How Bottomless Brunch Took Over Drag

The explosion of drag brunch across the UK means queens have never been busier – but the success hasn't come entirely without conflict.

“I’m like Tinkerbell…” drag queen Soroya Marchelle teases into her microphone. “If I don’t get attention, I fucking die!” Delivered with the confidence and coyness of a Real Housewife, the crowd erupts into the precise pitch of scream you would expect from a room full of women and gay men who, just seconds before, had necked their first glass of prosecco.

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On this particular Saturday afternoon, I’ve found myself at a bottomless drag brunch, a trend currently sweeping the UK. A quick Google reveals there are over 30 drag brunches this weekend in London, but they’re also happening in Birmingham, Brighton, Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Glasgow too. The concept? Simple: Drag queens entertain the crowd with lip-sync megamixes, dancing, jokes and games. And just like a regular bottomless brunch, food and bottomless prosecco are served. (You’ve got two hours-ish to consume as much booze as possible for your buck, which gets as messy as you’d expect.) 

These glitzy events are a veritable tractor-beam for huns and hen parties, where the de rigueur look can be boiled down to: floral jumpsuits, leopard print, perfectly blow-dried hair and makeup most drag queens would be envious of. 

My drag brunch virginity is being taken at the Queen of Hoxton, near Shoreditch in London. In between performances, the groups of giggling girlies – with an obligatory gay man per table – celebrated the brides-to-be and sang along to anthems by Beyonce, Ariana Grande and Rihanna. There’s a “glitter artist” on-hand and Instagram opportunities everywhere, from posing with the drag queens themselves to the walls adorned with neon lights and millennial scripture like “you can’t sit with us!” (Gretchen Wieners, 20:04).

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Drag brunch becoming so popular with huns in particular, who are often (but not always) straight women, feels like both a representation and result of the fact that drag is now a mainstream cultural phenomenon. But drag being enjoyed by a wider audience also presents a quandary between mass market consumption and the art form’s subcultural origins in queer spaces. It’s a journey from the margins to the mainstream, typical of the last few decades in LGBTQ+ culture, and it hasn’t happened entirely without conflict. 

Drag bingo at the Queen of Hoxton.

What exactly is a hun? It’s difficult to describe her without using examples. It’s popping to the corner shop with your rollers in. It’s Katie Price proclaiming we should “never underestimate… the SEA!”, everything Pam from Gavin & Stacey has ever said, Kerry Katona’s Iceland ads, Kat Slater saying she “became a total slag,” Gemma Collins screaming “fuck off Gillian McKeith!” and X Factor’s Treyc Cohen saying “I’m ready” (with some determination). It’s Sarah Harding and Cheryl’s mid-performance giggles after her “bum note” on GMTV. It’s drinking gin out of one of those giant goblet glasses (because “thank god it’s Friday!”) and ordering a Sunday night Chinese (because “the diet starts on Monday!”). It’s the word “holibobs” and regional mums who want everyone to know they just got a bargain at “Lidls”.

Hun culture idolises women who embody this specific combination of British basicness, relatability and humour. There’s a host of Instagram accounts, from @loveofhuns (as in: “You OK, hun?”) to @hunsnet , dedicated to celebrating and archiving hun references, like a young Nadine Coyle “forgetting” her date of birth on Irish Popstars. Last week, I even stumbled upon Huns & Roses, a female DJ collective “helping you to live, laugh and love your way through life”. Writing for VICE, certified hun expert Hannah Ewens describes hun culture as “a club for British women and gay men; what lad culture was for straight men from the 1990s onwards. It’s an excuse to share and celebrate your most basic desires – booze, food and emotions – packaged in a self-aware, British way.” 

The author at his first drag brunch.

This analysis rings true at drag brunch, where booze, food and emotions were on full display. One immaculate Essex girl tells me that her group of girlfriends enjoy Drag Race like their boyfriends bond over football. And as soon as the event’s guest co-host Karma Doll laid eyes on me at the door, she screams: “Yay, another gay!”

These days, the crossover between drag and hun culture has never been clearer – a fact underlined today at the Queen of Hoxton, where a catsuit and corset-clad Soroya Marchelle struts across the floor, performing an EastEnders-themed lip-sync – complete with “You ain’t my mother! YES-I -AM!” and “GET OUTTA MY PUB!”.

