- All Hail Their Highnesses
We look beyond wigs and makeup to explore drag as a cultural powerhouse that is driving change.
It took just two seasons for Miss Fame to rise to become fashion’s hottest star. You couldn’t have missed her at fashion week — head-turning dresses, immaculate makeup and hairdo with nary a strand out of place.
Whether in suits custom-made by Dior Homme’s Kim Jones or superhero-worthy capes from Miu Miu, Miss Fame has been hailed as the new Celine Dion — which is to say she’s got enough chutzpah to pull off looks that even seasoned pros would shy away from.
Except that unlike Dion, Miss Fame is not a cisgender woman. She is a drag performer. A contestant from the seventh season of the Emmy-winning TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race — a reality competition for drag queens reminiscent of America’s Next Top Model but tinged with The Oprah Winfrey Show moments — Miss Fame is part of a growing movement that’s pushing the art of drag into the lexicon of pop culture.
Drag is unabashedly occupying a larger space in the mainstream but Becca D’Bus, a Singaporean drag performer and host, is cautious about calling this its golden age.
“It seems easier to put a drag queen in a public space these days without having to face all the challenges that club promotors of the past have had to deal with,” she says, before pointing out that all her RIOT! drag revue shows at Hard Rock Cafe are sold out.
“But I also wonder how much of that audience is growing versus regular attendees. Are we in the golden age of drag? Maybe… but I don’t think we’ve yet discovered the limits of how far we can push drag as an art form.”
There’s no denying that the appeal of drag has grown in recent years. Thanks to the rising popularity of shows such as Rupaul’s Drag Race and Drag SOS (think Queer Eye with drag queens), drag is now more accessible than ever.
Drag performers are packing in the crowds at stadiums — a feat once achieved only by rock stars — with fans maxing out their credit cards stocking up on branded merchandise and splashing out on meet-and-greets at DragCon.
Organised by the same team behind Rupaul’s Drag Race, DragCon is where fans get to meet their favourite performers. The annual event is held in two US cities, Los Angeles and New York, with London joining the circuit next year. In 2018 alone, DragCon drew some 100,000 visitors. If there’s ever a sign that the drag culture has hit the big time, this is it.
“Drag has finally arrived at the place it deserves in pop culture, in a way that cannot be ignored,” Randy Barbato, co-producer of Rupaul’s Drag Race, has said. “For us, it’s just the beginning.”
The US-based reality show, which began in 2009, has wrapped up 11 seasons, four spin-off seasons — RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars — and has international editions throughout Thailand, UK and soon, Australia. It’s also earned four consecutive Emmy awards from 2016 to 2019.
Off-stage, drag queens are firmly planting their crystal-studded flags in every possible area. Just this year, Violet Chachki — known for whittling her waist down to 16 inches after getting several ribs removed — became the first drag queen to walk the red carpet at the Met Gala. Another favourite among the fashion set, Aquaria enjoyed plenty of front row coverage at Vivienne Westwood and Giambattista Valli’s Spring/Summer 2020 shows.
Even the beauty industry is succumbing to the magic, with Kim Chi — known for her intricately painted on makeup — launching her eponymous beauty line just last month. The Korean-American drag performer has nailed looks ranging from Pac-Man to a candy cane and is often credited for elevating drag makeup into an art form.
Let’s pause for a moment, and examine it against the local context: Is the growing acceptance of drag a litmus test that our societal norms are shifting? Yes.
Within the space of their act, drag performers take charge of the conversation. Some play up the codes of what it means to look like a woman while others challenge the status quo of beauty and glamour, but when an audience member chooses to attend a performance and support a drag queen, there is a trade of power and influence.
By enjoying what’s being presented on stage, you press pause on your opinions. You allow the drag performer to share with you her thoughts, emotions and world views — even if they differ from your own.
“For me, you can have your ideals of what it means to be feminine, and that is valid,” Becca muses. “But [drag is] having those opinions and having them be completely irrelevant in the space where my show takes place, because I am performing and I have defined the meaning in this space. That is what I think drag is fundamentally about.”
With drag shows selling out faster now than in the past, one can only infer that the increase in power transference during a drag performance reflects that attitudes towards outlying art forms, especially drag, are loosening up.
People are learning to look beyond the concept of drag as a form of social deviance. They can enjoy it as entertainment: gather several friends, open up a bar tab and cheer as a drag performer lip syncs to Madonna.
Drag’s rising popularity doesn’t necessarily suggest complete social liberation, nonetheless. Never mind that a 2019 study by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy showed that almost 27 percent of polled respondents agree that same-sex marriage should be legalised — an uptick from 14 percent in a 2013 study. Never mind too, that it also reflects that nearly 60 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 had no objections to same-sex marriages.
Just because we get to watch a man in a wig twerk across the stage today doesn’t mean we will see Section 377A — a law that criminalises sex between two consenting adult men — disappear tomorrow. This is something Becca is quick to acknowledge.
“Let’s be real, drag is not a social norm,” Becca says, with a slight smirk. “What’s happening is that people recognise now that drag is enjoyable and entertaining, and sometimes that’s all we need — a fun space to be in.”
This story first appeared in the November 2019 issue of A.