The glitzy reality TV contest is one of the defining shows of our age. But, as a UK version launches, what has its impact been on the artform of drag as a whole, asks Hugh Montgomery.

There’s a moment in Paris is Burning, the seminal documentary about New York’s drag-ball scene of the 1980s, in which the late, legendary drag queen Dorian Corey refers, with a faintly withering tone, to the fact that the “children” are now taking their style cues not from old-school film icons like Marlene Dietrich and Betty Grable but from modern-day TV characters like Dynasty divas Alexis Colby and Krystle Carrington (played by Joan Collins and Linda Evans).

However, one wonders what she would have made of today’s era, where drag queens are no longer merely aping small-screen stars – they are the small-screen stars. And that’s all thanks to one pop-cultural phenomenon.

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Back in 2009, TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, in which iconic 1990s queen RuPaul searched for “America’s Next Drag Superstar”, began on the small, LGBTQ+-aimed cable channel Logo. Ten years on, and it has grown to become one of the defining series of our age, helping to make drag a mainstream artform like never before. In the US, there have been 11 regular series, as well as four All Stars series, which now fill the gaps between the regular seasons, and feature the return of popular ex-contestants for another shot at a title. 

 

Last month, RuPaul picked up his fourth Emmy for outstanding host, and the show also won Best Reality/Competition Program, bringing its Emmy total to 13 awards and 29 nominations. The show now airs on the bigger VH1 channel in the US, while it has gained a large global following on Netflix, anecdotally breaking out far beyond LGBTQ+ viewers to be watched by all ages and sexualities. Now, RuPaul is making the franchise truly international by rolling out a series of spin-offs – there have been two series of Drag Race Thailand, while this week comes the launch of Drag Race UK; Drag Race Canada and Australia are set to follow. 

An explosive new age

But, of course, there is far more to the drag scene than a television show. In his new book Drag: The Complete Story, New York-based fashion writer Simon Doonan offers both a vibrant history of drag – from Ancient Egypt onwards – and a celebration of what he sees as its reinvigoration over the past decade. 

He ascribes its “explosive” new energy in part to the ‘RuPaul effect’, but also to other factors. There is the rise of social media: “Drag lends itself very much to [the form] – because it’s visual and it’s very humour-based and cheeky.” And there is the “unbelievably new and exciting gender revolution”, whereby trans and non-binary performers are shaking up the old drag template of a cisgender man (a man whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth) wearing a dress.

Some forms of drag have been rejuvenated and revived and there are [people] developing whole new lines of performance practice – Mark Edward, drag academic and artist 

Dr Mark Edward, reader in dance and performance at Lancashire’s Edge Hill University, agrees that these are particularly exciting times for the artform. He has long been a drag artist himself, and drag is one of his specialist areas of academic research; he is currently co-editing two essay collections on the subject, due for publication in 2020, one of which will delve into contemporary practices across the globe. “There’s been a resurgence over the last few years,” he says. “Some forms of drag have been rejuvenated and revived, new forms are coming on board, and there are [people] developing whole new lines of performance practice.”

There is a question that nags though: has Drag Race really been a boon to the drag world’s creative surge – or has it been working in opposition to it? Doonan sees the show’s influence as altogether positive, with its range of queens and looks providing a “handbook” for a new generation of performers who can see the “genres that are possible, and be inspired by that”. He points out that an aspiring queen may take inspiration, say, from the “super-arty and sensual” style of season 9 winner Sasha Velour, or by contrast, the “glamazon” supermodel look of season 7 victor Violet Chachki. 

What’s more, Doonan points to the associated DragCon conventions as a showcase for the full spectrum of performers: “There’s young kids who identify as drag queens, straight women who identify as drag queens ... there’s a huge emphasis on diversity.”

