BY EMILIO LANERA
The self-proclaimed "Serena Williams of drag" has travelled all the way from small town Virginia to Melbourne to challenge the idea of what it means to be a woman.
Mark Brown II performs as Nefertiti LaNegra, a singing and dancing muscle queen complete with beard.
Raised by loving grandparents, he grew up in Haynesville, Virginia, a rural town that fewer than 2000 people call home. Mr Brown said he had a difficult time growing up and only came out as queer in college.
“Essentially from middle school and on ... people were calling me faggot,” Mr Brown said.
“I was always the kid that stood out and because of that I got bullied and I got targeted a lot. The general atmosphere of small town America is not the best ... if you were femme and queer and a person of colour all those things would work against you, so you’re left by yourself.”
He was one of seven siblings, all of whom – with the exception of one sister – were raised by Mr Brown’s grandparents.
“That was because they were able to provide a really stable house and emotional support.”
He left his hometown to study theatre arts and ethnic studies at Brown University and discovered the world of drag.
“I did a drag show and I won ... and even in college performances I was put in roles where I was put in drag,” Mr Brown said.
Despite enjoying it, he never considered a career in it post-university.
“The idea of doing drag (professionally) ... wasn’t a thing. They (The Brown theater department) would say, 'do musicals because you sing really well, you act, you’re a man, you can dance',” Mr Brown said.
After university, he briefly pursued acting before settling in Washington DC and working in jobs not relevant to his degree.
Wanting to start performing again, Mr Brown decided to move to Melbourne and pursue his dream of becoming a drag queen, feeling this was what he was "destined" to do.
“It was like life was leading me in that direction. Things were lining up and it was like, 'Mark you’re good at this thing (doing drag)',” he said.
“One of my reasons for moving to Melbourne was that I needed to go somewhere ... where I felt like I had the ability to fail. I think in a place like DC where everything is polished and super put together, failure isn’t an option.”
Instead of trying to be a hyper-feminine queen, Mr Brown decided to embrace his body when performing drag.
“All the women I look up to are muscular woman ... when I say I’m the Serena Williams of drag I mean it because she is a beautiful woman who is also a muscular woman," he said.
“I do the drag makeup but keep the beard and keep the body to remind people their expectations of my body (in drag) and how am I challenging that,” he said.
Last year Mr Brown performed as Nefertiti LaNegra at Mollie’s Baby Drag night, a weekly competition for up and coming drag queens to showcase their talents.
After winning Baby Drag, he used social media and word of mouth to get more bookings. His recent events include two sold-out performances at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival for his show What’s Love Got to Do With It? at Chapel off Chapel.
Audience member Natalie Birthisel said she was blown away by Nefertiti LaNegra’s beauty and talent.
“I was incredibly moved with her performance ... the confidence she exhibited while rocking a beard and high heels was like nothing I had ever seen before,” she said.
Despite gaining more attention as a drag queen, Mr Brown still works as a full-time web developer. He said he would like to keep his day job while also performing as Nefertiti LaNegra.