The queens are back and reigning once more
Drag, i.e, men dressing in women’s clothing for entertainment purposes, is an age-old concept. It’s thought by some that the word itself dates back to Elizabethan-era England. At that time women were barred from the stage — acting was considered an unseemly pursuit for the fairer sex — so men portrayed all the parts. It’s said that ye olde playbill used the term “dressed as girl” to credit a male playing a female role. Over time, dressed as girl simply became “drag.”
In the gay community drag has a long and storied history. We can’t forget that the fight for LGBT rights began in earnest in 1969 when drag queens fought back against police during a raid of New York’s Stonewall Inn. The establishment was a popular gathering place for black and latin queens, making it a frequent target of police harassment. In the early morning hours of June 28, Stonewall’s patrons had had enough and their physical resistance sparked three days of rioting that officially birthed our equality movement.
The ensuing decades brought us Andy Warhol’s Factory girls (Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis), “La Cage Aux Folles,” the proliferation of drag pageantry, Divine in a string of seminal John Waters films, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” Sylvester, Wigstock, Candis Cayne, ballroom culture, RuPaul (more on her later) and much, much more.
But, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. Over the last decade it felt like we were steadily moving toward the tipping point where, to the post-”Ellen,” post-“Will & Grace” generation, drag was little more than a relic from the past — an obsolete antiquity to be dismissed the same way previous generations rejected the touchstones of their forebears, e.g., “classic” gay films featuring tragic characters, the obsession with Judy Garland or rainbow colored everything.
What a great surprise, then, to see that drag hasn’t gone the way of Luke Sissyfag. (Who? Exactly.) In fact, drag has experienced a stunning resurgence over the last few years. Here in the Carolinas, the comeback appears to have been fueled by a trio of unique factors.
Chief among these is the unanticipated cultural cachet of competitive reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” After an unremarkable few seasons the show turned into must-see TV in its just-wrapped fourth cycle. The credit for which belongs to the season’s coterie of contestants, who couldn’t have been any more compelling if their personalities, quips and catfights had been scripted by Aaron Sorkin.
When “Drag Race” debuted on little watched gay cable network Logo, it was an amusing oddity, but not much more. Watching those first contestants paint their faces, argue, compete in silly competitions, argue, model clothes and argue some more was interesting but nobody was arranging their schedule around the show.
However, by the time RuPaul, one of the most successful drag queens ever at this point, named Pittsburgh’s spooky, kooky Sharon Needles “America’s next drag superstar” on April 30, the program had morphed into a cult obsession and redefined drag as edgy and hip — something it hadn’t been ages.
The full power of “Drag Race” was on display in Charlotte a few weeks prior to the finale when Sharon Needles performed at Scorpio. Even pre-crowning, the rapturous response she received from the standing-room-only crowd felt more like a Lady Gaga concert than a bar drag show.
Speaking of drag shows, the second key factor in drag’s big comeback has to be the proliferation of top-drawer talent in North Carolina. These elite queens kept the standard for performing here extremely high even when the artform overall was in decline. This, in turn, has contributed to a recent and unprecedented run of success for our state on the national stage.
In 2011, North Carolina-based performers held the crowns for both Miss Gay America and Miss Gay U.S.ofA., Coti Collins of Raleigh and Luscious of Charlotte respectively. To make the domination complete, Collins handed the Miss Gay America 2012 title to Kirby Kolby, another Raleigh resident and Collins’ fellow housecast member at Legends nightclub.
These outcomes are highly motivational and create a positive feedback loop. Young queens are inspired to strive for the success of Collins, Kirby and Luscious the same way those three were spurred by the national titles won by earlier North Carolina legends. The newcomers’ successes will, in turn, drive future performers and on and on it goes.
Here’s a listing of the Tar Heel queens who have captured a national crown: Miss Gay America: 1986 Lauren Colby, Wilmington; 1992 Tiffany Bonet, Winston-Salem; 1996 Kerri Nichols, Charlotte; 2007 Luscious, Charlotte; 2011 Coti Collins, Raleigh; 2012 Kirby Kolby, Raleigh. Miss Gay U.S.ofA.: 2011 Luscious, Charlotte. Miss Gay U.S.ofA. At Large: 1992 Nancy Newton, Hickory. Miss Continental Plus: 2003 Victoria (Pork Chop) Parker, Fayetteville.
These titleholders — indeed all of North Carolina’s extended drag family — owe a massive debt of gratitude to a pair of pioneering queens who carved out a glittering trail more than four decades ago: Boom Boom LaTour (of Charlotte) and Brandy Alexander (then of Jacksonville, now also living in Charlotte). By anecdotal evidence at least, they were the state’s first professional drag entertainers. In their impossibly high heels and glittering sequins they tilled the soil and planted the seeds that, in the fullness of time, have yielded our current bounty.
Alongside LaTour and Alexander’s pageant divas, a new breed of star has emerged to complete drag’s resurrection trifecta. These queens aren’t focused on competition or joining a housecast but are more likely to be found at community events serving as sparkling hosts, facilitators and fundraisers. They reach audiences at these events they might never encounter in a bar setting.
The popularity of gay and AIDS-related bingo fundraisers in recent years has played a particularly important role in the ascendance of drag figures like Mary K. Mart, who hosts Drag Bingo in Raleigh, Big Shirli Stevenz, who hosts Green Queen Bingo in Greensboro, and Shelita Hamm, who hosted Gay Bingo in Charlotte during its long run.
With Hamm’s retirement, Roxy C. Moorecox and Buff Faye have assumed her marabou-feathered mantle as the go-to drag fundraisers and political/social issue promoters in the Queen City. Through their respective charitable work with Pride Charlotte, the annual Drag Race, the Lesbian and Gay Center, Time Out Youth, Campus Pride and other worthy causes, the pair have amassed a loyal following and increased both the standing and understanding of drag in the community.
As you can see, the resurgence of drag is a win for the performers, a win for the fans and most certainly a win for the important causes that benefit from the support of both. It will be interesting to see if the upcoming all-star edition of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” captures the queer zeitgeist like the last season. If it does this unlikely but most welcome rebirth of female impersonation could, uhm, drag on and on. Lady fingers crossed. : :
(top to bottom)
Trendy Sharon Needles
Drag Mama Boom Boom LaTour
Pageant Winner Luscious
Austin Young (Needles)