Is drag dead? Steve Bustin takes a look at how the traditional drag scene is changing
Pride season seems to be drag queen season. Whether they’re adding colour to a parade, compèring cabaret stages or shaking buckets for good causes, you can’t take more than a couple of (carefully manicured) steps without tripping over one in their perilously high heels.
Drag has been part of the gay scene for decades, especially on the stages of gay venues. Twenty years ago any gay pub worth its lametta backdrop would stage regular drag shows, but now they seem to be few and far between, especially in the big cities.
Have we moved on from drag? Do we demand more from a night’s entertainment than a cock in a frock belting out (or even worse, lip-syncing to) Bassey or Barbra? Is drag dead?
“Drag certainly isn’t dead, but it is changing – and it needs to,” suggests Stephen Richards, better known as his drag alter ego Lola Lasagne. “But it’s changing because the gay scene is changing.
“The gay scene – our audiences – are getting younger and everything is about pop culture. When I started doing drag (24 years ago), we were celebrating the golden age of Hollywood and modelling ourselves on Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Now the new drag queens who are starting to perform are modelling themselves on Christine Aguilera and Britney Spears. Drag has changed because our role models are getting younger, too, but it isn’t any less relevant to the gay community.”
Dave Lynn is a drag legend, who’s appeared in everything from the film of Beautiful Thing and EastEnders to Channel 4’s Faking It, also agrees that drag is changing in response to changes in the gay scene:
“When I started out, almost 40 year ago, drag was very different, much more like Dames, all big and blowsy. It was a very different scene, too, more underground but packed. We were all lip-syncing – and then along came Lily Savage and everything changed as we all went live. Drag as an art form is constantly changing with fashion, going round in a circle, but it’s currently changing more than I’ve ever known it to change.
“I think it’s because of the recession – we’ve lost a lot of pubs as it’s become too expensive to go out, so there are fewer gigs out there for drag queens and it really sorts out the men from the boys as you’ve got to have a good act to get work, although we’re all a lot quieter than we used to be, bookings-wise.
“Drag has modernised, though. Drag is basically a send-up of what’s going on in films and the charts and the drag ‘look’ has become much more modern as the acts follow the look of people who are famous right now. I’m of the ‘old school’ of drag – but what people still want is funny and a bit of glamour.
Tim Redfern, aka Timberlina, could be described as coming from the “new school” of drag, with his “bearded lady” look – does he actually think of himself as a drag queen?
“Yes, I would describe myself as a drag queen but with a footnote that says I’m also a performance artiste, but I find pigeon-holing quite distracting. I’m an entertainer.
“I wasn’t really inspired to do drag by the gay scene or the drag queens you see on the scene, but I lived in New York for a couple of years and loved the very transgressive scene there, where it’s all about gender-play and performance art. I do, however, see myself as part of the British tradition of drag, performing somewhere like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London where there’s a real heritage as a performer’s pub.” (The “RVT” is most famously where Lily Savage kick-started her career).
Although his style of drag is very modern, Tim sees the drag queen’s role as very traditional. “You’re providing a spectacle and acting as a facilitator of the evening’s drinking and entertainment and that role is centuries old.
“I do find some of the old school drag queens quite staid and their acts carry a whiff of misogyny, but ultimately they should be offering something to the disenfranchised in our community. Historically, places like the RVT and the Black Cap in London are where the disenfranchised would end up, so that’s where the drag queens went to perform.”
Dave Lynn agrees that this new wave of cabaret drag is all part of the reinvention of the form.
“These drag cabaret acts are all originals. They do a different thing to me but basically it’s drag, just an alternative drag. Everyone is offering their version of drag – what you do is down to you. If you’re going on stage dressed like that, it doesn’t matter what you call yourself – and Dame Edna and Danny La Rue refused to use the term – but you’re still a drag queen.”
Stephen Richards isn’t so sure.
“I’m not sure whether these acts are really drag queens, even if they perform in drag. Some of them don’t have acts, they’re purely ‘personalities’. I’ve always felt that you don’t have to wear feathers and sing Hello Dolly to be a drag queen, you just have to be entertaining. It’s about the talent, not just the frock.”
So if it is to be declared alive and kicking, what – or who – is the future of drag?
“If I could tell you that, I’d be a rich man,” laughs Dave Lynn. “One thing I’ve always been amazed and a bit frightened of is that you never know what’s going to happen. Drag is changing, moving on. It may well go from pubs to the theatres and I think it’ll break through into mainstream TV in the next few years (although TV producers seem scared of drag queens – can’t think why!) Parts of drag may be dying but I have great hopes for the future.”
Tim Redfern would like to see something even more radical from the next generation of drag queens.
“There’s a need for drag queens to lead again. We lack concrete role models who are dissecting and commenting on what is happening. It feels like everything right now is about spectacle and doing the best version of a song but I want drag queens to address wider subjects like marginalisation, consumerism. It feels like there’s a lot less to react to and people don’t want to be seen as trouble makers, but it’s your role as a role model to challenge the status quo and mix things up a little.
“Drag isn’t dead, simply because people will always want to transgress, whether that’s in their bedroom or in a nightclub – and that goes right back to the Molly Houses in the 18th century.
“There will always be an underground swell that will find a way to scream from the highest windows: ‘We’re here, we’re queer – and we like wearing wigs!’”