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A Cultural Signpost – Drag Queens

By Kames Narayanan

Beyond the exuberant facade of drag, the culture in itself has always been one with deep-seated political agenda. On the forefront of it is a voice of freedom of expression. Drag icons like Divine have long existed on the fringes of cult cinema in movies like Pink Flamingo (1972).
 
Top Photo Corporation
Beyond the exuberant facade of drag, the culture in itself has always been one with deep-seated political agenda. On the forefront of it is a voice of freedom of expression. Drag icons like Divine have long existed on the fringes of cult cinema in movies like Pink Flamingo (1972).

A few months ago, a new colleague claimed his seat behind mine in the office. In the years of knowing him prior to becoming desk buddies, I had become well acquainted with his witty comebacks and one-liners. I had always assumed the dash of sass came with the territory of being a flamboyant, gay man — an observation gathered from watching a copious amount of reality television and more than a handful of friendships over the years.

One morning, he strolled into the office and announced his arrival with a loud click of the tongue. I swivelled my chair around. It was a distinct sound, as if attitude and audacity had been rolled into a single audible missive.

“How did you do that?” I asked, out of curiosity. After a few futile demonstrations, he turned to his computer and pulled up a YouTube tutorial titled “Alyssa Edwards’ Secret — Tongue Pop”. On screen was a drag queen with a larger-than-life personality. There was not a hair out of place; her (very) arched eyebrows framed her almond-shaped eyes; long, fluttery (presumably faux) eyelashes extended way beyond her nose bridge; and her à la Barbie makeup look was accentuated by a bright fuchsia lip. All the razzle-dazzle was topped off with a sequinned asymmetrical top, mirrored fascinator and large hoop earrings. And when she spoke, her expressions were far more exaggerated than the lady on the street — she was, essentially, a caricature of a woman.

I later found out Edwards had been a contestant on two seasons of the wildly popular reality series RuPaul’s Drag Race. For the unversed, RuPaul’s Drag Race is the drag queen equivalent of a toss-up between America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, where contestants rival each other to emerge as America’s next drag superstar. The exuberant queens prove their chops in a slew of challenges that run the gamut from singing, dancing and sewing their own costumes, to lip syncing for survival.

Top Photo CorporationDrag queens are walking amongst the fashion set at runway shows.
Drag queens are walking amongst the fashion set at runway shows.

Beyond its frivolous front, the series, a year shy of a decade-long run, has earned its spot as a flag-bearer of drag culture. One would be hard-pressed to find a conversation on the topic that lacks a mention of Drag Race. Over seasons, its viewership has soared. Once merely a cult favourite amongst the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, the show is now a household name. Its latest (season 9) premiere clocked almost a million viewers, setting itself a new record viewership rating. And the third annual RuPaul’s DragCon — a platform for fans of Drag Race to meet and interact — in Los Angeles this year drew over 40,000 attendees, triple the number since the convention’s debut in 2015.

The series appeals to a vast demographic and has unexpectedly gained fandom even in the more conservative Asian countries. Last year, RuPaul’s Battle of the Seasons tour — an extravagant display of the multi-talented queens — added Singapore to its list of stopovers.

If the Drag Race has been around for nine years, why is it only now that it has captured the attention of the masses?

After eight seasons of airing on Logo, a somewhat niche channel that prioritises gay programming, the series moved to the more widely known VH1 last year, ushering in a new era for its queens. The show’s multi-hyphenate creator, host and judge, RuPaul, had in the past maintained that Drag Race could never be mainstream, considering that drag culture in itself is an antithesis to the conventional. But he might have to eat his words.

These days, drag queens have become cultural signposts of the world that we live in. Beneath the thick layers of makeup and boisterous personalities, drag has always been political in nature. It fights for the freedom of identity — a message that rings loud and clear in the culture’s unapologetic and defiant parody of womanhood.

“When you become the image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you could do,” RuPaul was once famously quoted as saying.

While there is no pinning this newfound acceptance for drag in mainstream culture to a singular driving force, a quick study of the society at large offers some explanation. More than ever before, people are lending their voices to the fight for greater acceptance of the LGBT community. These sentiments have echoed even more strongly since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and his implementation of a slew of discriminatory policies. Far from the days of cowering in the safety of underground bars and clubs portrayed in the cult documentary Paris is Burning (1990), the marginalised are today taking to the streets in a protest for equal rights.

In essence, drag encapsulates the zeitgeist of the time that we live in. Its resolute values of embracing individualism parallel today’s cultural conversation.

“Drag holds out the promise that gender, beauty, language and even family are ours to define and redefine, and in these political times that message isn’t just fabulous, it’s necessary for our survival,” said season 9 winner, Sasha Velour, in an interview earlier this year with Adweek.

The millennial obsession with social media has also fuelled the popularity of drag. While the winners from earlier years — before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram gripped generations of people — have faded out of the limelight, those from the recent seasons have been catapulted to fame post-competition on a tide of social media noise. It doesn’t hurt that drag queens make for quotable, viral memes.

Little surprise, then, that the fashion set, anchored in the same ideals, has opened its arms to what was once constrained to the underbelly of culture.

“It’s happening,” said American drag queen

Top Photo CorporationDrag queens propelled into the limelight on RuPaul's drag race have come a long way from the margins of cult cinema (Blue in the Face, 1995) and underground club scene.
Drag queens propelled into the limelight on RuPaul's drag race have come a long way from the margins of cult cinema (Blue in the Face, 1995) and underground club scene.

Miss Fame, in an interview with The New York Times late last year. “The doors have been opening.”

And indeed they have. The drag queens are a busy troupe these days. Besides becoming flamboyant additions at Fashion Week events — Marc Jacobs and Miu Miu, amongst others, have invited the queens as guests at their parties — publications and beauty brands are clamouring for interviews and collaborations with them. And the relationship is one that is only deepening with time — recently, Season 7 winner Violet Chacki was spotted stepping out in a custom-made pair of Miu Miu heels, signifying a close, personal relationship with the Italian luxury house.

In the crossover, designers like Jacobs and Jeremy Scott, supermodels Gigi Hadid, Joan Smalls and Chanel Iman, and celebrities Nicole Scherzinger, Khloe Kardashian and Jessica Alba — most of them fans of the series — have made guest judge appearances on Drag Race.

Beyond specific industries, the effect of drag culture on even the man on the street cannot be ignored. Terms coined by drag queens — “throwing shade”, “gurl” and “yas”, to list just a few examples — have become part of our urban dictionary. Adopted widely by millennials, they have changed the way the people of this generation speak. Elsewhere, makeup trends like “baking” — the technique of applying a thick layer of powder to brighten the skin — that have long been trade secrets of the drag community, have gone viral on social media and been picked up by celebrities like Kim Kardashian.

Drag culture has sashayed its way into the everyday. And the queens, it seems, are here to claim their thrones.