When I was searching for a drag brunch to attend in London, each seemed more hun-adjacent than the last. There has also been an influx of other events, like “drag bingo”, which we actually played in between brunch courses. (The winner shouted “dildo!”) Here, drag is transported out of queer nightlife spaces into daytime venues, where the audience is predominantly straight women. 

Soroya Marchelle in the middle of a back bend.

“The huns are allies, so they’re sort of part of the community now,” Soroya tells me. “They’re here for a good time, they love drag and they help pay our bills!” During the brunch, I notice she’s made an effort to incorporate politics into her performances. There was a lip-sync dedicated to how terrible the Conservative government is and a prompt to shout “fuck the Tories!” during bingo too. At one point, signs are even given out saying “eat the rich” in big capital letters. This surprises me – hun culture and politics rarely collide (apart from the time Katie Price ran for parliament on a “free plastic surgery” platform and when Gemma Collins was starstruck by Jeremy Corbyn). 

Soraya says this was intentional. “It’s our job as queer performers to remind people where we come from and that drag is political,” she explains. “Drag brunch is a time to connect with a different audience, a daytime audience who are mostly straight, so it’s important for them to see that drag is fun, but it’s still controversial.” She’s been running the Queen of Hoxton’s drag brunch for six months and the venue gives her creative freedom – within reason – to put on such a hilarious show. 

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“A few years ago, drag brunch wasn't really ‘a thing’,” drag performer Sue Gives A Fuck tells me. “But now it's, like, the only thing.” Sue now makes pretty much all of her money from drag brunch, performing at four or five every week. In fact, she can’t remember the last time she was on a real stage. “I'm in bars, cafes and restaurants, because everyone seems to have decided that the only way to sell salads and drinks, or brunch, cupcakes and influencer marketing is to have a drag queen doing bingo. It’s the cornerstone of my drag life these days!”

Sue thinks the mainstream demand for drag in such a hunnified form is linked to what she calls the “RuPaul-ification” of drag. Drag Race has transformed drag from an artform that was predominantly platformed in queer spaces, to one which is part of mainstream culture. It certainly doesn’t feel like a coincidence that drag brunch started sweeping the nation after Drag Race UK arrived on the BBC in 2019. Pretty much everyone I speak to at the Queen of Hoxton event say they watch the show. (Season one’s Cheryl Hole and season three’s Kitty’s Scott-Claus were popular faves). 

Drag Race UK highlights the overlap between British drag and hun culture. On the show, we often hear hun references in challenges, or jokes in the workroom. In 2021, during the series two girl band challenge, the United Kingdolls took the stage by storm with the infectiously catchy bop “UK Hun?”, which charted at number 27 on the Official UK Chart.

But it goes deeper than that. Hun culture has evolved from a niche Instagram indulgence, into a legitimate part of wider meme culture, just like drag has grown to become a part of mainstream culture. Drag Race UK, like British drag, is defined by an imperfection and messiness compared to its more polished American counterpart. And as Lauren O’Neill wrote for VICE in 2021, there’s a similar draw towards huns: “They represent the fun side of British celebrity culture: the deification of women who offer an alternative to the world’s dominant conception of fame as perfect, preened, and mostly American.” British drag queens, just like huns, offer a more relatable alternative to “glossily groomed girlbosses and gym-fit Insta models”. 

A hen party letting loose at the Queen of Hoxton drag brunch.

There are also practical realities driving the popularity of drag brunches. From a performer’s perspective, it’s a relatively easy daytime gig. In the past, most drag queens were required to be night owls, but these events are changing that. There’s an obvious appeal to getting paid without needing to stay up late and travel home in the early hours. “For some girls it’s a perfect fit: a boozy afternoon gig rather than late night is 100 percent preferable,” Drag Race UK star Divina Di Campo tells me.

She thinks drag brunches are popular with women – who are more likely to be caregivers – because daytime events are easier to find childcare. “It’s a win-win because businesses can make money when they might be quiet, and women get the time to get sloshed, away from the responsibilities they might have.”

