Drag has long been a huge part of LGBTQ+ culture – from its origins on the stage, to the drag balls that established it as a queer art form, before finding its way into pop culture. Today – thanks in no small part to RuPaul’s Drag Race – drag has its heels planted firmly in the world of mainstream entertainment.
One of the drag shows out there, bringing the house down wherever it goes, is The Beyoncé Experience. Headed up by Beyoncé impersonator Aaron Carty, if you happen to be a Beyoncé fan (who isn’t?), this drag show promises to be the “next best thing” to seeing the pop superstar. “The reason I call it Aaron Carty’s Beyoncé Experience is because it’s my take on it; it’s very much my version. If you want to, you can just go on YouTube and watch Beyoncé live. So we want to make it slightly different,” Aaron tells us. And you’re more than welcome to call him a poor man’s Beyoncé. “I did have one person on Twitter call me a poor man’s Beyoncé, and I said, “You know what, you’re bang on right! That’s fantastic, I love that!” Everyone who loves Beyoncé but can’t afford to go to her – just come and see my show, after one drink you’ll be having the full Beyoncé Experience!”
Aaron has performed around the world with The Beyoncé Experience for several years now – but how did he first get into drag? When he became a police officer aged 18, it was the furthest thing from his mind – “if you’d told me then, “In 10 years’ time you’re going to be travelling the world and dancing as Beyoncé,” I would have said, “Absolutely not, that’s not for me!””
But everything changed within the space of one weekend, when Aaron went to Sitges Pride back in 2014. “They had a drag night, and I said to my friends, “Let’s just get in drag, let’s be part of it.”,” Aaron recalls. “We had it in our heads that we’d put all this drag on, and two hours in we’d be so drunk that the wigs would be off and the heels would be in the field,” he laughs. “But as I started walking down to the beach, locals kept coming up to me and saying, “Beyoncé! Are you performing tonight?” By the time I got to the beach, the organisers came up to me and said, “Everyone’s been asking if you’re the Beyoncé impersonator performing tonight” – and they didn’t even have a Beyoncé impersonator on!”
The event organisers then asked Aaron to perform a song on stage – and when he insisted that it wasn’t for him, they invited him back on Saturday with the added promise of VIP backstage passes for Aaron and his friends. Aaron finally agreed to perform, “But what I didn’t know is that Saturday’s obviously their biggest night – they had this huge stage at the beach, set up for an audience of ten thousand people. I was absolutely shitting myself!”
But the fates seemed to align for Aaron’s first performance. “During the day I was sitting on the beach talking to my friends saying, “What the hell am I going to do for makeup?!”” Aaron remembers. “We’d gone to Primark, and just bought bits and bobs. And then this guy turned around and said, “I just overheard your conversation – I’m a makeup artist on the TV show Modern Family, and I’ve flown from LA to Sitges. I’ll do your makeup if you want.” So he came around and did my makeup – and I’ve never looked any any better than I did that night,” he laughs. When the video of Aaron’s first performance at Sitges went up online, the reception blew him away. “I thought after doing Beyoncé that all the trolls would come out in the comments section, but it was so positive and encouraging.”
It was up and up from there; Aaron’s next performance on the UK’s biggest talent show catapulted him into the celebrity stratosphere – and into the tabloids – overnight. “My next performance was on Britain’s Got Talent. Obviously being a police officer then came back, because the press found all these articles – there was a time I was involved with Jade Goody, and all of that came out. I was in Closer magazine in my police outfit. So the hype was real,” he recalls. “And off the back of Britain’s Got Talent – those three minutes on television – I had literally thousands of performance requests. They were going online and finding my work email address, my personal email address.” Aaron decided to go along with his newfound fame. “My best friend said, “Look, you should just run with this. Have some fun with it, even if it’s something you do with a hobby to take your mind away from work.”” Taking that advice has changed his life. “I’m in another world. I’m 35 now, I’m dancing with dancers who are 20 years old and traveling the world with them – and just doing that opens up everything. I’m still going to be doing this at 60!”
