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Evolution of drag
By Oliver Stone
As I open my eyes I see myself in full drag in the mirror for the first time.
“Wow, I’m fucking hot!”
Staring back at me is a beautiful girl, of short height, slim figure, and petite features. Her body is amazing as her arms are toned but not muscular and her legs are as thin as a tree branch. A curly blonde wig sits on top of her head and falls perfectly to her shoulders. She wears a one strap, sleeveless, black and gold mini dress that would be too small and too tight for most people, but fits her perfectly. Her make-up is extravagant and glamorous, but not surreal. Wearing cherry red lipstick, blush and gold eye-shadow, it gives off the appearance of both innocent and experienced. The eye shadow gives emphasis on her big doe eyes. If it wasn’t for her larger than normal shoulders, you wouldn’t have notice she’s actually a male.
Her name is Oli-Pop and she’s ready to dance.
That was my first Drag show and it was a surreal experience. Drag is now been defined as the act of dressing up in clothes that are respectively assigned to the person’s opposite gender, usually for a performance. However it can be so much more than that. Drag can be a performance, a role, an artistic piece, and a form of self-expression. The complex history of drag will be explained in the following essay.
The word drag originates from Elizabethian England, within Shakesperian scripts. The term was used to describe men who portrayed female characters as it was an abbreviation for "dressed as a girl". However drag was not considered a distinct art form until the end of the 1800s, where it was used in vaudeville shows. In the 1880s and 90s many vaudeville performers used female and male impersonation as an entertainment act. What was so intriguing about the act was that it was not considered a comedic performance, but an illusionist one. The main goal of these acts was to become passable as the opposite sex. Female impersonators (the term used at the time) were supposed to act graceful and docile while male impersonator were supposed to be imposing and aggressive. As so it was considered a socially acceptable and family friendly activity. In contrast to the love and acceptance cross-dressers experienced on stage, the act was illegal if performed off-stage. For example In 1864, St. Louis adopted an orrdinance that stated “Whoever shall, in this city, appear in any public place in a state of nudity, or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex, or in an indecent or lewd dress . . . shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor." Some of the most recognizable female and male impersonators were Bert Savoy, Julian Entlidge, and Gladys Bentley.
Although vaudeville shows were the first to use cross-dressing as a performance piece, credit for the creation of drag shows should be given to the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a period between the 1920s and 1930s in which African Americans artists had an up rise in creating art pieces to express issues within the black community. What many historians forget was that many of the Harlem artists were queer individuals. One invention of the Harlem Renaissance were drag balls. Drag balls were originally based of of European debutante balls in which women were showed off to attain a suitor. Within the drag balls many men dressed in feminine attire and were showed off by their suitors, females in suites or masculine clothing. Although African American's within Harlem had a start in the creation of these events, they were soon modeled by white Americans in Manhattan. For a time, drag shows became culturally acceptable and many black and white drag performers would host balls together. This time would be known as "The Pansy Craze" and was characterized by interracial drag shows in Manhattan in the late 1920s and early 30s. One of the leading factors to these events was prohibition. During Speakeasys, drag shows would often be performed for the straight audience members. In the writings of Professor Burgess of the University of Chicago Illinois, he documents one of these events. In the writings he says "Through the blue cigarette smoke you can make out the outlines of crowded tables, Before long, the orchestra strikes up a tune and the master of ceremonies appears on the stage. This person is a huge mulatto with wide shoulders and narrow hips. . . . It [sic] is a lascivious creature that strikes the normal as extremely repulsive. With a deep husky voice it begins to sing a wild song and as the tempo increases the stage rapidly fills with a remarkable collection of sexual indeterminates. Each is dressed in a long formal, and each has the same peculiar physical appearance. " Some of the most renowned performers of this time were Gene Malin, Bruz Fletcher, and Ray Bourboun. After prohibition was repealed, many policemen started to crack down on the drag balls, arresting participants for "indecent behavior" and "female impersonation". With the 1933 great depression, many drag performers couldn't afford to perform anymore. As so in the mid 1930s the "Pansy Craze" came to an end and the drag kings and queens were forced back into the closet.
