Dividing And Redefining: How RuPaul’s Drag Race Has Changed The Face Of British Drag
There’s no ignoring it: drag is having a real moment right now.
Whether it’s in advertising campaigns, in high-profile music videos, on the big screen and now on mainstream television, it seems there’s a drag queen everywhere you look right now, and the phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down.
At the centre of it all, of course, is RuPaul’s Drag Race, the reality TV juggernaut which recently wrapped filming on its 12th season in the US.
Much has already been written about Drag Race’s impact on queer culture, but not necessarily the drag scene itself, particularly here in the UK, where – as it turns out – the effects of the show’s popularity are undeniable.
The colourfully-named Dr Bev Ballcrusher has been doing drag in Cardiff and all over the UK for the last 25 years, and has noticed a new generation becoming interested in drag since the popularity of RuPaul’s show began to soar.
“Younger people are very much exploring drag now. Before, it was always the old queen in the corner, but now it’s just everyone,” she says. “It used to be that you would see a drag show on a Friday or a Sunday night at a local gay bar, and that would be it. But these days, you go into any mainstream LGBT venue, and there’s a form of drag on nearly every night.”
One queen from this new generation is Birmingham-based Yshee Black, who admits to having found the drag scene “scary” before the fourth season of Drag Race opened her eyes, and she began “relating” to the queens on screen.
Yshee recalls: “I feel like for the reality TV generation, who’ve grown up on Big Brother and X Factor, RuPaul’s Drag Race was like that, but for the drag world.
“So, when things started heating up around seasons four, five, six and seven, the show gained more traction and drag became a bigger thing as well. Young kids really started to blow up, and American drag has... not necessarily changed UK drag, but it has changed the way young people see drag and approach it.”
This new generation of drag performers also come with a new aesthetic, more similar to the glossy and edgy American contestants of RuPaul’s Drag Race than would typically be associated with more traditional UK queens.
Ophelia Balls is a staple on the Newcastle drag scene, having started her career more than 30 years ago.
Despite initially resisting Drag Race, Ophelia began noticing changes to the Newcastle scene around 2014, admitting she soon began watching the show as a way of “doing her homework” and “catching up”.
“Drag to me at one point, was always a man dressed as a woman, in a sparkly costume, with as many feathers, and as much glitter as you can put on your face. But that is now not the case,” she explains. “I used to be quite adamant on that. If people had a rip in their tights or if they didn’t wear false boobs, I’d think ‘that’s not right’.”
Interestingly, she says that the new generation of queens inspired by Drag Race have actually influenced her own approach to drag
Ophelia reveals: “In the last 10 years, we’ve seen people who are lip syncing for their life, we’ve seen people who can go to a local high street shop and wear a top and a pair of leggings rather than a costume with feathers and sequins – and you don’t have to be a man to do drag, that has also changed. Everyone is entitled to do drag, and I respect that totally. It’s a big, big change, you know? But a good change!”
Bev agrees that younger queens have helped “challenge the established drag”, including herself, commenting: “Two years ago, I wasn’t wearing padding. I am now – and I’m glad I am too, because I’m a fat hooker and padding makes me feel better!
“I look at these queens and I’m going ‘oh I quite like what they’re doing there, I like the way they’ve done that shading, I might nick that’, or I see other queens doing it and I think ‘well if they’re doing it I can too’. Because I’m a sheep!”
As Yshee notes, Drag Race has become “embedded in LGBT culture”, which means drag is more accessible than ever before, leading to a wave of queens like herself, who only started performing in drag after being inspired by the show.
Among them is Gladys Duffy, one of the newer queens on Newcastle’s drag scene, who won the local Drag Idol competition in March 2018.
Confessing she’s “beyond obsessed” with Drag Race, Gladys claims that as a result of the show’s popularity “every queer person that likes to go out now wants to be a drag queen or a drag king”.
In particular, she’s noticed an increase in women performing in drag, either as drag kings, or as “faux queens” or “afab queens” (standing for “assigned female at birth”), performing as their own female alter-egos.
Gladys enthuses: “There are so many afab queens, so many kings – and not even just queens and kings, there are now just drag entities and drag creatures, who will just say ‘there’s nothing you can define me as, but I still get into the same make-up you do, I wear outfits and wigs and nails, and I perform’.”
However, while many traditional queens have welcomed the new wave of drag performers to the UK scene with open arms, others have observed a divide, with many older queens reluctant to embrace the new generation.
Lucy Fur is another Cardiff-based queen, who has been doing drag for six years.