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As Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been” shook the entire room, I speak to Rachel, who’s on her first time out with the girls since having a baby. Like a lot of the women I chat with, she mentions feeling a sense of safety at the event, surrounded by drag queens, girls and gays. “When women go to straight bars, there’s fights or there’s risk of being harassed or even just judged. But here it just feels like a much more friendly environment,” she says. Looking around the brunch, there’s a clear sense of liberation in the room; of women being able to fully let their hair down in each other’s company.

Women letting their hair down at the Queen of Hoxton.

There are often complaints on social media about hen dos and groups of straight women in queer spaces, who sometimes don’t understand or respect that they are guests in the space. On one hand, events like this are part of the solution. But does taking drag performers out of queer spaces en masse constitute an improvement? When hen dos turn up to LGBTQ+ bars, a queer space actually profits from their custom. On the flip side, it’s hard to take issue with drag performers being booked for regular work that fits easily into their schedule. And given drag so often celebrates exaggerated femininity, or seeks to question patriarchal beauty conventions which oppress women, it seems wrong to put too many stipulations on how and where straight women can enjoy it. In short: It’s complicated.

Drag historian Simon Doonan, author of the book Drag: The Complete Story, started going to drag bars in the 1960s. He tells VICE that he is “delighted” to see drag queens making money at brunch, bingo or anywhere else. “Drag queens and trans people have struggled to get a foothold in culture and society in the past, so it’s amazing to see so many performers becoming successful – especially when you think of how much hard fucking work it is to put on drag,” he says. “Life was challenging for Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, in large part because they didn't have any financial stability. Poor Sylvia ended up living in a tent by a river.”

But there is a potential danger that the more mainstream, higher price-point events – like hunnified brunchs, drag cruises and bingo – are thriving at the expense of queer spaces and performers, whose work is more experimental. We’re now at a point where, as Sue Gives A Fuck puts it, drag is “as mainstream as it gets,” so what happens next? “I think the current interest in drag will end pretty quickly,” Sue predicts. “Maybe interest will shift away from drag, to a different art form? Or maybe drag regroups and recalibrates, or goes back to what it was before in queer spaces with queer people doing weird things – or becomes something else entirely?”

Karma Doll and Soraya Marchelle.

Doonan thinks there are enough different types of drag to go around. “Life should always have things that are superficial and silly and fun. Not everything can be profound,” he says. “The wonderful thing about drag is that it’s an incredible landscape, where you can go to a really fun drag brunch, but then you can go to an art gallery or gay bar where someone’s doing a performance that's about identity in a more intellectual way. It's all there.”

Drag finding a balance between its subversive origins and mass appeal is a tale as old as time in queer culture, which has itself become gradually more commercialised. A similar process applies to hun culture too, which treads a razor-thin line between celebrating iconic women without laughing at them in a cruel way. 

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Not all of the women I spoke to had heard of hun culture, whereas every gay man’s eyes lit up when I mentioned it. Daniel, a gay brunch attendee, describes hun culture as “a bridge between” the girls and the gays. “Straight girls and gay boys often grew up watching the same TV shows or pop culture, but gays couldn’t always talk about that or enjoy it openly, so later on in life they’ve become a big thing we have in common,” he tells me. 

As the crowd dances the afternoon away, inhaling prosecco (sometimes straight from the bottle) and cackling at every joke the drag queens bellowed into the mic, I realise their adoration of these performers isn’t dissimilar to the love shown to the queens of hun culture by their most avid followers. 

In both cases, it brings to mind an Andy Warhol quote about the importance of lightness in the face of snobbery. After the fun vacuum of the last two years, it rings truer than ever. “In some circles where very heavy people think they have very heavy brains, words like ‘charming’ and ‘clever’ and ‘pretty’ are all put-downs,” he wrote in 1975. “All the lighter things in life, which are the most important things, are put down.” 

While “Poker Face” blares overhead, a glammed-up bridesmaid screams into my ear. “Drag queens make me feel like, if they can put themselves out there, then I can do anything!” I ask her if she knows what hun culture is. “I’m not sure…” she admits after a pause, before looking around the room and turning back to me. “But I feel like it’s us?”

@LouisStaples / @jake_photo

Tagged:

DRAG, drag queens, brunch, Nightlife, DRAG QUEEN, hen parties, Huns

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