One Pasty At A Time: It’s Your Destiny, Child

Go with me out on a limb here: if you want to really wow them on stage as a burlesque performer, it’s best to go with the advice of the original queens. Drag queens.

Art, theater, and big-ass hair. The Screaming Queens. Image courtesy of

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

Dont fuck it up.

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.

Her majesty, Latrice Royale

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.

The Season 4 cats of Drag Race

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.


9 replies on “One Pasty At A Time: It’s Your Destiny, Child”

I haven’t really been able to watch the show but I read the Tom&Lorenzo recaps of it. I wasn’t too familiar with RuPaul before this (except for her brief moments in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything) but reading those summaries of the show has made me appreciate her and drag queens. I’ve been to a handful of drag queen shows; what I watch most is the local drag king troupe in my city. ANYONE willing to get on the stage and work their stuff has my respect. I would to be too shy.

YES!  I’ve been wondering when Persephone would do a piece on Drag and RuPaul’s Drag Race (anyone want to do a recap each week, prettyplease???).  I adore this show, and particularly love the the thoughtful moments when Ru steps away from sheer performance to reflect on what Drag is and how it is growing, changing, and moving ever further into visibility in our culture. Ever since I saw Paris Is Burning in the 90s I’ve been fascinated by the ways in which humans battle cultural conflicts, prejudice, and power structures; I was also fascinated with the thought that Drag is not about crossing gender lines alone, but that it is also a commentary on/reaction against cultural delineations of race and class.  And that these cannot be separated; gender, race, and class delineations are inextricably intertwined.

Did you you see Milan as Janelle Monae this week (and her fabulous reference to ballroom voguing during the lipsynch)?  There are some fine, fine moments on that show!

Thanks so much for this piece!  :)

I know- it didnt occur to me to recap Drag Race until the second episode, which felt to late. And YES,  Milan made an amazing Janell Monae even if it wasn’t  atypical “drag” .

Also what you mention is the reason I love Drag Race so much, as opposed to other reality shows (okay, I do love toddlers and tiaras, but WHO DOESNT). I think Ru is genuine about so much of what goes on, even in an environment that is “staged” reality.

I have so much love in my heart for RuPaul. I also had parents who were blessedly unfazed by their preteen daughter staying up to watch Ru on vh1 and taking me to see To Wong Foo… in theaters. But then that year both of my parents did go in drag to the hockey team Halloween party. My mom actually makes a great drag king. All of which is to say that I have a lot of love and respect for both drag and burlesque.

Great article. I loooooove drag shows, in all their varieties and incarnations; I’ve seen very good ones, and some that are not so good, but one thing is always there: the passion of the performer. Even in the most shithole clubs in the most shithole cities, if you go to a dragshow, you’re watching someone do something they love, something they have worked on and thought about, and that in and of itself is infinitely fascinating to me.

Late last year, I took a friend of mine to her first drag show. She’s always wanted to see one, but having grown up in a very conservative family and been very shy herself, she’d never quite worked up the nerve to attend one (those are her words). She absolutely adored it and said, “You know, conservative people shouldn’t get so worked up about this sort of thing. It’s fantasy. It’s meant to be an artistic display. There’s nothing dirty or shameful about it.” And I have to say, I think she hit the nail on the head.

Leave a Reply