Drag is an artful form of expression for Wes Ngo and Greg Parker.
Ngo and Parker, co-presidents of the UM Pride Network, took the Lyric stage Friday night in drag for the semester’s first mermaid-themed Code Pink party.
Ngo performed as “Lily Koi” in a blonde-and-black ombre wig, white bodysuit, black corset and thigh-high heels. Parker drifted down the runway as “Grace,” in goth makeup and a bodysuit with tulle glued to it, simulating a wedding dress. Lily Koi performed “Like a Girl,” and Grace performed recent chart-topper “Truth Hurts,” both by singer and rapper Lizzo.
“Lily Koi is like the embodiment of me from middle school all the way to the end of senior year,” Ngo said. “If you went to a cosplay convention, you would see Lily Koi.”
Parker grew up imitating female pop culture figures, like Natalie Portman in “Star Wars,” Britney Spears, Hannah Montana and Lady Gaga, emulating their personalities and mannerisms.
“Everybody has their drag persona, but I feel like I’ve always been my drag persona,” Parker said. “She is like me, uncensored, unfiltered.”
Under strobing lights, the crowd was a jostling frenzy upon hearing the song selections, further adding to the chaos from the plastic, blue jellyfish hanging from the ceiling and a woman in a mermaid costume swinging from the rafters over a kiddie pool that housed an inflatable orca and a rainbow.
“They felt so connected,” Ngo said. “This might have been a really messy party. However, they were living for it.”
Ngo, 20, is from Ocean Springs. Self-proclaimed “second-hand popular,” he never had serious issues with being openly gay.
Formerly involved in theatre, choir and band sparked Ngo’s interest in drag and performing, especially after winning a fundraiser beauty pageant in sophomore year of high school as Sarah Cha, a sentient sriracha bottle.
Parker, a 21-year-old senior and Lucedale native, was terrified before premiering his alter ego Grace at Code Pink. He’s done makeup since 2017, but never participated in performing arts.
“I’m an education major,” Parker said, “and I’ve kind of gotten used to talking in front of people but not dressed up in high heels.”
Ngo and Parker met through mutual friends. At previous Code Pink events, Parker would wear makeup, and Ngo and other friends would try to encourage him to go in full drag.
“I wasn’t ready for all the heels, corsets, padding and everything,” Parker said, “but whenever we started performing we became closer, for sure.”
“They just really pushed me into it,” Parker added, “and I said if I keep pushing it off I’m never going to do it. It’s my senior year, so I said yes.”
Parker said that we will absolutely see Grace at future performances. “As long as I have their support, I can keep going.”
Ngo and Parker also appreciate that their drag inspires other people.
Lily Koi unveiled a poster during her performance with political messages on either side. As a first generation Vietnamese-American, politics are important to Ngo, and he would like to continue to incorporate a political message in his performances, like immigration.
“It may be at some times vulgar,” Ngo said, “but that’s the only way you can catch people’s attention sometimes.”
Once they were the kids looking up to other drag queens, and now the roles have reversed. Underclassmen approach Ngo and Parker to sing praise.
“It just makes me want to cry,” Parker said, reminiscing about his time as a freshman seeing Amnesia Devereaux, or former UM Pride Network president Spencer Pleasants, perform.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” Ngo said. “Blake and Nathan, they were the ones who, like, basically reinvented Code Pink and expanded it.”
Blake Summers and Nathan Adams are the brains behind the newest iteration of Code Pink. The couple took over direction of the event from Jaime Harker and Theresa Starkey in 2016.
“These people really paved the way for us, and that’s why I think it’s important for me and Wes to continue to spread a positive message,” Parker said.
Blake performed as Lilac, a video game-inspired character. The audience cheered her on as she and backup dancers on stage transitioned from a faux poker match into a dance number, moving along to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”
“There are small moments where I look around the club and almost cry,” Summers said, talking about witnessing the camaraderie in the crowd during the party. He has ‘excitement attacks’ as opposed to anxiety attacks when planning the events. “We want to give magic to people. And that’s why we do so much world building with the themes we pick.”
Code Pink is still a work in progress. Summers also wants to have events that aren’t alcohol related, and events to focus on networking or having speakers for LGBTQ sexual health. He wants to funnel the money Code Pink makes back into the community to cultivate stronger bonds between people.
Summers and Adams co-founded Out Oxford, an off-campus community LGBTQ organization, which now hosts Code Pink instead of the UM Pride Network.
“I do want people to love themselves like I never did,” Summers said. “I learned a lot from Jonathan. He taught me that I’m worth loving. And that I can teach people how to love other people. That’s what we want to do, rebrand what it means to be gay in the South.”
Expect the next Code Pink around this Halloween and a mythology theme in November.