At the beginning of 2009, Salon wondered where all the drag queens had gone. In the ’80s and ’90s, men wearing women’s clothing had cultural clout. They had pizzazz. Legendary performers such as Divine would sing and dance and act. Films such as “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” and “Wigstock: The Movie,” which documented New York City’s now-defunct drag festival, celebrated the art of gender transformation done fabulously. RuPaul had a modeling contract with MAC Cosmetics, a talk show with VH1, and made music videos that established her as the Supermodel of the World.
But then, for whatever combination of complex reasons that something falls out of public favor, drag queens mostly disappeared. Even RuPaul admitted that during the 2000s the pop-culture pendulum had swung away from her and her domain.
The Salon article was published on the eve of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality TV competition show that has arguably caused the pendulum to swing back. Season five of the series debuted last January with the highest ratings ever recorded on the Logo network, which means more people watched 14 drag queens introduce themselves than they did Piers Morgan talk about gun control on CNN.
Last Monday, I was able to attend the official RuPaul’s Drag Race finale party at the XL Nightclub, Cabaret & Lounge in New York City, where it was revealed that due to her old-timey comedic quirks and overall sweetness Jinkx Monsoon was crowned America’s next drag superstar. Given what I experienced that night, here are three reasons why I think drag queens are back and will continue to endure:
Drag Queens Are Dedicated To Their Craft:
The queens competing on “Drag Race” have big personalities, but in person they’re also quite physically large, so maybe that makes sense somehow. Detox has legs the length of a giraffe’s neck. Penny Tration and Alaska Thunderfuck, who wore a dress made of garbage bags that evening, had hair that stood at least two feet tall on their already far-from-the-ground heads. When all the girls crowded together to pose for photographs, they could have easily been mistaken for an NBA team comprised of several Dennis Rodmans, with a few of the shorter ones being the point guards or something.
That’s all to say that to complete their transformation in a believable manner, they have to cover a lot of ground. They have to be thorough. They have to account for every inch, every pore. They have to practice maneuvering their gigantic bodies in a graceful manner while on stilettos, which I’m assuming takes a lot of work and pain. They must be disciplined.
Apart from surmounting the sheer physicality of their frames, they have to know their act. On the show, much like in their vocation, they’re required to be multitalented. They need to know pop-culture history, be masters of makeup, and create a variety of characters.
During a press mingle prior to the event, a reporter from Elle asked Jinkx Monsoon how she’d describe her signature look, and Jinkx responded with the following: “I call myself a gorgeous anachronism. I don’t always do one era, but you can be assured that I’m not doing this era.” That’s a great answer, and clearly not the result of someone who doesn’t know her stuff.
That night, Jinkx was in a fluffy pink dress, and said she was going for a Glinda the Good Witch vibe.
Drag Queens Are Survivors:
By now the stories are somewhat familiar. Gay. Ostracized. Confused. Unwanted. Bullied. Misunderstood. Alienated. Disowned. Rejected. Those who enter the world of drag have usually undergone the experience of what these words represent. They have felt alone and perhaps persecuted for being different, and now have a narrative of hope to foster within themselves and share with others.
Yes, the culture of drag certainly involves some cartoon bitchiness, both genuine and contrived, but at the finale party I often heard someone tell someone else “Don’t be someone you aren’t,” “Don’t be afraid,” “You look gorgeous,” “I love you.” Lots of positive reinforcement. Lots of I know what that’s like; I’ve been there, too.
When the same Elle reporter asked Jinkx what women today can learn from drag queens, Jinkx said: “Confidence – absolutely 100%. If you have to mask the things you’re insecure about, go ahead. Wear four pairs of pantyhose, pad your hips, boost your boobs – do whatever it takes to walk out the house feeling like you own the world.”
It’s true that on a large scale homosexuality and gay culture are much more accepted/tolerated today than they were back in the ’80s and ’90s, but for someone who’s never felt like she or he belonged in the world, the permission to own it can be both comforting and empowering.
As RuPaul is fond of saying, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
Drag Queens Are Fun:
When the show was just about to begin, the stereo was projecting Robyn and Ke$ha tracks at an organ-rattling volume. The room became so crowded that I’m assuming the venue was sold-out and maybe even in violation of city fire regulations.
Hosts Michelle Visage and Bianca Del Rio (the former a “Drag Race” judge; the latter a sardonic queen) walked onto the stage and commenced an evening-long contest of exchanging insults that left both of them battered and the audience smiling. At 9:00pm, a screen dropped down from the ceiling and we all watched the final episode of season five. The moment RuPaul declared Jinkx the season’s victor, I felt the floor shake as everyone yelled loudly like you do when someone you want to win something wins.
The rest of the night involved a performance from every contestant. Penny Tration wore a dress that displayed the URL Grindr.com. Ivy Winters swallowed some fire and juggled some large knives. Coco Montresse lip-synched to a medley of Rihanna songs. Honey Mahogany stripped down to nothing but a pair of nipple pasties and some kind of four-inch rhinestone shield covering her crotch. A few queens did the splits. Others lip-synched to Nicki Minaj. Plastic-surgery, transgender icon Amanda Lepore made a guest appearance. So did last season’s winner, Sharon Needles.
Drag is like permanent Halloween. Or as host Bianca Del Rio put it when the show began, “Welcome to Gay Christmas.” The night was full of jokes, crazy costumes, witty banter, heartfelt performances, and beautiful dresses. The imagination of the people on stage was clearly palpable, and that’s fun to see. Watching individuals who have multiple reasons to doubt themselves choose to believe in themselves before a crowd of strangers is a joy to watch.
Casting for the sixth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race is now closed. The queens have returned, and if America continues to get what it wants, they’ll just keep coming.
images – Paul Hiebert