A question of diversity 

However critics of the television show itself – which constitutes many people’s primary or sole experience of drag – have argued that its diversity is no more than skin deep, if indeed it can be credited with diversity at all. Firstly, there are the looks it favours. Every episode builds to a climactic fashion runway round, which inevitably, perhaps, puts an emphasis on conventional physical attractiveness and glossy styling – an overall ‘fabulousness’, you might say. Today’s preponderance of so-called ‘look queens’ on the show and otherwise has also been fuelled by the rise of Instagram, with many young drag artists driven first and foremost to express themselves through photographic images over live performance.

Mark Edward says the show has “done a great job in terms of platforming drag, and giving it a big broad media presence”.  But he also worries about it creating a production-line drag aesthetic, “where [a drag performer] isn’t validated because they’re not seen to be contouring the way they should be on the nose, or their make-up does not have the right aesthetic or they are deemed drag ‘old school’.” Certainly, whether lightly ironic or not, there are many more queens who seek to conform to the very beauty ideals that many others have sought to subvert or disrupt, from past provocateurs like Leigh Bowery and Divine to modern-day mavericks like, for example, the demonic-looking self-styled ‘drag terrorist’ Christeene.

We do get a lot of straight audiences at our show who expect the one thing and actually get something quite different – Amrou Al-Kadhi, aka Glamrou

Then there are the specific types of performance it platforms. Amrou Al-Kadhi, aka Glamrou, is a drag queen who founded and performs with drag troupe Denim, one of the most acclaimed UK acts of the moment. In their witty and powerful new autobiography Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen, they trace their drag journey, among other things – from seeing drag intitially as a means “to express myself and find confidence that I wasn’t having in my actual life”, to using it as a more political tool “with which to explore gender and cultural identity”.

Al-Kadhi appreciates the fact that Drag Race “shows the amount of talent you need and just what you have to go through in your life” to be a queen – but it has also left mainstream audiences with narrow expectations of what a drag queen should do, they say. Denim are a musical comedy group who sing live, and yet, they say, there is now a  presumption that drag queens will lip-sync and do celebrity impersonations – both skills which Drag Race queens are tested on. “We do get a lot of straight audiences at our show who expect the one thing because of [the show] and actually get something quite different,” they say. “... [because it] isn’t fully representative of the more countercultural stuff that’s going on.”

As well as the paradigm of drag that Drag Race promotes, there has long been debate about who gets to take part in its glitzy parade in the first place. The aforementioned gender revolution is not something that the show has really accounted for: the vast majority of the contestants remain cisgender men who are performing as female characters, as affirmed by the fact its famous imperative, “Gentlemen start your engines and may the best woman win!” remains unchanged. There have certainly not been any drag kings, or performers with masculine personas, on the show as yet.

In 2018, RuPaul said in an interview with the Guardian that he would probably not allow a trans female contestant on the show, if they had started a medical transition; he subsequently apologised for his comment. Recently, in another interview promoting Drag Race UK, he said that he didn’t rule out any women appearing on his shows, though none have made the cut for the spin-off’s launch series.

Adding a British flavour

When it comes to Drag Race UK, it’s clear that the producers, rather than try to create a facsimile of the US series, have made sure it possesses a British flavour. That’s evident in everything, from contestants’ names (Baga Chipz, Cheryl Hole) and outfits (in the first episode, they serve looks inspired by Queen Elizabeth II herself) to their niche local references. Look out for an impersonation of Kim Woodburn, a formidable cleaning guru from the now-defunct UK television show How Clean is Your House?, who furthered her camp appeal during an erratic stint on the UK’s Celebrity Big Brother – and, it is fair to say, who will mean little to international viewers.

More generally, some of the high-gloss varnish of the original has been chipped off. While preparing for the catwalk challenge, the queens pointedly discuss how in Britain, a queen can ‘get away’ with no brows and hairy chests – and it is imbued with a sense of what Doonan describes as the “bawdy, end-of-the pier comedic sensibility”, that some would say is a traditional characteristic of British drag.

