The Return of Utica Queen

After a fantasy-tinged appearance on ”RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Utica stages her work at the Rochester Art Center
Utica's finale gown, as seen on "RuPaul's Drag Race" season 13
Utica’s finale gown, as seen on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 13

Photo by Trevor Beaty

When I started watching the 13th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race—the competition-based reality show where drag queens sing, act, sew, and lip-sync their way to the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar”—I worried the show would treat its Minnesotan contestant, Utica Queen, as a roadside attraction.

Utica Queen, then 25, regularly performed in Minneapolis, but Utica’s creator—the maestro behind the makeup, Ethan Mundt—had grown up on a farm about two hours southeast. (Note: While using “she/her” pronouns in drag, Mundt uses “he/him” out of drag.) Mundt even took his drag persona’s name from this offshoot of a place between Rochester and Winona: Utica, Minn., whose population numbers fewer than 300.

In a promotional clip that aired before the show’s debut, Utica talked about her “hometowniness” and her “lovely farm goobers” (cows, chickens, cats). Tall and lanky, Utica was proudly kooky, a self-described “wacky waving inflatable-arm tube queen.”

"Cowgirl"
“Cowgirl”

Photo by Liam Doyle

But any “aw, shucks” narrative would prove misleading. For the many hundreds of thousands of viewers this past winter, Utica gave Drag Race a kaleidoscopic twist as the season’s most fantastical “look queen.” She held her own alongside the season’s other two aesthetic titans, both from Los Angeles (a polished club-kid punk and a Vogue-ready catwalk storyteller). Her breakout moment arrived in a sleeping bag that she tailored to fan out in breathtaking Björk-ery. At times cartoonish, at times statuesque, Utica had either emerged from a Renaissance fresco or popped out of a panel in the Sunday funnies—or both. (And, critical to fans of the show, she could actually sew.)

Seven months since the season finale, wherein Utica came in sixth out of 13, Mundt is now making a case for the creative fecundity of one’s provenance. “I wanted to pay homage to all of the love and the spirits that I got from my little small town,” he tells me by phone.

On Saturday, Dec. 4, he launches a 4,000-square-foot exhibit of 20 garments. Running until April 3, the show takes place at the Rochester Art Center, roughly 30 miles west of the town of Utica.

Utica's breakout moment on "RuPaul's Drag Race" came in the form of her "Sleeping Bag" gown
Utica’s breakout moment on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” came in the form of her “Sleeping Bag” gown

Photo by Trevor Beaty

Titled Homecoming Queen, it unspools Utica’s story through a painstaking curation of outfits that Mundt, now 26, crafted after leaving home—an odyssey that tested his technical prowess at Hamline University and sharpened his performance chops at Minneapolis venues like Union and Lush. The exhibit also includes original design sketches and a 10-minute film about his creative process.

Fans of the show will recognize a few pieces: There’s the Carol Burnett–inspired, draped-in-curtains confection that will be hoisted high in the art center’s atrium. Then there’s the beastly, fur-fringed number that accompanied a sinister interpretation of the Black-Eyed Peas’ “My Humps.” And, of course, there’s the sleeping-bag gown, “a staple of the exhibit.”

But the “cornerstone” ensembles, Mundt says, channel a creative energy that exceeds the show.

“Being able to go out and do this work, and then have my hometown still celebrate me for who I am and how I’ve changed and how I’ve grown … is a gift,” he says, adding that he still feels like a small-town kid. “I feel like not a lot of little queer kids get that opportunity.”

To that end, Mundt wants the exhibit to empower other queer kids who may find their situations constricting. “I grew up in a home that was loving and kind, but it was also very stifling toward my creativity—just, you know, being free,” he says. “The exhibit can offer an escape, but also offers a sense of home.”

"Cathedral"
“Cathedral”

Photo by Trevor Beaty

Homespun 

To find the hidden well of inspiration from which Utica appeared to pull inspiration on Drag Race, we must return to the “homespun little universe” of Ethan Mundt’s childhood.

Here, surrounded by animals and the wide-open spaces of farmland, Mundt began to burrow into his imagination early on. “My [two] older brothers were always together playing, and they were in a band,” he recalls, “and then my little sister came along, and it was her getting all the attention from my family.” If he wanted to go to a friend’s house, his parents would have to drive him, “so it was always a second option.” Instead, he became his own muse, his own entertainment.

He would walk around outside in a “choose-your-own-adventure” headspace, listening to his CD player, building rock forts in the woods. “I always wanted to build something,” he says, “or just act something out, or be creative in some regard.”

Around this time, two major inspirations showed up on his grandma’s old black-and-white TV. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of money or a lot of access to luxuries like public television,” he says. But reruns featuring Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball resonated with him—the oddball, the goofy kid. “I just love the way that these female comedians are just 100% themselves,” he says.

Utica's take on the curtains-inspired dress worn by Carol Burnett
Utica’s take on the curtains-inspired dress worn by Carol Burnett

Photo by Eric Magnussen

With his high school friends, Mundt found a “safe space,” full of likeminded people, at cosplay conventions, which also aided self-discovery. He would dress as his favorite anime characters, like the “tall, blonde, gangly, weird, magical” Fai from Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle—who wears gorgeous outfits and is obsessed with another male character. “I was like, ‘I just don’t know what about this character! I just don’t know!’” Mundt says. “Turns out, I am this character.”

