How drag queens are paving their own way in the music industry
Wearing a sleek gold peplum dress and a teased black wig, Adam Sanders walked into his 2018 American Idol audition and immediately mesmerized judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan with a cover of "House of the Rising Sun." Sanders had tried out for the show before, making it as far as the Hollywood portion of the program, but this would be his first time on air as Ada Vox, a confident, unapologetic drag queen.
"Drag was my way of standing out," says Sanders, who would later break into the top 10 as Vox, the first queen on Idol to do so. "On top of that, it almost guaranteed me being on the show. Not only was I talented, but I also would have an aesthetic to provide something unique."
Sanders joins an ever-growing cohort of drag queens finding recent success in mainstream music, a path laid by RuPaul's Drag Race alums along with the show's namesake host, who set the precedent in 1993 when his influential debut album, Supermodel of the World, reached No. 109 on the Billboard 200. Twenty-five years later, dozens of queens are surpassing their idol, with more than 65 former Drag Race contestants having released their own single or album since the show started.
Sharon Needles kicked off the recent trend in 2013 with her dance-pop LP PG-13, debuting at No. 186 on the Billboard 200; Adore Delano followed in 2014, breaking records as one of few POC queens to find chart success with an album release when Till Death Do Us Party hit No. 59 — the highest ever for a Drag Race alum; and Willam broadened the field when Shartistry in Motion topped the Comedy Albums chart in 2015. Then there's Alaska Thunderf—k, a drag queen comedian whose two albums — Anus in 2015 and Poundcake in 2016 — have cracked the top five on both the Electronic/Dance and Heatseekers charts.
With songs like "Your Makeup Is Terrible," "This Is My Hair," and "The T," Alaska favors club-ready jams filled with Auto-Tune, witty retorts, and references to life as a drag queen. Justin Honard, Alaska's given name, knows his music isn't traditional. While it's common for pop stars to sing about "love and getting laid," he's mostly passionate about drag. Take his single "Hieeee," in which Honard lays down drag queen rules like "The use of flash photography is strictly mandatory," "Be kind to your entertainers," and most importantly, "Tipping is compulsory."
"If that means that only drag fans listen to my music, then so be it," Honard tells EW of his lyrics. "It's for them."
Like Alaska, Blair St. Clair (real name: Andrew Bryson) also dabbles in music. Last Friday, he dropped his debut LP, Call My Life, in conjunction with the season 10 finale of Drag Race. Bryson gained a reputation as a Broadway queen on the program, but he knew show tunes wouldn't sell as well as dance music. So he embraced mainstream pop with his single "Now or Never," which helped propel his album to No. 1 on the iTunes Dance chart within days of release. "It's about taking back that power in the club and making it your own," Bryson says.
Drag Race queens wield a strong influence over their fans. With more than 1.2 million total viewers per episode in season 10 and 50,000 attendees at RuPaul's DragCon this past May, Drag Race devotees rival the enthusiasm of Lady Gaga's Little Monsters and Beyoncé's BeyHive. However, despite guaranteed support, few queens are signed to major record labels.
Cue Producer Entertainment Group, the management home for Alaska, Blair, and the majority of drag queen musical artists. Jacob Slane, partner and co-talent manager at PEG, says the company created an indie record label out of necessity to release client Sharon Needles' debut album five years ago. Major record labels wouldn't meet with queens — and they still won't, Slane says.
"Drag music is not a niche or novelty category," he adds. "We are proving that it has a valid place alongside all good music."
While queer pop artists are just now breaking through publicly by way of Troye Sivan, Halsey, Sam Smith, and Janelle Monáe, the idea of a 6-foot drag queen with a deep male voice isn't an easy sell to major labels. According to Keith Caulfield, Billboard's senior director of charts, labels are typically evaluating talent via the standard pop-star mold. "We can maybe market someone who we found on YouTube who has the right look," he says of the industry's thinking on the topic, "but what do we do with a drag queen that may not have a really easily digestible Top 40 look?"
Take Trixie Mattel: On paper, she's a success, with both 2017's Two Birds and 2018's One Stone cracking the Americana/Folk top 20. However, Brian Firkus, the man under Mattel's bleach-blond wig, often feels "invisible" in the country scene, despite playing 2,000-seat venues and receiving support from country star Kacey Musgraves.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword because being a drag queen playing the guitar, people are like, ‘What the hell is that?' People pay attention,"Firkus says. "On second thought, the country world isn't famous for being open-minded."
Trixie isn't the only Drag Race queen expanding beyond dance-pop. Season 5 winner Jinkx Monsoon recently released The Ginger Snapped, an indie rock, cabaret, and ska album. While the project hit Billboard's charts, Jinkx, born Jerick Hoffer, is focused on the bigger picture. There's little separation between Monsoon's and Hoffer's personalities today, which is partly why Jinkx doesn't identify as a drag queen making drag music, but a singer making music.
"Having to bring up the fact that the music is made by a drag queen at all is just a way for the heteronormative mainstream music industry to suppress us or categorize us into a niche category," Monsoon says.
Like drag queens, most pop stars today have an aesthetic or signature style. There's Ariana Grande with the high ponytail, Beyoncé with the glittering leotard, and Taylor Swift with the high-waisted shorts. Firkus says Trixie is no different — a diva with "cosmetics and high heels and corsets and padded bras."
"Really what we're generalizing is a person who uses costumes to sort of facilitate a certain type of performance," he says.
Sanders' line of thinking is similar to Firkus'. Though he's the same talented performer in and out of drag, it's his persona as Vox that gives him a visual boost. With his American Idol days behind him, he's now gearing up to record original music as his drag persona. Though he may be at a bit of a disadvantage not having the Drag Race name behind him, Sanders is confident he'll be successful as a mainstream drag queen.
"It's all a matter of perception," Sanders says. "I'm going to release whatever feels right and what I think is going to spread a good message about my artistry and what I believe."
Note: EW reached out to numerous queens and queer artists for inclusion in this piece, though not all responded to our request for comment. <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/ew.com/playlist/5EqFdnCiOItSJocYLJgzQI" width="500" height="380" frameborder="0" class="" scrolling="no" allowfullscreen="" resize="0" replace_attributes="1" name=""></iframe>