Queen of UB: Veronica Lace
Life as a student, social worker and drag queen
It’s a Friday night. The underground dressing rooms at Club Marcella thump to the beat of pop songs playing above. UB graduate student Shawn Jenner sits in front of a mirror with a full face of makeup. He puts on a large bubblegum-pink wig.
He stands up, his 6-foot-2 frame augmented by a pair of hot pink 5-inch heels. He’s wearing a fitted black dress, his silhouette shaped by padding smoothed over by six layers of pantyhose.
He is now ready to perform as Veronica Lace.
Jenner wasn’t always like this — a collected, lively, intelligent amalgamation of glamor and good humor. He’s come a long way from a high school teenager struggling with his sexuality, a 22 year old in the Erie County Holding Center for driving under the influence, an enraged boyfriend watching his possessions go up in flames.
Today at 28, Jenner is calm and confident.
Someone knocks on the door. Lace needs to host the show in five minutes; the original host has called in sick.
“OK honey, mama’s gonna need a cocktail in a minute,” Lace shouts out.
Jenner is now a fan-favorite drag queen, a social worker promoting sexual health and an accelerated graduate student in the UB School of Social Work.
Performing as Veronica Lace
Jenner’s first drag show was at Daemen College, an invitation he received from his friend.
“I was absolutely amazed. I was like, ‘I want to do that.’ I was 17 at the time,” Jenner said. “I ended up befriending one of the queens, and I was just out and about in Buffalo, getting into bars — underaged — immersing myself in the life.”
Jenner had to rely on observing drag queens, such as Jamie Cox and Cindy Kane — Jenner’s original “drag mom.” Lace is also a “drag grandmother.” A “drag family,” acts as a surrogate for the family drag queens sometimes lose when they come out to their parents, Jenner said.
Drag families give drag queens a sense of belonging and teach them, in essence, how to be a drag queen. Families also include “drag kings” and “gay sons.”
Lace is a drag mother of three. Drag mothers teach their drag daughters how to walk in heels, wear wigs and do makeup, according to Jenner. Eventually, a drag mother will let her drag daughter develop her own style, she said.
“I am so grateful she is here to help me, especially because all of the other queens in Buffalo are always trying to change my drag and trying to put me into a box that I don’t want to fit in,” said Daphne York, Lace’s “drag daughter.”
Jenner’s feisty persona extends to Veronica Lace, as well. Shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” may give drag a bad reputation for being “catty,” which Jenner believes is mostly for ratings.
But Jenner has gotten into a few fights as a drag queen.
Jenner was banned from a Syracuse club after a fight with another drag queen named Jazzy, who Jenner said stole from his tips and makeup.
Back then, Jenner marked all his makeup with a ‘VL’ for “Veronica Lace.”
“I was like, ‘VL? Your name is Jazzy you stupid b—h.’ She wouldn’t give it back to me, so I took her face and smashed it into a mirror.”
Jenner is no longer banned from the club and recently performed a show there.
Being a performer allows Jenner to offer powerful commentary on socio-political issues that dominate headlines.
“Basically, anything that’s the charging news of the time, specifically political, I guarantee that I’m going to touch on it at some point,” Jenner said.
Lace is known for doing a particular set to “Heads Will Roll” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and coming out with a plastic head mimicking President Donald Trump covered in blood.
As a drag queen, Jenner said he “feels like a star.”
“You get to create these characters and you get to use your creativity and you have different outlets you can put into it. You have fashion, cosmetology, mixing of music, you’re developing concepts, planning out the costumes you wanna wear,” Jenner said.
Drag also has its downs. Mainly, the discomfort.
“If anyone tells you they’re comfortable in drag, they’re lying,” Jenner said.
Jenner said he found the process of “tucking” his penis between and behind his legs exceptionally uncomfortable, and talked about the pain in his feet after walking in heels for longer than four hours.
Still, Jenner was unprepared for the lives he was going to touch as Veronica Lace. He regularly gets messages from people who tell him he helped them come out of the closet and that they admire his courage and the platform he gives to other entertainers.