He also joined an improv troupe with the Rochester Civic Theatre. At the end of each show, the cast of 15 kids would cross-dress, he says, and play-fight—“very Scooby-Doo-style, like senseless theater violence.” To Mundt, it was a joyful celebration of gender play. He felt alive. “And it was done in such a way where even our conservative parents thought it was fun,” he says.

In college at St. Paul’s Hamline University, he studied fine art and costume design—basically in training to become a drag queen. “I knew I wanted to do costuming, and I knew I wanted to do performance,” he says. “Then, when I discovered drag, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s a culmination of everything.’”

“It becomes you,” he continues, describing drag. “It becomes who you are. It becomes an identity. It becomes a truth.”

In Homecoming Queen, one of the garments on display harkens back to a college project. The assignment was to tell a story using everything he had learned. So, he recalled a time when he didn’t realize he was gay, in his senior year of high school. A boy had taken his hand—“and there was this fire,” he says. “You could feel it, this energy. And I knew. I was like, ‘Uh…this is it. And I now have proof.’”

This is “Balloon Bride,” which “celebrates the feeling of being queer.” Mundt’s handprints, made using ink and woodcuts, span the skirt, and he filled the garment—a wedding dress—with balloons, a few lending helium-induced lift.

"Beast"
“Beast”

Photo by Dan Little

Today, Mundt counts Alexander McQueen, Robert Wun, and Elsa Schiaparelli among his fashion inspirations—many of whose designs hint at eldritch origin stories. After spending much of his creative time in a “fantasy land of Alice in Wonderland,” he says he’s now on the hunt for new inspiration, which has lately meant listening to the Cody Fry album Flying. “It’s very free. It’s beautiful voice encapsulated by symphonic tones, and every time I listen to it, all I see are colors, stories.”

Since Drag Race aired, Utica (who has about 462,000 followers on Instagram) is inspiring others, too, with fans cosplaying as her at meet-and-greets. And the praise he received on the show has come with a more personal payoff: His parents, he says, now better understand the art of drag. “It really has brought my family together.”

Mundt’s journey finds a kind of fairytale retelling in another garment on display—one that uses real oyster shells. It riffs on a cautionary tale in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, the one about a hungry, oily walrus that lures baby oysters from the sea.

Mundt recalls the perilous sales pitch: “‘Hey, we got a great deal for you: If you guys leave your safe haven, we’ll show you this beautiful world.’” Mundt sourced the shells, and the idea, from a dinner where he tried oysters for the first time. (Growing up Seventh-day Adventist, he couldn’t eat shellfish, he explains.)

Is it too much to picture Mundt as a curious oyster venturing beyond the safety of its cove?

“That piece is a big metaphor for my life, for sure,” he says.

Except, he hasn’t been eaten by a walrus yet?

“Well, maybe Drag Race is that walrus.”

New Voyage

At the Rochester Art Center, it took a local fashion lover to put the pieces together.

Brian Dukerschein, the exhibit’s co-creator and a board member of the art center, first heard of Utica (both the town and the queen) through Drag Race. “To be honest, I didn’t even know the town of Utica existed,” Dukerschein said in an email. “I just thought, ‘Oh, cool, a contestant from Minnesota.’”

When he found out Mundt made all his own designs, Dukerschein pitched the exhibit to the center. Crucial to Dukerschein’s plan (with his co-curator Zoe Cinel) was a virtual gallery, to render the gowns in 3D. “I felt very strongly that the true audience for an exhibition such as this extends far beyond Rochester,” he explains, “and that this would be a fantastic opportunity for the organization to make a name for itself on a national and international level as the first art institution to mount a show that positions a drag performer as a visual artist via their costumes.”

Local organizations, including LGBTQ-affiliated groups, have sponsored some of the looks, and the opening on Dec. 4 is set to feature performances by local drag queens, along with Utica and fellow Drag Race contestant Joey Jay.

That day, Mundt will be visiting Minnesota, since he moved to Chicago during the show’s run. He says he wanted to be closer to friends he met on the show (contestants Kahmora Hall and Denali). Plus, he couldn’t overlook a pivotal visit to a Chicago fabric store. That was where he discovered the black, sequined velvet that would become a glittering highlight of the Drag Race finale, constructed with help from some craftspeople in Chicago. “This was like—OK, big-city vibes, but still close to home,” he says.

The idea for the gown, also on display, came to Mundt through a familiar process: “I remember going on an adventure, just listening to music.” Specifically, “Stayaway” by the band MUNA. “It’s this piece all about heartbreak and what it’s like to have your heart pulled and tethered to someone that you need to escape.”

The garment engulfs Utica in a cinched, voluminous silhouette—a galactic ballgown capped with a Seventh Seal-esque hood. And anchored to Utica’s chest, a plush anatomical heart toys with our interpretation. It’s connected to a taut network of red strings, which either extend hungrily from their source or bind Utica to things, people, places only she knows.

Mundt hopes the exhibit gets to travel after it closes its run in Rochester.

For tickets to the opening reception (Rochester Art Center, Saturday, Dec. 4), featuring a DJ, two bars, hors d’oeuvres inspired by the looks, and drag performances by local talent, plus Utica and Joey Jay, click here. For more information on the exhibit, including the virtual gallery, click here.

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