In the opening credits of Angela Washko’s brilliant documentary Workhorse Queen, the audience is treated to a montage of scenes from the busy life of drag star Mrs. Kasha Davis. We see the big-haired queen recording fan messages for Cameo, rehearsing a new routine, trying on a pair of boobs, and appearing on the red carpet for a photo opp. Soon afterwards in the film, we also get to watch the hilarious video that ultimately transported this beloved upstate New York performer into the international spotlight: Mrs. Davis’ triumphant audition tape for RuPaul’s Drag Race…
As die-hard or even just casual fans of Drag Race already know, every queen has a story. With the many, many, MANY colorful personalities competing for an envied spot on that iconic TV show, that makes for a seemingly infinite number of drag tales. But no one can argue that the Mrs. Kasha Davis has an especially unique story to tell. Mrs. Davis was already a popular performer in the tight-knit drag scene of Rochester, a city 347 miles from Manhattan. As the audience learns in Workhorse Queen, pre-pandemic Rochester enjoyed a thriving drag culture, which one interviewee mirthfully credits to something in the water: “mostly chemicals from Kodak!”. Mrs. Kasha Davis’ unique “shtick” was her persona of the suburban housewife with an affinity for top shelf treats: Davis is single-handedly responsible for cementing “There’s always time for a cocktail!” into our pop culture lexicon. Underneath the makeup, Mrs. Kasha Davis is Edward Popil, a suburbanite who is happily married to a supportive husband (Steven Levins, AKA “Mr. Davis”), a step-parent to two girls, and a doggie daddy as well. Popil/Davis auditioned for every single season of RuPaul’s show for years. In 2015, the persistence finally paid off when the hot-to-trot housewife finally got called to be a Contestant on the seventh season of RPDR— at age 43. (The title of the movie, FYI, comes from the impromptu label that Guest Judge Isaac Mizrahi gave to her…)
Had Workhorse Queen concluded at the half hour mark, after Kasha’s selection into RuPaul’s exclusive sorority, Washko’s film could have arguably made a provocative short film on its own: the true story of a local drag star making it big at a relatively “later” time in life. But as we learn, the saga of Mrs. Kasha Davis was far from over. As Drag Race aficionados already know, being on Ru’s show– or any other reality TV show, for that matter– changes one’s life forever. There would soon be a lot more chapters in this suburban housewife’s cookbook. Mrs. Davis would be the fifth queen sent home on Season Seven, but she was now a celebrity in the Ru-sphere, with a new international visibility. As one of Davis’ long-time collaborators and fellow Drag Race alums would also understand, a Pandora Boxx had been opened. As Davis herself points out in the film, fans expect a lot from their queens past and present. In her 40’s, Davis finally realized her dream of being a full time performer, with many new opps– including international showcases and at least one high profile movie role. But on the flip side,the new lifestyle also opened Kasha’s mascaraed eyes to some personal problems– which, as the audience learns, were thankfully overcome.
Workhorse Queen is a delight on many levels. It’s a revealing, highly personal story about one performer’s life before, during, and after RuPaul’s Drag Race. (The contrast between the cutthroat competition of Drag Race and the more family-like atmosphere of the local Rochester nightlife scene is a real eye-opener.),However, it is also a more grand cultural exploration of how RuPaul’s show changed the contoured face of drag culture forever. One of Davis’s fellow Rochester queens, Aggy Dune (AKA Tom Smalley), speaks touchingly about the “schism” that can develop between the girls who get that life-changing call versus those who don’t. Dune speaks from bittersweet experience: As of the film’s completion, he is still submitting audition tapes in between showing off his collection of wigs (“Bette Davis… Liza, Celine, Peggy Lee, Baby Jane, Elsa for the kids, Barbra, Tina, Reba… Cher, Cher, Cher, Cher, Cher– because she makes the most money!”) Above all, Workhorse Queen is a reminder that no matter what your age or lifestyle, your dreams are still worth pursuing if you have the drive. I’ll have a
cocktail mocktail to that!