Under the Wig: Demystifying Drag

Thursday, 2 April, 2015

What comes to mind when you think of a drag queen? Men in wigs and sequinned dresses? Dame Edna? Priscilla: Queen of the Desert? Maybe even White Chicks or Mrs. Doubtfire?

Drag queens are arguably the most underrated and misunderstood members of the LGBTQI community. An acronym for ‘dress resembling a girl’, drag has roots in Shakespearean theatre, when men played both female and male roles. It is a performance art where, most commonly, men dress in women’s clothing for the purposes of entertaining. That is pretty much where any formal definition of ‘drag’ ends.

I first discovered drag via RuPaul’s Drag Race, a little American reality TV show with a global cult following. For those unfamiliar, the show gives fourteen drag queens the opportunity to compete against each other for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar and a plethora of prizes, including $100,000. Each week, they face clever but gruelling showbiz-related challenges that test their Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent. A panel of judges, headed by legendary drag queen RuPaul, weighs in on their performances. The two weakest performing queens must fight for their place in the competition by ‘lipsyncing for their lives’. One by one, queens are eliminated until the winner crowned. RuPaul calls the show the ‘Olympics of Drag’.

The further I delved into the show and all its crazy antics (you wouldn’t believe the drama that goes on backstage), the more I wanted to learn about the multi-faceted artform of drag. I quickly discovered that there was so much more to it than just sequins, wigs and platform heels, although they play an important part.

A massive middle finger to gender stereotypes, drag highlights the dissonance between sex and gender. Anthropologist Esther Newton referred to the duality of drag as a ‘double inversion’, where a performer’s outside appearance is the opposite to that of their true self. Though Newton recognises that drag queens appear to be women – but are really men – the reverse is also true: drag performers may look like men when not in drag, but there are certain effeminate aspects at their core. Renowned feminist writer Judith Butler says that the “performance of drag plays upon the distinction between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being performed”, and thus lingers mockingly on the line between ‘male’ and ‘female’, preferring to revel in the grey area between.

Even though queens live on the gender divide, the biggest misconception they face is that they are all transgendered women. In reality, this is rarely the case. “I 100% still identify as a boy,” says local drag artist/“I prefer ‘party girl’!” Kandii Rhinestone. “The people I hang out with are mostly drag queens. We all refer to each other by our drag names, but we still see each other as boys. None of us identify as women.” Transgendered queens do exist in the drag community, but the distinction between trans and drag is clear, and is summarised nicely by American trans queen and Drag Race alum Monica Beverly Hillz: “Drag is what I do, trans is who I am.” For Kandii, drag is “just a costume, an outfit. When I’m in drag, I never feel as though I’m a woman, or think I’m a woman. I’m just a caricature of a female.”

“I’ve been really blessed with my parents. A lot of my friends had a really hard time trying to explain [why they do drag] to their parents, who just don’t get it. They’re scared of what people will think, or think that [queens] want to become women, or that there’s something wrong with them.” But despite the negative stigmas attached to performing in drag, it’s the passion queens have for the art that keeps them going. And maybe perks like free drinks at the bar don’t hurt either.

There are many styles that fall under the enormous sequinned umbrella of drag. Kandii shares that ‘camp’ drag, a more old school style of drag, à la Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, is extremely prevalent in Melbourne. “Melbourne is quite different to the rest of Australia. There are lots of camp queens – the ones with big hair, big jewels and nails.” Of course, drag in Melbourne comes in other forms too, including ‘club kid’ style which draws inspiration from ‘80s underground New York, and ‘fishy’ queens who strive to look as realistically feminine as possible. Kandii finds herself somewhere between Melbourne’s campy drag and Sydney’s softer, fishier drag. “Girls here in Melbourne say my makeup is ‘very Sydney’. I think I fall between Melbourne and Sydney styles.”

No matter which style of drag a queen identifies with, it allows them the liberty of artistic expression through performance. A ‘typical’ drag show might be a queen miming the words to a song in a carefully thought out head-to-toe look. New wave drag can incorporate dance and movement, and queens sometimes perform in girl groups (like Melbourne’s Qween and The Plastics), complete with synchronised routines. Kandii likes to perform mixes and medleys of songs to keep things interesting. “I’d always wanted to perform in front of a crowd, but never did until I started drag. Performing is just another medium to express myself,” she explains. “I’m a very shy person naturally. As soon as you put the drag on, you become another person. It’s like a mask. The confidence I’ve gotten from drag has definitely translated to my boy life – it’s helped me to be more outgoing and to get out of my comfort zone.”

So, queens don’t do drag for the money? “Oh, no! There’s not a lot of money in doing drag [full-time],” Kandii clarifies. “Very few queens are full-time performers. The money you’d spend on drag would outweigh the income you’d get!” Drag for Kandii is a hobby, and an expensive one at that. Makeup, wigs (the best quality lace-front wigs can cost upwards of $200 apiece), tailor-made outfits and jewellery are just the start of what it costs to be a drag performer. “I kind of feel like a superhero sometimes… Professional by day and performer by night.”

Drag Race has certainly been revolutionary in bringing drag into the mainstream media and giving the wider drag community invaluable exposure. Ex-contestants are often so successful that they tour globally, performing at clubs and bars. “One thing [local queens] have noticed is that a lot of the crowd that comes [to drag shows at The GH Hotel in St. Kilda] are only familiar with Drag Race girls. They’ll leave straight after their performance. It’s a shame that they never get to see local shows or experience local talent,” Kandii shares.

The art of drag is unapologetically fun and extravagant, but also has undertones of more serious and important issues. At its crux, drag raises questions of gender definitions and probes us to question the socially constructed ‘rules’ of identifying as a certain gender. It can teach us a lot about how we perceive ourselves, about discrimination and about faking higher cheekbones with makeup. There are widely divergent attitudes within both the drag and the trans communities regarding the productive or progressive value of these lessons. Yet in the words of RuPaul herself, “drag never takes itself too seriously” – and maybe that is a lesson we could all learn from.