“We don’t walk into this thinking we’re going to change people’s lives, but being who we are we end up doing that,” Jenner said.
Struggling with sexuality
Jenner was raised Roman Catholic in rural Upstate New York and said he struggled with his sexuality.
“I was like, I cannot be gay, I cannot do this. … This is a sin, I’m going to burn in hell,” Jenner said.
Jenner eventually came to terms with his sexuality, and through online chat rooms, learned about “awareness and self-love.”
He came out to his peers in his sophomore year of high school. He was class president, but was bullied for his sexuality by his peers and teammates on the swim team.
Jenner criticized his high school administration for not doing enough to stop the bullying.
“At one point, the principal of my high school told me he didn’t want to promote my lifestyle,” Jenner said.
Jenner came out to his friends at age 15 but struggled to come out to his mother.
“It was New Year's Eve and she came up to me — she was a little tipsy — and she said ‘It’s OK, I know you like to suck blah, blah, blah’ and I was like ‘Oh my God,’” Jenner said.
He felt his mother “struggled internally” with his sexuality, which led to fights, but now he said his mother is supportive and defends his work to other family members.
Jenner said his father was a little “uncomfortable” at first but ultimately told Jenner he was fine with “whatever makes [him] happy.”
Jenner said he grew up in the “hostile and volatile” political climate of the Bush administration, which included attempts to limit gay marriage.
Buffalo was not excluded from this climate, according to Jenner. Jenner said he was attacked on three separate occasions while walking from his car — on Washington, Delaware and Chippewa St. — just for “looking different.”
Romantic partners, even in the gay community, were also not always comfortable with his work as a drag queen.
Jenner planned to move in with his ex-boyfriend on the condition that he wouldn’t keep any drag materials in the house. But after he mistakenly left two unmarked bags of drag clothes, he came home to see smoke clouding up in the backyard.
“I was like ‘Where’s this smoke coming from’ and he was like ‘you can go take a look’ and you just see all my stuff up in flames,” Jenner said.
“I was livid.”
Another ex-boyfriend gave Jenner an ultimatum: it was either him or drag.
“I was like ‘I’m not giving that up,’” Jenner said. “‘No, sorry. You’re one fish in the sea honey, I’ll throw the hook right back in.’”
Social work, substance abuse and school
After high school, Jenner attended Genesee Community College and worked toward a career in hospitality. But around the same time, Jenner began to drink “a little too much here and there.”
Jenner struggled with an addiction to alcohol and cocaine.
After Jenner crashed into a parked car while driving under the influence, he wound up in the Erie County Holding Center.
He had an “epiphany.”
“I asked myself ‘What are you doing? What are you doing with your life?’” Jenner said.
Jenner quit “drinking and all the other foolishness that comes with it.”
He went to counseling sessions for two years. He “learned a lot about” himself and decided to pursue a career in social work.
Jenner was particularly interested in working as a substance abuse counselor.
“I was like, ‘I lived it. I can do it,’” Jenner said.
Jenner transferred to Buffalo State College to finish his associate degree in social work.
He said he sometimes had to attend classes in full drag, but none of his professors had issues with it.
Mark Boser, a professor at Buffalo State department of social work, said “it wasn’t an issue” for him since he was also gay, “involved in the community” and had friends who were drag queens.
Jenner said he made the dean’s list every semester, except his first, at Buffalo State. He took 18 credits his senior year, worked full time, did a 20-hour internship and performed in three drag shows a week.
It was a lot but his professors recognize his “outstanding” and “passionate” work, he said.
“[Jenner] was working with a very difficult population [people who are addicted to multiple substances] but just was so sensitive and non-judgemental and caring,” Boser said. “A lot of people would not even be able to take it on. But he did, he was very committed to helping them no matter what.”
Jenner came to UB last month as a part-time accelerated graduate student. He doesn’t foresee any issues balancing life as a graduate student taking two classes, a drag queen and a social worker, given his prior experience.
“This should be a breeze,” Jenner said.
Tanveen Vohra is a co-senior news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @TanveenUBSpec.