Get your reading glasses out
Thanks to the great tradition of RuPaul-inspired-by-Paris-Is-Burning, we already know reading is fundamental. And EW is opening the library on a wealth of queer history via eight exclusive spreads from Simon Doonan’s upcoming hardcover book Drag: The Complete Story. From radical drag and trans activists like Marsha P. Johnson to contemporary trailblazers like RuPaul and Bianca Del Rio, Drag chronicles the rise of the fabulous art form from ancient Egypt and Rome through the pop cultural domination of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Before Drag goes on sale beginning Sept. 17 (all author proceeds will go to the Ali Forney Center for LGBTQ homelessness), check out EW’s exclusive excerpts in the spreads ahead.
Comedy queens slay the game
“Comedy drag zeroes in on our ambivalence about maternal control, and lets rip. According to Camille Paglia, men ‘have only a brief season of exhilarating liberty between control by their mothers and control by their wives’. She notes that transvestism is far more common among men ‘because it originates in the primary relation of mother and son’. Since the drag queens of comedy historically have been mostly heterosexual men, one suspects there might well be an element of misogynistic revenge at play.”
RuPaul reigns supreme
“Whether finger popping, reading, mopping, gagging, voguing, talking to the hand, werking, twerking, throwing shade, serving genius and overness, being legendary, or simply giving realness, the black drag queen is an enduring icon of fascination and inspiration. She generously and magnanimously enriches the culture, often receiving comparatively little in return, and we must all bow down before her. #gratitude.
The Medusan ferocity that characterizes glamour drag queens is amplified in the black drag queen, and augmented with unique black irony and wit. The black drag queen is both comedic and glamorous. The black drag queen is fierce.”
Black drag does it better
“Citizens with marginal status have always contributed disproportionately to the culture. Jews, with their Yiddish, gave us chutzpah, schlepping, schmatta, kvetching. And so it is with black drag, only more so. Black drag goes way beyond a list of words. That fierce attitude has not only come to define contemporary drag, but has also infected pop culture and fashion and style. It is the great gift of the black drag queen.
Why is black drag such a rich source? If creativity and originality is a function of marginal status, then the black drag queen wins the jackpot. Jason was marginalized by his blackness and gayness, but Kitty Kunt was black, gay, trans and homeless. She was marginalized from society, the gay community and her own community. To be black, gay and en travesti? Kitty Kunt and her sisters hit the marginal motherlode.”
Radical drag shakes up culture
“In 1870 a man named Ernest Boulton, a flamboyant gay whose drag name was Stella and who turned tricks to pay the rent, donned a cherry-coloured silk frock and headed off to London’s Royal Strand Theatre. Here he cavorted openly with a frock-wearing male companion named Fanny. At some point Stella needed to pee, whereupon he skipped off to the ladies’ loo, whereupon he was arrested on the charge of sodomy.
Stella was a reckless and fabulous character who broke every Victorian taboo and whose tabloid scandal riveted nineteenth-century Britain. The most sizzling revelations concerned Stella’s masquerade as Lady Stella Pelham-Clinton, wife of Tory MP Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton. Lord Arthur was subpoenaed to testify but committed suicide, allegedly, before submitting to this ordeal (his family claimed scarlet fever).”
Radical drag continues
“The uptight Victorian public could not believe that anyone, let alone a middle-class boy from Maida Vale, might possess the unmitigated gall to flounce about the West End of London in a frock, chirping lewd suggestions at passers-by. Stella’s lawyer had no trouble persuading the naive jury that his client was merely a high-spirited youth with a taste for theatrical costume, and he got off. Stella fled to New York and became a successful female impersonator. At some point he returned to England and died in reduced circumstances, aged 56.
Stella’s ‘f— you’ to Victorian society lives on as a beacon of rebellion and a great example of the intrinsically subversive nature of drag. Even when done in jest, the donning of a frock or a drag king suit is a provocation that automatically messes with the stale conventions of any society.
Stella’s saga took place well over a century and a half ago. Anti-cross-dressing laws persisted long after her death. New trends in dress during the twentieth century made it hard to prosecute offenders, but the intolerant laws remained on the books and were used as a flexible tool to harass masculine women and anyone identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming. As a result, drag, unless performed on a stage by an allegedly straight entertainer, remained in the shadows throughout the first half of the twentieth century.”
When private lives becomes public (and political)
“Like followers of an oppressed religion, those who cross-dress have frequently been forced to worship in private. Casa Susanna was a transvestite retreat in the Catskills – a safe space long before the term was invented – run by Susanna Valenti and her wife, who conveniently ran the local wig store. Fifty years after this picture was taken, the secret documentation of Casa Susanna ended up in a Manhattan flea market. Robert Swope and Michel Hurst published the images into a book. Without this chance encounter, the radical and courageous secret of Casa Susanna might have been lost to history.
When, in the late 1960s, the counter-culture began to bloom – black power, gay lib, women’s lib – drag followed suit. With the gays for solidarity, drag finally had the support it needed to hit the streets and to walk tall, sort of. Harassment and discrimination continued, but this time the dragsters fought back, birthing new and creative genres of drag activism. Three radical drag groups – the Cockettes, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the Radical Faeries – emerged from the political turmoil.”
Look queens serve lewks
“Look queens are glamour drag queens who generate shock and awe through extreme levels of cosmetic artistry. They are supermodels times a billion. They take that shimmering feminine visual realm that Brubach talked about, and magnify it for the age of Insta selfies and social media. There remains, however, a distinct whiff of the Medusa about those look queens. Fierceness is still very much in the house. With the aid of haute couture drag and never-before-seen applications of makeup, those affable young Drag Race contestants and others transform themselves from fresh-faced gays, barely out of their teens, into lethal goddesses, terrifying termagants, wicked queens and domineering viragos. It’s not just lady power, it’s lady power through paint and creativity. And politics are on the menu. As we will see in Comedy Drag and Radical Drag, this visual feminine realm is now infused with a political empowerment that puts tucking and contouring cheek by jowl with #resist and #metoo.
A visit to DragCon reveals that Medusa may have moved way beyond the previously exclusive grasp of gay males. The look queens’ earnest focus on cosmetic artistry has helped to expunge any sordid and sinister overtones that linger around the word ‘drag’. This change is historic and momentous. By constructing a creative, welcoming environment for cis females and young kids, RuPaul and her cast of mesmerizing divas have created a glamour drag for all.”