The art of drag has come a long way since panto and Shakespeare. Although the classic camp-style form of drag remains popular, the art of drag in itself has very much evolved. A new generation of more polished and eccentric looking performers have been taking over the world (both queer and straight), driven by exposure on social media. Drag, which used to be practised by gay cisgendered men is now performed by women, trans-people and everyone in between.
Today, drag queens and drag artists are using social networks to share videos and pictures for the whole world to see: unimaginable until the early 2000s. Straight people are now becoming avid fans of drag and make up a large section of the audience. It seems as if the drag scene has become more inclusive, losing the residue of its taboo status.
London has always been at the forefront of gay culture. From Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf, to Freddie Mercury and George Michael, London has a significant queer history. But what do drag queens and drag artists think of their art becoming so popular?
When the drag persona takes over
“For a long time, people didn’t really understand a lot about gay people. Through mainstream media, it’s become safer and more accepted. Why wouldn’t you want to be more accepted ?” says Lewis, a 19-year-old fashion student who has now put his drag persona on hold. His decision to take a break from “Acacia Dali”, his drag queen identity, was revealed on Instagram last May. Through a post displaying a glamorous, deathlike shot of Acacia, his signature look, Lewis expressed his struggle to come to terms with his own identity. In Acacia’s green filtered picture, we can read “My drag was born out of a lack of self-esteem and self-worth.” Along with: “and for a long time the only time I felt worthy enough to be around all these amazing, creative people, was by being in drag and hiding myself.” Finally: “to become a walking piece of art that I could separate from Lewis who was not nearly as confident and didn’t like what they saw in the mirror.”
Like many drag queens of this era, Lewis got into this art by watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. “I kind of realised that [drag] was just a blend of everything I like. I love fashion, makeup, and coming up with new concepts,” Lewis explains. The former drag artist even admits that it would have been very unlikely for him to even try the art if it was not for the popular reality show. Lewis confirms that social media helped him to find himself as a drag queen: “Before I went out in drag, everything I did was on Instagram, so that was everything people knew about me, that’s why Instagram was very important to me.” The young fashion student used to be what he calls a “bedroom queen”, a drag queen who creates looks and takes pictures at home. “Bedroom queens” do not necessarily go outside in drag. Lewis explains that races and weekly challenges were created on the social media platform for drag queens to compete and ultimately gain a following.
A superficial world
At 17 years old, Lewis was ready to leave the safeness of his online community and finally step in the outside world as Acacia. “Before I didn’t know people in London, I didn’t know that there was a big community there. I figured that there was this whole thing in London, so I would save money, travel to London on the weekend, then go back to school during the week,” Lewis says. Now, he studies and lives in the city. Although currently on a break from it, Lewis sees himself performing as a drag queen on the long term.
“It’s taking a separate concept and turning it into a piece of art, except wearable,” Lewis says, “which is kinda like how I see my drag, except it’s art that moves.” Acacia’s trademark is dark. Lewis always wears white contact lenses when he transforms himself into his drag, giving him a deadly and intimidating stare. “I don’t want to just look pretty, I want to make an impact,” he says. And he did, for two years. But Lewis’ art came at a price. “It’s mentally hard because I am Lewis only at 90% and people only talk to me sometimes because of Acacia. Sometimes it feels very superficial and friendships become a little performative,” he says.
It is clear that the popularity drag queens have on social media can be a hard status to preserve in real life. Having a group of people asking for pictures with a performer is flattering, but one can easily be lost in the superficiality of this type of following. The pressure to keep up with the latest trend and the best makeup technique as seen on mainstream media is for some, tiring and constraining.
“There’s definitely been an increase of the importance of good make up in drag,” says Andrew. He continues: “I think there’s a divide in thinking, but there’s always a sort of beauty in our artistry that shows we care about our appearance. We’re not cutting corners.”
Respect for women
Andrew, 27, performs as Cynthia Seaward, “a fun mum who’s had a nervous breakdown in a wine cellar, and all she has in her bag is her kid’s painting”. You guessed it, Cynthia Seaward is a comedy drag queen. Having seen many of Cynthia’s performance this year, I can safely say that she is exactly what I would have expected from a drag show. Her camp style and comedy lip-syncs are in many ways exasctly what people would think a traditional drag queen would look like.
The man behind Cynthia, Andrew, is a hard-working performer who recognises the fact that his work relies on caricaturing women. Because of this, he emphasises the importance of respecting them. “There’s a correlation between drag queens that are not necessarily respectful towards women,” Andrew says. “There is certain respect to be paid because women have to do it every day, basically, because of men, gays, advertising and beauty standards.” He adds: “ I think it’s only right that if you are a born male person, and you identify as male and you pretend to be a woman, you have to go through a ritual of respect.”
Indeed, finding the right balance of portraying a caricature of a woman and yet deliver a drag number that is not offensive towards the female population is clearly challenging. Andrew understands this dilemma. With this new found popularity for the art of drag, many might fail to comprehend what drag really is about. “I like to do unflattering physicality, I like to fall over purposely,” Andrew says. “But I don’t necessarily make jokes like “oh I’m a woman, and these are my big boobs and gutters, because it’s disrespectful, it’s basically “woman face”, it’s offensive,” he adds.
Becoming a drag queen, not an “Insta queen”
”I think there’s a difference between someone who does drag and the drag queen. It takes a certain while to crystallise who you are,” Andrew says. He adds: “You need a reason for people to pay attention to your show. If you can’t sing, dance or tell a joke, you should at least have something important to say.”
As Cynthia’s creator explains, there is nothing wrong with being a makeup artist and to emphasise the aesthetics of a certain drag persona. The problem seems to lie in performers who are solely relying on the art of makeup, rather the entire spectrum of drag. This reflects on the internet’s new wave of “Insta queens” something Andrew and many established drag queens seem to differ on.
According to Andrew, being a drag queen should come with a certain degree of integrity. “You should entertain, be a figure in our community, or I don’t know, just have fun with it,” Andrew says. “As long as it’s not just self-praise. Don’t get into it for the money. And don’t get to it, because you think it’ll make people like you,” he adds.
Header: Photo taken by Irene Shoshanne Carlucci