WITH THE SPECTACULAR SUCCESS OF RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE, DRAG HAS NEVER BEEN MORE MAINSTREAM. MATT NEWBURY LOOKS AT ITS COLOURFUL “HER-STORY”, FROM SHAKESPEAREAN THEATRE
TO THE WORLDWIDE POPULARITY OF DRAG RACE TODAY
RuPaul’s Drag Race is an award-winning global phenomenon that has made superstars of the queens who have appeared on the show since its premiere in 2009. With a slew of international spin-offs including shows in the UK, Thailand, Canada and Holland, and with Drag Race Down Under and Drag Race España coming soon, the drag juggernaut shows no sign of slowing down. With rumours of an International All Stars season on the cards, it goes without saying that there are probably more drag queens on the planet now than ever before.
The origins of drag in the UK go back at least as far as mummers’ plays in the Middle Ages, while female parts in Shakespeare’s day were all played by boys, with the Puritans believing that theatres were hotbeds of sodomy and other wanton liaisons. (Sadly, this was no longer the case on my overnight school trip to Stratford, but at least we all managed to get drunk.) To those of a conservative nature, this onstage transvestism was a source of a moral panic, with the fear that audience members would be attracted to both the female character and the boy underneath.
Interestingly, this was a very English problem. In Spain, France and Italy female parts were played by women. This was to prove a surprise for the more stuffy Brits abroad, who couldn’t believe that a woman could play a woman onstage as well as she could in real life. Shakespeare played upon this sexual confusion by having Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night disguising themselves as boys. This led to a mind-bending, gender-bending situation where a boy was playing a woman playing a boy. Goodness knows what they would have thought of Gottmik in the latest series of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
It’s been suggested that the term “drag” is an acronym for “Dressed Resembling A Girl”, but this is more likely to be a backronym. The term probably comes from the fact that the dresses worn by the boys would “drag” along the floor. The first recorded use of the term was in 1870, while it became a popular term in polari from the early part of the 20th century. It’s quite possible the term was also used in the Molly-houses in 18th and 19th century Britain. These were clandestine meeting taverns for homosexual men, with the word “Molly” coming from Mary – a term for an effeminate male. Cross-dressing, as well as parodies of marriage ceremonies and mock birth rituals, were known to take place in these establishments.
Princess Seraphina is often regarded as England’s first drag queen. The alter-ego of gentleman’s servant John Cooper, Seraphina was a regular sight around London’s Molly-houses. At a time when men could be hung for being caught engaging in homosexual acts (three were following a raid of a Molly-house in 1726) Seraphina was never arrested and indeed the only criminal case she was ever involved in was when her clothes were stolen in 1732 and she appeared in court as the victim.
The tradition of cross-dressing on stage has continued down through the centuries thanks to pantomime, which rightly or wrongly remains the most popular form of theatre in the UK. And if you try explaining pantomimes to non-Brits, it’s amazing just how queer they sound. Based on a combination of children’s stories and fairy tales, the prince and princess are both played by women, while the dames have been presented as a camp yet palatable version of drag to the general public for hundreds of years. Add in some flamboyant song and dance numbers and slip in a few sexual innuendos and you’ve got a perfect night of wholesome family Christmas entertainment.
It seems incredible now, but the acceptance of drag as a form of entertainment goes back a long way. The Pansy Craze, as it was known in the USA, stretches right back to the infamous masquerade balls held in Harlem as far back as 1869. By the 1920s, around 7,000 people of all classes and colours were attending these drag balls, with prizes awarded for best costume. Prohibition led to more underground clubs springing up, often ran by the mob, who didn’t really care where their money came from. Early drags queen like Jean Malin entertained the masses at various bohemian enclaves, with similar underground crazes taking place in Paris, Berlin and London. The latter attracted the likes of Noël Coward and Douglas Byng, who was famous for his female impersonations and songs packed with sexual innuendos and double entendres.
On Broadway, drag made its way into the mainstream thanks to Julian Eltinge, a female impersonator, who was so convincing that when he removed his wig to reveal his gender at the end of a performance, there would be cries of disbelief from the audience. He toured Europe and even gave a command performance before King Edward VII. His success led to him also cracking Hollywood, where he appeared in films with the likes of Rudolf Valentino and was at one point earning more than Charlie Chaplin.
After the Second World War, while there was still a widespread fear of homosexuality in the UK, some drag acts still broke through into the mainstream. Danny la Rue described himself as a “comic in a frock” and was famed for his celebrity impressions of the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich and Margaret Thatcher. In the 1960s he was amongst Britain’s highest paid entertainers, with his own TV show and a nightclub in London’s Hanover Square. Also breaking through into the mainstream in the 1960s was Dame Edna Everage, who enjoyed a career spanning almost four decades, even gaining recognition in the United States. Probably the last drag queen to make it onto prime time was Lilly Savage, who went from appearances on The Big Breakfast to presenting Blankety Blank.
