Photography by Jean-Francois Campos. Groomer: Ananda Tuyes.
The first sentence of Drag Teen, Jeffery Self's debut young-adult novel, lays out the book's mission loud and clear: "This isn't one of those stories about a heartwarming journey toward accepting my cursed homosexual identity," explains protagonist JT Barnett, a 17-year-old who lives with his parents in Clearwater, Florida, but has aspirations to more--even though no one in his family has ever left the state or gone to college. "No," he continues. "First of all, being gay is far from a curse. It's more like an extra order of fries at Wendy's because the lady in the window isn't paying attention while she fills your bag. It's awesome."
Just like the modern teen, queer YA literature keeps evolving, with plots and characters that have moved far beyond the coming out story. In Drag Teen, JT is fine with being gay, but he's still searching for that place where he can be his best self. So when his boyfriend, Seth, tells him about the Miss Drag Teen Scholarship Pageant in New York City, JT grabs him and his best friend, Heather, and embarks on a road trip, hoping to overcome his self-doubt and find his inner goddess somewhere along the way.
Self, who's 29, is a natural, hilarious storyteller who drops snarky bon mots--"Mrs. Patterson came onstage so fast you would have thought someone was offering her a third line on Law & Order: Key West"--honed from his work as an actor, writer, and vlogger. On his podcast, This Is Really Important, he interviews friends and idols ranging from Andy Cohen to Graham Norton; Jeffery and Cole Casserole, his sketch-comedy show with Cole Escola, had a two-season run on Logo; and he's the author of two other books, 50 Shades of Gay and Straight People: A Spotter's Guide to the Fascinating World of Heterosexuals. You may also recognize him as Liz Lemon's gay cousin Randy on 30 Rock.
For his first foray into YA fiction, Self worked with a personal hero: Scholastic editorial director David Levithan, who wrote queer YA touchstones Boy Meets Boy and Two Boys Kissing. "I was such a fan of his, and it made me want to write a YA book," Self says on the phone from Los Angeles. "I was really interested in writing something that spoke directly to gay teenagers right in this moment." There's also a universalness at the book's core--the need to find one's tribe, the power of friendship, and the struggle to overcome our greatest enemies (frequently, ourselves)--that lends it a soulful longevity. No, it isn't about accepting a "cursed homosexual identity," as JT puts it, but it is heartwarming.
Every novel holds kernels of truth, and for Self, JT is a kindred spirit. As the youngest of three siblings growing up in Rome, Georgia, Self persuaded his parents to let him be homeschooled. "All of my friends were adults from the community theater," he says. "I was so focused on wanting to be an adult and getting out of my hometown and being fabulous. I didn't really stop and 'smell the roses' of being 17. [Writing the book] was such a cool experience, a way for me to actually explore that."
After high school, Self did a stint at the North Carolina School of the Arts before moving to New York, where he lived for five and a half years. His late teens and early 20s loom large in the novel, specifically "the notion of really wanting to be somewhere and not really knowing why," he explains. "And also the idea of needing 'drag,' whatever that means to you." Self didn't grow up dressing in drag, but, he says, "I've always been so inspired by the bravery of getting up onstage and just commanding a room of drunk gay people...it's like witchcraft." His research for the book involved observing gay teens on YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat-- and, of course, going to drag shows. He's obsessed with RuPaul's Drag Race and most interested "in the queens who are getting up there and living their true flaws."
Next, Self will appear on the TBS comedy Search Party, and he's already at work on a second YA novel, also about gay teens. But this summer he plans to focus on himself, whatever that entails. "Sometimes your authentic self requires you to wear a pink wig and lip-synch to Mariah Carey," he says. "We live in this culture that's all about self-deprecation. When you see a drag queen, it's the complete opposite. It's 'I am in control of my destiny.' It's about celebrating the best parts of one's self."
Like what you see here? Subscribe and be the first to receive the latest issue of OUT. Subscribe to print here and receive a complimentary digital subscription.
Be sure to follow Out on your favorite social platform
DON'T MISS THE OUT100 SPECIAL 3 DAY MARATHON STARTING NOVEMBER 24TH!
Journey through the year’s influential Out100 – the most iconic and long-standing celebration of LGBTQ+ icons and allies – in a 1-hour television special spotlighting the LGBTQ+ people shaping the world today.