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Why we are all obbsessed with drag queens - part 2

Pictures by Melina Favarel

Text by Anna Prudhomme

Throughout Drag Race’s various episodes and seasons, identity is a subject a lot of queens discussed – while doing their make-up. At each final episode of the competition, Ru asks the finalists to advise their young self while holding a picture of them as babies… And yes, this cheesy moment does hold a purpose: giving young audiences agency over their own identity. Listening to the stories the queens tell during the show, we learn that drag queens often started as shy gay boys creating powerful alter ego characters to escape their own hardships. For instance, Pearl, a US Season 7 finalist, once said that her drag queen persona was initially a sketch of a Barbie-like rich girl he ended up drawing on his face. As a boy, he may have been timid, but once his Pearl face is drawn on, he exudes confidence. These characters, often created from scratch, give fans inspiration and a lot of opportunities to play with them.

Cielo Michel, 21, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, decided to write stories about drag queens because they give her so much joy in hard times. “In a global pandemic, Drag Race is the only thing that kept me going. I encourage everyone to watch the show because you will learn so much, not only about dragging but about life too. There are a lot of amazing life stories there.”

There is no doubt that some fans look up to the queens who have had difficult lives and see them as role models. They are strong figures with savviness, gumption, and quick-wittedness. “Bianca Del Rio’s [season 6 winner] ability to kill someone with a read [a snappy one-liner] is something everyone wishes they had in school, particularly if people have had difficult times,” explains Crookston.

Two years ago, Dylan, a 14-year-old from Peru, discovered Drag Race when one of her closest friends introduced it to her. She had never heard of drag queens before, but the concept intrigued her. Later, she showed it to her mum, who fell in love with it as well, and they watched Season 2 together. Ever since, Dylan, her mum, and her grandma always watch Drag Race together. “This show is already a huge part of my life; the lessons, the memories, the advice... it's all very dear to my heart. But what makes it the most influential are the contestants. Those queens have proved that they can be elegant and opulent on the runway; but behind all the glitz and glam, there's always a humble heart, and I find this so moving.”

As Zofia, Ashe, Cielo, Dylan, her mum and grandma prove, women are the largest group of drag queen fans.“I know in my own experience of seeing drag in bars for the last 20-30 years, that there's always been a following of heterosexual woman engaging in gay culture,” says Farrier. Traditionally the rhetoric is that women can go and have fun with men without any sexual tension between them. “There is also some naughtiness and brazenness around drag queens, particularly around what's appropriate for a woman to do, and this is also something that can be liberating for women in some ways,” he added.

But it is also the hyper-femininity of Disney Princess-like characters that sells very well to young girls. “Drag queens are those aspirational dolls that tell you, believing in yourself and having high self-esteem is the key to live happily,” Crookston tells me.

For Lola the French drag queen, femininity can be found everywhere and is not necessarily linked to womanhood. “A vase can be feminine, a colour can be too,” thus for young girls, discovering those ultra-feminine drag queens is also discovering that femininity is something that can be worked on and played with.

Besides, Drag Race is also intersecting with pop culture, another thing that young girls are marketed to like. The guest judges of the show are now younger pop stars such as Charlie XCX, Ariana Grande, or Khloe Kardashian and the songs on which the queens lip-synch are now more current pop and RnB songs. During Snatch Game, the show’s celebrity impersonation challenge, queens used to choose more traditional, old Hollywood figures such as Mae West, or Carol Channing, but in the recent seasons younger stars have been impersonated and this year, a Paris Hilton impersonation won, “because unfortunately, 14-year-old girls don't know who Bette Davis is'' says Crookston, half-laughing.

Heterosexual cis men might be the smallest and most unexpected demographic group of Drag Race-watchers and drag queens’ fans, but they do exist. In Crookston’s Drag Race watching group, two guys are straight. “They are husbands of women who watch it, but they seem pretty passionate.” On Reddit, home of the internet's weirdest questions, straight male fans were asked why they enjoy the show. Profiles such as “a blue-collar and bearded construction worker”, “an Indian boss” or “a 42-year-old married father of two” expressed their love for Drag Race, some comparing it to the thrill of Game of Thrones.

