Kelsea Ballerini and CMT Music Awards Drag Queens Explain Message Behind Performance (Exclusive)

The CMT Music Awards co-host made a powerful statement with her performance Sunday night.

Kelsea Ballerini made her feelings about the Tennessee drag ban known during her performance at the 2023 CMT Music Awards Sunday.

Ballerini, who also served as the night's co-host, transported the audience backyard barbecue in the '60s, where she was surrounded by a bevy of drag queens while belting out her hit, "If You Go Down (I'm Goin' Down Too)."

The group served as Ballerini's backup dancers, while the singer sang and strummed along on a pink guitar. After throwing her long, green coat to the side, Ballerini showed off a yellow two-piece, which she strutted her stuff in while the drag queens followed behind -- all dressed in their best '60s-inspired wears.

The performance ended with a flutter of confetti that was illuminated with rainbow stage lights, which made Ballerini's stance loud and clear.

ET spoke to the drag queens -- Kennedy Davenport, Manila Luzon, Jan Sport and Oliva Lux -- that performed alongside the "Penthouse" singer, who shared the importance of taking the stage with Ballerini.

"Just like all these amazing country music artists, we drag queens are also artists. And we deserve a space to be ourselves, express ourselves, and create something wonderful for everyone to enjoy," Luzon said.

"It means so much," Sport added, of getting to perform alongside Ballerini. "Because any opportunity for us to share our gifts with the world is a blessing. So, it's more of us having a message to bless other people. It's not bad. It's all good. It's all love. It's all total liberation -- that's what the arts are all about."

Lux, meanwhile, praised Ballerini, for her positive message and for promoting the community that she not only fostered with their performance, but with her upbeat track. 

"Kelsea made it really clear in the rehearsal room and took even during right before the stage that she was like take up that space, you know, this is your time as well, and amplify the fact that you're here," Lux said. "Even the song, if you're going down, I'm going down too -- it is about the celebration of being a community. And I think that's what we did on the stage tonight. And I really hope that transcended some people as well. It felt like it did."

As for what Ballerini had to say about it, the country crooner simply added, "I love performance and I love self-expression and I love inclusivity."

On Monday, GLAAD issued a statement in support of Ballerini and CMT's inclusion of the LGBTQ community. 

"As LGBTQ rights are being questioned in Texas, Tennessee, and several Southern states, Kelsea Ballerini took to one of country music’s biggest stages to display bold allyship by proudly featuring talented and beloved drag artists. Kelsea’s performance at the CMT Music Awards reinforced that drag is not a threat, it’s an art," said GLAAD's Vice President of Communications & Talent, Anthony Allen Ramos.

"New legislation that tries to silence drag performers in some Southern states is as unpopular as it is unnecessary. The CMT Music Awards also featured a performance from out singer Lily Rose, out red carpet host Cody Alan, and legendary ally Shania Twain called for country music to be 'all inclusive' in her remarks," Ramos continued. "Country music stars are using their platforms to stand with the LGBTQ community and the industry is growing into an explicitly welcoming place for LGBTQ fans and talent. Other country music stars, concerts, and events should take note of CMT’s inclusion and follow suit."

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Last month, Tennessee introduced, Senate Bill 3, known as the Tennessee drag ban, which set to ban the public "adult cabaret performance" of drag performers in front of children in the state of Tennessee.

The ban has received lots of opposition from those in the state and outside it, and on Friday, the ban was halted, a federal judge in Tennessee pressing pause on the ban, just hours before it was set to take effect.

When it comes to the ban, Davenport, Luzon, Sport and Lux said they aren't going anywhere.

"We have a strong real job of being leaders. So with that leadership comes strength. So we have to be strong because people look up to us and we appreciate that," Davenport shared. "And I take the job on wholeheartedly because that's what we're here to do. We're here to uplift we're here to stay free. We're here to lead people to a brighter light in this business!"

Sport added, "If there's one thing: Do not mess with the LGBTQ+ community, okay? We're here, we're queer. Get used to it, baby!"

Ultimately, Davenport noted, it's all about equality.

"The world is evolving. So we have to, we're gonna evolve with you guys," Davenport told ET. "And we're going to. We're all equal. And that's what it's all about."

The 2023 CMT Music Awards airs live on CBS and is streaming on Paramount+. For more coverage of the big event, including all of the night's winners, keep checking back with ETonline.



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