Justin "J" Clapp is standing in his basement, surveying his domain. He got home from a stressful day at his job at Duke University less than an hour ago. He is looking for a piece of himself.
"I have to find my breasts," he says.
The breasts belong to Clapp, technically, but they really belong to his alter-ego, a drag queen who, in less than five years, has become one of the most important forces in Durham's queer-friendly nightlife: the funny and ferocious Vivica C. Coxx.
If you pay any attention to Durham nightlife, you've probably seen that name before. With Coxx and the House of Coxx, an enclave that includes Clapp's drag family of several other performers (such as Spray Jay and Stormie Daie), Clapp has cemented himself as one of the city's premier drag presences. But drag wasn't always a major part of Clapp's life He won amateur drag competitions in college, but it was a hobby that largely existed on a back burner.
In 2013, that changed. Clapp was sitting at the bar at The Pinhook with a friend when owner Kym Register turned to them with a question. Manila Luzon, a runner-up in Season 3 of Ru Paul's Drag Race, would be performing at The Pinhook during Pride weekend, Register said. Did they know of anyone who could open for her? Clapp said yes, he could, and showed Register some photos of him in drag at Halloween as proof.
"'Well, if you look like that when you're not even trying, I can't wait to see what you look like when you try,'" Clapp recalls Register saying.
He retired his old drag name and, after some brainstorming with friends, settled on Vivica C. Coxx for his next chapter (the name riffs on one of Clapp's favorite celebrities while punning on his sexuality). A star was born.
In the four years since that auspicious beginning, Clapp has made Coxx a powerful figure in Durham's vibrant queer culture, with frequent appearances at spots like The Pinhook and The Bar Durham. A House of Coxx event is guaranteed to be a good time, but Clapp and company take their shows a step further than most.
"We put forward a social justice bent, with a focus on humor, enthusiastic consent, antiracism, antitransphobia, antimisogyny—just basically trying to create an environment for everyone. And I think anyone who has been to our shows has felt comfortable, unless they are a bigot," Clapp says.
Clapp's desire to develop social-justice-centered drag stems from several places. For one, he says, he's had plenty of his own experiences in queer and gay spaces where he's felt like he didn't belong as a queer black man.
"Durham is an activist city, we are an educated city, so I thought as an educated, activist-centered person, I could just literally put what I believe in on stage," Clapp says.
Clapp's attempts at inclusion extend far beyond his own experiences. He has degrees in medical anthropology and gender studies, as well as a master's degree in higher education administration. At Duke, Clapp oversees the Office of Access & Outreach, which helps first-generation and low-income students.
"My entire academic history has been about creating inclusive spaces," he says. "You could say that I am literally taking my degrees and applying them to drag."
Sometimes, that means having to take control when a heckler goes too far and uses bigoted or otherwise unacceptable language. As Coxx, Clapp never hesitates to call out inappropriate behavior, using humor as his main method of disarmament.
"Sociology shows that you don't have to kick people out. Sometimes you can just scold them and be successful with the audience," Clapp says.
As an audience member, it can be fun to watch Coxx make a rude interloper squirm, but her pointed dressings-down serve a much larger purpose. They send a clear public message that such behavior is not acceptable, which in turn reassures her other audience members that she's committed to keeping her shows fun and safe for all.
On top of being a compelling entertainer, forwarding social justice efforts, and ministering to up-and-coming House of Coxx performers, Clapp still must contend with a hefty amount of day-of work before a show. He estimates it takes him a solid four hours to get spotlight-ready. Wigs included, Clapp's ensembles can weigh twenty-five to thirty pounds. Try singing and dancing in that for a few hours—and in heels, too.
Clapp has big hopes for himself and the House of Coxx. He and his cohorts want to continue to expand their presence in Durham and help shape local dialogue about consent and respect for marginalized populations along the way. So the next time you get ready to queue up Drag Race on Netflix again, make sure there's not a House of Coxx throwdown you're missing—you'll catch something much more compelling wherever Clapp and company are than on your couch.
The House of Coxx Presents: Endangered Species at The Pinhook Friday night as part of Pride weekend. Tickets are $15, and the show starts at 10 p.m.