A Black drag performer on stage inside a club.
Zoey Adams performs during a night of drag entertainment at Atomic Rose in downtown Memphis last month. Adams is an employee at the club, where she regularly also performs. Photos by Andrea Morales for MLK50  

Iconic scenes in the reality competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” reveal the queens gathering to “get into drag” for the day’s performances. That’s not how it is for  Zoey Adams. 

This queen opts to put on her stage makeup, wig and nails at home before leaving for Atomic Rose, a downtown Memphis nightclub, with her husband, Kevin.

There, Adams performs on Friday and Saturday nights for patrons who are 21 and over, and at the weekly drag brunch on Sunday afternoons. The club’s owner, Charlie Barnett, pays several of the performers a full-time salary. 

Adams has worked as a drag performer for more than 10 years. 

Drag is the passion that the slim, statuesque beauty was able to turn into a career. But she says the work doesn’t encompass the totality of her personality. Adams confesses that offstage, she’s private, reserved and introverted. When she’s not performing, she’s “just a regular, schmegular person.

“It was either live in fear or hunker down and live your truth, and, baby, I chose what made me happy!”

Zoey Adams

“I’m only that larger-than-life character for that four and half minutes that I’m on stage,” she says, referring to her gravity-defying flips and tricks. “That’s all you need because, otherwise, you get a big head, and no one likes that. You have to learn how to divide yourself in knowing what’s for stage and what’s for show, and what makes you a genuine, real person.”

Born in Kentucky and raised in Ripley, Tennessee, Adams recalls her first exposure to what most people would consider drag through some of the cartoons she watched as a child. 

“It was entertainment when I was [about] 10…Like, Bugs Bunny as the opera lady,” she points out, referring to the 1957 “What’s Opera Doc?” animated film. “Then there were the [trans] specials on Jerry Springer and Maury.”

By the time Adams was 15, she had come out as transgender — in Ripley. The small town in Lauderdale County is about an hour’s drive northwest of Memphis and home to less than 8,000 people. More than half of the city’s residents are Black, but like many small, Southern towns, railroad tracks separate many of them from their white neighbors. According to Adams, the city wasn’t very welcoming of queer people in general and didn’t have much to offer in terms of social or emotional support for queer youth.

A Black drag performer styles her hair.
Adams puts the final touch on her hair while starting the night off with her first look.
A Black drag performer walks out on to the stage.
Adams sashays across the dance floor during one of her evening performances.

“It was either live in fear or hunker down and live your truth, and, baby, I chose what made me happy!” she says.

Just about two years later, a 17-year-old Adams gave her first drag performance at an event to raise money for a friend’s sister diagnosed with cancer. Adams “got out there and awkwardly pranced around like a giraffe” after telling herself that the benefit was the perfect occasion to make public her private dreams of performing on stage.

“I went full throttle, pedal to the metal,” she says, giggling at the memory of the benefit show at a Memphis pizzeria. “I said, Tthat’s it. That’s where I’m gonna do it.’” 

Her friend’s sister made a full recovery, and the drag career of Zoey Adams began with regular bookings at area clubs and events.

“Drag is so many things for so many people,” she says. “And for me, because I do drag full-time as my main source of income, it is a business. Drag is [also] community, drag is family, drag is beautiful.”

She’s been a staple in the Memphis drag scene ever since and also performs around the country. 

While she’d never describe herself as a local celebrity, Adams and the other Atomic Rose queens are the clear draws that keep the bar packed, weekend after weekend. And, she says, she considers them more than her colleagues.

Three people stand at the front door of a nightclub.
Adams hangs out with some coworkers during a slow moment early in the evening.

“When you spend three nights a week doing drag with each other, you kind of build a sense of family. So, I have my own [family], in a traditional sense, and I have a community.”

That community has lately been the target of an out-of-touch, Republican-controlled Tennessee legislature that passed a ban on drag shows, claiming they exposed children to inappropriate and sexual themes. The ban, which aimed to limit “adult cabaret performances” on public property, could have been particularly dangerous for transwomen like Adams, had it not been deemed unconstitutional by a Trump-appointed federal judge.

“As you can imagine, being at so many intersections of being a minority — being Black in the South, being trans on top of that — safe spaces [are hard to come by],” she says. “Not everyone is well-versed or knowledgeable on what being trans means. I feel like [the proposed law] just gives them more ammo to further their ignorance.”

When the law was blocked and that news arrived at the Atomic Rose, Adams says there was “a high-energy, high-octane feeling in the room.”

“It was really, really special because it was Pride weekend. Then, to have an announcement like that, you could feel the energy in the room almost levitate you.”

The feelings of relief and excitement were welcomed by the woman who says that she never thrived in her past careers in customer and food service. Because she’s able to pack in full-time hours each weekend, Adams can spend her weekdays as “a housewife to a lovely mechanic.”

“Believe it or not, my favorite activity is sitting at home with my dogs and husband.”

The pair met a little over five years ago at a New Year’s Eve party, where they shared their first kiss at midnight. They enjoy a quiet life with their two dogs, a drever-collie mix named Hey-Man, a golden retriever named Mira, and a cat, Odie.

“I’m very, very aware of the blessing that I have being able to do drag full-time,” she says. “So to be able to live a comfortable life — I’m not saying I’m out here rolling around in money, cuz nobody doing drag is — and to not really wonder where my next meal is going to come from or how I’m going to pay my bills [is] very rewarding; financially, emotionally, and mentally.”

Ellen Chamberlain is a passionate storyteller and lover of people who has been published in various mediums across the country. Catch her if you can on social media @esaidshesaid.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

Got a story idea, a tip or feedback? Send an email to info@mlk50.com.