Within the world of drag, there's a sharp divide between the mainstream and alternative drag (otherwise known as alt drag). Performers in the former category tend to embrace womanly (or "fishy") looks, haute couture, and Broadway-inspired dance numbers; within the latter, you'll find more androgynous (or "genderfuck") styling, DIY outfits, and productions that draw from performance art. And drag's present moment, which is so defined by the success of RuPaul—who just won a Reality TV Host Emmy this Sunday night—has created, in the minds of many, a stark division between the mainstream drag we see on TV and the alt drag of edgy clubs and underground queer nightlife.
Last weekend's Bushwig drag festival in New York City—a two-day celebration of LGBTQ art, culture, and, most importantly, alt drag—attempted to prove the fluidity of those divisions, and that they don't (or shouldn't) prevent queens from coming together, especially now that drag is bigger and more visible than ever before.
Launched five years ago at Secret Project Robot, a 300-person venue deep in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Bushwig has grown to become one of the most discussed events on the city's queer calendar. Two years ago, the festival garnered coverage from the New York Times; last year, Lady Bunny, who created the legendary drag festival Wigstock, took the stage to pass a Party City torch to Bushwig's organizers, symbolically sealing the festival's status as a queer high holiday.
To keep up with its own growth, this year's festival expanded in both size and scope. It now books more than 150 queens, up from a mere 30 in 2011. It has moved into the Knockdown Center, a 5,000-capacity, warehouse-like venue on the Brooklyn-Queens border. And most importantly, it has lifted its gaze to include not only the alt drag and Brooklyn scene, but the larger drag community—which means welcoming RuPaul stars and talents from abroad alongside queens from down the street.
Bushwig has always been an alt-drag festival, first and foremost, and its growing success might seem to reflect a moment when grittier drag styles are finally winning acceptance alongside mainstream traditions. But is the festival a harbinger of an alt-drag resurgence, or just another sign that drag as a whole is flourishing?
Bushwig organizer Babes Trust sees RuPaul's visibility and the growth of mainstream drag as part and parcel with the growth of alt drag and events like Bushwig. "Of course, Rupaul and that style of drag has had this huge cultural influence, but I think it has just exposed the idea of drag to more people in general," she told VICE. "That means that, yes, there are plenty of queens that try to replicate that Drag Race look, a fishy look. But there are just as many queens that have been exposed to it and are following their own path, doing it their own way." In short, what's good for any drag genre is good for all drag genres. As fishy, mainstream drag grows, so does alt drag.
"Seriously, severely alternative drag is like severely alternative music. It's not intended to be mainstream," Aquaria, a rising starlet who performed at Bushwig Saturday night, and whose aesthetic bridges alt drag and mainstream, told VICE. "I don't think there's a feud between the styles where one is winning. They're just done with different intentions. And alt drag isn't done with the intention of being in-the-box or popular."
However, it's impossible to ignore the fact that, outside Bushwig's alt-drag utopia, certain divisions do exist. I spoke with UK star Meth about her experience with Bushwig, and how she views the shifting worlds of alt and traditional drag. "The scenes are quite separate in London," she said. "There's very rarely crossover between the traditional, more mainstream drag that happens in SoHo and the drag in East London, which is very much like Brooklyn, very much that gender-fuckery and crazy-party drag. It does happen, and it's happening more and more, but there's no point in saying we're all great friends, and we're constantly working together. It's not true."
As a drag queen whose work embraces both alt drag and mainstream styles, I can say that the same is true in the US. In fact, I've sometimes been frustrated by the incapacity of audiences to accept alt drag in mainstream-oriented venues.
I rarely get a chance to sit in the audience at a drag show, but I did this weekend—and I admit that the experience helped me to understand why alt drag may not play for the typical spectator. At one point, a performing queen ended a very long number with a slapstick physical comedy gag. She straightened up as if preparing for a dramatic jump into splits, but then stopped herself before actually jumping and capped the move off with a big wink, as if to say, "I'm not going to pander like that." The move made me think of other half-completed drag achievements I'd seen that day: Wigs that were almost styled, costumes that were almost finished, kicks that were almost high, choreography that was almost choreography. As a queen, I love that wild freedom, but the little audience member in me said, I wanted to see a jump split.
Michael Musto touched on this feeling when he paraphrased drag performer Heidi Glum in his New York Times recap: "Unlike at Manhattan drag revues, where acts are seeking to impress real or imagined talent agents, no one cares." When it comes to choosing between alt or traditional drag, audiences have to decide what bothers them more: queens trying too hard, or queens who make an art of not trying. And for many, the former is more attractive.
But at Bushwig, where the playing field is leveled, audiences embrace drag for drag's sake. Polished queens rub hip pads with the outlandish; bearded queens chat with cis-gendered women dressed in drag regalia; the stage opens to names large and small. According to Babes Trust, nearly a quarter of this weekend's performers were first-timers, but they were given the same time and space as headline names like Latrice Royale. For Meth, this kind of diversity was an inspiration and part of the event's draw. "It was incredible to see that with every act something new was being brought and to see very traditional campy stuff alongside nonsensical fuckery," she told me, "As someone who produces events themselves, I completely admire that."