For her very first assignment as a journalism graduate student at the University of Maryland in 2014, Brandi Vincent was told to head out with a video camera and create a two-minute story about anything she liked. A recent transplant from Louisiana, Vincent took the Metro downtown and found herself in the middle of the Capital Pride Parade.
“Okay,” she told herself, “I’m just going to find the most interesting person I possibly can and talk to them.”
And that’s when she spied a wig so big it nearly blotted out the sun. Underneath the wig was a drag queen named Muffy Blake Stephyns. And Muffy was on the campaign trail.
Vincent got an A on the assignment and when her Journalism 203 teacher, Josh Davidsburg, mentioned after class one day that he hoped to someday make a documentary, she said: What about doing one on Muffy?
The result is “Queen of the Capital,” an 80-minute film making its debut at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Newseum.
“I recruited students to help me through the whole thing,” said Davidsburg, a broadcast journalism professor at Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and the director/producer of “Queen of the Capital.”
Vincent — now a correspondent for the federal technology website Nextgov — was a co-producer/cinematographer, along with Alanna Delfino. Alex Glass was director of photography.
A former TV news reporter in markets such as Salisbury, Md., Fort Myers, Fla., and Baltimore, Davidsburg was more accustomed to covering local government than the colorful world of drag, but Daniel Hays — Muffy’s alter ego — was a willing guide.
Hays, 44, works at the Labor Department as a legislative analyst. He had performed in drag in his native Missouri but put away the eye shadow after moving to Washington in 2006. Then some local drag queens found out he was a veteran and persuaded him to do it again.
“I thought, ‘I need to have something that is uniquely me,’ ” Hays told me. “Back then, not many in the D.C. area were doing big hair. I decided that big hair was going to be my thing.”
Muffy’s nimbus of teased tresses is a tribute to where Hays grew up. “The northern part of Missouri is culturally the Southern part of the state,” he said, a place where women wear their hair big.
“Queen of the Capital” follows Muffy’s efforts in 2014 to be voted Empress of the Imperial Court of Washington, one of more than 70 such drag groups in North America. It also delves into the history of the Academy of Washington, a sister organization and the keeper of a lot of the city’s drag lore. It explores drag families and how Muffy’s last name is a nod to one of her drag mothers, Shelby Blake Stephyns.
“Individuals who want to do drag will hang around another drag queen,” Hays explained. “An established drag queen will then take on the individual to help them learn how to do drag. They become our drag children. . . . But the ways drag works, sometimes your drag sister can also be your drag aunt.”
Said Hays: “Josh once asked if I could explain a drag family tree. I said it’s more like a family bush.”
The Imperial Court is a philanthropic organization using drag to raise money for charity. As someone in the film says, “The best way to describe us is we’re the gay Shriners except we don’t do the little cars.”
Part of the appeal to Muffy of becoming Empress was getting to choose the groups that would receive donations. Hays has epilepsy and organizes an annual event at Freddie’s Beach Bar in Arlington, Va., called “Seizures Are a Drag.”
The slogan Muffy used for her campaign was “Laughter, love and light.” Said Hays: “We have enough darkness, hate and animosity out there in the world, so let’s get out there and spread laughter, love and light.”
As for “Queen of the Capital,” Hays said he hopes it will allow viewers to “see that there is a real person behind the drag performance.”
Saturday’s Newseum screening is part of the museum’s “Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement” exhibit. (The film is included with Newseum admission.) “Queen of the Capital” has also been accepted into October’s Chesapeake Film Festival in Easton, Md. Davidsburg hopes to eventually make it available for streaming.
I asked Hays whether it would be Daniel or Muffy at Saturday’s Newseum premiere.
“I’ve had a brand-new wig made and I have a new outfit,” he said. “It will be Muffy in all her high-haired glory.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.