After three seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, 14 seasons of the US version and numerous spin-offs, drag has become more mainstream than ever.
We now have drag queens fronting fashion campaigns, appearing on catwalks and sitting front row at fashion weeks around the world.
It’s incredible to see gender diversity and non-conformity being given such a prominent platform and I absolutely love seeing my friends and contemporaries succeeding and going boldly where no drag queen has gone before.
That said, like a lash that isn’t quite glued down, something’s been nagging at me.
Almost across the board, there is a ‘type’ of queen that achieves this mainstream fashion success – namely those who are young, skinny and have a ‘natural beauty’.
There’s no doubt they’re also all incredibly talented and are certainly deserving, but these external qualities seem to factor into their success just much as their talent does.
As drag goes more mainstream, it is perhaps inevitable that the artists that find the greatest commercial success tend to conform to existing beauty standards.
The queens from Drag Race who are the most followed on Instagram aren’t always the winners – but often, they’re the queens with the smallest waists and the prettiest faces.
If you were looking at the fashion industry and music videos, you’d think they were looking to cast as many drag artists as possible. In actuality, it feels as though they’re looking for people who can sell gender diversion in a palatable way.
Ideally, without needing the corsetry or pads or the other tricks and staples of drag to look good in women’s clothes.
To re-iterate, it’s great to see gender non-conforming people being given a spotlight and I’m sure this is providing much-needed visibility for young queer people.
However, it seems more and more that the new gold standard for drag is becoming about commercial appeal, which I think misses a lot of the point and beauty of the art form.
When I first started, part of the draw of drag was the ability to transform into someone new, and the promise that anyone could do it and have value and worth.
This idea was reinforced in queer venues, where people of all shapes, ages and backgrounds took the stage and were celebrated for their artistry, humour, creativity or skill.
Drag Race, to a degree, furthered this idea. While the franchise still has a way to go towards true representation of the drag community (Drag Kings and more women who do drag please!), it does feel like it celebrates a diversity among styles of drag.
Cast lists tend to reflect a variety of approaches to the art form, and not every winner has been a skinny fashion queen – far from it. Winners aren’t just beautiful, they’re beautiful freaks like Sharon Needles, or beautiful weirdos like Jinkx Monsoon, or beautiful clowns like Bianca Del Rio.
I think, for me, a lot of the appeal of drag is about accessing a feeling of beauty or desirability that you have otherwise been denied. A lot of drag’s beginnings have roots in playing pretend – pretending you’re more successful, palatable, beautiful than you really are.
This play acting is powerful, making marginalised voices feel heard and giving everyone a chance to feel like a movie star or runway model.
But with drag going more mainstream, we need to remember these roots and not let our art form become gatekept and divided by a capitalist system that we used to be on the outside of.
Drag, at its best, is a huge melting pot of different skill sets, talents and approaches – I don’t want to see this diluted by fashion brands excluding the wonderful range of artists our community has to offer.
Where are the plus sized queens on the catwalk? I’d love to see undisputed fashion queens like Kandy Muse getting the same success as their skinnier contemporaries.
And Lawrence Chaney, the winner of Drag Race UK Season 2, is obviously booked and blessed, but doesn’t seem to have the same corporate endorsement as others from her season.
I think our art form and queerness in general would be more uplifted by showcasing this diversity. As it stands, we might be being used to sell a lot of the same old beauty standards that many of us got into drag to rail against.
I think as, drag artists, we need to be careful that our craft isn’t reinforcing the same gender norms and systems (cistems) that we should be fighting against.
I recognise that I have benefited from a lot of privilege myself – I have worked with fashion and makeup brands, done corporate appearances and events, and sold my image.
And of course, some of these opportunities will be because of how I look rather than my artistry, and it can be an easy trap to fall into to base your worth on how much commercial demand you have.
That is always going to be a losing game – time marches on. To quote Showgirls, ‘there’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you’.
How long can your appeal last when you’re participating in an industry that puts the emphasis on the shallowest parts of yourself?
So, I want to say to corporations and brands looking to get on board with the drag boom, please consider expanding your ideas about the art form – there’s more to it than skinny (mostly white) boys!
While I love seeing the platforming of gender non-conforming people, I would love even more to see a much fuller representation of our community.
And a message to all the drag artists that aren’t always feeling beautiful enough, skinny enough, young enough, successful enough – remember why you got into this in the first place.
I personally think the key to finding fulfilment in the art form (and I try to remind myself of this regularly!) is about creating exciting and meaningful work (whatever that means to you), not external validation.
It might not be in the mainstream, but there will always be a space for you in drag.
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