Nobody calls Christopher Caldwell by his real name except for his mother and bill collectors. Everyone else refers to him as Bob, which is short for Bob the Drag Queen — his stage name. This Georgia-raised, now New York City-based artist and performer has been caught in a whirlwind of gigs since appearing on Logo TV’s hit reality competition, RuPaul’s Drag Race, with Bob as one of the clear frontrunners to win.
What started out as an artistic hobby has become a full-fledged career, with all other hustles put aside so Bob can focus on her drag. (When referring to drag queen personas, it’s queer parlance to use feminine pronouns. This is not to say that Bob the Drag Queen is trans — Caldwell, like many queens, takes on a feminine persona when performing, and otherwise lives as a male in everyday life.)
“I was born in Columbus, Georgia, and raised in Atlanta,” says Caldwell. “I am a true, real-life Southerner. I was raised in Clayton County. I went to Morrow High School. You can call it the hood. You can say it. That’s where I’m from.”
After high school, Caldwell studied theater at Columbus State University. He quickly grew tired of academia and wasn’t sure where he wanted to land in life. Eight years ago, a friend gave him tickets to move to New York City, a place that gave Caldwell the creative energy he wanted in life. Caldwell arrived in New York City with $500 in his pocket and a couple of suitcases — no contacts, no place to stay, no job, but with big dreams. Before the character of Bob, there were a series of other careers: Actor, real estate agent, bartender. Those were all jobs where big personality matters, but not quite the outlet Caldwell needed.
“It was summer of 2009 when I slipped on a pair of high heels and became a drag queen,” says Caldwell. “It did not make me money or get me gigs. It cost me a lot. I did this competition every Thursday. Then another one on Wednesday. And another on Tuesday. I never won any of them. Ever. After a few years, I finally won one. It was really addictive and fun doing competitions.”
It’s very common for queens not to make money doing drag. Even with all the dollar bills they collect on stage, gowns and wigs and tchotchkes can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars. For many queens, drag becomes a money pit creative outlet, and day jobs in advertising or landscaping help offset costs. Making the jump into doing drag as a career is a scary move, one that requires hours of work and an endless amount of investment. Makeup and sequins aren’t cheap.
“I’ve been doing drag full-time for five years,” says Caldwell. “Even before RuPaul’s Drag Race. It was always drag plus theatre, drag plus real estate, drag plus acting. One day I thought, ‘I can do this.’ I quit my job and started doing drag full time.”
Bob the Drag Queen’s unusual name came from frustrations and mix-ups related to her original drag name, Kitten Withawhip. That sexy, witty name just didn’t translate well over the microphone, with hosts routinely flubbing it up when introducing her. Kitten Withawhip transmuted into everything from Kitty to Kim to Kerry to finally Bob — and the name stuck.
Just as you would expect with a name like “Bob the Drag Queen,” not everything is glamour and glitter in Bob’s stylings. Her aesthetic is more Chris Rock than Dolly Parton. Comedy comes first in her performances. Bob enjoys getting on the mic and joking with the audience. Her theatrical background comes in handy during lip syncs, with Bob seamlessly transitioning from Tyra Banks to Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (from Orange is the New Black) to Patsy Cline.
Being Southern also informs what Bob does on stage. In her comedy, Bob brings up issues of race and social standing, and this perspective comes from being raised in the South. Though Caldwell certainly does not come from a traditional, conservative Southern upbringing: His mother ran a gay bar in Columbus.
“It had a typical Southern gay bar name like Odyssey or Fantasia,” says Caldwell. “In New York City, all the bars have butch names: Industry. Barracuda. Rock Bar. In the South, gay bars have really feminine names.”
Every Mother’s Day, Caldwell returns to Georgia to spend time with his mother. Caldwell performs as Bob whenever he’s back in her home state, and if it’s not too late or bar room smokey, mom even comes to see the show.
Breaking into the Atlanta drag scene was tough, even for a seasoned New York City performer like Bob the Drag Queen. The Southern community is much more formal, pageant-influenced and not as experimental as the New York City scene. Down here, queens are named Destiny, Exstasy and Savannah. Bookers would hear the name “Bob the Drag Queen” and immediately write Caldwell off, thinking there’s no way that she was serious drag. “The Other Show” at The Jungle on Cheshire Bridge Road finally gave Bob a chance. This experimental, artsy drag cabaret was the perfect fit for the offbeat Bob the Drag Queen.
Saturday’s show at the Heretic will be Bob’s first time with Legendary Children, the group that helped give Violet Chachki the platform to distinguish herself as a high-concept art and fashion queen. Chachki won last season’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, and returned to perform with the Legendary Children at Heretic after winning last year — it was, of course, epic with all of queer Atlanta there to celebrate a hometown hero. It would be interesting to see Chachki pass the crown to fellow Georgian Bob the Drag Queen.
What’s making this performance extra special is that Bob will be donating $2500 to local charity Lost-n-Found Youth, to help fund a permanent shelter for homeless LGBT youth.
“I am a child of Georgia, and I believe if you are not doing something to give back to the community, you are wasting your time,” says Caldwell. “That is part of being in the human race. My family and I were homeless when I was younger. The generosity of others helped us get back on our feet.”
Caldwell views drag as art — or, rather, all of the art forms rolled into one. “You’re a performer, a writer, a costume designer, a DJ, a promoter,” he says. “You have to do everything. Drag is a one person village.”