You hear it before you see it — the unmistakable thumping of bass and the rhythmic melody that make hearts race and feet move. 

Approaching the unassuming exterior of the building, the hums of the music become louder, promising an unforgettable night ahead. 

And when you step inside, the true excitement begins.

An animated crowd lines the bar waiting to be served, their laughter and conversations blending seamlessly with the booming music. Bright neon lights overhead cast a captivating glow as they reflect off the disco ball in the center of the room, spattering the walls and ceilings with a rainbow of colors.

At the center of it all is the empty stage with sequined curtains encircled by a collection of tables and chairs. As the crowd shuffles to their seats, the music fades out and the performers grace the stage. Every step they take in their towering stilettos tells a story — a story that begins with the search for personal identity and unfolds into an artistic masterpiece. 

Welcome to FIVE Nightclub in Madison, a place where the ordinary fades into the background, and the extraordinary takes center stage.

Here, drag is more than a show. It’s an art that allows the legacy of drag to flourish, serving as a powerful symbol of empowerment and pride. 

Malaiya Marvel performing at FIVE nightclub.
Malaiya Marvel performs at FIVE nightclub, located in Madison. She sports many colorful costumes. Photo by Katherine Reed.

“We just try to provide a place for people to be themselves,” says Dave Eick, the owner of FIVE. “That’s always been the goal.”

Beneath the extravagant wigs, rhinestones and feathers, drag emerges as an art form that transcends limitations. From its roots in ancient theater and folkloric festivals to its evolution into a vibrant LGBTQ+ subculture, drag has always been about breaking barriers and combining the expression of one’s identity with performance art.

Every layer of glitter that’s peeled away reveals two artists who not only give dazzling performances but also work to pave the way for a new era of empowerment and progress.

Malaiya Marvel 

A regular at FIVE, drag queen Malaiya Marvel is a fan favorite in the Madison drag scene.

Malaiya, a vision of confidence often draped in a dazzling sequined bodysuit and sky-high stilettos, embodies the essence of drag. As she steps into the limelight, every movement tells a story. It’s a story of empowerment, resilience and celebration of self.

Before there was Malaiya, there was a young artist seeking a path to self-discovery and artistic expression. Behind the makeup, body padding and colorful wigs is Devon Winfrey. Winfrey’s transformation into the dazzling figure that commands the stage today is a testament to the power of drag as an art form that transcends entertainment.

Winfrey’s journey wasn’t easy, though. 

“I never really wanted to be in tune with my femininity,” Winfrey says. “I was, for lack of better words, a mess. I just felt like I had internalized a lot of homophobia.”

With a background in gymnastics, it wasn’t the intricate performances that he struggled with. 

“I had to learn that it’s not just about physicality — it’s about emotion,” Winfrey says. “It’s about femininity. It’s about knowing yourself. It’s about actually invoking what it is you’re trying to display.”

Malaiya’s performances are distinctly marked by Winfrey’s interest in costume play, or cosplay, a passion that long predates his drag career and began in his childhood. While this makes him a bit of a black sheep in the Madison drag scene, this unique combination of cosplay and drag has resulted in Malaiya’s distinctive style and character. 

“I try to create something new out of a system of incorporating my queer identity into my ‘nerdy’ identity,” Winfrey says.

Looking forward to the future, Winfrey’s goal remains unwavering — to inspire with his art. He wants to bridge the gap in representation he’s observed in the world of drag, making room for new and innovative ideas that break the mold. 

“I want to inspire that next person who comes after me, who’s a million times better than me, to feel like they can reach for the stars,” he says.

Dee Dee Purr 

Drag is not confined to a single performance on a single stage. It’s a universe that accommodates a myriad of interpretations and individual journeys, each unique and compelling. On a different night at FIVE Nightclub, it’s Dee Dee Purr who captures the audience’s attention.

With a stage presence as distinct as Malaiya’s, Dee Dee boasts a repertoire of performances that range from funny to dazzling to, in her own words, “concerning.” 

“Whatever I’m doing is to make sure that the audience is having fun,” she says. “That’s what drag is.”

A photo of Malaiya Marvel.
Malaiya Marvel has been a drag performer for the past eight years. She continues to perform in both Madison and Milwaukee. Photo by Katherine Reed.

Drag, for Dee Dee, is a means of breaking boundaries, defying societal norms and embracing the spectrum of human experience. The transformative power of drag extends beyond the performance. It’s about pushing the envelope of creativity, sparking conversations about the art of self-expression and inspiring others to be unapologetically themselves. 

Out of drag, Dee Dee is Bryce Wilson, a 30-year-old from Whitewater, a city in southeastern Wisconsin. 

“Drag has really helped in my mental health by allowing me to express myself,” Wilson says. 

As a theater performance major in college, Wilson, who also uses the pronoun they, initially dabbled in drag as a means to explore uncharted aspects of their identity. “It was a way for me to express my art and my creativity that I wasn’t able to express with my major, and it kind of blossomed from there,” they say.

Beneath the glitter and glamor, drag also delves into deeper and more serious matters. In a world where prejudice and homophobia can often cast long shadows, Wilson finds ways to rise above the hostility. 

Recently, they have begun to use their performances as a powerful form of resistance, conveying important messages of kindness and acceptance while also unapologetically asserting their identity and empowering others to do the same.

“I’ve become a lot more politically charged with my performances and with myself because my life is on the line at times,” Wilson says. 

Wilson’s journey is a striking example of how the power of drag extends far beyond the stage. It’s a commitment to unapologetic authenticity, all while inspiring and empowering others.

“We’re just trying to promote love,” Wilson says. “We’re trying to promote acceptance.”

One thing that becomes abundantly clear about drag is that it’s not just about the art — it’s about the assertion of identity. Drag queens challenge the status quo and redefine what it means to be human in a world where the lines of gender and identity blur. They’re seen as luminous beacons in the struggle for visibility, acceptance and love.

Drag has come a long way from the shadows of secrecy and has stepped onto the global stage, challenging preconceived notions and inspiring individuals to embrace their authentic selves. Whether it’s the hilarious Dee Dee Purr or the enchanting Malaiya Marvel, drag queens are artists whose canvases are as diverse as the spectrum of humanity.

In a time when individuality is celebrated, drag serves as a dynamic symbol of artistry, transformation and empowerment. The world of drag continues to paint a vivid portrait of the infinite ways in which we can express, define and celebrate our identities. 

At this intersection of art and identity, drag invites us to join in the celebration of self, and it does so with glitter, humor and a bold, unapologetic sense of fabulousness.