The first performer of the night was Stevie Nicks, or her impersonator. Dressed in a black satin funeral gown, with matching gloves and a top hat on top of a long blonde wig, you could've sworn it was Stevie Nicks herself. Nicks, unlike most of the performers, was more subtle and docile, trying to emulate the personality of the real Nicks. Instead of flashy dance moves or crude dialogue, Nicks simply lip-synced while maneuvering around the stage in an interpretive way. He performed "Edge of Seventeen", "Seven Wonders", and ended with "Landside". Throughout the performance the crowd was generally quiet, giving me the impression that they were not pleased. However, in the end they applauded him and my friend commented that he did very well. I thought to myself "I wonder what the crowd wants?".
One of the greatest influences on drag within the 70s was the 1975 cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show directed by Jim Sharman. The movie is a comedy rock musical that acts as a parody of 50s horror and sci-fi films. The plot centers around a newly engaged couple who stumble upon a castle inhabited by a transvestite alien known as Dr. FranknFurter and his accomplices Riff Raff and Magenta. The character of Dr. FranknFurter (performed by Tim Curry) is a drag queen, and has been modeled by many other drag queens since his first appearance. FranknFurter is a deviant and promiscuous character whose main goal is to show how gender is performed while simultaneously mocking gender norms. His clothing is not only feminine but highly sexualized and revealing, wearing corsets, fishnets stocking, panties and knee high platform boots. The character's personality is both narcissistic and hedonistic, generally admiring himself while pursuing anything that serves as pleasure. He is also extremely outrageous, breaking out into song while performing amateur dance routines. Tim Curry's performance was considered iconic and would be modeled after for ages to come.
The next performer was Pop Peterson or their stage name "Shauvaghn". Shauvaghn's personality can be summed up in two phrases: "fabulous" and "no fucks given". Being six feet tall, with a flat top that took up another five inches, it's hard to miss him. That night he wore a fabulous short green surgeon outfit, six inch high heel leather boots, a spiked leather choker, and jeweled earrings. Shauvaghn performed to "S&M" by Rihanna, a show stopper of a song. During the first verse "NaNa Come On, Come On!" he runs through the door way and jumps on to the stage grabbing the microphone with such ferocity. As he lips sings the first few stanzas, he grinds and shakes to the rhythm of the beat. The crowd adores him. But what happens next truly steals the show. Right when the chorus hits, Shauvaghn rips off his green surgeon outfit to reveal a one piece white bikini, which hardly hides his crotch. The crowd goes crazy and the other drag queens and I are in utter shock. "How are we gonna follow that?" I love it and Daniel (another drag queen) and I dance to song screaming "Go Pop!" As the song comes to a close, Shauvaghn walks to the end of the stage and raises his leg to the railing, holding the pose with an accomplished glance.
Another extreme influence on drag culture in the 1970s, was the drag queen Divine also known as Harris Glenn Milstead. Divine rose to fame with his 1972 cult classic film Pink Flamingos and proceeded to have a very successful career. Unlike the drag queens who emphasized beauty and being realistic, Divine maintained a comedic and outrageous aspect to his performances. Divine desired to shock and entertain his audience and did so through flashy yet trashy clothing, wild make-up, and lewd humor. When referring to other drag queens, Divine once said "They were so serious and made it ridiculous. I didn't want to be like them. I couldn't get into it like they did. I thought I mightv'e just have fun, because they were so serious about competing." Unlike other queens, Divine was significantly overweight. However, he was able to use this to his advantage by emphasizing his gross out humor. In the 2013 documentary I am Divine, longtime friend and director John Waters mentions that the key goal of Divine's work was to attract attention. He says "People loved being outraged. It was done for anarchy and it worked as anarchy. Even if you hated it you had to talk about it." Due to heart complications brought on by obesity, Divine died on March 7, 1988 from a cardiac arrest.
