Country music has become increasingly inclusive in recent years, with the likes of Cody Alan, Shane McAnally, Ty Herndon and more coming out and sharing their lives, writing more inclusive music, and participating in groundbreaking articles to help blow the doors off a genre that has been one of the most exclusive to the LGBTQ+ community in its history. Long before there was any opportunity, however, for well-known country artists to come out, there was something else promoting inclusivity with the genre, if not necessarily in it: Drag. For decades there has been a crossover between the art of drag and country music; queens have been portraying their favorite divas for as long as there have been divas to admire. Drag itself is a remarkably involved performance art form, only now being brought into the mainstream by such shows as RuPaul’s Drag Race, currently in its tenth season.
There is a unique atmosphere that surrounds a tried and true drag show. There is first and foremost the dimly lit bar, the stage in the back, the often drink-slicked floor each queen must skillfully navigate in her five inch heels. There is the humor, often on the cheeky side, and then there is the camaraderie. When a queen walks on the stage to the strum of a steel guitar, the crowd often goes just a little wilder, too; there is a novelty to country music drag that keeps friends and fans coming back for more every night of the week, all across the country. Billy Hardin, one of the country’s most well-known drag queens, sat down to chat with us in honor of Pride Month and promoting inclusivity within the genre. Hardin has his own character, ObSINity, but often moonlights as some of country music’s favorite divas.
“I first learned about drag the second time I went to a gay bar—I got to see my first drag show and I was amazed. I was blown away. I was like whatever this is I want more of it. So I became friends with the person who would become my drag mother, who happened to be in that first show, and started traveling with her to help backstage.” Hardin described himself as shy several times in our interview and even referenced the fact that he loved drag, but never thought he’d do it himself while he was traveling and helping his friends out behind the scenes. It was a dare by another good friend who led Hardin to the stage as part of a birthday gimmick.
“One of my friends dared me, when I was 23, to do drag for his birthday. He gave me a drag name and everything. He didn’t think I’d honestly do it, but I got a couple of my friends to help me. I did it, and I never thought I’d do it again. Then I tied for the winner of the talent show and when you win you’re supposed to come back the next week. I did Celine Dion “I’m Alive” as my first song. My friend said I had to do two numbers, so she told me to do Reba, because everyone knew I was a big Reba fan. Everyone was telling me do it again, that I was so good. So I came back and did it again. A couple months later one of my friends booked me in a Christmas show, then it snowballed. I’ll tell you this—when I realized I’d been doing it five years I literally sat down and thought what in the hell happened? How did this happen? I never expected it.”
Hardin credits much of his early success to his now drag mother; the first queen he ever saw on stage, and pointed to the family drag and the LGBTQ community can become for people struggling with coming out, or who face struggles upon coming out. “When you come out if you have family issues there’s this whole community of people who have had the same problem, and they become your family. It happens a lot with people getting kicked out or having their families not accept them. Luckily I never had those problems, but I didn’t come out for a long time because I was scared. So I had another family I sort of created. My drag mother was part of that, and she taught me what she knew- she taught me how to make headdresses and a lot of the costumes for my first character. Then she took me to shows with her and would let me perform a number or two. She gave me a start so I could perform and get experience.”
As Hardin continued to grow as an artist, he perfected ObSINity with over-the-top showgirl outfits and big numbers, only circling back around to country music relatively recently. Though Hardin portrayed McEntire in his first foray into drag, he didn’t add her to his repertoire as a character until he had been performing for ten years. McEntire’s songs would appear from time to time in his shows, but it was never in his plan to develop a character that would become known across the country. It wasn’t until after a concert in 2011 that inspiration struck and Hardin decided to add the queen of honky tonks and rodeos to the lineup. With a little want-to in his two-step, Hardin drew on the years of influence McEntire had on him and decided to develop the character. “Reba inspired me. The first time I saw her in concert was in 1989 when I was still a kid. All of her big shows in the nineties inspired me to want to be an entertainer, I just didn’t know how I’d do it at that time. I can’t sing and I am the whitest woman on the face of the earth; I can’t dance. What is this beat people keep telling me to find? But doing drag gave me that chance to perform.”
