A group of drag artists explain why they are revamping queer culture
The inspiration for Miss Malice’s drag act, she says, is “lesbian pulp novel covers, 60s B-movie heroines and mid-century working-class femmes”. One of her most popular performances is her take on Drew Barrymore’s character in the 90s teen horror movie Scream. “She dies in the first 10 minutes of the film, but I created a revision that imagines her living and revenging herself against her harasser,” she explains. In another performance, she lip-syncs to Connie Francis’ 1961 single Where the Boys Are, furtively reads a lesbian pulp novel on stage, undergoes a transformation and ends up lip-syncing instead to the Gossip’s Where the Girls Are.
Miss Malice is a female drag queen. While women have been drag kings for decades – women performing as men – female queens are a new-ish addition to the scene, who are peeling away layers of gender identity. It’s a deliciously complicated web to untangle: these are women, performing as what would have been (historically, at least) a man performing as a woman. These female queens are traversing gender boundaries as well as putting on outrageously entertaining performances, often in the face of prejudice and misogyny, even within queer culture.
Holestar is a London drag queen who has been performing as the “tranny with a fanny” for the last 14 years. “It’s awkward terminology, because of the policing of language,” she says, aware that the phrase, which she conceived as “a funny little camp thing”, is loaded in a way that it was not when she first began. “When I first got into this, ‘tranny’ was what everyone would call each other as a term of endearment, not a negative slur. Now it’s a little bit different. I don’t want to offend other people and it won’t be cool for everybody, but I’ve been doing this for longer than anyone else as a female drag queen and in some ways I’ve got the right to do it, because of that longevity.”
After training as an artist and earning a masters in fine art at Central St Martins in London, Holestar moved to Vienna for a while to become what she calls, laughing, “a decadent artist”. She is also a dominatrix. “I was involved in this big Aids benefit they throw every year, as a dominatrix character, and I pinched a bicycle from somewhere and was riding around on the dancefloor, and the DJ said, ‘Who’s this mad British bitch?’” She was invited back to be a regular MC and it was, in a way, her first foray into performance. As an artist, she says, she was thinking a lot about gender and the spaces in between what society deems normal: “I kept seeing lots of really naff drag queens,” she remembers, “who I found were being really vile about women, saying things like, ‘Ooh, I can smell fish, there must be lesbians in the corner’ and stuff like that. I started thinking, hang on, you’re a bloke in a frock, you came from a vagina, who are you to perpetuate this idea that being female is wrong?”
She was also thinking about feminism, and what it had done for the idea of femininity. “Feminism did wonderful things for women, obviously, but it killed a lot of glamour, and it killed a lot of over-the-top, ridiculous campness. And these drag queens – Shirley Bassey, Dolly Parton – kind of kept it alive. At the time, there were no ‘extra’ women. Now you’ve got your Towie-type people and your girls with the mad eyebrows who wear more makeup than I do on a daily basis, but then it was all very gender-neutral, very androgynous. As a queer woman, in my day-to-day life, I’m quite butch, but I like camp, I like over-the-top. I wanted to reclaim all that to the female body. I wanted to bring that back and say: ‘Why can’t women do this? Why can’t women be ridiculous and camp?’”
In order to talk about female drag queens, though, there is a linguistic minefield to navigate. For a while, female drag queens were known as “faux queens” or “bio [biological] queens”. Some find the “faux” offensive because it implies a falseness to the performance, as if their drag could not possibly be real drag. Some find “bio” offensive due to the implication that a woman is only a woman if she was born with a vagina; some prefer it and choose to identify in that way. One London queen I spoke to used “female-bodied”; over email, Miss Malice said that people she knows in Brooklyn, where she is based, are moving away from that phrase. “What does it mean to have a female body anyway? Trans women have female bodies, and female bodies can come in many forms. Using ‘cis’ is better and simpler, I think,” she wrote. There was one thing on which everyone I spoke to agreed, though: just “drag queen” is fine.
Crossdressing has existed for as long as dressing has existed. The origins of the term “drag queen” are disputed – some say it’s a Victorian reference to dresses dragging on the floor, while another theory connects it to the Elizabethan slang “quean” (“strumpet” or “prostitute”). In the excellent 2011 book Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City, the writer Tim Lawrence discusses the first queer masquerade ball – in which men and women dressed up and same-sex couples could attend together – which was held in Harlem in 1869. He points out that, by the end of the 1920s, drag balls were being held in mainstream venues in New York and attracting crowds of up to 6,000 people. By the 50s and 60s, television had brought drag queens into the living room. But, until the 90s, drag culture largely involved men, usually gay men, performing as women – or performing “femininity”, at least.
Right now, drag is enjoying an unprecedented level of mainstream success, from the sizeable audience that the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race commands – the extent of its straight male viewership was parodied on Saturday Night Live this year – to the popularity of makeup trends such as contouring, which originated in drag culture. RuPaul’s Drag Con, a convention in Los Angeles, attracted 40,000 people over the course of a weekend this year; it even had a children’s area.
Where cis women come into the picture is less clear. San Francisco held its first Faux Queen Pageant in 1995. Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters performed as a drag queen at the city’s legendary club night Trannyshack in the late 90s, and CNN reported on the scene in 2000, interviewing queens called Gotta Slott, Wendi Plains and Miss Lady Multi. But when RuPaul was asked on Twitter last year when a female queen would appear on Drag Race, he replied: “That show already exists. It’s called #MissUniverse.” A trans woman, Peppermint, subsequently reached the final of the most recent season, but still, it’s fair to say that female queens are not yet mainstream.
