows, choreography work, acting classes and multiple part-time jobs just to make ends meet, Wheeler was already feeling overwhelmed when COVID-19 hit. Like all artists, the pandemic has been difficult, but it has also given her time to reflect on her priorities and her dreams.
Drag the umbrella
“I was financially squeezed, just fighting to survive,” Wheeler said. “I couldn’t afford San Francisco, so I had to go back to Sacramento, but I was still working a ton, hanging around maybe 20% of my time. And I was like, ‘I am completely exhausted. drag, my art form, will improve and evolve if I only give it a small ration of time?”
Wheeler had thought about auditioning for drag race for many years, but didn’t feel quite ready, then realized later, “drag race is the thing that can allow me to quit all these jobs and move forward with everything I’ve done in my life – dancing, acting, choreographing, all that – under the umbrella of drag. This will give me the opportunity to live my dream.”
Wheeler also thought, “This might be the worst time to audition. I have no money, no new drag costumes, no real tangible resources. But damn it. I have an empty apartment. , so I have room to film something. I can recycle these old outfits.”
Showing off a neon green faux fur jacket, Wheeler said, “See that? It’s kind of trash, it’s literally from a charity shop, but it’s something I did and it makes me happy. I wore it to my audition. I rigged up a video camera, danced, made a few jokes and thought, ‘I’m just going to be myself and see what happens.'”
Thinking back to his audition tape, he said: “It’s kind of sad. They must have been like, ‘Oh that poor girl, she’s got nothing! She’s got nowhere to go, nowhere where to dance.’ I’d like to think they saw the person: a struggling artist, dancing in her kitchen. I now know that Drag the show the producers are only looking for you, not a produced version of you. It’s their job. This show celebrates the person, their talents and their spirit.”
Amazingly, after 13 seasons, Camden is only the third queen to represent the Bay Area on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “I represent San Francisco and Sacramento; so many in this community know me personally and have seen me hang around since day one. They know I’ve worked hard. I think that’s why I I have so much support here. I’m so lucky, because it’s kind of scary to get a little bit famous. I can’t help but think, ‘Are people going to like me?’ It makes me feel better knowing that I have a community of people cheering me on.”
Now that the drag race The season has begun, Wheeler can look back on the experience of his life and see how it prepared him for this moment as Lady Camden.
“The competitiveness of the ballet world has definitely prepared me for drag race“, he said. I don’t think I realized how competitive I was until I did this! When you audition for a ballet company, there are hundreds of people who want this work, and there are so many reasons why you couldn’t Maybe you don’t have long enough legs, or not enough turnout, or your head is too big, or you’re not big enough. It’s completely out of your control. With this perspective, I know you can’t be everything, you can only be yourself. Having this experience gave me the strength to say, “C is who I am, take it or leave it. But the competitive side can be so much fun…and it can turn me into a monster, so get ready!”
RuPaul’s Drag Race airs Friday nights on VH-1.
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