By ELIO IANNACCI
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, June 23, 2018
For decades, drag queens - and those who love them - have been sitting on a secret. It's one that RuPaul, arguably the most famous drag monarch of our time, has been trying to tell us for years: "Identity is a joke." These days, most people are in on the punchline: The drag world has built its reputation on poking fun at gender norms.
Yet the multimillion-dollar industry is nothing to sneer at. What began in the late 1800s as simply cross-dressing on stage via pantomimes - musicals and plays in which male actors played dames, vixens and charwomen - has transformed into a highly influential social movement and a booming business.
From global, drag-focused conventions - DragCon, held in Los Angeles in May, witnessed 40,000plus attendees this year - that create new tourism dollars for sponsor cities, to fully-booked cruise liner tours such as Celebrity Equinox (which crafts "Queens Overboard" voyages), drag is seeing a spike in multiple markets. Some of the biggest support comes from beauty and fashion companies - from small shops such as Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics to huge brands such as Marc Jacobs - that are now willing to hire drag spokespeople in hopes of getting the same reaction MAC did during its epic VivaGlam campaigns of the 1990s.
Part of drag's current allure is that more people are now seeing traditional concepts of male and female differently, aligning with how drag queens have always viewed them. This is due, in large part, to the strides made by LGBTQ activists and artists who have challenged gender norms and roles for years. In fact, Michelle Ross, a legendary Torontobased drag queen who has graced the stage more than 15,000 times, says the idea of men and women are mere tropes: "Both sides are equally part of the glamour. I see them as stories that are ready for a makeover."
This way of thinking wasn't always the case. A couple of years before Ross first stepped on stage in 1974 (as a Dionne Warwick replica so she could sing Anybody Who Ever Had a Heart), a man dressing in women's clothes would likely get assaulted. "I heard about the police harassment [at the time], but I luckily never felt it," she says.
It was the macho-driven disdain for the craft that tucked drag away into the LGBTQ underground. For decades, it was a form of entertainment that was limited mainly to niche settings: at night in cabarets, dance halls, clubs, Pride events, vogue balls, gay bars and progressive queer theatres, such as Toronto's own Buddies in Bad Times.
"Everything changed when RuPaul came along," 43-year-old drag performer Jonathon Cruz says.
"She was like the Walt Disney of drag queens." A Filipino-born, Toronto-based drag queen whose stage name is Sofonda Cox, Cruz has been performing on Canadian stages for nearly two decades. "RuPaul made glam accessible and more glamorous than what you see going on throughout the red carpet and royalty - we queens are the anti-Meghan Markle, darling!"
Creator of the titular reality television show Rupaul's Drag Race, actor and singer RuPaul also topped the Billboard dance charts with Supermodel (You Better Work) in 1993. According to Cruz, he not only changed the game - he changed the crowd.
"When I started doing drag 18 years ago, my audience was mainly white gay men but today, because of Drag Race - [whether] I'm in an LGBTQ venue or not - my crowd is filled with 50-per-cent straight women and 50[-per-cent] queer people ... and they are from all walks of life," Cruz says. "Teenage girls now come up to me after seeing a show and speak in drag language. They know our lingo!"
As for how drag has altered mainstream culture, Cruz says we need only look to current pop singers.
"It used to be, we only looked up to the divas. Now, people like Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga look up to us. Why do you think they have consulted so many members of the drag community or hired them to be on staff? They aren't getting what they need from Hollywood any more."
Makeup and hair artist Margot Keith agrees. As the owner of Home Salon, one of Toronto's most popular hair salons, she has seen how drag has influenced the way everyday people want to look. "I think the allure of drag is more popular these days because celebrities look more like drag queens themselves," she says.
Keith has been dressing up in drag for more than 23 years and her understanding of drag's most enviable aesthetics gives her an upper hand at work.
What used to be considered an insult - "you look like a drag queen" - is now seen as a compliment by many of her clients.
"It's common for young people to come into the salon with photos of drag queens and ask me to style their hair like one of them," she says. "Look at the success of the Kardashian beauty empire and the way wigs, weaves and hair pieces of all kinds are worn for daily looks ... The general public can now access what used to be drag beauty secrets."
Currently enjoying its 10th season, RuPaul's Drag Race is doing more than creating desirable beauty trends. It is also breaking industry records. The show's Season 9 finale saw views 218 per cent more than the previous season's final episode, and the show continues to be a ratings leader among the coveted 19-49 demographic. Guest judges for the past two seasons have included Lady Gaga, Shania Twain, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of Broad City (which RuPaul cameos in). The show's success has also led to post-Drag Race careers. Past contestant Bianca Del Rio (real name Roy Haylock) took her winnings to make her own independent film called Hurricane Blanca, which was recently procured by Netflix. Jay Rivera, a rapper who appeared as Aja the Qween on Season 9, was recently named spokesmodel for H&M's current Pride clothing collection.
"After the show, I toured the world [and] made enough money to record songs without a major label," says Rivera, who will be touring this summer with headlining dates in Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary and Quebec City. "TV has not only become a business opportunity for drag queens, but it is now a tool for shaping perceptions of what drag is and where it is going."
A new musical dance series called Pose, which recently premiered on FX, is a perfect example of what Rivera is referring to. A mix between Fame and Jennie Livingston's famous drag documentary Paris Is Burning, the TV drama focuses on dance teams who compete against each other in New York City's 1980s ballroom vogue scene. Most of the team members are part of the LGBTQ community and, in some form or another, use drag as a means to succeed. "A show like that can have impact," Rivera says. "It can educate and show people an inclusive and heartfelt side of drag that they've never seen before."
That sentiment is echoed by Dracmorda and Swanthula Boulet, brothers who want to bring the edge back to a drag scene that they both feel is "too obsessed with trends." Concentrating on filth, horror and glamour, the brothers created a now-cult competition reality TV show called Dragula: Search for the World's Next Drag Supermonster, which holds a dark mirror up to RuPaul's big TV hit. Dragula encourages contestants to give a glamorous and twisted look to witchy, demonic apocalyptic aesthetics in their performances. "Dragula isn't pageantry or heteronormative in the least," Dracmorda says. "It represents the disenfranchised, the underdogs, the women without equal rights, trans people with no visibility, gay and queer youth, gender fluid, noncisgender people."
The brothers see the future of their craft as having little to do with passing as female. "I predict that drag will ultimately become genderless," Swanthula says. "We are going to see some people out there going interspecies. We're talking full fantasy characters or aliens, where gender isn't even the focus."
For a performer such as Rivera, who is already dipping his heel in other fields (he directs his own videos and writes his own songs), drag's next chapter needs to be recognized as more than just a contest of egos. "When I create any persona on stage, I want people see drag as an artistic medium I'm using - it's a tool to make people aware," he says. "The new queens really use it as a venue to express themselves ... Maybe in a couple of years, people will see the idea of being a drag queen on par with someone being a painter, a writer or a politician. Because, let's face it, nobody makes a statement like us."
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL. PHOTOS COURTESY OF VH1 (AQUARIA; TRIXIE MATTEL; RUPAUL); PARI DUKOVIC/FX (POSE); COURTESY OF H&M (AJA); DAVID HAWE (SOFONDA); INSTAGRAM (KARDASHIAN WEST); NATHAN NOYES (THE BOULET BROTHERS' DRAGULA); COURTESY OF MICHELLE DU BARRY (MICHELLE DU BARRY); MITCHEL RAPHAEL (MICHELLE ROSS); GETTY IMAGES (BIANCA DEL RIO; DESMOND THE AMAZING; DRAGCON; KATY PERRY); REUTERS (DRAG RACE THAILAND).