Sitting quietly next to a window in a packed coffee shop, Mahlia Lowell sips from a frozen smoothie and watches the cars laze around a traffic circle. It's late afternoon. The mood is relaxed. And the reserved 24-year-old is happy blending in.
By nightfall, things shift dramatically. Lowell takes the stage at a nightclub in Syracuse—two and half hours away from her home in Buffalo, N.Y. It's late. The vibe is electric. The cheers are loud and boisterous. When the announcer makes the familiar introduction and the bass drops, Lowell steps out from behind the curtain and begins dancing feverishly in time with the music. "Mahlia" is gone. "Christian Gaye," Lowell's drag king persona, takes over. He slides easily across the stage with moves like Usher and looks like Justin Bieber (of the wispy hair days). He's cocky, confident and an incredible flirt. The crowd loves it, frantically waving dollar bills in his face like school girls at a boy band concert.
Once the performance is over, the tips are counted and the makeup is wiped clean, Lowell transforms back to Mahlia and drives home. During the week, she'll return to her day job as a pantry chef for an Italian restaurant. But next weekend, she'll do it all over again. Eagerly.
"I don't know what I'd do without drag," Lowell muses. "The feeling I get when I'm standing behind the curtain, right before it opens, is hard to describe. There's nothing like it."
Before drag, Lowell says she didn't have much to look forward to or get excited about. She was treading water at a steady pace, wondering where she fit into the world, and still reeling from a tough upbringing that left its share of emotional, mental and physical scars.
"I moved around a lot during high school," Lowell says. "Between Western New York and rural Georgia, I went to six different schools. It was really hard, especially because I was living with mother and stepfather, who I didn't get along with."
During her junior year, Lowell attempted suicide for the first time. She was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, a mental illness that, according to the Mayo Clinic, affects roughly 3 million individuals per year. But LGBTQ individuals, like Lowell, are almost three times more likely to suffer from a mental disorder.
"After high school, my mom and stepfather split, and that made me feel so much better overall," Lowell recalls. "But because of the divorce and everything, I was asked to move out on my own. I didn't have a car. I didn't have even have my license. And I had to find an apartment. I did it all within a week, and that was it. I was shoved into the real world just like that. For so long, my home life was chaotic and unstable. It felt good just to be in my own place, without anyone looking over my shoulder."
The freedom of being on her own provided Lowell with a much-needed break from the mental and emotional anguish she had endured for years. She worked, hung out with friends and spent time at local Buffalo-based LGBTQ clubs. Then, in summer 2013, a friend from high school asked her if she wanted to give drag it a try. Though she didn't have any experience, make up, a costume or a choreographed routine, Lowell had something that can't be learned or taught—a talent for entertaining.
"I basically just danced my ass off to the music," she says. "Afterwards, different people kept coming up to me and telling me I needed to get into drag, that I was that good. And it was only my first performance."
Addicted to the rush of being on stage from that very first night, Lowell embarked on her drag career. She came up with the catchy name—Christian Gaye—based on the popular "Fifty Shades of Grey" steamy novel series, and figured everything else out on the fly. She watched makeup tutorials and other drag performers on YouTube, and started performing outside of Buffalo, in nearby Rochester and in a club called Trexx in Syracuse. The more she performed, the more she wanted to branch out to other regions and cities.
"Things were going so well, I didn't have much time to think about anything else," Lowell admits. "But when I was home alone in my apartment, those old thoughts and emotions would come back. I didn't know how to make them stop."
While a lot of people praised Lowell for her talent, others on social media tried to knock her down, so much so that she began to wonder if they were right. At times, the depressive thoughts became overwhelming. Last May, they became too much to bear, and Lowell said she attempted suicide again. She called Crisis Services of Buffalo and got the help she needed, which included medication, sessions with a therapist and a break from performing. In time, Lowell began to feel like herself again. Mostly, she wanted to get back to drag.
"I called Crisis Services and asked to talk to someone about putting on a fundraiser. I wanted to do a show with some of the drag queens I know and am good friends with, and have a representative from Crisis Services there to hand out pamphlets and other things."
Lowell booked the venue for a night in late November, designed flyers and informational handouts and then pounded the pavement throughout Buffalo herself. She also put up posters and created an event page on Facebook. In total, she raised more than $1,200 and plans on doing the benefit annually. In the meantime, she wants to visit high schools in the Buffalo area and beyond to share her story and talk about the importance of mental health for LGBTQ youth.
"Watching Mahlia's performance and knowing her story and connection to us was a very stirring experience that went beyond the usual fundraiser," Jessica Pirro, CEO of Crisis Services of Buffalo, says. "The money that she raised took a backseat to the feelings that we had watching her share her remarkable talent with all present in support of our mission."
"Drag has literally saved my life," Lowell says. "I always have a show to look forward to, to prepare and get ready for. For me, I live it every day. I want to travel the country and perform. I want to give back. I want to do this forever."