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Arts & Culture

Crowning an “Empress”

Merrill College Lecturer’s New Documentary Opens Door on D.C. Drag Community

By Alexander A. Pyles

Muffy Blake Stephyns in "Queen of the Capital" documentary

Screengrab and video via Josh Davidsburg '01/YouTube

Daniel Hays—Muffy Blake Stephyns—is the subject of the documentary “Queen of the Capital” by lecturer Josh Davidsburg ‘01, which premieres Saturday at the Newseum.

Daniel Hays didn’t expect to be the star of a documentary film. But his alter ego, the fabulous Muffy Blake Stephyns, loved the sound of it.

“Ask a drag queen if she wants to have a camera follow her around for a while,” Hays said. “She’ll say, ‘Sure.’ … Quite honestly, I didn’t think it would ever be a movie.” 

Hays—Muffy—is the subject of the film “Queen of the Capital” by Philip Merrill College of Journalism lecturer Josh Davidsburg ‘01. The documentary, his first, premieres Saturday at the Newseum along with an exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn protests, a catalyst for the gay rights movement.

Davidsburg and a team of Merrill College alumni followed Hays for more than a year as his drag persona campaigned to become empress of the Imperial Court of Washington, D.C. The court raises money for local organizations that support the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, HIV/AIDS services organizations, social service organizations and youth enrichment programs.

The project was born from a class assignment: After Brandi Vincent ‘15 interviewed Muffy at D.C. Pride, she suggested Davidsburg, who was seeking a documentary project, meet the drag queen.

Sold on Muffy’s dynamic personality, Davidsburg recruited Alexander Glass ‘14 as director of photography and Alanna Delfino ‘15 as co-producer with Vincent. They began filming in 2014, and spent more than four years on fundraising and post-production.

The film explores the history of drag in Washington and lifts the curtain on an elegant group of performers who care deeply for their community.

“They’re not professional drag queens,” Davidsburg said. “They do it for charity, and so they give a ton back to the community. … They have day jobs, too, and because it’s D.C., a lot of them work for the government.”

Cameras followed Hays to his job at the U.S. Department of Labor, as well to New York City to shop for gowns, to intimate drag family dinners and to ornate court events.

Hays said it was easy to open his life up to Davidsburg and his crew, even when his struggle with mental and physical illness became part of the story.

“It was exceedingly open and honest,” Hays said. “I watched the film four times, and I cry each time.”

Hays plans to attend the premiere. For the first time, he’ll watch the film with a large audience before participating in post-screening panel discussion with his drag mentor—or “drag mother”—Shelby Jewel Stephyns.

Muffy’s ready.

“I got a brand new gown, a new wig’s been made,” Hays said. “I probably also will put a package of tissues in my purse.”



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