Cynthia Lee Fontaine Tells the Historic Story of This Texas Drag Queen in New Documentary (Exclusive)

Cynthia Lee Fontaine has more in common with a 1920s trapeze artist than you might think.

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The iconic drag queen and RuPaul’s Drag Race The eighth season winner of Miss Congeniality began her career on Puerto Rican television, where she was never “manly enough to be in front of the camera.” It was only after embracing her femininity through the art of drag that Fontaine began to feel not only accepted, but respected.

“In this search for my own identity and also acceptance in the performing arts field, that’s how I found drag,” Fontaine said. The lawyer. “I found my safe space and my niche that I can relate to, but also that I could be accepted into the performing arts, as a dancer, a singer, maybe also as a comedian. It was a moment of validation.

Fontaine’s career took her from the Caribbean to Texas, where she began working with countless other prominent drag queens in her community and across the country. But no other artist would have more of an impact on Fontaine than a Texas artist she never had the chance to meet.

Barbette, born Vander Clyde Broadway in 1899, was a Vaudeville tightrope walker and trapeze artist, as well as one of the most influential “female impersonators” of all time. He grew up in Texas with a passion for the circus and began his career by auditioning for a show in San Antonio as a teenager. The group, who were looking for a female artist, asked him if he was willing to dress in women’s clothing. Barbette’s deal would ultimately break down barriers for generations of artists to come.

Having enjoyed success in the circus, Barbette would soon after adopt her stage name and develop a personal show that would travel across the United States and Europe. Her act included trapeze and wire stunts performed in full drag, with Barbette only revealing her gender at the end by removing her wig and striking exaggerated masculine poses.

“His career has been totally brilliant,” Fontaine said. “His vision and perspective of society and art was far beyond what we have in 2024.”

Fontaine now strives to ensure that the world always remembers and reveres her Texan sister. To do so, the drag queen teamed up with CBS Austin anchor John-Carlos Estrada and a team of creatives to produce a short documentary not only about the legendary artist’s life, but also how his legacy still impacts the lives of artists today. including that of Fontaine. Barbette + Fontaine weaves together the stories of the two titular drag artists, drawing parallels between their experiences in the Texas performing arts scene despite the decades separating them.

“Cynthia seemed like the perfect person,” Estrada said. The lawyer. “I told her about Barbette, about the project I wanted to do, and she immediately told me: ‘I know exactly who it is. I was waiting for this moment. Thank you so much.’ »

Estrada, who previously produced a short segment on Barbette for his local station, said he was inspired to continue sharing the artist’s legacy after Barbette came to him in a dream and asked him to “tell my story”.

“I was so immersed in Barbette’s story that I dreamed I was witnessing one of his performances in front of the audience, watching him do his high wire in his trapeze,” he said. “And then all of a sudden, we were face to face backstage, and he asked me, ‘Please tell my story.’ It’s been 100 years. I think people have forgotten me. So this documentary is this promise that I made to Barbette in this dream, and ever since, it’s been a wonderful adventure.

Barbette + Fontaine is only 14 minutes long, which Fontaine says is a way of paying homage to the artist. “His act was always 14 minutes long, that’s why our short documentary is only 14 minutes long, because we want to embody him, even in length,” she said.

The film also explores Barbette and Fontaine’s shared struggles with their health. Barbette’s performing career ended in the mid-1930s after battles with pneumonia and polio. He later committed suicide in 1973 when the chronic pain left by his illnesses became too severe to manage. Conversely, Fontaine has been open about her battle with cancer, which interrupted her participation in the eighth season of RuPaul’s Drag Raceand regained its place in season nine.

While there are many similarities between the artists’ stories, there is one glaring difference that Fontaine pointed out between her and Barbette’s time, as she said: “100 years ago we had the possibility of freedom of expression. »

“It’s important to see that at Barbette’s time, people didn’t care at all about her gender or her sexuality. They care about artistry,” Fontaine said. “They accept and like what she does. »

Estrada also stressed the importance of when Barbette + Fontaine is premiering, as he said the documentary was “coming together just as (anti-trailing) legislation was being introduced in the Texas Legislature.”

“These problems are not going to go away,” Estrada said. “Even though a federal judge struck down the Texas dragging bill, it’s just a problem that’s going to continue, especially if certain things happen in November. »

For Fontaine, it’s ironic that there seems to be more pushback against the art of drag today than in Barbette’s time. Even though being queer wasn’t accepted a century ago, she emphasized how Barbette was “respected” as a performer.

“This is what we need. We must abandon respect. We have to let go of acceptance,” she said. “We must give up the opportunity to recognize that we are part of this nation, as another citizen, as another part of society here in the United States. We deserve these rights and we deserve this respect. »

“Cligrating is not a crime. Drag is an art, and drag is love,” Fontaine said.

Barbette + Fontaine
is screening at several film festivals over the summer and fall, but is still looking for a host streaming platform.

Barbette + Fontaine Official Trailer (2024)

If you or someone you know needs mental health resources and support, please call, text or chat with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or visit988lifeline.org for 24/7 access to free and confidential services. Trans Lifeline, designed for transgender and gender non-conforming people, can be reached at (877) 565-8860. The Lifeline also provides resources to help deal with other crises, such as domestic violence situations. The Trevor Project Lifeline, for LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and under), can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Users can also access chat services on TheTrevorProject.org/Help or send START by SMS to 678678.

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