Tyra Bankstown might have been dressing up in drag since the age of 18, but the proud Mangarai “look queen” didn’t perform in public until she was 30. What was the prompt? When she decided to enter the Miss First Nations pageant in 2019 – and felt instantly supported.
“I walked into a sisterhood,” she says. After a fellow queen told her to think of the stage as home, Bankstown went on to win Miss Personality in the pageant, then lead the First Nations float in that year’s Mardi Gras parade. And, after absorbing valuable lessons as the drag daughter of Miss First Nations founder Miss Ellaneous, Bankstown is now the house mother of a diverse group of queens dubbed Super Massive Blaq Moles, which fosters a safe space within the marginalised drag community. She’s also become well known to the city’s drag fans, appearing at the Ivy Precinct’s monthly Poof Doof night, joined by her house daughter, Felicia Foxx.
“We’re very much nerds in drag,” says Bankstown of her chosen family, just hours before starring in her house’s first definitive photo shoot as part of Absolut’s Chosen Families campaign, which aims to platform notable queer families in the places that have shaped their story. “We like to reference science fiction.” In fact, they’re seeking funding for a full theatre production based on a running story they’ve developed about a science vessel in space that gets sucked into a black hole, turning the crew into drag queens.
This Mardi Gras, Bankstown will co-host Koori Gras, a full-day drag and dance workshop for First Nations performers at The Bearded Tit in Redfern. Bankstown will teach make-up while dancer and choreographer Phil Dean Walford will handle movement. In the second week of Mardi Gras, Koori Gras will showcase queer First Nations performers, curated and hosted by Nana Miss Koori.
Bankstown says she’s attended or participated in around a decade’s worth of Mardi Gras. It's “an accumulation of magic,” she says of the annual event. “I look back and it’s like a montage of amazing moments. It’s always been a celebration of diversity and colour. When you can bring everyone together on a positive note, it’s incredible. It’s an incredible feeling of euphoria, even for allies.”
Sometimes forgotten in the fun is the event’s beginnings as a protest. Mardi Gras began in 1978 as a fight for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Australia – among other social issues. The first march ended in violence when police cracked down on the assemblage. “It’s a great time to celebrate, but it’s also a time to look back at the past,” says Bankstown. “It started as a protest and now we can celebrate it so freely.” After two years of rolling lockdowns, she thinks this year’s Mardi Gras celebrations will be even more meaningful.
That’s also in part to her involvement in running a workshop this year. As a First Nations queen, she takes her role as an ambassador and to other First Nations drag performers seriously, and was a reason why she was nominated as a hero for Merivale’s “We are all Heroes” campaign. When not in lockdown over the past few years, Bankstown has travelled to remote communities to perform at Indigenous community events and raise money for charity.
That travel to the outback ties into her own origin story. Bankstown’s drag journey began when she saw The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert as a young teen and became obsessed with drag culture. She was out on the town one night in Bankstown when her drag name came to her – the rest has flowed from there. As well as the mentorship of former house mother, Miss Ellaneous, Indigenous queen Destiny Haz Arrived stands out as a hero to her younger self, along with Coco Jumbo and Vanity Faire.
She also points out how the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race is helping to bring drag to a mainstream audience. “I was [doing drag] back when we were social pariahs,” says Bankstown. “We sacrificed our safety in the world to be who we are. That’s still present today, but it’s gotten a lot better. Because people now understand drag. It’s not a sexualised thing, it’s an art form. We break down gender roles and social constructs. It’s a statement against conforming.”
A beauty technician by day, Bankstown has also worked with aspiring queens in juvenile detention, teaching them about beauty tips and social media. She tells them there isn’t just one way to be a drag queen – there’s pageant queens, comedy queens, look queens, not to mention models, rappers and performers of all stripes.
“There are so many different disciplines you can pursue,” says Bankstown. “It’s an expression of your artistic talent, whatever that is. There’s no wrong kind of drag. Straight men do drag now, women do drag now. It’s good for your mental health.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Merivale and the We are all Hero’s campaign.