The next performer was Aunt Chuck. Chuck was a plus size man but knew what to use what he had to his advantage. He decided to perform to Applause by Lady Gaga and have a more comedic routine. The performance started with him wearing a strawberry blonde wig, cherry red lipstick, and a pink silk robe. During the first few verses he simply mimes the words and moves his hands, with little dancing. I thought to myself "Hmm, this'll be another boring one." However as the song progresses he throws off his robe revealing a seashell bra and an ankle length loincloth. The crowd and I busted into laughter. Chuck appears to be surprised by the crowds laughter and continues with the song. Towards the last chorus of the song Chuck, unties his loincloth and reveals a tiny thong decorated with little flowers. The crowd is shocked and laughs again. Chuck then ends his song with a little bow and awkwardly shimmies offstage. I must say Chuck generally surprised me and I enjoyed how funny his performance was.
In the late 1970s to early 1980s drag culture expanded into what would be known as ball culture. During this time, the only drag performances were competitions in which black queens were generally shunned by their white counterparts. They were often told that they were not pretty enough. Many black queens then decided to form their own competitions which would be known as Balls. A Ball was a competition in the underground queer community. Known for their extravagance and surrealness, balls surpassed anything that the white only drag shows could accomplish. Key aspects of the balls were fashion and glamour, as competitors were encourage to be over the top. Balls were usually competed between houses. A house was a group of queer men and women who acted as subordinate families. Many houses formed due to individuals being rejected by their biological families. Within the houses, there was always a head, known as the mother. The mother was usually the person who won the most balls or the best performer and acted as the leader.
Performances within balls can be broken up into having four key components. These are reading/shade, runway, vogueing, and appearance. Reading and shade are forms of insulting someone, used between competitors quite often. To read is to point out and exaggerate all the flaws that the competitor has. An example would include making fun of one's height, hair or clothing. Shade was the act of creating back-handed compliments. A classic example is legendary drag queen Dorian Corey's line "I don't tell you you're ugly, but I don't have to, because you already know." Runway or "Walking" is the art of modeling clothes. There are two types of runway: American and European. American is to accentuate the masculine qualities of the model while European accentuates the feminine qualities. "Walking" can be either graceful or over-exaggerated. Vogueing is a form of competitive dance. It is characterized by symmetry of the body, formation of lines, and graceful and fluid hand, arm, and leg movements. Many of the dance moves were taken from Egyptian hieroglyphics and Vogue magazine poses, hence the name. The five components of Vogue are duckwalking, cat walking, hand movements, floor work, and drops and dips. Lastly the competitors were judged on their appearance. For a participant to win, they had to show "realness". Realness was the trait of acting so well to the point that it was believable that you were straight or cis-gender. Realness was not only a competition but training as well. In the 1980s, for queer people to be able to pass as straight or cis-gender in the general public, sometimes was a matter of life or death. Other aspects of appearance where face, body, and sex appeal.
What was so fascinating about balls was that the competitions were so diverse. Competitors within balls included drag queens, but was not limited to them. Competitions consisted of six main categories: Butch Queen, Femme Queen, Butch Queen up in Drag, Butches, Women, Men and House Parents. These competitions were broken up into smaller categories which ranged from anything from military men and business executive to school girl and supermodel. The introduction of more categories allowed for more people to participate as well as it to become more inclusive. As so drag became more than just female impersonation into the fulfillment of one's ideal life fantasy. Dorian Corey had said in the film Paris Is Burning that "In real life you can't get a job as an executive without a good educational background and the opportunity. Now the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. That is just pure thing, black people have a hard time getting anywhere. And those that do are usually straight. In a ball room you can be anything you want. You aren't really an executive but you are looking like an executive. And therefore you are showing the straight world that I can be an executive, if I had the opportunity I could be one. Because I can look it. And that is like a fulfillment. Your peers and your friends are telling you you'd make a wonderful executive."
