Dragging is a timeless art, possibly older than the actual name itself. Drag extends itself into almost any realm, an artful display of over-exaggerated caricature, likeness, and costume, a fantastical display that combines everything you would ever need to know about theater, comedy, tragedy, and beauty into a pair of fake eyelashes or a pair of press-on sideburns. Whether its kinging, queening, or ball culture, it’s a hyper-exaggerated reflection of the world at large and even the world as we want it to be.
The term “drag” itself is disputed. Many believe the term originated from a etymology based on bias that abbreviated drag as “dressed resembling a girl,” others think the term originated from an 18th century reference to transvestites, and others think it had been used in the gay community as part of English slang. It was only when the word queen was attached, in possible relation to “quean,” a label for fast, loose, and promiscuous women (and eventually men) that perhaps a term, and a calling, was born.
However the terms originated, it has always been about people taking on something and making it their own, fiercely so. Drag is performance, and complexly, fantastically so. Identity created and released, whether for that five minute song, or as something that becomes cemented in one’s intimate ether. Within that expression, one can talk about gender, class, race, and otherness within the context of desire, ambition, and really, gaming the same paradigms that cause grief outside of the controlled context. It’s an art form that can be best described in the movie Paris is Burning as using “strength, pride, and humor… to survive in a rich, white world.”
Burlesque and drag are like kissing cousins. The worlds intersect, meeting somewhere in the middle where they can air kiss and move back through the night to become even more fabulous as the day becomes long. Both worlds have similar motivations in performing, as well as what “the feminine” possibly entails. While I can’t speak for the whole, both burlesque and drag queening are about that hyper exaggeration of “the feminine,” however you define that. The difference lies in who performs and why. Perhaps just even who performs.
“I do not impersonate females! I don’t dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses?” – RuPaul
RuPaul is a personal hero of mine. I imagine if guardian angels were a real thing, RuPaul would be one, saving lost souls from the benign and inane by way of fierce self love and full-on chic. Once asked when I was a little girl what I wanted to be when I grew up, I emphatically answered “Be RuPaul!” not realizing that the person who asked me this question probably had no understanding of who RuPaul was or why a nine-year-old’s mother would be completely fine with letting her daughter watch VH1’s The RuPaul Show. While I was relatively tomboyish, RuPaul was possibly the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, along with my own mother and my Aunt Buddy, whose own forays into drag and being a southern, gay man, were kept buried in the pile of family secrets, as well as a wife and two kids that would hopefully disguise who he actually was, though never openly admitted, as a real person.
My love for RuPaul has only been ignited during the stint of Drag Race, the reality TV show cum wonder amusement search for “America’s next drag superstar.” If you have watched any of the show, whether you are a fan of reality-based TV or not, the participants do follow the standard rules of any reality-based show. There are challenges, safe spaces, and eliminations, all whirlwinded with a mix of tears, fights, and sheer bitchery. However, as a beginning burlesque lady, it’s also a perfect place to figure out how to have stage presence, whether through costumes, makeup, or persona. My Monday nights have turned into a vast mental note-taking session on what works, what can translate into my own potential routines, and damn, where did Latrice Royale get that sparkly blue eye shadow that glows in the stage lights? What’s better is that these nights are compounded by the presence of a few other friends, all of whom are performers in their own right. With each outfit that flashes across the screen, we pause, consider, and wonder aloud through red wine glasses how it works, how it doesn’t, and how can I do that. If there is a heaven, it looks something like this.
All my life, I’ve never been able to identify as a “performer.” The constant anxiety that surrounded that concept was fueled by the fact that wait, what, I’d actually have to do something in front of people? On stage? In public? Performing seemed light years away from the thing that I identified with or really, what I was comfortable with. While I loved that people could just get up on stage and own whatever they did, I never saw myself as a person who could do such a thing and after a while, I convinced myself I probably didn’t want to, either. But that type of thinking takes away the complexity of performance and what it actually means to stand on stage and present not only one’s self, but an idea. Whether the idea is clad in high lingerie and heart shaped pasties or a get up of Cher that Cher herself might not even be able to pull off, it exists in between worlds and succeeds by eventually creating its own. That is why performance, drag and or burlesque, is where life becomes art and art imitates life, but only better. It’s only when the stage lights go high and things get sparklier, bigger, larger than life-er, that things can be open enough to talk about.