Drag queens and pop divas :: blurring the lines

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday January 18, 2010

If there is a God - and if God has a plan - could he have crafted a more regal source of sass, satire and truth telling than the glamorous star that emerges when a dude tucks in his junk, dons a wig and a dress, artfully applies makeup and adopts a heightened feminine persona?
What emerges after that process is a singing, dancing, joke-telling, trash-talking entertainer who dispenses insights cloaked in insults - and mines humor from acknowledging any given situation's hypocrisy or absurdity.

In other words, the drag queen: nature's perfect entertainer.
Like a piñata at a child's birthday party, no top shelf gay event is complete without a drag performer.
But they're not just for breakfast anymore. Drag queens have been embraced by the mainstream - and it's about time. Those girls have toiled endlessly in the gay ghetto by hosting shows for meager wages that, shoplifting efforts included, barely pay for their extravagant costumes, makeup and motivational pharmaceuticals.
It used to be that drag queens simply imitated females from stage and screen. Today, stars such as Lady Gaga are imitating drag queens. You can see the influence in everything from costumes to dance to attitude and stage persona.
To get to the bottom of how drag queens ascended from the sidelines of gay subculture to sit atop the throne of mainstream acceptance, EDGE spoke with one certifiable drag legend, a soon-to-be drag superstar, and a few pants-wearing pundits.

Being big and outrageous

The ears of any self respecting gay will surely perk up when they hear the name "Lady Bunny." The venerable drag performer (visit her website) identifies herself as "founder of Wigstock, Worst of the Week commentator for Star Magazine, and retarded hag." She’s also an Edge columnist. Look for her sassy blog on the home page of any of our fine portals.
Bunny is uniquely qualified to comment on how pop stars are embracing the drag aesthetic - having achieved fame by virtue of her own carefully crafted persona.
She observes: "When I was growing up, the celebrities drag queens impersonated were very recognizable; Cher, Patti Labelle with that crazy fanned out 80s hairdo and log nails; Tina Turner with her mini dresses. Nowadays, with the top pop singers, there’s not much to imitate. Britney and Beyonce, they’re giving you bare midriff and a weave. But what is recognizable beyond that? Nothing."
One thing that is recognizable? A performance style that echoes and imitates what you see in a drag show. Poised to become a national name, Shangela (visit her website) will be featured on Season #2 of RuPaul’s Drag Race (visit the show’s website).
Shangela says that, in the performances of many top pop stars, "I see a huge influence from the drag culture. Drag is all about being big and outrageous - and that’s what a lot of performers want to exhibit to their audience."
Asked to cite an example that connects the dots instead of merely tracing the lineage, Shangela offers: "Janet Jackson. I’m aware of her attending huge gay functions where there were drag performances, and I think she’s clearly taken cues from that. Also, with Beyonce, it’s arguable that the wow factor of her performance is influenced by the drag community. She’ll run across the stage, and roll; and that will get an emotion from the audience and send energy through the room."

Shangela herself employs that technique herself by doing "the Death Drop, a dance move in which you throw your body to the ground; but it comes out of nowhere. I Death Drop not just for an ooh and an aah, but for an emotional response form the audience." Such dramatic drag dance moves, she asserts, are also used by female pop divas who must employ dramatic and unexpected physical maneuvers that resonate all the way to the back of a cavernous venue.

Going mainstream

Dave Mace, head of original programming for LOGO (and the guy who greenlighted RuPaul’s Drag Race), thinks he knows why mainstream America has come to accept and embrace drag as a relevant, desirable part of the entertainment culture.
More than simply the inevitable result of LGBTs becoming increasingly visible in the mass media, Mace notes: "People love the over the top and glamour aspect of drag, and the biting humor it represents. They admire the art of transforming into something that everybody secretly wishes they could. "

Bunny says we can thank, or blame, Reality TV for mainstream acknowledgment of gay men and drag performers: "The whole country is makeover crazy, and there’s always been this perception that gays, like the guys from Queer Eye, hold the key to successful makeovers for everything; wardrobe, makeup, hair. Don’t give them the right to marry, but let them make you over, honey!"
Ironic, then, that a man who recasts himself as female should be looked up to by straight women as a source of authenticity. Still, Bunny will take the compliment: "It’s recognizing their clear abilities. If you start off with the raw ingredients of a man and turn him into a glamorous woman, then you know some tricks. So there’s this notion that gay men and drag queens are clued in to ways for females to look better."
To support that observation, Bunny offers "Miss J, the tall thin black queen who’s taught Paris models to walk for years. Gladys Knight has a transsexual who does her makeup; and Patti Labelle has a former drag queen who does her makeup. Kevin Aviance was employed by Destiny’s Child, who got him to teach them some runway walking. It’s not uncommon for stars to keep a gay man or a drag queen in tow. They’re up on the latest looks and how to achieve them."
Michael Montlack is author of "My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them." He says that to see the influence of drag queens on straight female entertainers, look no further than the syndicated train wreck known as The Wendy Williams Show.
Montlack: "Wendy is constantly referring to her use of wigs. It reminds me of the drag acceptance of artifice. It used to be when women wore wigs, the whole point was to hide. People like Tyra Banks are much more open about their weaves. With drag queens, it’s all about artifice. There’s never any pretension that this is real. We’re all privy to the fact, and we admire the accomplishment. So now, a woman like Wendy Williams can have her own TV show and every day say, yes, this is fake; but it’s wonderful and I love it and it’s a part of my style."
That give and take, says Shangela, works both ways: "As drag performers have grow into the culture of acceptance, that has allowed more performers to perform as themselves; doing a Cher number as opposed to just impersonating Cher or Beyonce. You don’t have to hide behind another performer, you can be yourself. There are so many acts, like Jackie Beat, who sing live, who sing their own original songs and don’t lip synch from the Top 40."