Initially starting on the local drag scene, she eventually removed herself from it, admitting that she was put off by old-fashioned attitudes held by certain queens she was working alongside. Her work is now mostly online, collaborating with BBC Sesh and making her own comedy videos.
“Before I started doing drag [in Cardiff], it was all old-school queens, all very end-of-the-pier style of drag – which I like, I think that’s cool and there’s a place for that,” Lucy says.
“Cardiff’s become a place where there’s still old-school drag, and now there’s new, up-and-coming weird drag, and I think a lot of that is to do with Drag Race and things like that. But I kind of stepped away from the actual drag scene, it was just too much drama and ‘you’re not a real drag queen, because you don’t do this’ and ‘women can’t be drag queens’ and ‘blah blah blah’. I was like, ‘I’m fucking done with this, I can’t deal with it’.”
She adds: “There’s a massive divide between old-school drag and new-school drag. In Cardiff, I know there’s been a lot of arguments about people who identify as women being drag queens, that’s been a bit of a hoop-la in Cardiff, which is ridiculous, because when you’re a drag queen, you’re pretending to be a woman so… why can’t women pretend to be women? That’s so backwards...”
This is a mindset that fellow Cardiff queen Bev clearly doesn’t hold, insisting that after 25 years doing drag, she thinks it’s “brilliant that there are so many different artforms of drag”.
“It’s not just about myself, you know, in sequins and feathers belting out a bit of Shirley Bassey,” Bev says. “I was very lucky when I started, the lovely Dave Lynn took me under his wing, and gave me quite a few tips and suggestions. One of the best ones was ‘always look after those coming after you, because they’ll look after you when you’re on the way down!’.”
On the other hand, she does say that some younger queens can be “dismissive of those who’ve come before”.
“There are drag [queens] that have worked for years, and all of a sudden, because they’re not lip syncing, they’re not contouring their face and they’ve not got hip padding, they’re not worthy,” she laments.
Yshee has noticed similar divides on the Birmingham scene, revealing: “A lot of older queens who’ve been doing it for 20-odd years, they can get a bit angry or a bit annoyed, and I’ve seen a few of them lash out on Facebook and say ‘death-dropping doesn’t make you a good performer’ or ‘lip syncing doesn’t make you a good performer’. And that’s very true… but it’s also disregarding that queen’s performance talent.
“Some of the older queens are just a bit annoyed and envious that drag has gone mainstream… because they were doing it when it wasn’t mainstream, and they’ve been fighting their battles a lot harder. But with that said, I feel, they should sort of accept and join in, because we’re not excluding anyone.”
“I worry that there’s a lot of traditionalism in the UK drag scene,” Gladys agrees. “But the problem with traditionalism is that it’s kind of like where you get old people talking about ‘oh when I was your age we had to go to do national service’... and you shouldn’t be wishing that on the current generation.
“I think there’s a beauty in how drag has grown and become more mainstream and accepted. I worry that there’s a stigma of ‘good old British drag’ and ‘we should keep it the way it is and not adapt and grow’.
“There’s room for everyone, and the only people who don’t think there’s enough room are the ones taking up two seats.”
Ophelia says: “At one point, I might have knocked somebody or criticised somebody – if I were in a position to do that, in a competition – for certain things... but now I think that’s their interpretation of how they want to do a performance or how they want to do a look. And who am I to tell that person how they should do it? So I’ve come to adapt.
“I know there’s a big age difference between me and some of the people that are upcoming, but I I respect the youth of today for what they want to do, and that’s how I gain that respect back. And I’ve got friends who are faux queens, faux kings, girls who are dressing up in drag – I respect if people want to do a performance or just a look, that is all now [valid].”
One other outcome of Drag Race’s popularity that both Lucy and Bev have noticed is that for those whose interest in the artform begins and ends with the reality series, they have a rather limited view of what constitutes drag.
Unlike the other queens, Lucy doesn’t count herself a Drag Race fan (although she does watch the show), suggesting the show has created “the idea of ‘well that’s not drag, because it’s not what I’ve seen on Drag Race’.”
“I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘why don’t you lip sync?’, and it’s like, ‘I just don’t’,” she says. “I don’t have to, I don’t find that entertaining, personally. I’ve seen some people do some really cool shit with lip syncing, but I’m not one of them... but they’re just flat out, ‘no that’s not drag’.
“I know queens that are really fucking cool and doing really interesting things, or just really funny things, but they’re not getting the same attention because they don’t look like the girls on Drag Race. Their drag is more punk, and more messy, but in a cool way.
