13/06/2014 § Leave a comment
This is a highly subjective list based exclusively on films and shows I’ve seen and enjoyed. This is also a blog post, so a comprehensive history of drag is impossible. In terms of gender I do not differentiate between performers who identify as male and those who identify as trans in their off-stage life, and their sexuality doesn’t come into it at all for me. I don’t talk about drag kings here simply because I don’t know enough about them to say anything intelligent. For any of my readers who may be inclined to argue to toss about the difference between drag and trans, -vestite and –sexual, genderfuck and queer, cross-dressers of every hue, I say this: I know, but I don’t really care. This post is not about categories and the perpetual salami-slicing of gender identity in the name of activism or political efficacy.
For the purposes of this exercise, the people I’m talking about are those who eschew usual gender categories and treat drag as a gender all of its own. It’s not about men dressing up as women – as Ru Paul said: “How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses?”
The phrase drag queen started out in Polari – the gay slang of 19th century London. It referred to men dressing up and performing as women. Subsequently it has come to mean a branch of performance all its own, where gender is neither masculine nor feminine but something twisted and bizarre and a rejection of everything “normal.” Drag performances today take place in legitimate performance venues as well as in the lived experience of everyday life, where, as Shakespeare would have it, all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women on it merely players.
And so, without further ado, here are some of my favourite drag acts….
As played by Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975.) I saw this film when I was about 11 years old. It was the first time I saw drag that was not the fuzzy comforting humour of Danny LaRue. There’s nothing camp about Frank-n-Furter – halfway through the film he kills someone with an axe. Growing up in the industrial north-east of England in the 1980s, he was a revelation and an inspiration, my first glimpse of what was possible outside of the married-with-kids normality that was being presented to me as the only option at the time.
Shortly after I saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show, I saw Divine on Top of the Pops, performing You Think You’re a Man – a song that reached no. 16 in the UK singles chart in 1984. I saw a fat person in a skintight silver dress with a massive wig, spanking themselves in time to the music while they sang about dumping a lover for being crap in bed. Unsurprisingly, the song became one of my feminist anthems. Later, I saw Divine in the John Waters film Hairspray (1988) and my lifelong commitment to nonconformity was confirmed.
I should write a full post about Leigh Bowery at some point. He was an icon, a celebrity, famous for being famous, twenty years or more before this became an ambition for talentless reality television participants. He wore bizarre outfits that he designed himself and was a guest of honour at nightclubs in London, New York and Tokyo purely because his clothes alone would draw a crowd. He was a performance artist who “gave birth” on stage and famously once gave himself an enema and sprayed the front row of the audience with it. He was a dancer with the Michael Clarke Dance Company, the frontman for the band Minty, and a model for the artist Lucien Freud. He was art on legs, according to Boy George, and devoted his life to, as he said in his diary in 1981, “[battering] down the stereotype sex male-female roles and use anything to achieve an effect, and constantly encroach on sacredly classified MENS OR WOMENS territory.”
Dorian Corey was a black New York drag artist who was primarily known for her performances at Drag Balls in Harlem in the 1980s. She gained notoriety before her death when she appeared in the 1990 Drag Ball documentary, Paris is Burning. A generation older than many of the other contributors and ball-goers, she provided insights and wisdom about the development of the balls and the transition in drag from creativity to consumerism. She observed the shift from the success of costumes being based on the imagination and dress-making skill of the people who made them, to the emphasis on designer labels and brands, and what you could acquire, legally or otherwise. She gained notoriety after her death when the mummified body of a man who had died of a gunshot wound to the head at least fifteen years earlier was discovered amongst her belongings. (There’s more info about the mystery of the drag queen and the mummy in this article from Transition magazine, if you’re interested.)
Starting out as a singer and actor, RuPaul made his mark by becoming the first drag supermodel. In 1992 he walked for the French designer Thierry Mugler and in 1998 he became the face of MAC cosmetics, promoting their Viva Glam lipstick, where a proportion of every sale went to the MAC AIDS fund. He raised over $22m. Since RuPaul there have been a number of androgynous and/or trans models, including Lea T and Andrej Pejic. He has been the presenter of the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race since 2009, a talent show to find America’s next top drag artist – which is perhaps a welcome indication of how far we’ve come in terms of understanding and accepting gender non-conformity.
The Divine David (1990 – 2000) was a performance character spawned in the club scene Manchester’s Gay Village. He was known for his lacerating social commentary and aggressive rejection of the benign campness that can characterize some drag acts. In 2000, the character was killed off, and in 2005 David Hoyle returned to the public eye as himself, appearing in the television series Nathan Barley, and on stage in a number of cabaret shows at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London. Hoyle is vocal about the difficulties of growing up gay in a working class community, and of the mental health problems he has suffered throughout his life as a result of these experiences. He is scathing about what he sees as mainstream gay culture too, calling in the “biggest suicide cult in history.”
Another actor/singer, and a contestant from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Belli has appeared as a transsexual in the television show Nip/Tuck, as well the Drag Race, and has become that most contemporary of phenomena, a YouTube star. Bitchy, irreverent, camp and rude, his queer YouTube parodies of pop songs have earned him a cult following.