Award-Winning Drag Queen Eric Jaffe Reflects on Art

Eric Jaffe at his vanity (Selah Maya Zighelboim)

In Eric Jaffe’s home, there’s a shelf lined with wigs, a closet full of glittery dresses and a menorah by the front door.

Jaffe, 29, was named Drag Queen of the Year at the annual Philadelphia Drag Awards on Nov. 30. Sitting at his vanity — piled with makeup, brushes, books and another wig — Jaffe explained his approach to drag.

“In the mainstream, drag is mostly identified as female impersonation,” said Jaffe, who is Jewish. “I do not identify it as that. Drag is sort of anything that elevates you to an extension of yourself or of another character, and it can be defined by physical things, like the way that you dress in appearance, or it can be from within. Drag has a very broad definition. There are a million kinds of drag.

“For me, my drag is a perspective on gender itself because I am a bearded drag queen. That’s beautiful, that you can be a glamourous creature who still has a hairy chest, a beard and those kinds of features.”

At various venues throughout the city, Jaffe plays ukulele, sings and does comedy as a drag queen. He also has a monthly cabaret show at Tavern OnCamac. Its takes him two hours to do his makeup, he said. He wears wigs and an assortment of different dresses, including pieces made by his partner, balloon artist Greg Laut.

This was the first year Jaffe was nominated in a category other than alternative drag at the annual Philadelphia Drag Awards, Jaffe said. While he has performed in cabaret shows for the past five years, he has transitioned into performing as a drag queen over the past two.

This year, he won best alternative drag queen and best host, in addition to drag queen of the year.

“Over the years, I just started experimenting more and more with what it would be like to play with gender,” Jaffe said. “I’ve always enjoyed and relished the fact that gender was a man-made construct. As I got more and more comfortable on stage, I decided to play more and more with those concepts.”

Recently, he has blended drag with theater. In October, he played the host in Basic Witches at the Arden Theatre. In January, he starred in a satirical version of Sweeney Todd called Thweeney Todd: The Flaming Barber of Fleek Street, which he also wrote.

The show took two months of rehearsal and had a cast of 15 in “various states of drag,” Music Director Foster Longo said. This included drag queens and drag kings but also other expressions of queerness.

Both Longo and Jaffe expressed interest in continuing to make these satires.

“We definitely want to continue making these Broadway parodies and these fully staged productions,” Longo said. “We’re figuring out what exactly that’s going to look like, but we’re definitely interested in making this a company that produces work regularly. We’re still feeling out what exactly is on the horizon, but there’s something there.”

Jaffe is a Philadelphia-area native. He grew up in Elkins Park, where he went to services and was Bar Mitzvahed at Beth Sholom Congregation. He discovered a love of theater when he was young, performing in community productions, including shows with the Beth Sholom Players.

He sometimes brings his Judaism into his drag. He has done Chanukah-themed songs and plays Moses in an annual Passover skit.

Jaffe also credits his Jewish background for his shows’ humor.

“In my family, there was never a fart joke that wasn’t the funniest thing in the world,” he said. “We were a big, loud Jewish family, and a lot of my humor stems from that.”

After high school, he studied theater at Florida Atlantic University, but felt disillusioned when his teachers told him he needed to deepen his voice and act straight.

Eric Jaffe shows off some of his costume pieces (Selah Maya Zighelboim)

“It was always very important to my parents — because they knew who I was from early on — it was always important for them to stress to me to just be myself,” Jaffe said. “That felt really hurtful to me that I was constantly being told to change and I wasn’t really get casting in college at all.”

He starting turning away from theater and took up the ukulele instead, performing at open mic nights.

When he moved back to Philadelphia after college, he performed in cabarets, playing ukulele with a glitter beard.

It wasn’t until this past year that the community started to see him as a drag queen, he said.

His recent work has marked his return to theater.

Most drag queens, he noted, have a drag name. But he goes by Eric Jaffe in honor of his parents, who both died when he was in his early 20s. His older brother is his biggest fan, Jaffe said, but his parents never got to see him perform drag. He thinks they would have loved it.

“At the end of the day, I’m a performer and an entertainer,” Jaffe said. “They would definitely see that and respect it and appreciate it.”

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