In celebration of LGBT+ History Month in February, Maddy Brunt traced the phenomenon of RuPaul’s Drag Race back through the centuries, with a few cultural milestones along the way.

Under the wigs and lashes, paint and padding, and explosive persona, lies the 21st century drag queen. A fierce and beautiful portrayal of self-love,contemporary drag queens often disappear into their carefully cultivated royal counterpart, expressing their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent (a-la RuPaul’s innuendo).

With viewership of RuPaul’s Drag Race reaching almost 1 million last series, it is clear that drag is no longer confined to its place in the underground gay culture where it had remained for so long.

How has drag culture reached such heights? Although many personally credit RuPaul,  this ignores the many boundary pushers and provocateurs (and, importantly, drag kings) that paved the way for drag to develop into what it is today.

Before the drag queen came the female impersonator, with men dressing as a woman for performance.  Drag itself reaches much further, creating an intersection of art, performance, and fashion. Instead of modelling oneself upon a real woman, many drag queens model themselves upon famous personalities, or a version of themselves that may be unattainable in reality. They are larger than life not attempting to blend in as a woman, but stand out as a queen. So, how did female impersonation evolve in drag?

Let’s take a brief look at the history (or, dare I say, ‘herstory’) of drag.

Ancient and Shakesperean roots

Sexism was rampant in Ancient Grecian theatre. Women were not deemed good enough to perform, so men took on female roles. But even this small foray into female impersonation was met with concern by Plato and Socrates who cited its damaging effects.

Although criticised, female impersonation in theatre continued into the 1500s, with Shakespearean performance using young boys to play ‘soft faced women’. In fact, the term ‘drag’ originated from Shakespeare himself, who used it to describe the boys dressing as women. Although the term was coined, the character and art of drag was still missing from these early impersonations.

Arrival in the USA

Drag arrived in its arguable homeland — America — in a flurry of late 1800s racism. Wildly bigoted minstrel shows saw the first instance of female impersonation, in which black-faced white men gave a degrading portrayal of black women. The low humour of minstrel gave rise to vaudeville performance. With this, female impersonators were able to play increasingly graceful and refined women as opposed to the wenches they played in minstrel.

Julian Eltinge was one of the great successes of vaudeville shows, profiting on such popularity by advertising beauty products.

From these early performers came the first recognisable drag queen, Bert Savoy, a colourful character who graced New York City bars during the 1920s, with a highly cultivated, mannered persona. Spectators branded Savoy a “gigantic red-haired harlot, reeking with corrosive cocktail, the vast vulgarity of New York made heroic”. In other words, they loved him. Drag seeped into the fringe of mainstream culture through Savoy’s influence, as famed actress and bawdy provocateur Mae West championed the emerging brazenness of homosexuality. She even took her iconic phrase “come up and see me sometime” from Savoy.

Fighting censorship

As the mid-century approached however, drag was increasingly condemned and restricted and was forced further underground as performance venues were shut down. This gave rise to the Drag Ball, a glamourous showcase of drag fashion that occurred a few times a year. The importance of these balls would gain cultural significance in the 1980s, and it was perhaps this repression of drag that produced its most iconic form.

Suppressive attitudes toward drag spilled over into Hollywood in the form of censorship, and female impersonation was given a wide berth. Nevertheless, female impersonation still cropped up in Hollywood, notably Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Billy Wilder’s 1959 film Some Like it Hot. The wild success of the moviehas been said to be the “nail in the coffin” for censorship regulations, (subsequently abandoned in the 60s)as America began to embrace drag.

This moved drag into a more familiar territory, bringing forth the terrifying beauty, Divine. A chubby kid from Baltimore, Harris Glenn Milstead has been credited with reinventing drag through his persona as Divine and is a true example of the triumph of the outsider which drag is built on. Probably the first drag queen many can identify, Divine broke into mainstream culture through John Waters’ outlandish films, most famously Pink Flamingos.

The ‘Drag Explosion’

The late 80’s and 90’s are known as the ‘drag explosion’ and certainly mark the beginnings of contemporary drag. The New York late ‘80s drag scene is perfectly captured by the celebrated documentary Paris is Burning, which follows notable queens: Pepper LaBeija, Willi Ninja, and Angie Extravaganza and their ball competitions. The elaborate structure of ball-culture has endured, particularly the ‘drag mother’ (an experienced drag mentor) and ‘drag house’ which refers to her mentees. The relationships and in particular the language used in Paris is Burning will be familiar to fans of Drag Race.

The New York club scene was also home to the Club Kids. Michael Alig is known as the founder of the Club Kids and by the late 80s had replaced Andy Warhol as New York’s chief partier. The unforgettable aesthetic of the Club Kids can only be described as gender fluid hyperbolic outrageousness, drawing inspiration from punk, S&M, and circus styles. Among James St. James, Amanda Lepore, and Jenny Talia, a young RuPaul could be found working NYC nightclubs alongside Lady Bunny. Although she has since perfected her ‘glamazon’ look, RuPaul still reminisces about wild ‘90s New York.  

The rise of RuPaul

The reign of RuPaul arrived in pop culture via a string of albums, TV shows, and modelling through which her title ‘Supermodel of the World’ was garnered. Now, with the undeniable success of Drag Race, RuPaul acts as a guiding light to the queer masses; embodied by one of her many catchphrases, episodically repeated in Drag Race: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”.

Many graduates of Drag Race have made successful careers in drag, notably Chad Michaels, Sharon Needles, Raven, and Alaska (a personal favourite – hiiieeee).

To sum up the rise and rise of the performance of drag and its ever-growing popularity? One just needs to look to Club Kid legend Ernie Glam by way of explanation: “Everyone is a star, and everyone can be a star. All you have to do is throw some glitter on.”

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