People waited anxiously in a Hell’s Kitchen club for another event in this unusual election season. Backstage, the candidate frantically adjusted the signature “Make American Great” baseball cap and then walked to the podium as the audience cheered.
The person making that entrance was not Donald Trump at another campaign rally, but Kari Kerning performing as the Republican presidential nominee at a drag show.
“I’ve always been drawn to political satire. Gay people so often use humor as an expressive political tool and I love it,” said Kerning, the alter ego of John Olson, 29. “It’s a beautiful subversive way to express a political opinion.”
Kerning developed her portrayal of the candidate after being horrified by his vulgar comments about women. Performing throughout various clubs throughout the city, she mocks the candidate by lip-syncing speeches and reciting his catchphrases.
This isn’t the first time Kerning has performed as a political figure. She parodied Sarah Palin in 2008. “I guess it’s part of my queer DNA,” she said.
Before performing in clubs, Kerning tried out her portrayal of Trump on the sidewalks around Columbus Circle to gauge people’s reactions. Her goal was to dance on the nearby Trump International Hotel and Tower sign.
“The security guards just laughed and turned the other way,” she said. “If you think Donald Trump has wide grassroots support, you haven’t seen drag queen Donald Trump gyrating in Columbus Circle while tourists laugh and take photos.”
Kerning’s costume includes a gray sultry suit, a comb-over blond wig and over-sized American flag earrings. She said the outfit, ordered from a costume website, is embarrassingly cheap. To complete the look, Kerning needed a version of Trump’s signature red hat, which she made herself.
“There is no way in hell I would buy a real hat and give money to that campaign,” she said. “I proudly wear my knockoff ‘Making America Great’ hat.”
A Clinton Cover Act
Trump is not the only candidate to get a drag queen makeover. Svetlana Stoli, the stage persona of Victor Riffel, 27, wears a tomato-colored pantsuit for her impersonation of Hillary Clinton.
As a longtime Clinton supporter, Stoli began her act during the primaries. “I found this cheap pantsuit at Goodwill,” she said. “We made this blue leotard that reads ‘Ready for Hillary 2016’ to wear after the suit comes off.”
When Stoli preforms, she walks onto the stage delivering the candidate’s speeches and then increases the energy by dancing to songs played during the Democratic National Convention, including Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
Both Stoli and Kerning believe their performances encourage discussion. In response to the infamous “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump made lewd comments about women, Kerning inappropriately touched herself while dancing to a mixture of songs. She received constant laughter and thunderous applause from the audience.
“The response from the crowd is always so positive,” she said. “It’s such a fun number to perform.”
Adam Hostler, 27, an actor, sat in the front row for Kerning’s performance. “It was a fantastic and brilliant act,” he said afterward. “She raised the level by taking something so mainstream and transforming it something so funny and relatable. No drag queen has done it this way.”