“I think that’s something that’s really fucked up about the way Drag Race has affected the UK scene, because that’s what UK drag is, really. That’s what it should be. But I feel like that’s being lost with ‘oh I’m in a beautiful sequined gown and I’m floating across the stage in perfectly-proportioned padding and my make-up is stunning and my wig is perfect’.”
Bev adds: “I have so many friends who wont talk to me about drag, because they’ve seen Drag Race a couple of times, and so everyone’s an expert.
“But then those people also tend to expect all drag performers to be able to lip sync and do death drops on stage – if I do a death drop on stage, I’ll have a heart attack! That’s not my thing.”
Gladys says: “You’ve got to accept that drag is literally a multi-faceted entity. I don’t think you could say anything isn’t drag these days.
“If you want to look a certain way and have these expensive garnishes – it’s not a meal – but you know what I mean, if you want to have beautiful expensive gowns, that’s you! And if you want to wear a sheet of cotton with a neck-hole cut through it, you do that too. If people like what you do, they will like your sheet of cotton.”
With the first series of RuPaul’s Drag UK looming, the queens have varying feelings about how the show will play out, as well as the effect they anticipate it having on the British drag scene.
Praising the new line-up, Yshee explains: “There are a lot of queens on there who are cabaret artists rather than lip sync artists, and I think a lot of people just assumed that because it’s Drag Race, it’d only be lip sync artists.
“What that shows is that the old-school UK drag and cabaret singers are welcome on Drag Race UK, and that puts to bed a lot of feuds between older cabaret singers and younger lip syncers.”
Bev adds: “There’s somebody from all over the place, and I think that’s very representative of the UK as well because drag in the South and drag in the North are very, very different.”
However, Ophelia has admitted her first impression is that Drag Race UK seems to be “RuPaul trying to put the UK queens into a USA box”, saying she thinks the line-up “isn’t a full portrayal of UK queens”.
“I’m still very excited, but I feel as though Drag Race UK will be following the USA rules,” Ophelia says. “I’ll just [mention] Charlie Hides. In that lip sync, she didn’t do anything, because she’s not that type of queen. But that’s RuPaul’s rules, that’s how RuPaul wants to run his competition. The last two will lip sync for their life. And if you don’t want to, or can’t, then you’re not going to win.”
Lucy has also pointed out the lack of traditional “camp” UK drag on the line-up, singling out competitor Baga Chipz as the only queen who would fall into this category.
“There’s no one there who’s, like, proper old-school, like British drag was in the 1980s. And that’s something that’s still very prevalent in the UK,” she adds.
Similarly, she’s disappointed that the more alternative side of British drag isn’t being represented, noting: “UK drag is fucking weird, and I love that. I have seen some stuff go on – even in Cardiff – some really cool stuff and some really, like, ‘wow, what the fuck is happening?’ stuff. The queens that are on Drag Race UK, they’re cool and stuff, but they’re not that.”
“Hopefully they will decide to do other things [in future series],” Yshee says. “If they had a drag king on the show, that would show the mainstream what drag kings are about and how they work, in the same way that early seasons of Drag Race showed the mainstream about different styles of drag queens.
“I think the world’s ready now to be changed up. So hopefully, somewhere down the line they’ll mix things up and make things a bit more punky.”
“The variety of drag in the UK is endless, this is just a snapshot of it,” Bev agrees. “It’s not a full-encompassing picture, but then it’d be difficult to do that with just 10 queens.”
On what the future holds for UK drag, Gladys believes Drag Race UK will be a force for good, saying: “US fans have been commenting on it, saying it looks less polished… which it is! The US queens have a particular focus on being immaculate and beautiful and pageantry and having the best looks. We aren’t about that, we’re all about personality with drag, and I think that’s already coming across.
“I think it’ll have a very positive effect on UK drag. More people are going to be brought into the forefront, so more will apply, and it’s going to elevate drag in the UK in the same way it’s elevated it in the US. And I can’t wait for that to come into effect because we have so many amazing performers here.
“For a lot of people on the UK scene, working with the Drag Race queens is the height of what your career can be at the moment, which is brilliant. But you’re an opening act – and one day, we will be the ones touring.”
“Drag Race has taken drag from the back of a smoky bar in a rundown area of a city, to right at the forefront of top cabaret,” Bev says. “Not just on the LGBT scene, but across the board.
“You’re seeing drag queens on regular TV, as quiz panelists and on dance shows, and it’s making it mainstream. And if that’s happening, it’s helping make the LGBT community mainstream, and helping towards the fight for equality.
“And it all goes back to all those years ago with Stonewall. It’s always a drag [queen]. We’re the vocal ones, you see, we can’t keep quiet.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK launches on 3 October on BBC Three.
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