Imagine a stiletto-marked pink carpet leading into a combination of Alice’s Wonderland, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, Edith Head‘s atelier and a lost evening at the Anvil—then go further and you have the experience of entering RuPaul’s DragCon. Along with a reported 40,000 other attendees, I found myself on that threshold at the Los Angeles Convention Center and, willing myself not to feel too old, fat and messy for this shit, I squared my shoulder pads, adjusted as much of a cheater as I could muster, and sashayed into the malestrom.
Attendees converged from across the globe and brought with them every viewpoint from the conservative fervor of the-higher-the-hair-the-closer-to-God to the full body shave of punk anarchy—with every viewpoint in between the extremes and outside either box. The pop culture phenomenon of RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought drag into millions of homes and made it a possible path to mainstream success, rather than the outsider art form that it historically was and usually still is. If there is anything to learn from DragCon, it’s that drag remains more complex than trying to get on TV. But what is drag today? Clowning? Glamour? Outrage? Camp? Flying the freak flag at its highest for all of the gender nation? Or is it just good old-fashioned, all-American selling out?
Drag poses countless questions, and part of the pose is drag questioning itself. Even as the smog of hairspray and powder made my allergies crest like the saline in an implant, I questioned. When I found myself fangirling over queens I’d dismissed faster than they lost their lip-synch, I questioned. When every time I took a whiz, there was a sticker of Willam (S4) in the urinal, you’d betta believe I questioned. I walked the pink carpet to ask, I received some responses, and I formulated some responses of my own.
Drag Is History. The Stonewall riot in New York City in 1969 has often been cited as the moment the gay liberation movement—and the modern struggle for LGBT rights—was born. Not only were drag queens the first to fight back that night at the Stonewall, they had been fighting back all along simply by doing drag. While male entertainers dressing as female characters goes far back into the history of performance, drag is midnight adult entertainment, born of gay male culture. Gay men have a long history of bonding with female friends in ways that are mutually beneficial: By far the most noticeable gender-merge on the DragCon floor was straight-woman-gay-man. I do understand, from the point of view of gay culture, the stigma of gay people performing our gayness for approval. But drag represents our history, and can welcome people into our world in ways that puncture the gender code.
Drag Is Local Culture. It would be hard to find a merrier queen than Thorgy Thor (S8). This queen’s booth—a cheerful John Waters/Christmas thrift shop pastiche—was among the most thronged at DragCon. Thorgy is the demi-goddess of the art-school kid weirdness (she has dreads, she’s a violinist) that is the heart of contemporary Brooklyn drag; she reminds us that drag is part of the local culture from which it emerges. But, before Whole Foods, Brooklyn drag was banjee, born of the technicolor dance floor of the Forum, the round-the-way-girl sale racks at Strawberry’s on Fulton Street and a gypsy cab ride across the bridge to Harlem ballrooms. While in many ways Thorgy’s schtick is an in-joke for artfags, her reach extends beyond that: The acolytes who crowded her booth noticeably represented the most significant gay-straight alliance of them all, P-Flag moms.
Drag is Character and Commentary. Tammie Brown (S1) has a frequency somewhere between Ethel Merman and a cuckoo bird. At her booth, where she could not have been more gracious or delightful, she told me that “drag was always big and it’s getting bigger.” Then she danced one of her circular little jigs to god only knows what soundtrack plays in her mind and posed for a lovely photo. Tammie embodies that cornerstone of drag, the daft auntie and, while her wackiness is endlessly fun, it is undercut with the perceptiveness that defines character art. She gives us thrift-store wrongness done right, but then shocks with a slightly off detail: You’re never sure if you’re watching Tammie or if Tammie’s watching you.
Detox (S5) always finds a way to turn a drag moment into performance art. She received admirers from within a bathtub filled with balloons within a chamber of bilious green mylar: The effect was of drag cyborg birthed from day-glo gelatin, Detox was fun, approachable and high concept, true to an artist who cites Jem and the Holograms as one of her influences. At the opposite end of plasticine style, Pearl (S7) was no less devastating in a rig that was equal parts Lagerfeld resort collection and Safari Barbie. Like Detox, Pearl bends the idea of doll drag, but does it as a purposefully blank personality. She is the champion of boys who like to play with dolls, and she is the plaything. Available but unreachable, Pearl is literally the surface of drag and that is her art.
