From sold-out festivals to ratings-slaying TV shows, the world of drag has never enjoyed more mainstream appeal than it does today. So what is it about the scene that speaks to so many people on such a huge scale? We looked into why we’re so obsessed with all things drag…
When does a burgeoning subculture become a genuine phenomenon?
The story of drag in the UK can be traced back to Shakespearean times, but if you want an indicator of just how popular the scene has become in 2019, look no further than the 5 July instalment of EastEnders.
The first ever Pride-themed episode of the 34-year-old soap saw Albert Square play host to Walford Pride, an event headlined by none other than Lancashire-born drag queen Crystal Rasmussen.
Now, this isn’t to suggest that a culture as fabulous, progressive and life-affirming as drag needed Big Mo and co. to give it their approval, but the sight of Rasmussen performing on this most mainstream of mainstream shows was a good barometer of just how omnipresent drag has become in popular culture.
Not that it’s a new thing. Eleven series of RuPaul’s Drag Race have gone a long way towards bringing drag into living rooms worldwide, with a British version set to sprinkle its stardust across the UK scene when it hits BBC3 in October.
And while some performers have been critical of its occasional reliance on cat-fights and sassy one-liners, there’s no doubt that Drag Race has helped introduce the scene to a truly global audience.
But what is it about drag that resonates with people so strongly, whether they’re an active part of the LGBTQ+ community or a casual fan of reality telly?
“I think we all worry that we aren’t like other people, that we don’t fit in somehow,” says the performer.
“Drag is an art form that purposely and directly embraces and empowers difference, particularly the kind of difference that can alienate a person from a social group or community.”
“When someone who doesn’t naturally fit into those standards of beauty and has chosen not only to embrace that but to celebrate it… that’s very empowering for others.”
Put simply, drag is reassuring. When a society dominated by social media tells us that there’s only one definition of beauty, drag lets us know that in fact, there are many.
And while our social feeds aren’t about to disappear any time soon, drag proposes an altogether healthier way of engaging with self-expression.
“Although it represents an expansion of freedom, creativity and expression, social media applies a lot of pressure to present ourselves in a meaningful way,” says Cheddar Gorgeous, another of the Method Drag Cleans.
“In drag, we’re doing the same thing as everyone else, but just amping it up to the max.”
“We play up to what makes this kind of presentation so appealing, but also reveal it all as a bit funny, and totally changeable.”
In other words, worrying about how you’re appearing to the world shouldn’t get in the way of actually living in it.
“I think it’s liberating for people,” continues Cheddar.
“It’s important to realise that the need to be seen as authentic, strong, beautiful – to be seen in any particular way – isn’t actually as important as having a good time.”
Which brings us neatly to the other major reason everyone is so obsessed with drag culture – it’s fun.
As performer Freida Slaves puts it: “Who isn’t attracted to shiny, pretty things, and to people living the best versions of themselves, wearing the most fabulous attire, dancing to disco music, speaking and living their truth and not caring about the consequences?”
“It transcends language barriers and cultures. It’s pure, universal joy.”
It’s a view shared by Freida’s fellow queen, Anna Phylactic, who argues that drag offers pure escapism from the day-to-day grind.
“To me, drag is all about playing,” she says. “It’s about doing all of those things we’re told we’re not supposed to do.”
“As we grow up everything becomes a lot more serious. You’re thinking about paying your mortgage or paying your bills. You have to be a grown-up.”
“Drag is the complete opposite.”
It seems hard to believe that as recently as 2016, RuPaul himself was sceptical that a TV show about drag artists could ever truly cross over.
“I think that I haven’t been accepted in mainstream media outlets,” the star told ABC News at the time.
“The only way they could actually have a conversation with me is to make fun of me, or if they could somehow make a joke about what I’m doing.”
Fast forward three years, and the landscape has shifted significantly, with the scene continuing to recruit armies of new fans.
That said, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that at a time when the world feels like a darker, less tolerant place, an art form like drag has emerged as a force for joy.
Long may it continue.
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