Pictures by Melina Favarel
Text by Anna Prudhomme
After the rain finally stopped pouring, two young blond girls, a large man wearing makeup, and parents with their 11-year-old son, began queuing outside the Vaudeville Theatre, West End (London). They’ve come here to see the British queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Soon, more people join the queue: an overexcited gothic girl, two gay men in shirts, an older woman in a wheelchair and an elegant Dutch couple married for five years.
Zofia is an opera singer. Her husband Hans works in the international development sector and they have a two-year-old daughter. It was when they moved to London that they got into the habit of going to drag shows and both have very different reasons for why they love it so much. Zofia is enamoured with the “wonderful, colourful and fantastic world of drag” because, for her, it is a unique combination of unapologetically having fun, authenticity with a dash of activism, mixed with all-round talent and glitter. But for Hans, it is the way drag performers challenge our beliefs around gender that made him so fond of drag queens.
What they’ll see tonight is The Drag Queens of Pop, a live singing drag show that launched on the first day of London’s post-pandemic big reopening. Starring Drag Race UK Season 1 winner The Vivienne, Season 2 fan favourite Tia Kofi, and her fellow contestant Veronica Green, this live show is a pure product of RuPaul’s TV juggernaut. The huge variety of people standing outside the theatre attest to how successful this reality show has been.
In fact, it has been more than a decade now since the first season of RuPaul’s reality show, Drag Race aired on US television. Dancing, singing, acting, sewing, and making drag icon, Ru, laugh are the key challenges of this drag competition, and all of this while wearing seven inches of heels, 15 inches of hair and 40 inches of tucking bandages wrapped around your crotch. As Ru said himself: this program is the “Olympics of Drag'' and now, after 13 seasons, four spin-offs and five Emmys, the show finally expanded overseas. First to Chile, then Thailand, and the UK, soon after came the Canadian and Dutch version and this year, Australia and Spain finally got their own spin-offs. Around the globe, people are fascinated by these queens: sharing their love on social media, creating fan stories or fan art, buying drag merchandise, or even getting tattooed their favourite candidate’s names or faces.
But how did Drag Race get so huge? What is it about drag queens that touches so many people around the world and what social impact has this international drag phenomenon created?
According to Cameron Crookston, scholar and university lecturer specialised in drag culture and author of the book The Cultural Impact of RuPaul's Drag Race, it’s difficult to pinpoint a start time of drag, as men performed women's roles in theatre for most of Western history and in a lot of cultures, women performed male roles too. For him, it was during the 19th century, with the rise of music halls and pantomime, that gender impersonations became one of the most popular kinds of performances in Europe.
But it was only in the early years of the 20th century, that the connection between queerness and drag cross-dressing began, propelled by the burgeoning trans and gender-nonconforming cultures. Drag was then performed in illegal gay bars and remains an underground form of art associated with criminality and deviant identities.
During the 70s and 80s, movies such as John Waters’s Pink Flamingos or the Rocky Horror Picture Show featured representations of iconic drag characters and dragging finally started to be perceived as a legitimate performance style. It was during this period that the photographer Andy Warhol captured drag queens living in New York with his Polaroid camera, and even did a self-portrait series in drag.
Once mainstream, these films generated a cult following, and even on Broadway, shows featuring drag personas like La Cage aux Folles or the Torch Song Trilogy gained popularity. In 1990 the celebrated documentary on the evolution of the ballroom scene Paris Is Burning came out, giving a platform to the underdogs of the queer community. As Crookston explains, “There is a very interesting reaction from mainstream society who's interested in queer culture. A lot of TV shows in the late 90s have a single gay character or a gay topic episode, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dawson's Creek. There was a race to have the first gay kiss, and a big part of that is dragging.”
Laurent Mercier aka Lola von Flame, one of the most famous French drag queens, explained the drag phenomenon came to France in the 90s with New York’s club kids, outrageous nightclub personalities, and the Australian movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The film told the adventure of two young drag queens and an older trans woman, touring the country on a bus. And as the press needed a local queen to boost the movie release, they kept on inviting Lola into the studios.