When I think about the drag performers that are the best that I know, they're not on the show – Amrou Al-Kadhi, aka Glamrou

But, distinctly British though it may be, whether it really reflects the creativity of the UK scene is another matter. Al-Kadhi does not want to pre-judge the show, but notes that the line-up is majority white – with just two non-white queens from the selection of ten – “[and] when I think about the drag performers that are the best that I know, they’re not on the show.”

Indeed, Al-Kadhi says that the acts they find most exciting on the London scene at the moment are invariably non-binary people of colour (as Al-Kadhi also is). Those they namecheck include art-world star Victoria Sin; Afro-Latinx drag king Chiyo Gomes; and ShayShay, who “creates amazing spaces for people of colour… These are people who are exploring race and gender at the same time in new ways. They feel over 50 years ahead of Drag Race to be honest”.  

We need community between queer people, not competition so that straight people can have a good time watching us be bitchy – Amrou Al-Kadhi, aka Glamrou

And while Drag Race may not be representing the future of drag, the extent to which it acknowledges drag history – or ‘herstory’ – is another point of contention. Among the queens who get selected, there is, perhaps, an emphasis on youth over experience: one contestant in the new UK line-up, 20-year-old Scaredy Kat, early on declares she has never performed before, while the oldest queens are 35. 

Then there’s the format of the thing. The show, like many a reality TV programme, is founded on competition – and that’s compounded by the fact the contestants have appropriated the ideology of insulting each other by ‘throwing shade’ and ‘reading’ (more and less veiled forms of mocking a rival, respectively) from 1980s drag ball culture. 

This competitive element can be disconcerting to those who would rather emphasise drag’s spirit of community and collaboration. That, certainly, is Al-Kadhi’s experience of drag culture - beyond the fact that their fellow Denim members are their “drag sisters”, in the wider community “we all support each other and help each other,” they say. “Especially in this toxic time, I think we need community and safety between queer people, not competition so that straight people can have a good time watching us be bitchy.”

Similarly, Edward warmly recalls the kind of mentorship that helped him starting out as a drag queen in the late-1980s. “We had drag mothers; mine was Chris D’Bray in Wigan, and she did a very good job” – and that he thinks may, to some degree, have been lost in an age where you “can click a button and say you’re a drag queen overnight”.

The drag economy 

To look beyond the specific criticisms that can be levelled at Drag Race, the bigger question is: does it really matter if it is a poor representation of the drag scene? In the same way that American Idol or The Voice may not provide an accurate or particularly edifying guide to modern pop music, expecting a mass-market reality TV show of any kind to be enlightening about their chosen field may be wishful. Yet, when it comes to Drag Race, there is more at stake for the drag world as a whole, given how relatively few other major platforms it has – and therefore its influence is potentially more pernicious. 

It used to be that a local drag celebrity could sell out a venue, but now if you aren’t on the show, you might as well be brand new – Vivvyanne ForeverMORE

Alongside the annoyance of audiences expecting to see Drag Race-esque performances, Al-Kadhi's fear, which they wrote about in the Guardian last year, is that Drag Race UK could create a two-tier economy. “There are a lot of people who make their money through doing drag, and unfortunately, the queens who [may] get all the jobs are the ones who’ve been on the show. And what does that do to all the other drag queens?”

US drag queens, certainly, have reported such an effect: season 7 contestant Jasmine Masters notoriously released a video, following her appearance on the show, in which she described how she went on the show in order to get a pay rise after she found her stock falling. In 2017, meanwhile, the San Franciscan drag queen Vivvyanne ForeverMORE told Billboard: “It used to be that a local drag celebrity could sell out a venue, but now if you aren’t on the show, you might as well be brand new. That type of thing bums me out, because there are so many legends here in San Francisco.”

Fundamentally, also, drag could be seen as an artform that has thrived off being outside the mainstream – so where does that leave it when it seemingly loses its transgressive status?