Drag queens also played a vital role in the birth of gay rights, when the Stonewall Riots of 1969 saw drag queens (most notably Marsha P Johnson) and transgender activists protest against police raids on gay bars in New York City. Back in the UK, Bloolips were a radical drag theatre company closely involved with the fledgling Gay Liberation front (GLF). Their members chose to dress as men in frocks, in a form of drag that clearly reveals it is being worn by a man, rather than parodying a woman. They performed satirical political comedy, complete with tap-dancing and singing in shows like The Ugly Duckling, Lust in Space, Living Leg-ends and Sticky Buns.
Drag has also broken through into the movies, from Some Like It Hot to the up-coming Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, via The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and The Birdcage. It even made a film star out of Divine, the stage name of Harris Glenn Milstead, who went from being a hairdresser to one of the most famous drag queens on the planet, thanks to his work with John Waters. Films like Female Trouble, Polyester and Hairspray led to international chart success with hits like, You Think You’re a Man, I’m so Beautiful and Walk Like a Man, all of which he performed in drag. The counterculture performer, who People Magazine described the “Drag Queen of the Century,” tragically died three weeks after Hairspray was released.
RuPaul’s Drag Races and much of the associated lingo owe a debt of gratitude to previously mentioned New York “ballroom” subculture that had continued underground since the Pansy Craze. Participants, often from the African-American and Latin American LGBTQ+ communities would “walk” or compete for prizes at events known as balls. Attendees would catwalk, pose, dance and vogue through various performance categories, which were often designed to satirise genders, fashions, classes and stereotypes in society. As well as these extravagant pageant-style events with their oversized trophies, many participants also lived in “houses” where they formed surrogate families with their drag mothers and sisters away from their biological families, from who they had often become estranged.
Famously, ball culture gained mainstream exposure in 1990, when Madonna featured the voguing dance style in her video for Vogue, while the documentary, Paris is Burning was released the same year. This insightful and moving film takes its name from the Paris is Burning Ball, that was held annually by drag performer Paris Dupree. The documentary, which was filmed over seven years, alternates between footage of balls and interviews with prominent member of the scene including Dupree, PapperLaBeika, Dorian Carey, Angie Xtravaganza and Willi Ninja. The film also includes much of the terminology we now come to associated with drag culture including “shade,”“reading”and “category is…” Paris is Burning also inspired Ryan Murphy to create Pose, with the largest transgender cast ever gathered.
Back in the UK, drag bars have been at the heart of the gay scene for decades and we can’t seem to get enough of the musical parodies of our favourite divas and hysterical routines that have been honed over years on the circuit. Names like Phil Starr, HRH Regina Fong and Maisie Trollette (who at 87 years old is one of the UK’s oldest performing drag artists) are the stuff of legend. Meanwhile, trusted favourites like Dave Lynne, Lola Lasagne and Rose Garden have been joined by a new wave of cutting-edge and alternative drag queens.
Acts like Asttina Mandella and Son of Tutu are drag performers who entertain while tackling topics like racism and homophobia, while Le Gateau Chocolate is an award-winning performer who spans drag, cabaret, opera, musical theatre and live art. His children’s show, Duckie, introduces young people to ideas of otherness, tolerance and self-acceptance, mirroring the growth in popularity of Drag Queen Story Time. Meanwhile, Jonny Woo introduced East London to his own style of “alt” or “nu” drag, with his art, cabaret and multi-media shows at East London’s Bistrotheque. His Gay Bingo parties literally changed the face of the Capital’s drag scene, and he now has his own outrageous East London venue (with John Sizzle) called The Glory, where around 150 drag queens enter his LIPSYNC1000 competition each year.
Which takes us full circle back to RuPaul’s Drag Race and a show that has in the past struggled to keep abreast of what drag means in the 21st century. Season 3 queen, Manila Luzonn competed in All Stars 4 where he wanted to wear a dress inspired by menstruation. Mama Ru decided this was in bad taste and asked him to wear his back-up outfit. He wrote on Instagram, “I was really looking forward to wearing this gown that I think celebrates a perfectly normal human experience! Many of my fans are young women who may feel pressured by society to be embarrassed by periods.”
RuPaul also came under criticism for controversial comments he made about trans women competing on the show, suggesting that drag loses its sense of danger, humour and irony when it’s not men doing it. Following a huge backlash, he later apologised, saying, “I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers.” These days the show promises to screen contestants for their “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent” and means the show now features queens from right across the gender spectrum.
At the end of the day, drag is about entertainment and has always been at the heart of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s often also been cutting edge and controversial. Exaggerated characters are often a mask for the person beneath, who may be able to express themselves through drag in a way they couldn’t in their everyday lives. Like the queer community itself, drag has been on a journey and as an art form remains more popular than ever.
As long as it continues to be fierce, fabulous, relevant and entertaining, I for one will always be in the audience. Although I will be sat at the back for a reason, so stop picking on me!