Daniel Warren, one of my best friends, went on next. Not only did Daniel perform, but he also hosted the show as well, introducing acts and bantering to the audience during breaks between performances. Daniel is a wonderful comedian and made sure that both the audience and the other queens were comfortable. Performing as "Liliana Licorice", Daniel danced "Carcacha" by Selena. The song is extremely fast beat and I was impressed by his foot movement. Daniel moved his feet in a fast paced and erratic movement that I wasn't sure I could ever repeat. Even more impressing was his costume. Wearing six inch high heeled black boots, a black girdle and skirt, and a bright red feathered tale he looked like a burlesque dance. On top of his head was a glorious up do black wig with pink highlights. Instead of shaving, Daniel kept his large black beard which actually added to the costume. Right after him his mother performed, a belly dancer who was just as good as her son. She wore a purple and gold Indian princess outfit. The two were so happy and proud of each other, you could notice it in their embrace. I remember thinking how much it would mean to me if my parents were as happy to see me performing in drag as Daniel's mother was of him. I think I would give the world to have that.
During the 1980s Hollywood began to have a more general interest in drag in contrast to its previous beliefs of it destroying traditional values. However, unlike Ball Culture, mainstream drag was depicted as being comedic and family friendly. Two extremely popular drag films during the 80s were Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire. Tootsie staring Dustan Hoffman, focuses on a struggling actor who pretends to be a woman to secure a role on a day time soap opera. Throughout the film, he uses the experience to learn about sexism and misogyny, growing into a very outspoken feminist. Mrs. Doubtfire starred Robbin Williams. After being thrown out of his house by his wife, Williams dresses up as an old woman and pretends to be a nanny to visit his children. In both situations drag was not used as a form of identity, but as a means to an end. It was also heavily heterosexualized as the men who perform it are straight and pursue a female love interest. This time also saw the fame of drag queens such as Lilly Savage and Dame Edna. Lilly Savage was renowned for his dry and insulting humor. Dame Edna had a ditsy and scatterbrained personality, often having strange costumes and going off on random yet comedic monologues. Drag was toned down to be more acceptable and family friendly. As so many of the ball culture aspects were not included in mainstream drag. In addition, most recognizable drag performers during this time where white males and p.o.c. performers or drag queens received little recognition.
The next performer was Delfin Bautista, who went on as Sharon Dicks. Being about 5ft 10in and around 270ilbs, Sharon's presence was noted. They wore a tight, yet fitting, red flamenca dress that reached down to their ankles with long black ruffles around both their waste and sleeves. Underneath, strapped onto their chest, were two D-sized comical fake breasts. They wore a long black wig and on-top of that was a lace veil. Their make-up, in contrasts to their outfit, was actually quite simple, wearing subtle blush, red lipstic, little eye shadow, and large fake eyelashes. In their hand they held a Spanish hand fan. Sharon decided to perform to "Wepa" by Gloria Estefan. The performance was characterized by large heavy steps, that shook the stage. Sharon also spent around while waiving their hands, signaling for the audience to clap, riling them up. The crowd love them and so did I, dancing along by the end of it.
One of the most influential figures of modern day drag is RuPaul. RuPaul started performing drag in 1992, but did not find critical success until 1993 with the release of his dance album Super Model of The World. The album spawned two singles, "Back To My Roots" and "A Shade Shady (Now Prance)" which both peaked at number 1. In 1995, he was signed to a modeling contract for MAC Cosmetics making him the first Drag Queen Supermodel. Known for his tall and athletic yet slim body, large blonde wigs, glamorous make up and extravagant dresses, RuRaul extenuates beauty and class above all traits. RuPaul's most acclaimed song "Supermodel (Of The World)", shows him in designer clothing with perfect make-up, visiting many different places and being adored in each setting. The main focus of the song is that the woman is so beautiful and so glamorous, that she is always the focus of attention. This is a recurring theme of RuPaul's work as seen in "Cover Girl" having a similar theme. This is a direct contrast to the Divine era in which drag was comedic and shocking.
In early 2009, RuPaul released his reality-television competition RuPaul's Drag Race on Logo TV. The basis of the show is to critique and judge different Drag Queens with the winner being named "America's Next Drag Star" or ANDS. The two main challenges are a runway walk and "Lip-Sync For Your Life". During the runway walk contestants must model elaborate costumes which they created, usually based off of a theme. "Lip-Sync For You Life" is a challenge in which the two contestants up for elimination, must lip-sync and dance to a song chosen by RuPaul. The contestant who performs poorly is sent home or must "sashay away". Other challenges includes being photographed in complex situations, "reading" or insulting other contestants, and the notorious Snatch Game in which contestants dress up as famous female figures. RuPaul mentions that for someone to be named ANDS they must have the qualities of charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent, otherwise known as "being a CUNT".