Jac Revald, a 28-year-old straight man from New Zealand, says he watches Drag Race because he finds it addictive.“It’s also an insight into such an interesting world and way of being that I am not really part of,” says Revald, who discovered the show 10 years ago while hanging out with gay friends who could not stop talking about it.

Leo Jenny, 25, from Paris, says he watches Drag Race with his girlfriend every week. “I love [it] so much because it’s, for me, the most entertaining TV show. In terms of emotions, I can go from tears to laughter, and from excitement, to fear if one of the queens I support is in the bottom. I think I have never experienced that much intensity and types of emotions in a show (except for football!)”

The show also brought him a lot in terms of self-confidence as he learned that all men have some feminine traits, and indeed realised that he had them too. “Being aware of it, and letting this part express itself made me more comfortable and happier. I’ve always been a shy person and I think that by watching this program I’ve learned (and I’m still learning) to let go.”

“Can I get an amen?” asks Ru after concluding each episode of the show with his iconic self-love motto, “if you can’t love yourself how in hell are you gonna love somebody else”. Whether it’s encouraging people to be their best selves, or vote during election time, the show, which recently invited House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as guest judges, has always been deeply political.

Drag cultures, in general, have always been imbued with politics, argues Farrier. During the AIDS crisis in the US, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of drag and trans dressed as nuns, were vital to the movement. They raised money, created the first safer sex pamphlet, and raised awareness on sexual health. Today there are drag acts around resisting racism, others that just replicate our cultural tensions, and some are directly criticising politics. In the first season of Drag Race UK, The Vivienne, the winner of the show, impersonated Donald Trump during Snatch Game, making fun of him and his tendency toward fake news. And she won the challenge alongside a vampire version of Margaret Thatcher.

For Lola, the Drag Race phenomenon has allowed a real evolution of society. “As it is a very mainstream show it democratises and trivialises drag queens, in a good way. Now when we [drag queens] go onto the street people don't stare at us like we’re aliens anymore.” For her, the clownish part of drag is also something that societies desperately need right now. “It shakes people’s mentality, and it is relaxing, which after living through 2000 years of Judeo-Christian morality, is exactly what people need.”

But the show also exposes gender and sexual diversity. Subjects such as trans identity, gender fluidity or the way race intersects with gender, are shown on Drag Race, and not a lot of shows marketed toward young people do so. The global visibility this show offers on such issues is a very good thing, Crookston tells me. “If Drag Race had been around when I was a little gay boy, I’d have had a very different relationship to the way I understood gender.”

Crookston followed by saying that Drag Race politicised and opened up a lot of straight people who would have defaulted to ignorance when they were younger. Not because they really believed in those preconceptions, but because the default setting of culture is often misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. “And if there is no counter-discourse, you don't question that, because you just don't have any context.”

Leo says that when watching Drag Race with one of his gay friends, they would pause the show and discuss if he didn’t understand something or just questioned himself. “Knowing and understanding what we had just talked about made me a more open-minded person and more comfortable with LGBTQ+ culture and people''.

In the past, most people understood gender as two boxes: one with an F, the other with an M. Now an entire spectrum exists between the two. A bearded guy can wear nail polish or make-up, a drag queen can have facial or chest hair, and a trans man can become a drag queen. And for these great changes of mentalities, we can certainly ‘condragulate’ queens and their maxim “Be yourself and be proud of it”.

Back in London, the show at the Vaudeville Theatre ended in cheering screams and applause. Adrenaline, love, and positive energy filled the room for two-and-half hours and feeling almost dazed, the public slowly starts to go out of the hall. While some are waiting to share a special moment with their favourite queens, Zofia and Hans, inspired by the crazy "love energy" of the show, are dancing in the rain while waiting for their Uber home.

Pictures by Melina Favarel

Text by Anna Prudhomme

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