Is drag dead – or is it evolv­ing?

Pride Life Magazine - - CONTENTS -

“Drag cer­tainly isn’t dead, but it is chang­ing – and it needs to”

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 lip­sync­ing – 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!’”






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