Miss Annie Thang was born in the closet.
"I’d wait until late at night and stay up all night getting into drag," said Trevor Ladner, 18, creator of Annie Thang. "It just takes so long to do your makeup and style wigs and do costumes."
Just outside Ladner’s bathroom — which has an attached walk-in closet — a mannequin sits next to a small seating area decorated with throw pillows that feature deer-hunting images or the rainbow flag. The mannequin models one of Annie Thang’s wigs — its long, auburn locks crimped and filled with small braids done by the Hancock High School graduate himself.
"I would sit on the stage after (class) and just braid — 30 hours of braiding," he said.
Growing up gay and the son of a former Baptist preacher in rural Mississippi was not always easy, but Ladner said the items in his bedroom — and the persona it helped him create — led to successes in his community and the classroom. The salutatorian of his class, Ladner credits Annie for helping earn sizable scholarship offers to Tulane and Harvard universities. He’ll head to Harvard in the fall.
These four walls
In the corner of his room, a 4-foot-tall trunk on wheels organizes foundation, blush, eye shadow, lipstick, glosses, contour kits and false eyelashes.
It takes up to four hours for Ladner to emerge from his room as Miss Annie Thang.
"It’s not like it just happens," he said. "I think that’s how any art is. I’m creating an art piece out of myself, so all of the individual pieces take so much time."
His faux hairline looks natural, but his makeup is animated and colorful, as layers are applied to create contour and dimension. His often hand-made outfits are planned for events — a weekend function, a drag show performance or a beauty pageant. Ladner makes crop tops for Annie at the sewing machine on the kitchen table.
"It took a lot of practice to get where I am today," he said. "Even though I’m not at all polished, I do present my drag in a way that is exciting and entertaining and unique, and I think that’s what’s important."
Annie Thang stars in drag shows across the region every month. In March, he hosted a birthday show at Club Veaux. The weekend before Memorial Day, he joined two other drag artists on stage at a Jackson club.
But the world was not always Annie Thang’s runway. Family encouragement, an eight-minute scholarship application video and a passion for changing traditional gender roles helped him leave the safety of his vanity mirror and show the world his confident, red-headed alter ego.
Coming out of the closet
It was spring 2014, and near the end of sophomore year, Ladner’s mother sensed something troubling her oldest son.
He had yet to come out to his family, he said, and he was struggling with his identity.
"I had been going through a lot," he said. "I have always had body issues. I was bulimic for a while, and I was addicted to working out. I was recovering from that, and with all of those things combined and with school being so difficult, it just culminated and I was not happy."
He was afraid to tell his family he was gay, he said, because they are very conservative.
"I did not feel like I could talk to my family about it because of hearing how they talked about the LGBT community before."
When his boyfriend ended their relationship over spring break, it was a breaking point, but his mother would be there to pick up the pieces.
"What’s wrong?" Mary Ladner said.
"Nothing is wrong," he replied.
But she wouldn’t let her son out of the car until he told her what was bothering him.
"I cried about it and I came out to her," he said.
His mom was 100 percent supportive.
"Her biggest concern was that I wouldn’t be able to have kids one day, and I was like, ‘You watch ‘Modern Family’ — why do you think I can’t have kids?’"
The birth of Annie
Summer break in 2014 was not necessarily a vacation.
Ladner had come out to his mother but he was still not happy.
"I was stressed, and I was not enjoying my summer," he said. "I hated going to (theater) rehearsal every day."
He found episodes of "RuPaul’s Drag Race" on YouTube and started watching them in his room at night, and he said he was immediately captivated. A theater friend gave him a pair of gel inserts for a bra, known in the drag community as "chicken cutlets," and told him to take them home.
That night, he dressed in drag for the first time.
"It was really liberating, and then I did it again, and then I did it again," he said. "It’s not about being one gender or the other, it’s about mocking identity. You can be whatever you want to be."
Looking in the mirror at his altered reflection was quite like a revelation, he said.
"I was struggling to accept myself, which is what a lot of LGBT people go through," he said. "When I started doing drag and watching ‘Drag Race,’ it kind of pulled me out of that chasm that I was in. It’s more than just a hobby — it’s part of my life now."
Miss Annie Thang was born — even though her first appearance was the work of an amateur, complete with two sets of eyebrows, Ladner said. At the time he had no idea the impact Annie would make on his family, his classmates or his future academic endeavors.
Father: Drag has ‘purpose’
He found Annie Thang’s voice and a new part of himself, but his newfound identity was still hiding behind the mirror of his vanity.
That is, until his mother found Annie’s Instagram profile.
"I was very upset when I first found out," Mary Ladner said. "One, I felt like I had a kid that I didn’t know. I was upset thinking he was not happy with who he was, and I was doing nothing for him and he wasn’t coming to me."
But when he explained why he enjoyed drag, she said she was 100 percent on board.
"He told me, ‘I love to do this. I’ve always loved theater, and I love feminine things, so this is like the ultimate role, the ultimate character to pull off. I am a man, and I get to dress up as a woman. I get to have the feminine parts that I love — nails, wigs or whatever — and I get to act like something completely different than what I am all day and every day,’" she said.
When Annie Thang performs, her mom is always first-row center in the audience, with cash for tipping in one hand and her phone recording in the other.
