This week, jewelry creations by Sarah Lewis will be seen by people all over the country at the Miss Gay America pageant in Ohio.
Next year, her creations could be seen by people all over the world adorning the gown of Oklahoma's entry to the Miss America pageant.
Lewis, owner of Sarah Lewis Designs, painstakingly creates handmade jewelry and accessories for drag queens around the country from her Oklahoma City home. While she admits it can be a drag working hours on end building intricate jewelry pieces, her reward comes when drag queens hit the stage and she sees her creations sparkle.
A longtime attendee and judge at drag shows in the city, Lewis began to look closer at the queens' jewelry and started dabbling with supplies and materials to see if she could make a better product. Looking for a career change, she launched her company in 2005 and soon was busier than she imagined, designing and making each piece by hand.
"This is art for me," Lewis said.
Having been in beauty pageants herself as a teenager and as a college student, Lewis began to design necklaces, broaches, rings and pendants she knew would dazzle drag show judges and set her queens apart from the pack. When looking at her competition, she only found a handful of custom designers of drag queen jewelry around the country. Her pieces are hand-assembled from brass components, plated for durability, soldered together and adorned with crystal.
The drag community is tight-knit, but through her friends and connections, Lewis was able to begin winning over clients. Her star customer is Rachael Erikks, Oklahoma's own Miss Gay America 2004, who has been doing drag shows for more than 20 years, traveling around the country to perform and judge. The two began to look closer at the jewelry drag queens wore at the shows.
"We noticed that a lot of the jewelry wasn't very high-quality," Erikks said.
As one of Lewis' first customers, Erikks is now hooked on his friend's designs and the quality of her work. He is even selling off some of his jewelry obtained elsewhere so that everything he wears onstage is made by Lewis. He also likes that she makes durable items and stands behind her work.
"The workmanship that she puts into it is so tedious, and they hardly ever break," he said. "And if anything does happen, she'll replace it or fix it for you."
In the world of competitive drag shows, there are many elements a contestant is judged on, and if the jewelry looks cheap or shoddy, Lewis said it's obvious. For the discerning drag queen, she exclusively uses Swarovski crystal from Austria and a variation of that called Aurora Borealis crystal, which has a rainbow coating. The clear crystal can be adorned further by coloring the stones with a marker to match a queen's particular outfit. Lewis replicates her most popular designs, and also can create special one-of-a-kind items.
But the pieces don't come cheap. Many queens want to go all-out at first, but experience sticker shock when they see what they're in for. Lewis can get someone started with a set of earrings and a matching ring for about $125. Some of her single pieces have gone for as much as $850.
"It's an investment," Lewis said. "Not everybody can afford to do this right away, or (are) sure they want to invest that much until they've done it for a little while."
The Miss Gay America 2011 pageant runs Oct. 13-17. Miss Gay Oklahoma America 2010 Londenn D. Raine will hit the stage decked out in Lewis' jewelry to compete for the national title.
Lewis is beginning to branch out from the world of drag queen jewelry and is working with Johnathan Kayne Gillaspie, Norman designer and former "Project Runway" contestant.
Gillaspie, who has the Johnathan Kayne retail line, is designing the evening gown and wardrobe for Miss Oklahoma 2010 Emoly West to wear at January's Miss America pageant.
"We're trying to put our talents together to design some pieces she makes that I can incorporate into some of my designs in clothing and evening wear," Gillaspie said. "I want to show Emoly some of Sarah's stuff and see if it's something we can use as part of her wardrobe."
While Lewis still has work lined up, designing pieces for Gillaspie could provide a needed boost. Like many other retail sectors that have suffered a downturn due to the economy, so has the drag queen jewelry market.
"I've taken a hit," she said. "As in every other area, drag queens are making their accessories last longer."
Despite a slowdown, Lewis is still the go-to girl for drag queens. She has established herself in the community and made friends with queens both young and old. Some may have cut back, but when a young queen starts competition, everyone points him toward Lewis.
Having been in the business for five years, Lewis has outfitted many locally, and now the majority of her work is for drag queens out of state seeking her services.
"These days I have a lot less business here, because I pretty much have everyone covered," she said. "They've got what they need." "Kelley Chambers
photo Rachael Erikks.