Finding happiness in heels

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Drag Queens perform at Rumors Nightclub in Grand Rapids on Oct. 7.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Drag Queens perform at Rumors Nightclub in Grand Rapids on Oct. 7.

Audra Gamble

“Once you have heels on and long hair, you kind of just want to push everyone out of the way. Sometimes, it just happens.”

Women the world over know this to be true, but so does Grand Valley State University’s premier drag queen, Ginger Ambrosia.

When not performing as a 6-foot-2-inch tall mermaid, the man behind the makeup is known as 5-foot-10-inch tall Nathan Bentley, a senior at GVSU.

Well-known on GVSU’s campus for her performances at drag shows put on by the Milton E. Ford LGBT Resource Center and the Residence Housing Association, Ginger Ambrosia’s personality is consistently over the top.

However, things weren’t always so cheery for the redhead.

“When I started drag, I was really in a dark place,” Bentley said. “I was depressed. I went to the counseling center (at GVSU), and the counselor there asked me what I enjoyed doing. At the time, I was so in this dark place that I didn’t enjoy doing anything. I just felt like everything was messed up.”

The counselor Bentley spoke with encouraged him to focus on anything that made him happy. For Bentley, that turned out to be putting on makeup.

“Every time I would start to go in a slump, I knew that doing that would be fun,” Bentley said. “The act of (putting makeup on) was so rebellious and awesome. I was doing things people were telling me I can’t do.”

When Bentley’s on stage performing as Ginger Ambrosia, she tells jokes and tries to make people laugh. For him, it’s a way to channel his energy into something positive.

“Sometimes, the people that are these drag queens didn’t always start from wanting to have glitter everywhere. I needed something to bring me out of a dark place.”

Bentley got a wig, and started to develop his drag persona’s mermaid character. As for her name, that was a happy accident.

The first name, Ginger, was easy. Bentley spent his childhood being teased for his red hair, but embraced it as a feminine moniker.

Ambrosia, Bentley’s drag queen last name, took a little more luck to get just right.

“Ambrosia is from when I was at the Goodwill store and I tripped on a box. The box said ‘Ambrosia Farms’ on the side,” Bentley said. “I literally fell into my last name, because I stubbed my toe on it. I thought it was so pretty.”

Two years ago, Bentley was just starting out. Now, he tries to perform at least two shows a month as Ginger Ambrosia. He’s starting to become more prominent in the Grand Rapids drag community and even competed in the Grand Rapids Drag Race this summer. His mermaid-themed drag character has attracted a school of followers.

“I used to have a starfish on my head, and people would recognize me,” Bentley said. “They knew who I was because of that. It’s almost like making a brand. You have to keep repeating it until people catch on.”

While Bentley is starting to branch out more in the downtown drag scene, his favorite performances are all ones he’s done on GVSU’s campus.

“I always like to perform on campus more than downtown,” he said. “The students don’t get to see (drag) as often as people do at the bars, so (the students) have a lot more energy. They want to be involved. It’s new to them.”

Bentley’s favorite performance as Ginger Ambrosia was at last year’s RHA drag show in the Cook-DeWitt Center on GVSU’s Allendale Campus.

Emily Wang, vice president of programming for RHA, said the event was the highest-attended RHA program of the year.

“It was amazing to see Ginger perform,” Wang said. “I was extremely proud someone at GVSU could do something so courageous and unique.”

Being so unique takes time – a lot of time.

From start to finish, the transformation takes Bentley between two and three hours.

The first thing Bentley does is glue down his eyebrows, flat against his face. He then highlights and contours his face to create new angles.

Next comes the over-the-top eye makeup and drawing on new eyebrows. For Bentley, this is the point in the process where he starts to feel like a different person.

“Once I have everything blended and I have new eyebrows on, it changes your whole face,” he said. “Then I look like a different person. I start to look more like a girl.”

The last step in Ginger Ambrosia’s makeup regimen is to put on fake eyelashes, but it’s difficult for Bentley to drive with them on, so he waits until he’s at the show venue.

To create a more feminine figure, Bentley wears padding, held in place by five or six pairs of tights. Next come the corsets, then the actual gown or outfit. The final elements to complete Ginger Ambrosia’s mermaid-inspired ensemble are fake nails, a long wig and high heels.

“Heels are the very last thing,” Bentley said. “I can walk in them fine, but they hurt after a while, so I put those on last.”

Once the heels are on, the show begins and Ginger Ambrosia is in fine, fierce form.

At first, Bentley relied on YouTube videos to learn how to get into drag, but he soon found help from a former Laker. Misael DeJesus, better known as Gabriella Galore, took Bentley under his tutelage.

“When I started, Gabriella was at the first drag show that I was in,” Bentley said. “She was helping me get ready. Without even asking, she just started helping. She started at Grand Valley too, so I think she saw that I needed help.”

Bentley considers Gabriella Galore to be one of his drag queen idols. For DeJesus, helping Bentley learn the ropes is the continuation of a legacy he created.

“Ginger is the first Grand Valley queen who is trying to make a name for herself in the drag community,” DeJesus said. “I think she’s the next in line for Grand Valley queen royalty.

“I hope I started a trend. I think it would be wonderful for a queen to represent Grand Valley. Can you imagine a LGBTQ student coming in and seeing that there’s a whole line of queens? That would be amazing.”

Though not all drag queens are part of the LGBTQ community, Bentley agrees it would be nice to have a new GVSU drag queen to come after him. He graduates this December, so the drag queen legacy is on his mind.

“A lot of students on campus that are my friends say they want to be a drag queen,” Bentley said. “I probably should take them more seriously, because when I’m gone, who’s going to do it? I want to help them and teach them.”

While Bentley has surrounded himself with a supportive group of people at GVSU, his family wasn’t always as supportive. Bentley is from Georgia, so he doesn’t see his family very often.

“I haven’t really been back since high school, but my mom and sister tell me that (being a drag queen) is all people ask them about now when they talk about me.

“With my mom, she wants to talk about it,” Bentley said. “My dad doesn’t want to talk about it. My dad is still weird and I don’t really talk to him.”

Even with his mom, it took a while for her to warm up to the idea.

“My mom lacks the vocabulary; she doesn’t know what to say. She used to call me a cross-dresser all the time. It took my mom a long time to understand. Now that I’m pretty and look a lot more feminine and beautiful, (she) thinks it’s fine. She even bought me a really pretty gown, which is too small for me, because she doesn’t understand how drag works.”

Though it can be a pain to explain all that goes with being a drag queen to those who don’t know anything about it, Bentley said it’s worth it.

“The best part is when people after a show come up to you and say ‘You inspired me to do something,’” Bentley said. “I never thought I would inspire someone. That’s the best feeling.”

In the past few months, Bentley has branched out, doing more drag shows downtown. Over the summer, he placed sixth in the Grand Rapids Drag Race competition. However, he still remembers why he started doing drag in the first place.

“When I started performing, people that didn’t even know me were coming up to me and telling me they loved me. People saying that, even though I don’t know them, was so powerful and helped me bring me out of (my depression),” Bentley said. “I can thank Ginger for helping me get out of that. Even in the darkest times, there’s always something good that can happen.”

Though Bentley’s time at GVSU is coming to an end, he still hopes to have a few more performances on campus, where Ginger Ambrosia truly began to take shape.

“That’s where it all starts. That’s where Ginger got her start and where I got my start,” DeJesus said. “We’re leading the way for future students, so they don’t have to be as afraid.”