From Hardin’s initial decision to portray McEntire in his act, it has become a constant practice of perfecting both paint and mannerisms—impersonating another person doesn’t come easy. “I worked with another impersonator who did Dione Warwick and I noticed when she did her character she changed her makeup, but she also made a facial expression that made her look like the character. I had never thought about doing that before so I started playing around with my makeup and I drew my top lip on really thin and I made this face—and one of my cast members was watching me and she goes ‘whatever you just did, do it again’. I did it again and she said ‘girl, you look just like Reba’ and I thought it was great but…how was I going lip sync like that? Now it’s something I constantly work on, trying to perfect it. When I did Reba the first time the reaction that I got blew me away and I thought oh, this might be something.”
And something it has become; Hardin has fans for his act ObSINity, as well as fans who specifically seek him out for his portrayal of everyone’s favorite redhead. “I do have fans now in a few different cities that, no matter when I’m there, they show up, ready to go in the front row to see Reba. It’s a ton of fun for me to portray her, especially when I know her fans are in the audience- it’s amazing to me that they don’t miss a show just so they can see me portray Reba. It gets overwhelming sometimes; I get really excited about it but I also get nervous because I know they’re going to notice every nuance and dissimilarity. They’ll tell me if my wig is wrong!”
I asked Hardin what it was like, portraying someone else who was still living and breathing and very much creating her own fame for a living. His answer was nothing short of delightful, and reemphasized the reason why I wanted to speak with Hardin in the first place; he cares first and foremost about bringing happiness to others through his art, and he loves what he does. “It’s strange to me at times, sharing this sort of fame with her. Drag has helped me come out of my shell but there’s still that shy country boy inside of me; I am still very much Billy Hardin out of drag. Getting to meet other fans of something I love and adore and connecting with them is always fun for me. The biggest compliment is when a young person comes to my show and says ‘well, I’ll probably never get to see her in concert, but I got to see you’. At first I couldn’t believe they’d equated me with that happiness. It’s fun because being a fan too, you get to really connect. Who doesn’t love getting together to talk about your favorite diva?”
After a moment of quiet on the line, Hardin added how encouraging it is to see the changes in country music and further reflected on his own place in the landscape of making the genre more accessible and inclusive. “I can say that as I’ve portrayed Reba over the years I have noticed a chance in the audience. I can tell that country music has gotten bigger and wider; it’s more mainstream now. When I first started performing, people wanted to hear dance and top forty songs. When I perform country songs now, people recognize it and they love it. I love that country music has gotten bigger and more inclusive. For instance, on the awards shows—one of the awards shows did a mention when the PULSE shooting happened, and I thought it was amazing that the genre embraced it and recognized it with a moment of silence.”
Hardin didn’t stop with McEntire either; he had a stint portraying Dolly Parton, too, and hopes to bring it back soon. Make up naturally became an important part of our conversation when I asked him how he learned to paint himself into two totally different women outside of his regular show-girl character. So much of the magic of drag is created by how an artist paints – they can transform themselves into nearly anyone with the slightest difference in brush stroke. Hardin expanded on his own experiences with makeup, pointing to several good natured friends who would paint him, then explain what they had done. It was the best of cosmetology school done the old fashioned way. Now, educational resources are much more accessible for new artists at home. “Drag has become so much more mainstream thanks to shows like RuPaul’s drag race, and now there are so many resources that are available at home. YouTube! YouTube can teach you how to do anything!”
My hour on the phone with Billy Hardin was full of fantastic stories of fans and friends coming together, a few makeup and costume mishaps, and a lot of laughter. Art, and the inspiration to create it, can come from anywhere. For Billy Hardin it came in the form of a two-stepping, twangy redhead—and now Hardin is inspiring audiences of his own with a healthy dose of glamour, minimal dance, and a ton of his own unique, uplifting energy.