Mark Edward has always understood drag as inherently disruptive and counter-cultural. As a young man, he also immersed himself in the blooming acid house movement and its illegal raves – and he says that, from the very beginning, its anarchic spirit influenced his performance work. 

Some years ago, he created the drag persona of Gale Force, a formidable, ageing, working-class queen, with whom he has “displaced” drag by appearing in public spaces such as supermarkets and shopping centres rather than on stage. In 2012, he lived as Gale Force in a run-down council house installation as part of the Homotopia festival in Liverpool. He says he is ambivalent about the extent of drag’s popularity in 2019: “on one level, I love the way it’s going and on the other I wonder ‘are we losing something?’… we have drag brunches now, and drag hen parties, and drag queens reading children’s stories in libraries – which I absolutely love, may I add – but I wonder: is drag losing something by becoming mainstream?”

In the past, by doing drag, you would be breaking taboos – but now you're making sure those taboos don’t get reinstated – Simon Doonan, fashion writer

Doonan, however, is not worried about drag’s de-fanging because he believes it remains a fundamentally political act. “Prohibition of drag goes back centuries. So just by virtue of doing it, in the past, you would be breaking taboos, but now you're making sure those taboos don’t get reinstated. Yes, it's [political] putting on a frock and walking down the street, just as it’s political for women to put on a suit and dress as a man.”

It is also undeniably true that for some LGBTQ+ viewers, having such a strongly LGBTQ+-centred show being given a mainstream cultural platform has been monumental in making them feel ‘seen’ – and still feels revolutionary. By the same token, Doonan believes the social impact that Drag Race has had in educating non-LGBTQ+ audiences about the community is profound – highlighting, through the contestants and their backstories, issues from body image to the battle for civil rights and homophobic violence. “It’s reaching and preaching to a wide audience of people who are inevitably becoming more accepting.”

But while its value on that front may seem self-evident, it is also arguable that the visibility it offers to LGBTQ+ artists, and by extension, the community, may, in some ways, be counter-productive. Al-Kadhi wonders whether the show has in fact “led a little bit to straight people tokenising [us] and then coming to a drag show and wanting to [just] watch someone do the splits.” They add that they don’t see the idea of drag going mainstream as a worry – they are only concerned about it being watered down in the process. “If it’s mainstream, but it still has political bite, then that’s great, but if it’s just drag queens standing on a Pride float for decoration, then I just think that’s emptying it out of its politics. I want a drag queen to go on TV and say something that will humiliate that TV company and reveal something … not just go on and look pretty and be fabulous … I think my feeling is that [drag performers] should always be political and if they’re not, then I’m not really that interested.”

The future of drag

In any case, like all pop-cultural phenomena, Drag Race will undoubtedly have a shelf life. There has been a degree of jokey exasperation among fans that, with its two US series a year, as well as all the spin-offs now to come, it has already reached overkill – though, conversely, the amount of conversation it still generates suggests interest isn’t about to slope off anytime soon. It may have to shake up the formula in order to stay fresh, though, and that could be why in the end, cynics might suggest, doing better on diversity will simply become good business sense. That’s to say, as the selection of queens becomes ever more wearily familiar, the show may come to realise that widening its talent pool is key to its survival.

Whatever the fate of Drag Race though, and whether drag’s mainstream currency continues to rise or not, one thing seems sure: an artform that has always been predicated on notions of fluidity will continue to evolve. “There are always new forms coming up,” says Edward, “and whenever you think, what else can come [along], something else comes up and you go ‘oh wow, oh god, yes of course’. And while we’re looking at this from a Western lens, in the next 10 years there are people in other countries who have not even got on the ladder of drag yet [who will come through].”

Drag Race UK begins on 3 October at 8pm on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on 11 October on Logo in the US. Drag: The Complete Story by Simon Doonan and Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen by Amrou Al-Kadhi are available now. Contemporary Drag Practices & Performers and Drag Histories, Herstories & Hairstories, both co-edited by Mark Edward and Stephen Farrier, will be published in 2020.

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