As fabulous as ever, “Yolanda” is born again
In the late 1990s, Roger Mapes was Burlington’s king of queens. As his glitzy alter ego, Yolanda, the burly singer was the city’s most prominent drag queen, the leader of seminal B-town band the Plastic Family and, with fellow drag queen Cherie Tartt, the cohost of a popular local cable-access program, “The Cherie and Yolanda Show.” The name Yolanda was virtually synonymous with Burlington’s burgeoning drag scene, until Mapes relocated to New York City in 2000. “It was the best time of my life, basically,” recalls Mapes in a recent phone interview.
This Saturday, he returns to the Queen City to perform at this year’s Winter Is a Drag Ball at Higher Ground. Mapes helped birth the drag extravaganza in 1995 as a benefit for Vermont CARES, an organization he would later work with when he discovered he was HIV positive.
But when he once again graces the Drag Ball stage, Mapes will do so not as Yolanda, or even a character at all. For the first time in Burlington, he will perform as a complete version of himself: Roger Anthony Yolanda Mapes.
The Yolanda persona was “born and raised” in Northfield, Vt. Mapes originally moved to Vermont in the early 1990s to live with the Radical Faeries, a loosely associated global network of drag queens, whose original Vermont chapter was based in the small central Vermont town. The Faeries have since relocated to Faerie Camp Destiny in Chester.
“Drag was very much a part of everyday life with the Radical Faeries,” Mapes says. “The kind of drag we’re all now accustomed to seeing. Gender-bending drag, guys with beards in dresses, things like that.”
When Mapes began performing as Yolanda in Burlington, he displayed an over-the-top style similar to that which he’d developed with the Faeries. He then created new facets of her personality by exploring a variety of aesthetics.
“I experimented with different looks, which I still do,” Mapes explains. “I moved into shaving my body and being really glamorous, and then moved in and out of that.
“But at heart, Yolanda has always been a Radical Faerie,” he says.
Mapes notes that while he discovered a lot about himself through drag, the effect his performances had on others was equally profound.
“The drag-queen community has a sense of daring about it,” he says. “A sense of extraordinariness that a lot of people feel they can’t do in their lives, for whatever reason. Seeing guys all dressed up and acting in over-the-top ways is very liberating as a drag queen, but also for other people. It’s a way of projecting feelings onto someone else and living vicariously through them.”
Mapes says that over the years a number of people have told him they think drag queens are courageous; some found inspiration for coming out of the closet themselves.
Of course, “there are also other, not-so-nice things people say, too,” says Mapes with a chuckle. “But, for the most part, everybody gets that it’s about having a sense of humor and taking a lighter view of life and living large. That’s appealing.”
But Mapes discovered that living vicariously through alternate personalities can have unintended side effects — most notably, losing one’s true identity.
Last year, he released his latest album, House of Joy, as Roger Anthony Yolanda Mapes. The fusion of his given name with that of his more extravagant sobriquet represents a melding of his two personalities, born from a deeper understanding of the various facets that make up his larger whole.
When he moved to New York City, Mapes reformed the Plastic Family with new members. The band drew wide acclaim in GLBT circles — Mapes was named OutMusic.com’s OutMusician of the Year in 2003, and says he was recently inducted into both the Bear Hall of Fame and the GLBT Hall of Fame. But in 2004, he disbanded the group amid a flurry of life-altering personal changes that he now refers to as a “spiritual journey.”
“It led me to an understanding of what I call the ‘god-goddess within,’” Mapes says.
That year he also met his current partner, and the pair secluded themselves from the world. Mapes stopped performing for three years.
“I had never had this kind of relationship before, so it was a new discovery of love and self-realization,” he confides. And he became reacquainted with Roger Mapes.
“My goal in drag was never to impersonate a woman,” he says. “In my mind it was always about discovering something unique about myself. I was now understanding the masculine side of myself in a new way, and the feminine side of myself in a new way.”
It would be easy to mistake Mapes’ newfound identity as duality, or a reconciling of seemingly disparate personalities. That’s not how he sees it.
Mapes explains that he had become so outwardly identified as Yolanda that he lost sight of the reason he started doing drag in the first place.
“I was so identified as … ‘she’ that it cut me out of an experience that I wanted to have, of being a gay man,” he says. “This is about fusing everything together as all of that which I am.”
The record also represents another sort of rediscovery for Mapes. Inspired in equal measures by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Divine, House of Joy marks a return to his Southern roots: Mapes grew up in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
“At the heart of what I wanted to do was this deep longing to express this love for Southern culture and Southern music,” he reveals. On his website, Mapes describes his new aesthetic as the “alien love child of Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Louise Hay and John Waters.” That’s just about right.
“For many years I was ashamed of being Southern,” he admits. “As I’ve grown older I’ve come to embrace that part of myself, too, and what my life was about when I lived in the South. Really, it was about music.”
Mapes’ father was a radio and television broadcaster in Muscle Shoals, which, in the 1960s, was an unlikely rock-and-roll hotbed.
“It was the hit recording capital of the world in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Mapes, recalling the flood of artists who came through the small town: the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin, to name a few.
“It was quite an experience. And I wanted to reconnect with that,” Mapes says. “I am a whole person. I am both male and female. I am Southern and Northern. I am everything, because what I really am is spirit,” he says. “This whole progression has been about pulling everything together and fusing it into one entity: Roger Anthony Yolanda Mapes.”
But we can still call him Yolanda, right?
“Oh, sure!” he exclaims. “It’s much easier that way.”