The cotton-candy-pink wig and black faux fur coat are little defense against the damp cold that sets in as evening falls along the Fore River.

Joey Harrigan is undeterred. He struts and flaps, his hands tucked in the pockets of the unbuttoned coat lent to him by his mother. A silky burgundy jumpsuit, also borrowed from his mom, clings to his slight 6-foot, 125-pound frame.

He chats and poses for photos with family members and friends, gathered beside the outdoor skating rink at Thompson’s Point in Portland. He smiles and pouts, showing off the whimsical, glittering face that took him more than two hours to apply.

All the while, he manages to stay upright in 4-inch black velvet stilettos, waiting to make his professional debut as “Famine,” one of Maine’s youngest drag performers.

“I’m excited. I’m feeling galvanized and rejuvenated,” says Harrigan, 17, sounding every bit like a Portland High School senior who recently took his SATs.

Harrigan is a headliner at the third annual Out On Ice! fundraiser hosted by EqualityMaine and GLSEN-Southern Maine. The January event benefits programs that aim to create safer schools for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths in southern Maine.


For Harrigan, the evening culminates years of struggling with his developing identity as a gay person, as well as bullying by some of his peers and the debilitating depression that followed.

He overcame the intolerance and despair, he says, by embracing and celebrating who he is through the art of drag makeup and performance. And he has the accolades to prove it.

Students elected him prom queen last spring and Spirit Week queen last fall. In November, he organized Portland High’s first drag show, which featured prominent student-athletes and raised $2,400 for a suicide prevention hotline.

As emcee of the show, Harrigan shared his personal experience and empathy for other teens who are dealing with depression and considering suicide.

“Drag is something that makes me feel happy,” he says, explaining his reason for the fundraiser, “but a lot of kids don’t have something like that in their lives.”



Harrigan started preparing weeks before his Out On Ice! debut, carefully planning what he’d wear and the song he’d lip-sync and dance to. He practiced his makeup skills nightly, buying supplies with money from his part-time job at a senior housing community.

The afternoon of the show, he tucks his short brown hair under an elastic net cap and kneels before a large square mirror tilted against his bedroom wall. Tacked to the bedroom door is his acceptance letter from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, his first choice. High-heeled shoes are scattered here and there.

“I’m so scared about tonight because it’s my first time out and I have people coming to see me,” he confesses. “But when I do drag I become someone else. It’s like this alter ego that I summon. The more makeup I put on, the more I become Famine.”

Harrigan chose the name Famine to call attention to his slimness and his refusal to wear padding as many drag queens do. He says he hasn’t felt welcomed by established drag performers in Maine, but he isn’t letting the lack of mentorship hold him back.

“I have a ’90s supermodel body, so I’m going with that,” Harrigan says. “I consider myself a drag princess. Actually, I’m like Rapunzel. I’ve just been up in my tower, practicing.”

Harrigan creates Famine’s face layer by layer. Some techniques he learned watching “Face Off,” a TV reality competition for special effects makeup artists that he discovered in fifth grade. Other skills he developed through trial and error as an artist who enjoys the mix of colors in his work.


“I want to be something that people see and say, ‘Wow, what is that?’ ” Harrigan says. “It’s art and I’m holding the frame up and people are like, ‘Ooooo!’ When I walked into the prom last year, I was better-looking than half the girls there.”

He starts by spreading red lipstick over his cheeks and jaw to neutralize the blue tones of his freshly shaved facial hair. He follows with tones of gray, brown, white, beige and blue, applied in deliberate swaths and at purposeful angles. He’s concentrating intensely now, sitting with his skinny legs folded and his knees tucked under his chin.

“I am putting on the metaphorical version of a suit of armor,” Harrigan says. “I want to look soft and pretty. Drag has to be one of the ugliest/prettiest arts ever.”

He highlights the tops of his cheeks to make them stand out, and shades his nose to make it look slightly pinched.

“I want to look like I’ve had work done, like a Real Housewife,” Harrigan says, referring to the reality shows that feature women who have had plastic surgery.

“I have to make a statement tonight,” he says. “I hope people like me. I hope I get some bookings. I know I’m not the best ever, but I think drag should always be evolving.”



Harrigan is the oldest of five, and his makeup sessions usually draw the attention of his younger siblings. This day is no different. Soon, his mother, Cathy, sister Gabby, 12, and brother Liam, 4, are sitting on his bed, watching the magic happen. His sister Emma, a freshman at Portland High, is out with friends, and his 2-year-old brother, Will, is napping.

“Why do you always need a wig?” Liam asks when the conversation turns to hair.

“Because my real hair isn’t pretty,” Harrigan answers, still focused on his makeup.

Amid all the talk about feminine beauty, Harrigan describes himself as a cis man, or cisgendered, meaning that his gender identity matches the sex he was assigned at birth.

“I’m a gay man,” he says emphatically. “I 100 percent identify as a man.”


His mother is surprised to hear him speak so frankly about his gender and sexuality. He wasn’t always so affirmed. He enjoyed playing dress-up as a preschooler, like most kids, and his mother didn’t balk when he put on wigs and shuffled around the house in her pumps.

Still, he says, “I always knew I wasn’t playing with the same cards as other kids.”