“Everyone can get on the stage and perform in front of twenty thousand people – I genuinely believe that.”Aaron Carty
Aaron was even the first drag queen to perform at Everest Base Camp. “I’d been wanting to do Everest base camp since I was about ten years old. Everyone was jokingly saying, “Are you going to do Beyoncé up there?” And I was like, “No, are you kidding me?! It’s gonna take all of my effort just to get up there!” It’s a seven-day trek, and it is horrendous – it’s so gruelling. But I thought, I can’t go all this way and not do Beyoncé. So I packed up an easy costume and decided to do it. What I didn’t know was that there would be limits to how much stuff we could carry, so more than 50 percent of my bag was the costume – I was basically wearing the same tops and trousers for seven days just to fit in wigs, costumes and boots.
“The day before we reached base camp, I got really ill. I had a really bad migraine – and I thought, I’ve come all this way, it’s freezing cold and wet, and I’m not going to be able to do it. Then the next morning we were up at four o’clock to walk up. It was such a hard climb. When I got to the top I thought, I can’t do it – I’m freezing, I can’t stand here and take all of my clothes off to put a costume on, in front of probably about 100 people from all around the world, and dance to Beyoncé! And then this Scottish guy came up to me and he said, “I’ve got a mankini in my bag – would you help me take my clothes off to put my mankini on?” I didn’t know him! And I was like, “Ok, but only if you can help me get into my drag.” So we helped each other. It was absolute fate. As I started walking towards the main rock, everyone parted and formed a semicircle to watch me perform. It was so cold – it was so cold I couldn’t even put my other clothes back on. But I’m so happy I did that. I mean, I looked absolutely terrible, but I didn’t care what I looked like; what was important to me is that I did it.”
Even now, after performances around the world, Aaron sees himself as an unlikely drag queen. “I think there are a lot a lot of drag queens out there nowadays who are pretty much the same in and out of drag; they’re full of energy, eccentric, and bubbly the entire time. I’m not that – I’m such a normal boring person,” he laughs. “But sometimes I do this as well. I think people can relate to that a lot more.” He also thinks that anyone can follow in his footsteps. “I think everyone can get on the stage and perform in front of twenty thousand people – I genuinely believe that. I think the only thing holding them back is what other people are going to think about them.”
“It really unleashed the creativity in me – which I think I’ve always had, but I had never really been given an opportunity to see how I would try it. I think that comes from growing up hiding big parts of of my personality, and my values, just in case someone found out I was gay.”Aaron Carty
For many of us, the fear of getting up to perform in front of others is often too much to overcome – how do you get past that? “It does take a lot to perform in front of a crowd,” Aaron acknowledges, “And I never thought I’d be the one doing that. Even now, if I go to a show and there’s audience participation, my heart will instantly start racing, I’ll start sweating, and honestly if they come anywhere near me to try and talk to me I’ll literally die. To the point where if I know there’s audience participation, I’m not going,” he laughs. “But that just goes to show that this fear that we have is stopping us from doing some very simple tasks, which you never know might lead on to something else. Yes, not every opportunity is going to lead you to what you want, and for every success that I’ve had, I’ve had ten really bad failures. But if this year has taught us anything, it’s that if you’re thinking about doing something, you have to just go for it, whatever it is.”
And, Aaron stresses, you don’t have to wait until you’re more polished or better prepared, especially when it comes to drag. “I was watching a drag makeup tutorial the other day, and the drag queen said, “Stay in your bedroom until you get your makeup looking amazing.” That’s pretty bad advice!” he says. “Go out with no makeup and just a wig, like I did in Sitges – with some lashes and a cheap plastic wig – who knew, five years later, I’d be wearing full 60-inch human hair, the best makeup in the world and enormous, expensive makeup collection? We all have to start somewhere.”
