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kottke.org posts about drag

It’s Expensive To Be A Competitive Drag Queen

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 07, 2021

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Drag has always been a world of aspirations and contradictions, playing not just on gender, but on race, power, wealth, and respectability. So in some sense, it’s not surprising that being a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race and its affiliated series is remarkably expensive:

“I spent more coming into this competition than I did as the down payment on my house,” Kameron says, her tone serious now.

“I spent more on this competition than I did on college,” Cracker replies solemnly, and a moment of silence falls over both queens.

Contestants estimate that the cost of all the outfits in a current season of the show is between $20,000 and $30,000. This is five to six times as much as the earlier, more low-budget seasons.

But perhaps this is a case of some well-bankrolled contestants getting overzealous, and others struggling to keep up? Not exactly:

During Episode 5’s critiques, judge Michelle Visage took issue with contestant Joe Black’s look from the week’s maxi challenge. Earlier in the episode, Joe had sung and danced his way through the Eurovision girl-group challenge wearing a pink knee-length dress with a high neck and puffy sleeves. “You came out wearing a finger wave wig, and something I probably could have bought off the rack at Primark, no joke,” Michelle says. In response, Joe stage-whispers, “Aiiitch and emmmmm,” and then laughs.

The music hits a dramatic note as the camera cuts to RuPaul, who looks… grim. “That outfit off the rack was a huge disappointment to me,” Ru says. “That’s what everyday people do, and you are a star. And this goes to all of you up here: If it is from H&M, you better glitter the fuck out of it, and make it something special. We’re looking for Great Britain’s next superstar. Don’t waste my time. I don’t want to see any fucking H&M.”

The harsh criticism of a downmarket dress didn’t look great coming from a world-famous drag queen who owns a 60,000-acre ranch in Wyoming. And it got worse. Joe Black had been eliminated in Episode 1, then unexpectedly brought back to replace a different contestant after the show’s mid-season seven-month COVID hiatus, but had been forced to sell all of his costumes during lockdown. (The pandemic decimated live entertainment, including drag performances.) “I had sold them because I needed the money to live,” Joe said. “So not only did I need to find the money, but I also needed to get the costumes again.”

But there is also a sense in which drag and ball culture is only newly big business (with Drag Race as the showcase):

The idea of investing a ton of money in a drag career and having it pay off is a relatively modern one. According to Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez, authors of Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life, performers simply didn’t have access to many venues for most of drag’s history—largely because cross-dressing was illegal throughout the United States until the 1970s. Most drag performers never left their community, and while their local gigs may have been emotionally rewarding, they weren’t particularly lucrative.

Social and financial marginalization forced drag artists to be creative. “Up until the 80s and the 90s, drag queens essentially dressed in vintage clothing,” Fitzgerald told VICE. “Trans women and queer men couldn’t walk into a department store and buy dresses. It was easier and safer to go look for a size 13 pump in a used store than it was to go into the ladies section. The underground aspect of drag defined the aesthetic for a very long time.”

Even in earlier seasons of Drag Race, when contestants were competing for an amount of money that was unprecedented in the drag world, the runways had nowhere near the scale that they do in more recent seasons. “When Drag Race first started, they were literally coming in off the street to do this TV show,” Fitzgerald said. “And now it’s 13 years later, it’s won all of these Emmys, it’s HD, it’s got superstar guest stars. The stakes are just higher.”

Your Favorite Makeup Tip Was Probably Invented By A Drag Queen

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 22, 2019

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I missed this essay when it came out in December, but I’m reading it now, after Lauren M. Jackson (congratulations on the Northwestern job! OMG!) turned me onto it. It’s by Kristina Rodulfo, and called “Everything We Know About Beauty We Learned From Drag Queens.”

Before YouTube, before Instagram, before “influencers,” now-common knowledge makeup techniques like contouring and baking were used by drag queens in the dressing rooms of clubs. They were passed on by word of mouth, taught by either peers or older performers (called drag mothers) who’d take newcomers under their wings. The objective was to use makeup to transform the face into a character. Borrowing from theater tradition, makeup was about exaggerating features so the performer wouldn’t be washed out under powerful stage lights, and their expression could be seen by someone sitting in the back of the room.

Like creating costumes, dancing, and lip syncing, knowing how to do makeup was just one of the many technical skills it took to be a successful drag queen. But, makeup is more than just a means to an end. It’s a tool of transformation, and for many queens, liberation.

Now that (among other things) the digital makeup tutorial has become a thing, there are naturally some questions about the appropriation of these techniques, whether the inventors are receiving proper credit, or how and whether they’re being erased from the story.

Where do you think contouring, baking, and highlighting came from? Many have linked the “trend” to Kim Kardashian, who in 2012 posted a viral photo of her face mid-contouring (the trick became such a signature of hers that she launched KKW Beauty in 2017 with a contouring kit). Her trademark look inspired thousands of Kardashian-inspired tutorials and a chain reaction started among top beauty bloggers competing for views and likes….

Yet, the acknowledgement isn’t fully there. “Do I feel the drag community has been given the credit it deserves for highlight, contour[ing], cut creases? No I don’t,” says Osmond Vacious a.k.a. Vivacious, a New York-based drag queen since the ’90s club kid era mentored by the likes of Hector Xtravaganza (grandfather of the House of Xtravaganza). “Why do I say that? When was the last time you saw a drag queen in a commercial for L’Oreal, CoverGirl, anyone? We’re not there.”

“It’s not that the world isn’t ready for it,” Vacious continues, “Those companies aren’t ready to embrace change because they’re more worried that their core audiences might run away from it. But, guess what? There is another world out there that likes all that ‘extra.’ Embrace us and work with us. And we’ll work with you.”

With the mainstream success of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, and as queens become actors and celebrities in their own right, it’s increasingly likely that more drag queens will become spokespeople and come more out front.

In the meantime, though, just embrace it. Find out a little bit more about where all this culture you love came from. Learn it. Love it. Learn from it. It can change your life.

And watch Sasha Velour and Shea Coulée lip sync to Whitney Houston. It’s really something special.