One criticism of drag is that it is misogynistic, that it mocks women and femininity by exaggerating them and turning them into the butt of the joke. Both Miss Malice and Holestar are adamant that doing drag is absolutely, fundamentally, a celebration of femininity. “Drag allowed me to confront a world telling me that femme was weak, that femininity was frivolous, silly, not to be taken seriously. That smart or feminist women don’t wear long nails or lipstick,” says Miss Malice.
Holestar says she had to fight against those misconceptions from men and women, particularly when she started out. “I had a lot of commentary from ardent feminists and certain lesbian groups going: ‘Well, you’re just catering to the male gaze,’” she says. “No, I’m not. Just because I’m wearing lipstick and being ridiculously camp, how is that sexualising my gender? I’m having fun with it, I’m excited about this. Questioning that so negatively is completely baffling.” She is clearly delighted that she makes the ever-blurry question of gender identity even more blurry. “People see the signifiers of a drag queen – big lashes, big mannerisms, campness – and they think it’s a bloke. I ask them to look a bit deeper. Look at my nose, look at my jawline, look at my hands, look at my tits. You can work it out. I want people to question the middle ground. I want them to let go of the binaries of race, of gender, of class, of everything, and just say: ‘It doesn’t matter’. That’s why I still do it.”
At the Royal College of Art in Battersea, south London, Victoria Sin is showing me around Narrative Reflections on Looking, an MA showcase of four videos in which Sin, dressed in glamorous evening gowns, a fake nipple peering out from one side, face painted in thick drag makeup, narrates a story about desire and what it means to consume an image. “For me, drag is a space where, after four years of doing it, it’s made me realise I’m not a woman,” they tell me, explaining that they choose they/them pronouns and identify as non-binary. On the wall, in a perspex case, is a facewipe heavy with the remnants of mascara and lipstick, one of many Sin has saved from various drag shows and performances. “They’re a relic of the performance, or the labour that was done that evening. When you put them all together, the amount of labour that goes into doing drag – performing femininity, even – becomes very clear.”
So, is it a case of performing femininity, rather than “doing drag”? “I think the two are interchangeable. What’s important to make clear is that, for me, drag is not performing a woman, drag is performing femininity,” says Sin. A person can be a woman and not be at all feminine, they say. Sin’s own gender identity has been shaped by this thinking. “Through the process of regularly performing and embodying femininity, it made me think about how I do those things every day. Now I’m doing them less every day. I don’t wear makeup any more. I don’t usually wear dresses. Today, I’m wearing shoes that are a little bit femme-y for my daily attire, which I quite enjoy. When I do it now, it’s almost like a little treat.” Sin first became interested in drag at 17, working in a restaurant, where they grew up in Canada. “All the wait staff were gay. I knew I was gay, but I never had any window into gay culture. Every Wednesday and Sunday there were drag shows at this one bar we went to, and it was my first close encounter with drag. I became really obsessed with it.” They all identified as men, Sin recalls, but one is now a trans woman. “That’s the nature of drag. It’s a testing ground.”
After moving to London, Sin started to run club nights for friends and would dress in drag, get on the bar and dance. The first time they performed as a drag queen for an audience, however, was at the Glory pub in east London. “I still do the performance I did the first night, which is get on stage and make a sandwich.” What’s in it? “Butter and that cheese you unwrap. I give it to the audience to eat.” It was seeing Holestar in a nightclub that made Sin realise female drag queens existed. “I was completely floored. She was really doing it when nobody around her was doing it. She’s often quite vocal about the discrimination she’s experienced for performing and existing.”
It’s true that the backlash against female queens has been sustained, and, at times, distressing. Online discussions about whether cis females should be allowed on Drag Race, for example, usually descend into accusations of “cultural appropriation”. “I mean …” sighs Sin. “First of all, whose culture am I appropriating? Is it gay culture? Because I’m gay. Is it the culture of men? Because last time I checked, drag is performing things that are historically associated with women.” Sin says they are doing fewer drag performances now, using drag in their art instead. “I’d rather make films or write about my experiences. Every time I had some exposure, I was getting so much backlash. I was spending so much time responding to the online trolling. I’d say, look, drag is not a male culture, theatrical crossdressing has been happening for hundreds of thousands of years. Ever since gender existed, people have been subverting gender.”
Holestar is even more frank about the criticism she has faced, both from cis gay men who object to the very existence of her act, and from the “policing of language” she has experienced within her own community. “I want you to question what I’m doing and who I am, but I also want you to be entertained,” she says. For her, the overemphasis on the academic side of drag has taken the fun of subversion away. “Academia’s got its place, but the thing is, it’s so snooty. It’s not inclusive. It’s saying: ‘Oh, you don’t understand because you’ve not read Judith Butler.’ Bollocks!” she shouts. “Art and expression and performance should be for everybody. Yes, there is a political message underlying what I’m doing, but, actually, drag is fun. It should be fun. Can we not just have fun with it and play with it?”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Lead Image: Miss Malice (left); Holestar. Composite: Elliot Wish/Marc Abe