Dusting the runway: Angel Dust serves looks, queer community

Junior Angel Zayas, who performs under the drag persona Angel Dust, says drag can bring queer and non-queer communities together. (Allen Pham/Daily Trojan)

It was a typical Friday night for Angel Dust. In a cramped restroom tucked away on the second floor of West Hollywood’s Rage Nightclub, an epic transformation was well underway. With the help of her backup dancer and friend Irvin, Angel was about to become the fiercest woman in town — all that was missing was a sequin overcoat and pair of glossy, knee-high hooker boots to complete her sparkly (and very pink) ensemble. Twenty minutes, a slice of pizza and dozens of selfies with drunk strangers later, Angel was ready to take the stage.

After a showstopping lip-synced rendition of Ciara’s “1, 2 Step,” Angel confidently exited the packed dance floor and retreated upstairs, escorted by her team of dancers. She was content; a five-minute performance and several dollars in tips was all Angel needed to have a good time.

For Angel Zayas, the mastermind behind drag persona Angel Dust, performing was never just a dream — it was what he was born to do. However, he never seriously considered pursuing drag until he came to USC. After a couple of ragtag performances at Ground Zero Performance Café and a gay bar in Pomona, Zayas fell in love with drag and discovered the diva that had been inside him all along.

It was then that Angel Dust turned from a figment of Zayas’ imagination into a reality.

“It was always a piece of me that was inside,” said Zayas, a junior majoring in theatre. “I’ve had this vision of Angel Dust as a pop star for a very long time.”

Feeling the fantasy

A self-proclaimed “conceptual performer,” Angel Dust believes that bigger — and pinker — is better. Now a regular performer at Rage Nightclub, the drag diva has been gaining prominence in both the USC and greater Los Angeles drag scenes. At the Queer Student and Ally Student Assembly’s annual drag show last November, Angel Dust received a standing ovation for her larger-than-life performance complete with show tricks and a handful of uniformed backup dancers.

While Angel Dust encapsulates the confidence and exuberance of true diva, Zayas said this attitude demands almost as much construction as the elaborate costumes he performs in. In fact, getting into the character of Angel Dust requires quite a bit of mental preparation and method acting on Zayas’ part.

“Because Angel Dust is what I imagine a modern-day pop star [to be] … I have to get in the mindset that I’m more important than I am,” he said. “For example, a lot of drag queens don’t have managers or assistants and stuff like that. I do because that helps me get into the fantasy.”

Beyond the makeup and the mindset, Zayas said it’s not the technical stage skills that make a performer memorable — rather, it’s their ability to captivate the audience.

“You don’t have to be the best makeup artist, you don’t have to be best dancer, you don’t have to be the best lip-syncer,” Zayas said. “If you are, which only a few people can be — amazing. But can you control an audience? Can you look at them once and make them freeze? That’s captivation, and it’s something you can’t teach. I, for a long time, really struggled with this idea.”

Community service realness

Beyond his love for performing, Zayas has been involved in various aspects of the queer community at USC. He previously worked as resident assistant for Century Apartments’ Rainbow Floor, a special interest housing community for LGBTQ+ students. Zayas was also a student worker at the LGBT Resource Center, where he met his mentor Kelby Accardi-Harrison.

Accardi-Harrison recalls meeting Zayas during his first year at USC, when he proposed the idea of starting a drag club at the University. According to her, Zayas was outspoken and determined to see his ideas through from the start.

“I really appreciated his honesty and his vision for what he wanted to see for our student community,” Accardi-Harrison said.

While at USC, Zayas has actively worked to establish stronger ties in the campus community through drag. According to Zayas, drag has the ability to bring people together — even for those who do not identify as queer.

“I think drag can build bridges between communities that [don’t] mesh well, like queer people and non-queer people,” he said. ”Once they find out about drag and understand it and are educated about it, they’re likely to be more receptive to it.”

Zayas’ idea is a reflection of the mainstream success of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a reality competition show for drag performers that first aired in 2009. Now considered a cultural phenomenon, “Drag Race” revolutionized public perception of drag and made the art form more accessible to non-queer communities.

Under Zayas’ direction, last year’s annual drag show reached maximum capacity at 500, the attendance record in its nine-year history. The event also introduced a new crop of drag queens, such as Bunny Bloodlust and Annie Vaxxer.

“Drag has always existed in all aspects of life, so it’s not like I was the first drag queen to ever walk onto campus, but I will say that it really helped that I came to USC at a time when ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ came into the mainstream,” Zayas said. “When I started drag, it wasn’t considered cool to do drag.”

The runway ahead

Angel Dust has already made big plans for her career. While she recently applied for season 12 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Angel said she won’t be discouraged if she doesn’t get cast.

“If season 11 were the last season, I’m still going to be a famous drag queen,” she said. “It’s not going to stop me.”

In addition to serving as QuASA’s director next year, Zayas also added that he is working to develop a one-woman show for Angel Dust, which he hopes to perform sometime next year.

“My goal is to take drag where it’s never gone,” Zayas said. “No one’s ever done a two-hour show that’s like a concert or tour so that’s something I want to do. I want to trail blaze the same way RuPaul did in the ’90s.”

According to alumna and Zayas’ friend Nicole Medina, the future is bright for both Angel Zayas and Angel Dust.

“I either see him turning a drag race stint into a lot of club gigs and going on that world tour or, if for some reason ‘Drag Race’ doesn’t pan out … I see him doing drag and other performances, possibly acting,” Medina said. “I see him performing and being successful and developing tons of relationships and a fan base out here in L.A. at minimum, if not nationally and internationally.”