Drag Is Gender. Kelly Mantle (S6) slayed DragCon just by walking down the aisle. This year, Kelly became the first acting performer that AMPAS has allowed to submit for consideration in both the Supporting Actress and Actor categories. Kelly, who has identified as gender-fluid, posed wearing rocker blacks and Stevie Nicks jewelry, a full face of flawless makeup but no false front—female-illusion or otherwise. Kelly was compelling and magical, as one imagines young Bowie must have been. To inhabit gender by being both boy and girl is to present gender beyond itself: Being both is being neither, but is still being both. Kelly gave us the essence of glam and proved that beauty transcends.
The crucible of drag is that somehow, even in what is supposed to be post-cis gender, binary assumptive consciousness, it rattles peoples’ brains to see a male in a dress. Yet, at DragCon, I kept wondering where the drag kings were. They had to be present: The pink carpet was aswarm with genderbending of every bent. As females who present, possibly identify (professionally or otherwise) as male, were drag kings nonetheless relegated to secondary status no matter the size of their dicks? Gender doesn’t present its questions and critiques solely between the polarities of cis gender; they are actually to be found in the infinite crenelations therein.
Drag Is High Style. As always, we find answers by gazing into the sphere of style. However many runway shows you stream, nothing can prepare you for the impact of Raja (S3) in person. Raja is supermodel high art, Linda Evangelista ripping up the pages from Gaultier’s sketch book, Veruschka taunting Antonioni’s camera with fierceness that cuts like a scimitar. Milk (S6) presided from within a rig so haute that only art itself could wear it, burning up Vogue and creating a Cindy Sherman photo from the ashes.
Even with a press pass, it was impossible to get within a country mile of the court of RuPaul, as crowds paid homage to her staggering, well-earned and smartly played mega-success. Her frocks descended from the sky like background dancers; upon close inspection, Ru’s gowns are incredibly, gorgeously intricate and their sophisticated complexity speaks volumes. RuPaul HerSelf has stated in interviews that gay people are not accessories, arguably one of the most ironic sentiments ever expressed. But from the gift shop that offered everything from CDs to one-of-a-kind drag dollies decked out by Ru (expensive, and all of them sold), RuPaul at DragCon was a pink carpet leading to a pot of gold, a kingdom within a kingdom, a gay icon, a freedom fighter and the drag mutha of us all.
Yes, Drag Is Entertainment. Let us not forget that drag is, simply, entertainment. In residence at DragCon was Hot Chocolate, the legendary Tina Turner tribute artist from Frank Marino’s Divas. Hot Chocolate is as sexy and sassy as her diva would have her be, with an energy level that is every bit as exhausting. In answer to the question of regional drag, she thought that “in Las Vegas, drag is dazzling. Very big, very flashy, very showy.”
Yet amidst drag’s TV success, it is affirming to encounter the time-honored tradition of the crackpot drag revue. Whether Strip mainstage or local dive, drag revues remain community playgrounds, while drag pageants pay homage to big-haired extravaganzas of tastelessness, often through camp. Classic camp is an intersection of worship and blasphemy that is the historic provenance of drag, but camp queens have not done that well on Drag Race. The royalty who comes closest is season five winner Jinkx Monsoon, a Broadway-caliber performer whose persona is equal parts burlesque queen and your mom after too many Chardonnays.
But camp was present at DragCon, as wheezy and unavoidable as a wad of nicotine gum: drag brunch with a Carol Channing impersonator, ratted Joan Crawford wigs available for purchase, an army of Eunices in white plastic slingback sandals. Camp is anger and it is hope: Isn’t it high time that a demented Bette Davis impersonator, impeccably lip-synching “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” or, even better, making an utter mess of it, sloshes her martini all the way to the crown?
Drag Is Celebration. The crux of the contemporary drag dialogue is whether there is loss or gain from drag being in the mainstream. From gender theory to makeup tutorials, from TV screen to pageant stage, DragCon answered with two days of kinetic energy wrapped as tight as balls in pantyhose, and with just as much threat of calamity if it came undone.
One family, speaking anonymously, told me they traveled cross-country to bring their daughter to DragCon as her birthday present. It was their first time in Los Angeles; they had saved for the trip. Upon arrival, she was crushed to learn that her favorite queen, the one they had traveled so far for their daughter to meet, had cancelled her appearance. The other queens rushed in to give the girl what had to be the most fabulous sweet 16 since Jake Ryan lit the candles on Molly Ringwald’s forgotten birthday cake. The parents? Two dads, grateful but weary, wearing rose-gold wedding bands that every drag queen in the place, however appraising or jaundiced her eye, would have declared the most beautiful accessory on the pink carpet.