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Black Divaz: the documentary that gives a rare look into the lives of Indigenous drag queens

Black Divaz: the documentary that gives a rare look into the lives of Indigenous drag queens

Close up photo of drag queen wearing a pink headband and purple glitter lipstick

The first time John Ridgeway did drag it was to make a political statement. But little did he know within a couple of years his drag would help make Australian history.

Ridgeway was outraged at the comments a local councillor made about Indigenous culture in the regional town of Dubbo, about 241 miles (388 kilometres) north west of Sydney.

Dubbo hosted its first pride march in 2015 when the local councillor said homosexuality was not part of the Indigenous culture.

As an Indigenous and gay man from the Biripi people, Ridgeway was outraged at the comment.

‘Instead of tearing shreds off him (the councillor), I decided to  make silent a statement,’ Ridgeway told Gay Star News.

‘So I walked down main drag in Dubbo dressed in a dress made from the Aboriginal flag and LGBTI (rainbow flag).’

Drag queen working on road wearing Aboriginal and Pride flag with a train carried by five people walking behind her
Jojo struts her stuff in Dubbo Pride, 2015 in Australia. | Photo: Supplied

Baby drag

He would go on to the make the same statement in the next few Dubbo pride marches. But his political action ignited an unknown passion for drag, and Jojo the Biripi drag queen was born.

Ridgeway had barely graduated from his baby drag queen days when the country’s first drag pageant for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander drag queens – Miss First Nation – was announced.

‘People knew I had dabbled in drag and I never thought I was ready for something,’ he said.

‘But one of the organizers messaged me on Instagram saying that I should apply.

‘I thought what’s the harm in putting in an application… what’s the worst that could happen?’

So along with five other Indigenous queens, JoJo headed to the northern city of Darwin to battle it out in a week-long competition.

Tiddas for life

Despite the gruelling challenges which included sewing, photo shoots with crocodiles and performance challenges, the queens formed a strong bond.

Dallas Webster aka Nova Gina is a local celebrity in her coastal hometown of Kempsey. Along with her partner TJ, Nova Gina is one half of the famed Dreatime Divas act.

Drag queen Nova Gina holding two pythons
Dunghutti drag queen Nova Gina. | Photo: Supplied

Even though the girls were competing against each other, there was a feeling of sisterhood and support.

‘Having been given the opportunity to be a part of the Inaugural Miss Nations Competition was a definite highlight in my short drag career,’ Nova Gina said.

‘I got to meet some awesome people whom I know will be lifelong Tiddas (sisters).

‘A couple of the Sistagirls from up that way showed me around and introduced me to some their family and friends.

‘The gigs themselves were fun and having Indigenous Tiddas along for the ride made it even more exciting.’

The queens also bonded because drag was more than just performance for them, but a platform to raise awareness about issues facing Indigenous communities.

Having a platform such as the stage also helps us send our message out which is the promotion of social diversity, particularly among rural communities… we also promote the awareness and hopefully prevention of youth suicide,’ Nova Gina said.

JoJo agrees.

‘One of the biggest things about being an Indigenous drag queen is that it gives us a platform to address real issues and one of the main reason we got into drag,’ she said.

‘It’s a platform to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves… it isn’t just glam and prettiness we get down and dirty into the local community.’

Black Divaz

While the drag queens were busy making history, a documentary crew were there capturing every tear jerking and jubilant moment.

The documentary called Black Divaz followed the inaugural Miss First Nation pageant and focuses on the personal stories of some of the contestants.

black divaz miss first nations indigenous drag queens
The six drag queens vying for the Miss First Nations crown Photo: Joseph Mayers Joseph Mayers

The film crew travelled to their hometowns. They revealed the challenges, heartbreaks and triumphs that have made them who they are.

Having cameras around them constantly was a bit hard for the queens at the beginning.

‘The first two days was nerve wracking, you’d turn around and be like “there’s a camera there”,’ JoJo said.

‘Or you’d have a microphone attached to you, but after the second night you forgot they were there.

The producers made it amazing and made sure it went smoothly for us.’

Both queens are excited to see how Black Divaz turned out. They’re heading to its premier at Sydney’s Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival.

‘I’m going to need waterproof mascara and tissues when I watch it,’ JoJo said.

Black Divaz is premiering at the Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival on February 28.

Black Divaz will also air on NITV at 8.30 on 1 March.