"This is what he does. He’s performing. I thoroughly enjoy it because I’m watching him perform and he’s mine. I love to watch him do what he loves and he’s having the time of his life.
"The drag doesn’t bother me. I love it. I love to know that he is having fun doing what he loves, and he’s really good at it."
Trevor said when his father, Wade Ladner, found out his son was a drag artist, he was angry at first.
"I didn’t know what drag was," the elder Ladner said. "I seen it on TV a couple of times when it was recorded. What was he trying to do? What part of him do I not know?"
A history buff much like his son, Wade Ladner said Trevor explained the historical aspects of the art to help him understand.
"Do I still have a hard time seeing the son I raised dressed up drag? Yes. Do I think of Trevor any different as a person? Absolutely not. Am I still going to love him the same way? Absolutely."
Wade Ladner said he went to one of Annie Thang’s shows and began to understand his son’s standpoint and passion — and it helped him accept this second identity.
"Thinking of him dressing up in drag is not what I ever envisioned Trevor to do," he said. "Maybe I won’t see it today, and I don’t think Trevor sees it today, but I do know the person he’s become is for a reason and purpose, and I know that good is going to come out of it."
Boxes and scholarships
Trevor Ladner didn’t realize the questions he asked himself as a child would one day make him an activist for LGBTQ equality.
"Growing up, I was always more feminine than everyone else," he said. "Although I didn’t realize that I was gay or I was going to be a drag queen one day, I was always concerned why I couldn’t do the things girls were doing."
In high school, he was called names and sometimes picked on. He said he was getting a snowball one afternoon when someone in a truck yelled "faggot" at him. Another time, he was afraid to walk into a gas station because he was wearing pink shorts.
"I was harassed because of my hairstyle, because I had a man bun," he said. "In other regions and places, that’s totally normal. Here, because things are so traditional, it was just looked at as an absurdity."
He has turned the negative energy into a platform for advocacy.
"If I were to censor myself and just not be myself and not do the things that make me happy, then I would not have a fulfilling life," he said. "The people who are oppressing me would get what they wanted."
He took every chance he could to write about LGBT rights in his English classes, and discussed inequalities in class discussions.
Then former Waveland Mayor David Garcia publicly announced his support for gay marriage about a year or so before it became a legal right nationwide. Ladner sent him an email thanking him and got a note back from his office.
"That was kind of the moment when I was like, my words matter, and my research matters," he said. "A lot of the problem with activism in modern day is that people like to talk about what needs to be done, but no one tries to go out and change things."
He said he started being himself at school, and it helped other LGBT students get comfortable with coming out.
"In my school, I think being yourself is the biggest form of activism," he said.
He said he has spoken with school officials about inclusion training to help faculty and staff better understand the minority groups that make up Hancock’s campus.
The most relevant and impactful activism he’s been a part of so far, he said, was his Dean’s Honor Scholarship video application to Tulane University.
He wrote the script in one day, and his friend Mattlan Ladner filmed and edited it. It has been viewed on YouTube more than 14,000 times.
In the video, he makes a case for why society should not place people into pre-sorted boxes.
The video also introduced Annie Thang to his extended family.
"So many people have come up to me and thanked me for opening their eyes and explaining things in a way that they wouldn’t have seen before," he said. "Activism or any type of communication isn’t about bashing your ideas into someone else’s head. You really have to find common ground and talk about things. It’s about open dialogue."
Wade Ladner said his son’s video opened his eyes as well.
"I don’t think he saw the impact it was going to make around us.
"When you talk about issues, everybody has a barrier. I think in society, we put up walls and we want to put people in boxes. I think even in our own family, we didn’t talk about those types of things because of the walls and boxes we put people in. I know after the video came out, our family talked about it more openly."
The big picture
When Annie Thang struts on stage, her eyes immediately connect to the audience. Earlier this year, the spotlight was on her as she belted out a Destiny’s Child tune mixed with a Hillary Clinton monologue at Club Veaux in Biloxi.
That alter ego gained the attention of Harvard University, which offered Ladner a substantial scholarship. He introduced Annie in the flesh at Hancock’s womanless beauty pageant benefit in February.
"Annie is a big part of my life, and if I wouldn’t have been a drag queen, I couldn’t have created the Tulane video the way I did, and Harvard would not have seen it and I wouldn’t have gotten as great of a response from Harvard," he said. "Drag has opened up opportunities so much more than the life I was living before I was doing drag."
He said Annie has helped him find normalcy and a stronger public voice.
"When I’m in drag, I’m so much more confident because it’s kind of like a heightened version of yourself," he said. "If I can be confident as Annie, I could be confident as Trevor. I could do things that make me happy and things I believe are going to make the world better."
He said studying at Harvard will help him fight for Southern LGBTQ residents’ rights.
"After being at Harvard (on a campus tour) and seeing how I would learn and how many connections that I would have, I feel like after the four years being there I’ll have so much more power to help people, and I’ll be able to accomplish things on so much more of a substantial political level to help people that are suppressed or discriminated against."
When Ladner leaves for Cambridge, Mass., in the fall, he said he he’ll miss his family the most — his brother, Trenton, who is his polar opposite but biggest cheerleader; his sister, Courtney, who says she and her big brother often know what the other is thinking; his mother, who is his best friend; and his father, who is his debate partner and safety net.
"They instilled all of the basic morals that I have, and I couldn’t be the person that I am today without their love and support," he said.