At the time, drag queens were booked to entertain club-goers at parties, tells me Lola, “so the thing was to wear the highest heels possible with the craziest outfit”. Dr Stephen Farrier, expert on gender in performance, co-author of the book series Drag in a Changing Scene and drag fan himself, saw his first proper drag act in the 80s. It was at a club, in between a comedian act and a striptease. In North London, he then took the habit of going to see Regina Fong’s show, one of England's most famous drag queens, and remembered the audience as being mostly cis men. In France, Lola explained that transvestites used to be booked to do personality impersonations but when drag queens arrived, they took their place on bars and clubs’ podiums.
“Ru Paul was so in the right place at the right time,” says Crookston. After struggling as a grunge queer figure, Ru launched in 1993, the single Supermodel, presenting himself as a very glamorous drag queen. He got so celebrated for it that the single reached number Two in the dance club charts and he landed a modelling contract with cosmetic brand MAC, before becoming the pop icon we know today.
Then the 2000s happened to be the perfect pressure cooker moment to make drag enter national television. Looking at the first low-budget seasons, there is a clear wish to parody America's Next Top Model but as the show goes on, it gets a lot more serious about itself. Crookston says: “What really endeared people to Drag Race is that reality TV had been around for about a decade, and people were starting to see the tropes and clichés and were ready to poke fun at it. Drag Race was so good at doing that initially!”
Reality TV was the perfect format for drag as it’s making the competition interesting and “it’s dwelling with interpersonal drama,” Crookston tells me. As he explains, reality TV has an imperative of authenticity that goes very well with any art form that is about self-expression and identity construction. And Drag Race does hit all those things!
For Dr Farrier, it’s the influence of web 2.0 that propelled a new generation of drag queens. “Traditionally, drag performers learned the craft from other older drag queens”, but now younger queens learn drag secrets directly by watching make-up or sewing tutorials on YouTube.
But the expansion of social media is also something to consider when examining the roots of dragging recent popularity. Drag queens are indeed super-active on socials, sharing photos of their new make-up or crazy outfits. Some of them make their own tutorials or comedy videos and this strong online presence has a part to play in people’s craving for drag queens’ content.
Besides, according to Vice magazine, to participate in RuPaul Drag Race, queens must invest between $4,000 and $20,000 in garments, wigs, and accessories. Creating online content out of those incredible outfits is a positive return on investment that queens just can’t ignore. Drag performers don’t have unions or agents, so running their social media and interacting with fans is essential if they want to secure gigs.
Back in the theatre hall, the queens are performing some of their solo releases live, while astonishing backup dancers twirl around them. Interrupting the performance to crack some jokes and interact with the audience, the queens change outfits between each act. Looking sexy and glamorous, they sing classic pop covers such as Britney’s Toxic or Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, setting the theatre on fire as the audience stand up to sing along with them.
“Drag Race has done a really good job of finding a way to market itself to very mainstream audiences, especially young ones,” Farrier tells me. In fact, the statistics website YouGov found that millennials (born between 1982 and 1999) were the largest age group to love and follow the show. Those young people, especially girls and gay boys, have created an engaged and admiring fan base that evolves online, on blogs and social media. Some of them create fan accounts, post photos of their favourite queens, others write fan stories with their idols as main characters, while some even create fan art based on the queen's incredible outfits.
For Ashe, a 15-year-old from Cardiff, Wales, writing fan stories has been a way to share her love for drag queens with other fans. “I feel like I know these drag queens, they’re people I look up to. And it’s super fun creating scenarios and putting them in those situations.”
In the semi-final of RuPaul Down Under, the Australian and New Zealand version of the show, Ru congratulated the queens on their outstanding costumes before underlining that they will inspire fan art creations around the world. Indeed, if you follow drag queens’ fan accounts on social media you will soon see your feed drowned by the number of drawings that fans create about their favourite queens. While most of them remain purely amateur, some fans have raised the bar to the standard of fine art.
One of them is Edward Fassey, 18, from Essex, who has made an income from selling his prints of abstract drawings of drag performers. “What I really love about Drag Race and drag in general is how it screws around with gender and opens up a whole new world of unapologetic queer expression and history to me.”
He studied Cubism in art school and decided he wanted to try that style on one of the queen’s poses he couldn't realistically draw. “My love for drag and my personal style kind of evolved alongside each other – my art started very surface-level, but then the gender element started playing a larger role. I wanted to ask, ‘If you can’t even tell what different parts of the body it is, how are you going to tell the gender?’ It became about abstracting the body beyond labels and letting the piece speak for itself.”
Stay tuned for the second part...
Pictures by Melina Favarel
Text by Anna Prudhomme