Has drag culture now crossed over into the mainstream? And what do acts like Carlisle-based Dee Licious think of this shift? His Film Her Movie’s Lauren investigates.
The UK has always had an unusual relationship with drag. It may have been intertwined with pop culture and even holiday traditions for centuries, but it wasn’t until the LGBTQ+ movement of the early 2000’s that it truly became more accepted in mainstream popular culture.
In 2009 over on the other side of the Atlantic, RuPaul’s Drag Race first aired on the LGBTQ+ network, Logo. In an interview on Nightline at the time, RuPaul Charles confessed he felt like drag would never be mainstream, and described how TV network execs had laughed and failed to take his dream seriously. Within a year, Drag Race has doubled its audience and was starting to make waves – and now in 2019, the UK has finally got its own series of Drag Race, showcasing some of its own homegrown talent.
And yet, the UK has enjoyed drag entertainment now for years, with drag queens a familiar staple of our Saturday night TV for decades. In the 1960s, Dame Edna Everage rose to stardom with her pastel coloured hair and outlandish glasses, adopting the whole country her “Possums” and inviting us along to her regular tongue-in-cheek chat shows and performances throughout the 70s and 80s. Through the 80s and 90s, Lily Savage built on that tradition, having started her career in the gay clubs of London and being nominated for a Perrier Award in 1992. The ensuing media attention led to a spell as host on the Channel 4 breakfast show The Big Breakfast (what other way would you want to start your day? Coco pops and a drag queen!) before moving on to hosting Blankety Blank! and Lily Live.
Nowadays, the more prominent glitterati of the drag world enjoy word-wide fame, with drag superstar Bianca Del Rio having starred in two films (Hurricane Bianca & Hurricane Bianca 2: From Russia with Hate), as well as being the first drag queen to play Wembley Arena. In addition, Violet Chachki and Aquaria became the first drag queens to walk the red carpet at this year’s Met Gala (the theme aptly being Camp: Notes on Fashion), while Shangela this year hosted the 2019 GLAAD Awards. All things considered it’s pretty clear – drag is no longer reserved for back alley bars and dark specialist clubs, it has made itself known in mainstream culture and people are taking notice.
As a young girl I grew up watching some of these powerhouses of drag and I’m not ashamed to admit that for a long time I had no idea they weren’t biological women. As a young cis, white woman, their influence on me was huge and helped shape my perceptions of the wider LGBTQ+ community. They were funny, got away with saying whatever they wanted and wore amazing sequined dresses. They were the kind of women I wanted to grow up to be like. 100% themselves. As I got older, I fell in love with Drag Race to a point where it gave me strength in a time of my life when I needed it most. It demanded equality, shouted about body positivity and educated me in a totally different and vibrant culture. This culture and world is something I support, but am well aware that in the past it may not necessarily have been ‘made for me’. But with drag becoming more mainstream I have to ask, is this changing?
Nowadays, you can find events like ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’ taking place at libraries in cities all over the western world, but these have not always been welcomed by their local communities. First started in 2015 in San Francisco by Michelle Tea, the idea was to give children glamorous, positive, queer role models, but in August of this year, nearly 100,000 Christians signed a petition to the American Library Association (ALA) protesting these events. In the UK, we’ve seen similar cases of outrage in places like Taunton, where people have come out against drag queens being allowed to perform for children at local libraries.
However, according to Carlisle-based queen Dee Licious, there are a number of parents out there who are more than supportive of their children learning more about the art of drag and getting to meet people like her. “One of my best bookings was for a children’s birthday party,” she told me. “They were a fan of Drag Race and I was invited to do a meet and greet and answer any questions they had about the community. I think that children should be able to do this, it stops them growing up thinking we’re evil as some people make out we are!”
There have of course, been recent media reports around the condemnation of straight people who are now attending drag shows because of the explosion in popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, with claims that this is a threat to the ‘safe space’ which gay clubs have traditionally provided the LGBTQ+ community. But despite this, Dee says it should be seen as a good thing that so many people now choose to make this a regular part of their out. “They get to share the drag world with us,” she says, “even if they don’t perform in drag, they can feel that they are a part of it and enjoy it as much as we do.”
Dee explains that for her, mainstream drag TV shows provide tips and tricks to try out new looks and ideas. Coming from a very Northern, small town, Dee hadn’t been able to enjoy the same kind of breadth and variety of entertainment we enjoy today, and it was in fact while on holiday in Turkey where she realised she wanted to answer the calling of drag, having seen one particularly inspirational performance. “She was hilarious and I was able to see how happy it made people and from then on, I knew I wanted to be a drag performer.”
She goes on to talk about the amount of work that goes into a drag show, and the effort behind the talent that people ultimately see on stage. “It’s more than just sticking on a dress and lip-syncing to a Beyonce song,” she says. “People can now see the passion. My act is jam packed with dancing, comedy and live singing.”
So with drag becoming more mainstream and the performers themselves gaining popularity by the minute, what does Dee think the future holds for the art form? “I would really like to see it grow and achieve more. I think we are doing all that we can to keep drag culture alive.”