Step one: cleanse the skin?
The term ‘drag’ dates to at least 1870, but the cultural phenomenon surrounding it remained mostly underground for nearly a century.
Now it’s mainstream. “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the four-time Emmy Award Winning reality TV show, just entered its tenth season on cable. Earlier this year, RuPaul discussed the spirit of drag in an interview with The New York Times:
We queens take on identity, and it is always a social statement. It’s all nudge, nudge, wink, wink. We never believe this is who we are. That is why drag is a revolution, because we’re mocking identity. We’re mocking everyone.
Drag is not a monolith; performers vary in approach and intent. And we often hear about drag queens, but what about kings?
We convene a panel of drag queens and kings to discuss life in drag.
- Bianca Del Rio Season 6 winner, RuPaul's Drag Race; author, "Blame it on Bianca Del Rio: The Expert on Nothing with an Opinion on Everything;" @TheBiancaDelRio
- Brigitte Bidet Draq queen in Atlanta; hostess, Tossed Salad drag show; dancer; @BrigitteBidet
- Lena Lett Drag hostess weekly shows, Town Danceboutique; priest
- Pretty Rik E Co-producer, Pretty Boi Drag Troupe; @kingprettyrike
Your Questions Answered
Text and photos by Maura Currie
Drag isn’t just a kitschy performance or a hobby — the history, the diversity and the importance of drag are complicated, even for people who know their stuff and have been in the community for decades. And we, as outsiders, wanted to know more, as did our listeners.
Before this show, producer Bianca Martin and I went to a local “Drag 101” event at Petworth Neighborhood Library in Washington, D.C. to get the “explain like I’m five” angle from two local queens and a drag king — the event was, literally, geared toward kindergarten-aged children.
Then we spoke to queens and kings across the country for some deeper, broader perspectives.
Here are some of the questions and answers from our reporting and this show.
How did you get into drag?
“I had just left seminary – the North American College in Rome – and a good friend of mine said ‘let’s go to a show’ because I was very depressed. So they took me to a club here in Washington and I watched these beautiful monstrosities come out and they were just letting the children have it. And I thought: Wow, that is amazing. I want to do that. And so, my friend who ended up being my drag mother, said ‘there’s an amateur contest coming up. I’ll paint you. You just do you.’ … So, I did the contest and I won. And that’s history,” says Lena Lett. By day, Lena is David Lett, a priest who’s involved in regional Catholic leadership.
What do you get out of being a drag performer?
“I consider myself a clown, even. I don’t necessarily consider myself a woman. I don’t want to be a female,” says Bianca Del Rio. “For me, I’m an actor, and it’s just basically a packaging to get away with murder. Especially with the type of material that I do, you know, the comedic stuff that I deal with. I think it’s important to dress up and make it fun for people, because when I don’t wear it, they say that I’m just a nasty homosexual. And then I wear the wig and they go ‘Hysterical!’ So it’s kind of like the packaging to get away with murder for me.”
Are There Drag Kings?
“People are familiar with high-feminine drag queens and high-masculine drag kings. What people don’t see are the in-betweens, and I think those are just as important and just as fun, to be honest. In D.C. we have bearded queens, we have queens who like to wear dresses and have Rapunzel beards… Drag is not defined, it’s whatever you choose to make it just like gender is,” says D.C.-based drag king Phoenix King, a member of Pretty Boy Drag and a trans man. King co-hosted the “Drag 101” library event.
Is there a difference between you and your drag persona?
“Drag brought me a lot of confidence. It helped me find a home I didn’t know I didn’t have. I feel very at home in the drag king community. I grew up in a very straitlaced suburb, and expressing ourselves like this was not something I heard of, especially when you’re growing up as your mother’s little girl. I was forced to carry purses, wear dresses, and wear girls’ clothes. I always felt uncomfortable, and in this community, I was able to express myself,” says” Drag King Pretty Rik E, who leads the D.C. drag king troupe Pretty Boy Drag.
What do you wish more people knew about drag?
“I think what’s important for people to remember is that drag has always been there. If you like Shakespeare, and you think that that is high art, Shakespeare was drag. Only men were performing, in dresses, historically for a very long time. Mrs. Doubtfire is drag. Literally, everything is drag, it’s always been here. Whether you saw us or not,” says D.C.-based drag queen Buffy Wilde, who also co-hosted “Drag 101.”
What can young people take away from drag?
“Kids are at this really impressionable stage where you can either teach them the rules of the world as they’ve been inherited, and pretend like that’s real, or you can create opportunities for them to expand their horizons. And to learn tolerance, and self-expression, and that who they are is beautiful no matter what it is,” says D.C.-based drag queen Cherry Snow, who co-hosted “Drag 101.”
Are there diversity issues within the drag community?
“Racism exists in every facet of life, right? So why would it be any different in the queer community? Racism does not suddenly disappear within the queer community. At all,” says Pretty Rik. E.
“We need to unpack the larger issue: why is a skinny white person put on a pedestal higher than someone equally or more talented than them?” asks Brigitte Bidet, an Atlanta queen who’s encountered racism in her circuit.
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