By fifth grade, school had become a place where being different felt like a disability, and other students called him out for it. When he was a freshman at Portland High, the loneliness he felt became overwhelming. He started dabbling in makeup at home, exploring his fascination with Ru Paul and other drag queens. By the time he was a junior, he was wearing makeup to school. The bullying escalated.

“I felt like a fish in the wrong water,” Harrigan says. He doesn’t share details, but he says he got into some trouble at school, and he tried to hurt himself, and he was hospitalized.

Despite the conflict generated by his interest in drag, it’s the one thing that gave him both a focus and an outlet through the difficult times.

“A lot of my friends and family were shocked when I started doing this, but I don’t feel any negative perceptions,” Harrigan says. “When I do it, I feel loved, and I don’t get a lot of validation otherwise.”


He laughs when he calls himself “the Rosa Parks of gay people at school,” then gets serious again.

“Kids are never not going to be mean,” he says. “We just have to make it better for the kids they’re being mean to.”


Cathy Harrigan is relieved to hear her son sound so positive.

“It’s very scary to think your kid doesn’t want to be here,” she says. “He just couldn’t find comfort. It’s been a long path. As a parent, you need to support them no matter what they throw at you. He struggled to fit in. I’ve seen Joey very sad. So to see him happy and confident, I can’t help but be happy and proud.”

She had her reservations, she admits, especially when he rifled through her closet for clothes, shoes and jewelry, or practiced dance routines in his bedroom, music and footsteps shaking the house. Then she saw him emcee and perform at the benefit drag show last fall, and she was convinced.


“I wasn’t sure he could pull it off, but he did,” she says, smiling and shrugging. “I think he had everybody in the room feeling good about it. Sometimes as a parent, you just gotta let it ride and see how it turns out.”

She still puts her foot down about some things. She won’t let him leave the house in risqué outfits that she wouldn’t let her daughters wear in public, and she won’t let him shave his eyebrows.

So Harrigan does his best to camouflage his eyebrows beneath dark liner, which he also uses to define and expand the sweep of his blue eyes.

He mentions that his father, Bill, isn’t so open to his interest in drag.

“I know he loves me,” he says. “He’s scared about what might happen. I think he’s afraid his kid might get ridiculed.”

He completes Famine’s face with russet lips, blue eye shadow, turquoise glitter and two sets of false eyelashes. The bottom set dips low, onto his cheeks, creating an exotic, wide-eyed look. He steps out of his bedroom and checks the results in a hall mirror.


“I love this cheek highlight!” he exclaims. “You can see it from the moon! All those other drag queens got something to be scared of now!”

Bill Harrigan arrives home just as his oldest son finishes dressing for his professional debut. Harrigan and his wife are Portland High alumni. He’s a maritime engineer who grew up in a large Irish Catholic family.

“I’m not an Archie Bunker, but this is hard to get used to,” he volunteers. “I grew up in a family of nine with five boys who were all athletes, so this is a little bit different. When he was getting into this, I worried about the backlash. I just hope he’s OK.”


Joey Harrigan arrives a little early at The Rink at Thompson’s Point. His dad drops him off and returns home to mind the younger kids. His mom is expected to arrive a little later, after she picks up her sister, Jackie Holmes, who’s also a Famine fan.

It’s a relatively warm night – 40 degrees after several weeks of freezing temperatures – but the damp wind makes it feel colder. A steady stream of skaters is flowing into the covered outdoor arena and the ground is thumping with the greatest dance tunes of the last few decades.


But the song swirling in Harrigan’s head is the one he picked for tonight’s performance: Ariana Grande’s bouncy pop hit “Break Free,” which opens aptly with the lines, “If you want it, take it/I should’ve said it before/Tried to hide it, fake it/I can’t pretend anymore.”

Among the people who’ve turned out to see Famine’s debut is Karen Phillips, who was Harrigan’s freshman English teacher. She’s hoping for a repeat of his performance at the Portland High drag show last fall.

“That to me was so inspirational and celebratory and pretty historic in the movement of human rights,” Phillips says. “He spoke a truth about finding himself and dealing with depression, and I think people in the school and in the audience could relate to him. When he was in my class freshman year, I don’t think he knew where to place himself, so it’s good to see him embrace who he is.”

Finally, it’s time for Famine’s debut. The Out On Ice! organizers clear skaters from the ice, roll out a long black carpet and introduce Famine to an audience of a few hundred people. Teetering in high heels, she is escorted across the ice to the rug.

When the music starts, Famine drops her coat on the ice and comes alive, singing, twirling, skipping and kicking her way back and forth along the carpet. She is both gangly and graceful, like a young giraffe.

She almost loses a shoe at one point, and two curls pinned to the front of her pink wig come undone, but Famine carries on, undaunted. She drops to a split and finishes to loud applause and cheers.


Friends swarm to congratulate Harrigan as he walks off the ice. Someone hands him a bouquet of flowers. Strangers, most of them teenagers, ask him to pose for photos. His mother hugs him, tears rolling down her cheeks.

“It was wonderful,” Cathy Harrigan says. “You think you’ll have kids and everything is going to be OK. But it’s been a struggle for us. This has been a journey. Then tonight happens and it’s amazing.”

Harrigan is still breathless long after he stops dancing.

“I’m exhausted and exhilarated,” he says. “I think I did good.”

This story was corrected at 11:20 a.m. on Jan.30, 2018 to correct the spelling of Karen Phillips’ name. 

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