When Season 1 of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK was first announced back in autumn 2019, many weren’t sure what to anticipate. Whispers had been disseminating across the Drag Race fandom for years, and as the moment finally arrived, fans of small-town British drag scenes cried out with joy as performers from Leicester, Belfast, and Brighouse packed their bags and headed to the BBC. Under Section 28, repealed less than twenty years ago in 2003, a programme like this would have been unimaginable even on the likes of the more liberal Channel 4: to fast-forward to this watershed moment in LGBTQ+ history felt nothing short of ground-breaking. To much delight, one of the first drag performers to walk the runway of Drag Race UK was Vinegar Strokes, a queen with an established career in theatre.
Sipping a gin and tonic in Denmark, where she is currently preparing for a set of opera shows, Vinegar tells me: “I didn’t know what to expect going into Drag Race. When you’re in the whole bubble of it and you’re filming for that many hours, walking onto the set and working with RuPaul, it really doesn’t live up to any kind of expectations because you have no idea what to expect. It’s different every time. I was a bit like a deer in headlights, but afterwards it’s been a whirlwind and coming from the filming to where I am now has been amazing.”
Having worked with Michelle Visage on Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, rumours circulated as to whether their pre-existing relationship would play out on screen. But, of course, this is Michelle Visage, and she was in true competition mode. Translation? She was savage, as per. “It neither helped nor hindered me. When I worked with Michelle on Jamie, I wasn’t working with the Drag Race version of Michelle Visage, I was working with the Michelle that happens to enjoy musical theatre, is an actress, and is a performer. But when you go onto Drag Race, that’s a different ball game. That’s when you work with the Michelle Visage, per se.”
A true London queen.
Though Vinegar was a very established name in the West End before arriving onto Drag Race UK, the show has undoubtedly opened her up to a whole array of opportunities. “I went into Drag Race as the theatre queen. I’ve done a lot of work in the West End, and I think that Drag Race gave me a lot more scope to do a lot more theatre. My passion is live theatrical performance,” she tells me.
Vinegar prides herself on being a true London queen, and her upbringing in the capital influences the minutiae of her work as a drag artist. “There are a lot of drag queens who live in London but aren’t from London. It’s very different to grow up as a Londoner – growing up in a very multicultural city really affects your influences, whether it’s music, film, art, or dance. I think it makes a well-rounded person.” In fact, Vinegar is currently penning a show she labels a “love letter to London” told through the lens of drag: “London is my heart. I love it.”
In many ways, drag is inspired by camp women on screen from Judy Garland to Barbara Windsor, and Vinegar’s version is no exception. “If I’d stayed on Drag Race long enough to compete in the Snatch Game, I would’ve done Sandra from Gogglebox. I really wanted to champion Black, working-class women, and she to me is the epitome of someone who is famous for no reason other than watching telly, but who gives us a little nudge into what it’s like to be someone who is from London, and who is Black, and Jamaican, too, which is my heritage.”
As Vinegar expresses, unique characters like Sandra, who are famous in a uniquely British way, and for apparently no reason, inform British drag both on and off-screen. Phrases like Charity Shop Sue’s “’Scuse me laydeh, you’re supposed to be on the bloody till,” are part and parcel not only of British LGBTQ+ culture, but of British drag culture, and Drag Race UK has provided a space for this unique form of camp humour to be performed. Season 2 saw much of the camp humour that Vinegar hoped to channel honoured, with Bimini Bon Boulash’s performance of Katie Price in Snatch Game writing a new chapter in British LGBTQ+ history.
Controversial it might be, but the Drag Race empire has had a hand in moving elements of drag towards a focus on appearance. Many long-standing performers find this superficial, and point towards the increasing perception that to perform on Drag Race necessitates access to certain resources, including vast amounts of money or a “sugar daddy”, as Shangela was iconically accused of having to “pay for everything” by Mimi Imfurst back on Season 3 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. “Nowadays, it is very look-based. I think it’s a shame for the queens that get on and don’t go as far as they should because their looks aren’t as “polished” or maybe they don’t have as much money and can’t put thousands towards one costume,” Vinegar expresses.
“I went in with the version of Vinegar that I knew back then. Vinegar has evolved so much over the last two years – she’s got a lot more colourful, a lot louder, and the hair’s got a bit bigger. But I was just very proud that I went in with what I knew at the time, and I had only been doing drag for a very short time. My focus was mainly on entertainment, and on giving a show.”
For now, Vinegar is continuing with her residency in Denmark at the opera whilst penning her live show. Interestingly, this summer, she’s also been working with Mr Tipsy’s Down The Hatch on an immersive, around-the-world cocktail experience, which leads guests through themed rooms with zany characters, visuals, and interactive surprises. In true Vinegar Strokes style, it sounds like one hell of a party.
From the vaults. Watch Rob Harkavy’s interview with Divina de Campo.