When Brandon Austin, who performs in drag under the name Sophia Stardust, went to accept his high school diploma from West Kent College in Southeast England, he decided to add some flair to his walk across the stage.
“Before I went to claim my graduation certificate, I saw a few people being a bit extra,” Austin, 18, told NBC News. “I was telling my friends how funny would it be if did a death drop, because I do them all the time. Something in me just said go for it, and I am so glad I did or none of this would have happened.”
When Austin performed his "death drop" dance move after receiving his diploma, the crowd erupted in applause. It was all caught on camera by a family friend, and the video has since gone viral on Twitter, with more than 3.4 million views as of Tuesday evening.
What Austin refers to as a “death drop” is what voguing aficionados would call a “dip.” The move serves as an exclamation point, of sorts, at the end of a series of vogue dancing moves (think FX’s “Pose” or Madonna circa 1990). “Whether its high-energy or soft and feminine, no matter how you execute the move, it’s called a dip,” Sailey Williams of ballroom and LGBTQ culture magazine TENz, told NBC News.
Austin said he was bullied in middle school, which “really knocked down” his confidence and kept him in the metaphorical closet. Once he went off to high school at 16, however, he found a mentor who inspired him to come out.
“My tutor really helped me and gave me a lot of confidence to be my authentic self,” he said.
Soon after coming out, a friend introduced him to “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which inspired him to pursue the gender-bending performance art.
“It’s a great platform for the LGBTQI+ community, and queens like Miz Cracker and Shangela have had such a huge impact on my life,” he said, referring to two popular “RuPaul’s Drag Race” performers. “They have showed me that it’s possible to have a future in this. I am prepared to do whatever it takes to make drag my full-time career.”
Austin said for him, drag is “taking a break from your life and acting as someone else.”
“It can be so encouraging, and ever since I started, I have been so much happier,” he added. “Whenever I need a break from the world, I put my wig and heels on and can escape to be whoever I want to be.”
Friends, family members and classmates have been supportive of Austin’s decision to pursue drag, but he said that after his graduation dip went viral, he received some backlash from strangers.
“The worst comment I have seen is someone saying, ‘We’re not giving you a graduation certificate, we’re sending you to conversion therapy,’” he said.
But even though there has been some negative reaction to his viral performance, Austin is focusing on the positive.
“I haven't taken offense at the negative comments, because there has been so much more love than hate. It has been so overwhelming, and I am so grateful,” he said.
Through his drag performance, Austin said he hopes to “make people smile” and help them “forget about their troubles.”
“I want to cheer people up if they have had a rough day,” he explained. “When they say, ‘You made my day,’ it makes my day.”
Austin said he now plans to pursue a two-year fashion program in college to help with his flourishing drag career.
“I really want to get into sewing so I can develop in all areas of drag and learn how to make my own outfits properly,” he said.
To other teenagers out there who are thinking about pursuing a career in drag, Austin’s main message is to “focus on yourself, don't listen to anyone else.”
“Don't let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do,” he said. “You won’t be great to start with — no one is. As long as you stay focused and motivated throughout it all, you will blossom into such an amazing queen, and you'll find yourself. You will change your own life for the better.”