Cynthia Lee Fontaine in ‘Barbette’

Texas drag performer Cynthia Lee Fontaine stars in a new documentary about legendary Texas drag performer Barbette

JENNY BLOCK | Contributing Writer

Sometimes, it’s the smallest things that have the grandest impact. That is certainly the case with the new documentary film Barbette + Fontaine, which tells the story of pioneering drag performer, Barbette, who performed all around the world, particularly in Paris.

But her story began right here in Texas, in the town of Round Rock.

The film takes a look at where she’s from, “how she pushed the boundaries of art and gender illusion, and why now — more than ever — her story matters,” and it’s all examined in the first-person through the eyes of Cynthia Lee Fontaine, a modern-day drag queen who many may know from RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Fontaine met the film’s director, John-Carlos Estrada, at a RuPaul’s Drag Race event in Austin a year ago. “That night, he told me he and his team were working on a possible idea for a project about a documentary,” Fontaine said. He later met with Estrada, and “To my surprise, the meeting was an invitation to be featured as part of the story for the documentary,” Fontaine said.

There could not be a more pivotal time for making or releasing this film, Estrada explains. “We were filming during a very tense moment for the LGBTQ community, especially for drag entertainers and transgender Texans, as the state legislature was voting on restricting the rights of these individuals last summer. This context adds a layer of poignancy to the film, especially during Cynthia Lee Fontaine’s emotional visit to Barbette’s gravesite.”

Estrada and Fontaine recently answered a few questions for Dallas Voice.

Three questions for John-Carlos Estrada

Dallas Voice: What led you to make this film? John-Carlos Estrada: The inspiration for Barbette + Fontaine came to me in a dream. In August 2022, I reported a feature broadcast profile on a new Barbette exhibit that had opened in Georgetown, Texas, for CBS Austin. A few weeks after it aired, I had a vivid dream where I was watching a Barbette performance and then found myself backstage with him. In the dream, he urged me to reintroduce him to the world 100 years later.

About a year later, I had a full circle moment while conducting archival research on Barbette in Paris and New York City. I discovered a letter Barbette wrote to a journalist friend in New York City a few months before he died in 1973. In the letter, he expressed, “I sometimes wish I could write about my life, but I never will. I will never do it, as I would be too afraid of doing something second rate.” This poignant discovery further fueled my determination to honor his legacy.

Juan Carlos Estrada

What are you hoping viewers will get from this film? My hope is that viewers not only learn about the beautiful lives of Barbette and Cynthia Lee Fontaine but also recognize that Texas drag has been an integral part of our cultural fabric, contributing to what makes our state special. It deserves to be celebrated, not hidden away.

There are so many forgotten LGBTQ+ icons who deserve their time in the spotlight. We hope our film encourages viewers to do their own research and honor the names of people like Barbette, Jim Bailey, Gowongo Mohawk, William Dorsey Swann and Sylvia Rivera.

What surprised you about making this film? It’s been eye-opening to see how friends, families, and strangers have reacted to Barbette + Fontaine. It reminded me of the profound impact a well-done documentary can have on people’s perceptions. Last month, I held a private screening for a friend who tends to lean Republican. After the film, she said, “Wow. I get it.” And by “it,” she meant the art of drag. She saw that drag entertainers are artists, not criminals, as they are often mislabeled by some on the conservative right.

At our world premiere in Boston, at the 40th annual Wicked Queer: Boston LGBTQ+ Film Festival — the fourth-longest-running LGBTQ+ film festival in North America — a lesbian couple approached me after the Q&A session. One of them, originally from Waco, not far from Barbette’s hometown of Round Rock, thanked me for sharing his story. She said, “If I had LGBTQ+ Texas icons like Barbette to look up to, perhaps I would have come out earlier in my life.” It has encouraged me and my co-director, Zak Zeh, to keep telling these important stories.

Three questions for Cynthia Lee Fontaine

Cynthia Lee Fontaine

Dallas Voice: Why was it important to you to be a part of this film? Cynthia Lee Fontaine: To showcase not just the artistry of drag, but also Barbette’s legacy through her story and mine. I want the world to know, learn and understand that drag is an extraordinary art, and that the main purpose is to entertain.

Unfortunately, since last year, this art and our drag performer community has been attacked by a group of conservatives and a group of lawmakers saying that what we do is harmful to society. This amazing film shows how beautiful this art is. Drag is not a crime. Drag is art. Drag is love. Drag is entertainment.

What has being involved in drag meant for you throughout your life? In almost 25 years in the entertainment business, 18 years as a drag performer and 20 years as an activist for the queer community, HIV, cancer and other important causes in our society, involvement for me is important. Action means moving with changes, with beneficial results for those who need a voice, equality, representation, visibility, love and respect.

That is the reason I will continue advocating for my LGBTQI+ community and utilizing my platform to fight for our rights. This film is a loud voice of two stories that need to be seen by everyone, especially for those who do not understand this art.

What was it like seeing this film for the first time? It was emotional for me because, when we filmed the documentary, I was in recovery from my full hip replacement surgery due to Avascular Necrosis — AVN — caused by the chemotherapy treatments I received years ago when I was battling stage 1 liver cancer. I’m happy to say I am in remission from my cancer and very healthy and walking in high heels.

It was always a dream for me to have a documentary. Seeing the result of all the hard work and dedication on the screen was a validation moment personally for me, and for the entire documentary crew as well.

Watch the trailer The film will be screened July 19 at Texas Music Café as part of the Waco Independent Film Festival. Additional screenings will take place worldwide this summer and fall. Updates can be found on Instagram @barbette.fontaine.