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Start your engines: A brief herstory of drag queens

James Page May 16, 2018

RuPaul’s Drag Race is arguably the show on everyone’s radar right now. However, drag has been a part of our culture for centuries and the queens who came before Ru are crucial to the art-form’s success today.

“I don’t think the show could ever go mainstream,” RuPaul said about Drag Race in 2016, “Because drag is the antithesis of the matrix.”

Despite this statement, the show is now watched by millions of viewers on US network VH1 and on streaming services globally – it has become something of a cult phenomenon.

The show’s executive producer, Tom Campbell, told Vice: “All mainstream pop culture phenomenons bubble up from subcultures”, and drag is no different.

The art-form of drag has always been identified within our culture, from its theatrical beginnings in greek and oriental theatre to its political statements, such as during the Stonewall riots.

“I maintain that drag has always been mainstream — it is just that with the different platforms that drag is now able to work through, perhaps there is a wider, quicker audience that has access to it”, explained Joe E. Jeffreys, a drag historian, to Time Magazine.

Before Drag Race, queens were popular in niche underground gay clubs, as well as on stage as part of a wider production, and each chapter of drag history has been crucial for its pop culture domination today.

Drag’s Theatrical Beginnings

The dame in a pantomime is one of the most famous platforms for a drag performance, dating back to the dawn of theatre in many cultures.

Cross-dressing has been documented in many ancient civilisations, including the Aztec Empire, Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece.

In Ancient Greece, women were not permitted to perform on stage. The National Theatre explains: “The problem was that Greek culture put women in a position of being inferior to men.

“Women were not allowed to be on the stage because it was considered dangerous.”

In their place, men performed the female roles in productions, with Ken Gerwertz, a drag historian, explaining, “Having men portray them neutralised the danger,”

Similarly, Shakespeare employed young male actors with slim bodies and feminine features to play the roles of women in his productions.

“To find a woman acting in a public playhouse would… be seen as a shocking example of inappropriate behaviour,” explained Roger Baker in his book Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts.

This was also the case in early Japanese theatre, Kabuki.

“Kabuki became an all-male theatre when the shogunate banned female performers in 1629,” explained Maki Isaka in a journal for the University of Minnesota.

“Acting has long been perceived as cross-gender performance of femininity by male actors,” they added.

Although men cross-dressing as women dates back to early theatre, the distinction between this performance and the drag performance we see today is wildly different.

Writer Elyssa Maxx Goodman explained to The Good Men Project, “Being a drag queen is different from simply doing drag.

“A drag queen is primarily a homosexual male who dresses in women’s clothing to entertain.”

The ‘Pansy Phase’

Homosexuality, and its association with drag, was illegal in western culture and was discouraged throughout a lot of the 20th Century.

However, the 1920s and 30s saw the birth of the drag performances we’re familiar with today.

During this time, known as the ‘Pansy Phase’, LGBT+ bars and clubs were created as meeting places for members of the queer community.

However, throughout this period, drag performers were also popular with some straight audiences.
Jean Malin was one of the artists who helped redefine drag to something that is recognisable today – drag queens.


Darryl W Bullock, author of David Bowie Made Me Gay, explained to The Guardian: “Early drag queens like Jean Malin helped bohemian gay culture thrive – before mob violence, Nazism and Hollywood homophobia drove it back underground”.

It could be suggested that the ‘pansy phase’ was a liberating time for the drag community, especially with the rise in LGBT+ nightlife.

Zarrelli explained, “The Pansy craze of the 1920s was influential… it’s unbelievable that knowledge of them had almost been forgotten completely.”

Supermodel(s) of the World

It wasn’t until the late 20th Century that drag rose in popularity again, with queens such as Divine, Lady Bunny and RuPaul making names for themselves.

Although many drag artists continued performing in gay nightclubs, Divine became a breakout star in the 1970s and 80s through staring in numerous John Waters’ films, such as Hairspray.

Author Brenda Thornlow told The Medium, “Divine has been described as one of the few truly radical and essential artists of the 20th century.”

Other performers, such as David Bowie, also played with gender performance and drag throughout the 1970s.

Co-Author of David Bowie: The Trans Who Fell to Earth, Peri Bradley, explained, “Bowie brought about a gradual but unstoppable transformation in gender by rejecting stringent gender roles,” through the use of his alter ego Ziggy Stardust.

The 1980s saw the rise of RuPaul, ‘supermodel of the world’, who is arguably the most famous and recognisable drag queen of all time.

RuPaul gained recognition after performing in New York clubs with other queens, such as Lady Bunny, and was soon catapulted into the public eye after starring in the B52’s music video for “Love Shack” in 1989.

“It’s a revolt to the status quo… drag was definitely my way to say F’ you, I’m gonna do my own thing”, RuPaul said to Out magazine in 2017.

With the 1993 hit “Supermodel (You Better Work)” hitting 39 on the UK chart, Ru’s revolt against the status quo was receiving mainstream acclaim.

Songwriter Dianne Warren said, “He did something that was unique and fresh with Supermodel and it hadn’t been done before at that level.”

The ‘supermodel of the world’ went onto host at the Oscars and host their own talk show in 1996.

The Breakout of Drag Race

There have been over 120 queens who have walked into the workroom of RuPaul’s Drag Race, being exposed to a global audience on a scale drag has never had before.

All Stars 2 winner Alaska told the Washington Post. “Drag Race is giving visibility to our community.

“It’s on TV and you can see RuPaul, who is a black, queer, powerful figure who has run this empire for years, and I think that’s an amazing thing.”

Despite recent controversy surrounding RuPaul’s comments on trans queens, season 9 winner of Sasha Velour explained to Cosmopolitan how the format, “Showcases lots of different styles of drag and indicates how important diversity in the drag world is.

“Every year, the show finds new ways to expand what people are familiar with when it comes to drag, and that’s so important.”

The pop-culture phenomenon’s success has sparked spin-offs, such as The Trixie and Katya Show, and has seen A-list celebrities, such as Lady Gaga, as guest judges.

Drag Race and its popularity has made drag more visible in wider culture, with brands such as Toyota using queens to promote their products.

With the show also influencing people’s language and spawning thousands of memes (Miss Vanjie), it could be argued that RuPaul was right…

Drag hasn’t become mainstream. It has rather changed the mainstream.

More: drag, drag queen, Drag Race, rupaul, RuPaul's Drag Race

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