Going Gaga

The best example of a pop diva who’s taken pages from the drag queen performance playbook? Lady Gaga.
Bunny recalls: "When I met Lady Gaga, she said ’I’ve been wanting to do a wig like that’ - mine - which was big in the back and flat on the top. That almost caused me to have a heart attack. I didn’t remember giving the cab driver a blow job, that time, but somehow my wig was flat on the top."
That Lady Gaga went, well, gaga, over Bunny’s wig is no surprise.
Shangela adds that a good drag wigmaker and a good pop starmaker are often one in the same: "So many of the people who put together iconic pop stars are deeply rooted in the gay community and drag culture."

Bunny confirms "Lady Gaga has a team of stylists. One of the guys she uses is Geoffrey Mac, who sews for me. She also uses Zaldy Goco, who has done costumes for costumes for drag queens like RuPaul and Michael Jackson. When you’re creating an entirely different look every day, you’re definitely going to be pulling from the talent pool of top makeup and hairdressers - most of whom most of are familiar with what’s going on in the drag community."

As for her previous observation that most of today’s pop stars aren’t giving audiences a recognizable look, Bunny says Lady Gaga is changing that dynamic. Less charismatic performers are "looking at who’s on top of the charts, and they’re taking notes. Lady Gaga will spark people’s creativity and maybe make people dress more outrageously."
And that doesn’t just go for budding pop divas: Lady Gaga, who is clearly influenced by gay culture, is influencing gay boys in a full circle karma kind of way. Bunny: "The other day, I went to Starbucks. The young gay guy who worked there made a little version of the Lady Gaga crown and was wearing it. She’s definitely resonating."
Jack Chen is producer of the documentary "What’s the Name of the Dame?" - a soon-to-be released documentary about drag queens and their admiration/emulation of ABBA. He says the above dynamic cited by Bunny is indicative of "This conversation that’s going back and forth between drag queens and pop culture; the outrageousness, the makeup, the clothing. That kind of influence on pop stars by drag queens goes back to David Bowie with the red wigs, makeup and gender bending." As for Lady Gaga, Chen reminds us that in her early years, "She spent a lot of time in the East Village. It’s impressive that what she saw there, she was able to take and sell it around the world."

All hail RuPaul!

If there’s any doubt that drag has taken its place in pop culture, look no further than the upcoming second season of "RuPaul’s Drag Race."
Airing this year on both the gay ghetto of LOGO and the supremely mainstream VH1, "Drag Race" embodies the proud presentation of flamboyance, bitchiness, and unapologetic gay sexuality that many have criticized LOGO for shying away from in the past.
But before our pundits analyze and praise the cultural significance of RuPaul, the superstar’s conspicuous absence from this article must be acknowledged.
After receiving an unsolicited offer from a LOGO publicist ("I run press for RuPaul’s Drag Race - would you have any interest in speaking with RuPaul"), what certainly seemed like an offer was rescinded shortly after we accepted. "His press time is completely booked up for premiere." said an email from the flighty flak.
Still, when you see RuPaul plugging his show on Entertainment Tonight or kissing up to Middle America on a morning TV show, don’t blame the poor girl - who, we assume, would have lavished EDGE with insight.
As for the legacy of RuPaul, Shangela notes "RuPaul’s career has had an amazing influence on drag culture over the years; an amazing performer who’s opened many doors - because he’s had a huge career as a recording artist. He continues to open up the doors for drag performers to be whoever they want to be; an over the top performer, a live cabaret singer, an actor or a recording artists.
Hold it, Mary. Did a drag queen just refer to another drag queen by using the masculine "he?" That’s only because, Shangela notes, RuPaul appears on the show in drag as well as in a suit, tie and Clark Kent glasses.
So, Shangela points out, "For myself, he’s inspired me to be a performer but to be able to go into mainstream venues with mixed crowds."
Drag performers aren’t the only ones inspired by RuPaul. Shangela recalls cashing a check from Drag Race - "I went to the bank, and the teller saw the name of the show on the check. She said, I love that show. I get all my makeup tips from it!"
Chen credits RuPaul with pioneering the current trend of drag performers who create their own personas as opposed to relying on imitations: "RuPaul was the first drag queen to really break out. He didn’t look like Bette Davis or Barbra Streisand. He was pretty and could sing. He been a household name for years, and that’s quite an accomplishment."
LOGO’s Mace - who somehow managed to emerge unscathed from the cloud of shame he should still be under for not delivering RuPaul for this article - says there’s a constant give and take between drag and mainstream entertainment.
Mace: "A lot of the people that work on "RuPaul’s Drag Race" also work with huge celebrities. They go between both worlds. Smart celebrities like Lady Gaga realize that to break through and not be compared to somebody else, you have to celebrate your individuality and have a point of view, like most drag queens do. She’s taken tips from drag by expressing herself in an authentic and unique way; and people are eating it up."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.