photo-icon Eric Brumfield

Pride of place

People of Adelaide

Eve Elle is one of Adelaide’s most recognisable drag queens and a host at Mary’s Poppin, the city's only gay bar. James Umpherston, the man behind the make-up, tells us about Adelaide’s drag scene, the rise of Eve and how Feast Festival played a starring role.

Flawless lip syncing, an immaculate aesthetic and razor-sharp wit make an Eve Elle performance both utterly entertaining and a masterclass in how to captivate a crowd. James has been working in the Adelaide drag scene for ten years which is impressive enough even before you learn he’s only 27. In those years Eve has won drag competitions, perfected her Dolly Parton impersonation and used her platform to challenge the status quo.

"Eve Elle is the Cameron Diaz of Adelaide drag; strong, stylish, and sexy. She’s your best friend, sister, and wine-mum all at the same time.”
James Umpherston

The intention behind all the glamour goes beyond giving the crowd a good show. James has used his platform to represent “a colourful cross-section of society”, a big part of which is Adelaide’s LGBTQI+ community. This representation plays an important role in empowering the community which has faced more than its fair share of adversity. There has been slow progress over the years, homosexuality was decriminalised in Australia in 1975 and the plebiscite in 2017 finally saw the legalisation of same sex marriage. Snail’s pace political change places heightened importance on the celebration of queer culture to create change.

The “moment that changed everything” for James was at the 2009 Feast Festival where he attended the annual Pride Parade, the first LGBTQI+ event he ever attended. The friends he made and the impression the parade left on him was a catalyst for his drag career.

James Umpherston

The Pride March is an annual celebration that first took place in 1973 and eventually became part of Feast Festival shortly after its founding in 1997. Feast Festival is South Australia’s queer arts and cultural festival, celebrating local and international talent.

While diversity is a feature of many festivals on South Australia’s impressive events roster, Feast Festival is truly one of the most, if not the most, inclusive. The program is consistently a shining example of diversity in not only gender and sexuality, but culture and ability. There are programs in place, Feast Queer Youth Drop In, that work to facilitate the ‘aha’ moments like James experienced at the Pride March.

The next milestone in James’ drag journey was also at Feast Festival. In 2010 he entered and won the opportunity to host a major event in drag – and so Eve was introduced to the Eden that is Adelaide.

The name Eve Elle isn’t a religious reference but rather a play on the word ‘evil’, perhaps a little a tongue-in-cheek given his religious upbringing. Fortunately, Eve is so charming that James’ family was won over the first time they saw her perform. It couldn’t have been in a more spectacular fashion – while winning the 2012 Battle of the Ballads competition hosted by Adelaide drag royalty, Vonni.

Eve started hosting regularly at Mary’s Poppin in 2016 and she has been entertaining at the Synagogue Place venue ever since.

Did you know: Queens use the pronoun 'she/her' when they are in drag and 'he/him' when they are out of drag. This is generally speaking – an individual's gender identity can differ, if you need to ask which pronoun they prefer, ask respectfully. 

“I’d never felt so comfortable. It was incredible being around so many people like me – so many people saying it was ok to be me.”
James Umpherston

James says his drag has evolved as he has grown and has helped him gain confidence. Now when he catches people glancing at his acrylic nails and bright tattoos when he is out of drag – he welcomes it. His hope is that he’s challenging the norm and that there’s a trickle-down effect to the people he engages with.

James umpherston
James umpherston tattoo

James’ tattoos speak to his personal experiences and influences. The tattoos on his right arm are inspired by his icons, Dolly Parton and Celine Dion. On his left arm, rainbow sprinkles and dinosaurs act as a nod to his past as a pastry chef and a nanny. When in drag these tattoos are proudly on show, naturally, since drag for James is all about self-expression.

“I love that I get to present my ideas, feelings and creations in a way that entertains and sometimes inspires people.”

James and his fellow queens have seen the effects of this inspiration firsthand. Not only has drag given them the confidence to be themselves – this is also true for many mums of queens.

Adelaide’s queens have had a tumultuous time over the past few years with dwindling venue numbers. Mary’s Poppin became the only LGBTQIA+ venue once Oz and the iconic Mars Bar closed.

Feast and the rise of Eve

Fortunately, Mary’s Poppin is standing the test of time. The club provides opportunities for the growing population of Adelaide queens to perform through competitions and community events. The importance of these are clear when you consider that similar opportunities were made available to Eve almost 10 years ago.

Still, having a single drag venue to perform in can prove to be quite a challenge for Adelaide’s performers. Festivals such as Cabaret Festival and Feast Festival provide periodic platforms to perform and reach new audiences, but year-round gigs are essential. Events can now be seen popping up all over town at venues that aren’t traditionally 'gay bars' thanks to both the resourcefulness of Adelaide’s drag community and the growing popularity of drag, in part, because of television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race.

James says he has found the Adelaide drag community enduringly supportive throughout his career. It’s no surprise having a supportive set of co-workers is essential when you consider it can take an entire week to prepare for one night of performance. The preparation requires enormous attention to detail to make sure everything from the look to the lip sync is cohesive and coordinated.

As for the performance itself, up until a few years ago Adelaide shows were most frequently diva impersonation, honouring favourite pop culture divas and moments. James says it has now evolved into a more expressive performance art that has few boundaries.

It’s incredible to know there are high-quality drag performances taking place multiple times a week in Adelaide, even more during festivals. These consistent celebrations of queer culture are for anyone and everyone. Not only are these incredibly entertaining shows, these are some of the purest forms of self-expression and artistic achievement you will see outside of the big-name venues.

You can see Eve Elle perform at Mary’s Poppin on Friday and Saturday nights – 5 Synagogue Place, Adelaide.

Feast Festival runs November 9 to 24 2019, see the program here. The City of Adelaide is a proud supporter of the 2019 Feast Festival.

All instagram images in this story and the header image were taken by photographer Eric Brumfield.

The author of this piece is an LGBTQI+ ally and sought advice from community members for this article.

“Drag has helped me to be more authentically me.”
James Umpherston

Adelaide Drag

“Our queens have remained resilient ... It’s a wonderful testament to the passion and drive to keep our community thriving.”
James Umpherston

Article by

Georgie Smith

Georgie Smith

Maker and curator of things

Georgie has been BFFs with Adelaide her whole life. They’ve shared many special moments: over cheese platters at art exhibitions, cycling through the park lands and immersed in sequin-clad theatre shows.