Each performance of the Beyoncé Experience involves not only intense choreography for Aaron and his dancers – but he has to rock his best Beyoncé looks while doing it too. Every show requires a lot of preparation. “It really takes a village,” Aaron says. “I spend hours mixing music, hours doing makeup. Normal hair takes 45 minutes to wash, blow dry and style, and I have to do that every time. I’m in a wig, dancing for two hours – you can’t just brush that out. I make all of my costumes myself, and I make all the girls’ costumes as well, so that’s four times everything I need to make. And even from a fitness level – only this year I started running 5k every day just to keep up that stamina, and then I work out three times a week and I’ll cycle 40 miles a week. It really takes that much all behind the scenes.
“For what I’m doing – normally a drag queen will go on space and perform for three to five minutes as part of the night, but we’re doing two-hour shows most of the time. That’s enough to wear you out for the rest of the day. I think the biggest energy stealer is costume changes – when you’re really exhausted halfway through a performance, but then you’ve got 30 seconds to completely get a costume off and on. The mess, the carnage, the chaos! I rehearse getting in and out of costumes – after I have my 5k run, I’ll quickly run downstairs, put a costume on, then try and take it off and put it back on again while I’m sweaty and a bit exhausted, because that’s the real test.”
“There are so many reasons why people can’t attend Pride themselves -and they need to know that this world exists. We have such a bigger responsibility than just throwing a party; we need to give these countries [where it’s illegal to be gay] visibility. It’s our duty.”Aaron Carty
Despite the hard work, being at the helm of the Beyoncé Experience has been more rewarding than Aaron could ever have imagined. “It was the best thing I could have ever done. I genuinely feel it saved me from becoming bogged down with the day-to-day of running a business, and it really unleashed the creativity in me – which I think I’ve always had, but I had never really been given an opportunity to see how I would try it,” he says. “I think that comes from growing up hiding big parts of of my personality, and my values, just in case someone found out I was gay. When you’re in the closet, you don’t want to show too much of yourself or express yourself for fear of people realising. I’m so happy it happened to me, because I know there are so many people that never went down that path, and they’re still feeling that now.”
For someone whose livelihood revolves around performing, lockdown has of course been a huge adjustment. Aaron took it as an opportunity to update costumes, and filmed performances at home to put online – but nonetheless, being unable to perform shows in person took its toll. “After every performance, the next day I’d always get the performance blues – when you were on stage last night as Beyoncé, and everyone was screaming and cheering, it’s such a euphoric moment that when you go back to your day job you naturally get the blues. To have that continuously for so long really affected me.” But receiving messages from fans during lockdown has given Aaron a renewed sense of appreciation. “To have people message and say, “We’ve really missed you” – that’s been really encouraging. I’ve been made more aware by our followers how much they relied on our performances as a part of their own well-being and entertainment.”
“We don’t want to be tolerated – we need to be accepted. So you need to be yourself unapologetically.”Aaron Carty
Aaron is certain that when in-person audiences can start up again, the Beyoncé Experience is going to come back stronger. “I’ll definitely appreciate every single show so much more.” Until then, moving performances online has had the benefit of making them more accessible to parts of the community who otherwise may not be able to see them; something Aaron has seen first-hand as the head of marketing for UK Black Pride. “There are so many reasons why people can’t attend Pride themselves – whether it be where they live, financially they can’t afford it – and they need to know that this world exists,” Aaron says. “When we started doing UK Black Pride online, even through our Facebook page we were getting 24,000 views from people in countries where it’s illegal to be gay. We have such a bigger responsibility than just throwing a party; we need to give these countries visibility. It’s our duty. It means young people are going to see that and think, “This is my path.””
The impact on young queer audiences is clear – what does Aaron want people to take away from his performances most of all? “I’m unapologetically The Beyoncé Experience, and I really want that to resonate with people in all of the events that we do – you’ve got to be unapologetically you,” he says. “When people say we need to tolerate people and their lifestyles – no, you need to accept them. We don’t want to be tolerated, we need to be accepted. So you need to be yourself unapologetically, and for those that aren’t ready to, or don’t know how to, I hope at least they can get something from my story, and that it might help them get that one step closer to being unapologetically themselves.”
To find out more about The Beyoncé Experience, visit their website: https://www.beyonceexperience.co.uk/
You can follow Aaron on Instagram and Twitter at @aaroncarty.