As Nathaniel Simmons mentions in his essay "Speaking Like a Queen" there are other qualities that drag queens must have to win ANDS. Simmons says that these include being "fishy". "Fishiness" also known as "Realness" is when a drag queen passes as a cis-gender woman. This trait is valued most among contestants and judges alike, with judges praising drag queens for how feminine they were and criticizing others for looking to masculine. Professionalism is also an important component. Within the show professionalism is seen as being able to complete the challenge with out any issues whatsoever. Lastly contestants are suppose to not be "hungry" and resist negativity. Being hungry is a metaphor for being too competitive. These traits are seen as unbecoming of a ANDS and should not be apparent. However it is a paradox as the competition in general often rewards queens who exuberant dramatic and impolite behavior. In fact, RuPaul has been criticized for keeping beautiful yet unpleasant queens within the competition over comedic and campy ones. In addition to this the title of ANDS has never been given to a plus sized competitor, only ever going to the slim and classically beautiful drag queens.
And then there was me. When I got up on stage I wasn't nervous, I was terrified. I hadn't rehearsed for this song. Last minute I decided to abandon my previous song and wing it to a new one. All I could think was "What if they don't like it? Would they boo me? God all I want is for them to love me." As I make my way up the stage I grab the microphone as a last ditch effort to add something to the song. I'm not sure if it worked. And then the music starts. "Problem" by Ariana Grande featuring Iggy Azalea. The song seemed innocent and playful, yet seductive and feminine. I wanted the audience to see me as the girl next door. At the first verse I raise the microphone to my lips and mouth the words. Whenever Grande says "I want you-ou-ou!" I point to the audience. They're completely silent. "Wow I must suck. Let take it up a notch." As the bridge starts I walk seductively to the edge of the stage. The audience starts to applaud "Get it Oliver!" somebody screams. "Alright let's take it full throttle." As the chorus hits, I jump into the air crossing my legs and start to grind when I land. I throw my hands up in the air while I jump and bring them down to my waist when I land. I repeat this several times through out the chorus. The crowd goes wild with applause. I feel like a sexy beast. Unfortunately, every time I jump up my tight dress rises up showing the crowd my underwear."Shit, just keep dancing. Don't let it phase you." I quickly pull my skirt back down. As the second part of the song rolls around I sit on the edge of the stage. I lip-sync the verses while looking into the audience. As the chorus runs around I repeat my previous choreography, again receiving applause. As the Middle 8 verses of the song occur, I get off the stage and walk my way through the audience. I seductively grab on and play with audience members, even trying to grab a few to dance with me. Doesn't go well as many people were afraid of dancing in front of people. Towards the end of the middle 8 and I run back to the stage and point at the viewers during the line "I got 99 problems but you wont be one." I then climb back on the stage and crawl seductively during the bridge. "I regret this" flies through my mind, but apparently the crowd loves it as they hoot and holler. As the last chorus comes around I think "Alright, let's bring it home!" I then stand up jump around, bend over and start twerking like a mad woman. The crowd loves it. Their screaming and hollering like cats and dogs. "There we go! That's the Oli-Pop we all know!" one of my friends yells off stage. Again my skirt flies up, this time exposing far more. "Welp, there's no going back now." I then make a split on the ground, lay on my stomach, and kick my legs back and forth like a playful young women. The song ends as I smile to the audience, they love me.
As you can see drag can mean a wide array of things to different people. However, what it means to me is being able to express a side of myself that is generally shut inside. I understand that for me to portray myself as female would be dangerous as many people are still not accepting in this day and age. However, drag performances serve as a place in which I can show how I truly feel sometimes. I love it when people applaud Oli-Pop, even though they most likely wouldn't be as kind to her on the streets. It's ironic but this paradox has existed ever since drag was first conceived. Hopefully one day we won't even have a term for cross-dressing, and it can just be considered getting dressed. Until that day however, I'm fine with using the stage to express my hidden self.