Several months ago, beautiful drawings of drag queens started appearing on Justin Michael Van Pelt’s Facebook page. Immediately, compliments started coming in, saying the portraits were fabulous renditions of many well-known entertainers.
The cover illustration of Andy Chambers of Kansas City’s Wonderland shop in this issue of Camp is just one example of the drawings that Van Pelt has been creating in his down time while traveling the world on Holland America cruise lines.
Many in Kansas City know Van Pelt from his stage role of Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch which he’s performed on five different Kansas City stages, or from his cabaret shows at the former bar Natasha, or from his acting and singing in other musical theater venues. But, he said, his first love was his degree in visual arts from the Kansas City Art Institute.
“The first drawing I did was of Hedda Lettuce,” Van Pelt said. “I worked with her on Fire Island a few years ago, and so I did that and I did a portrait of Daisy [Buckët>, and it sort of became this thing that people really enjoyed when I posted them on Facebook.”
Van Pelt said the drawings are only about 6 inches by 6 inches. He draws from photos and uses watercolor markers.
“They used to be 15 minutes, but they’re not 15 minutes anymore,” he said, laughing. “The original idea was to take 15 minutes of my day and do something creative. … I was never great with portraiture, which is why I wanted to draw these drag queens for practice. I know so many drag queens, and they are so colorful and interesting.”
Van Pelt said his drawings have been made public in several ways. He had an exhibit of 14 pieces at a coffeeshop in New York. He had met the shop’s owner on a cruise.
“He saw my work and asked to exhibit at his coffeeshop in Hell’s Kitchen,” he said. “Since I’ve been doing the portraits and posted on Facebook and Instagram, some well-known drag queens have started commenting and sharing my work and done my advertising for me.”
He said that drag queen Sharon Needles posted his portrait of her. And “it was like 10,000 likes on Instagram, which is crazy,” he said with a laugh.
Van Pelt auditioned for a role as an entertainer on the Holland America Excursions and got the role in 2014, and it continued in 2015.
“My first one was six months, and this one is seven months,” he said.
Van Pelt said he sublet his apartment in New York last year, but this year he moved out, and he and his partner, Alex Gonzalez, will be moving into a new apartment together. Van Pelt said the toughest part about being on the cruises is being away from his partner for so long. The current cruise will visit more than 30 countries, including Iceland and Italy.
“There are 12 of us, six singers and six dancers. The shows are only 35 minutes long. On this cruise, we have a show called Marquis which is a circus-themed show. It’s not like going to msical theater, where there is dialogue. It’s straight up music and dancing.”
Van Pelt said they do four days of shows at 8 and 10 p.m. over the 12- to 14-day cruise, so there is a lot of down time. One of the benefits, he said, is that the entertainers can leave the ship and do sightseeing in the cities where they dock.
Van Pelt has bartended in New York when not performing in cabaret or acting, but loves the cruise line work because it exclusively uses his creative talent.
“I’ve been making my living as a creative person, really, for the first time ever,” he said. “Even when I worked in Kansas City and other places, you have to have other jobs. This is life, it’s not just a job.”
He said he plans to return to Kansas City after this cruise to relax and spend time with his family and friends, and then he will return to New York to find an apartment and a job.
Van Pelt has performed in Hedwig for years, and he said he was able to see the creator of Hedwig, John Cameron Mitchell, when Mitchell performed in the show on Broadway.
“I saw it twice before I left. I never got to see him before [when it was originally Off Broadway”>. I saw it before and after he had his injuries, so I got to see two very different productions.”
Although it’s not likely that he would perform in the Broadway show, Van Pelt said, “There will be tours. I’m sure it will happen again, but there are no real plans for me to step into her heels at the moment. But I would love to.”
Van Pelt said that his many friends in Kansas City theater visit him when he’s in New York and that he always looks forward to returning to Kansas City.
“I love that I just pop up in Camp magazine every once in a while,” he said. “I get a chance to keep in touch with Kansas City. It’s my heart. I will take any and every opportunity to be back home and work there.”