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This article originally appeared on VICE UK
RuPaul, international drag champion and mastermind behind the hit American TV show that bears his name, recently said in an interview that drag "will never be mainstream." Recently, London played host to a "family friendly" festival of contemporary drag, where The Glory—a queer cabaret-driven East End pub—collaborated with cultural behemoth the National Theatre. Together, they delivered three days of performance to the type of audience more likely to go for Saturday strolls by the Southbank than glitter their faces up for a night at Sink the Pink (perhaps to Ru's surprise).
With a collaboration on this scale, that's merging alternative culture with one of the most traditional theatre spaces, surely drag's crossed over. Rather than just take RuPaul's word for it, I headed down to the theatre to ask some of the Glory Days performers one question: has drag gone mainstream?
I certainly think with shows like RuPaul's Drag Race, and with drag queens now getting more exposure, it's certainly going more mainstream, but I don't think that necessarily means its underground roots are being compromised. The sort of RuPaul brand of drag is very female impersonation-orientated and the fact that in east London there are women that are drag queens, means it doesn't necessarily have to be one gender pretending to be another—it's really incredible as it's become more about deconstructing gender as an idea.
A Man to Pet
Oh yes, it is definitely more mainstream than it used to be. I started ten years ago and there are more people doing it now, expressing it. It doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman either—I think everyone can express themselves a little bit better when they have some kind of outfit that changes who they are. Prosthetic boobs or a wig, it just gives you a different kind of character, and I think people are currently loving that.
It's been mainstream for quite a few years now. Drag Race has changed the whole face of drag completely—everyone's doing it now.
VICE: RuPaul actually said drag could never go mainstream because it's so different.
Pffft, that bitch made it mainstream! And there is a place for drag in the mainstream, as transgender issues especially are changing a hell of a lot, becoming more prevalent and getting major press. I think the general public are becoming more accustomed to not living within gender binaries and the grey areas between. RuPaul is full of shit—go out there, perform the shit out of it, and change people's perceptions of the binaries by being fabulous.
Yes I do think it's becoming more mainstream, but there are limits. As drag kings one of the major things we look at is breaking down those boundaries; if the boundaries weren't there then we wouldn't be able to break them. There will always be boundaries and there will always be things that need to be raised and talked about.
I've already seen some little queens in the front row [where the kids are sitting] that are just like "I wanna put a dress on daddy, I wanna put a dress on!" So I think it looks like drag's going to take over the National. People are becoming more and more genderless so hopefully we won't even realise we're doing drag. That's what I hope it's going to be like.
It's an exciting time for drag because the general public are starting to see what it's is about; it's not just some men dressed up in women's clothes, going out and miming to records. They've learnt from RuPaul that just putting on makeup is an art form, being creative with the clothes, the dance routines. We don't just go out and get drunk at night time, sleep all day—no. We're not drinking, we're in dance classes, I'm in voice classes—acting classes, speech classes, you name it.
Lily Savage was pretty mainstream, she was on breakfast TV, she was on Blankety Blank. That was drag going mainstream. What we're doing here with the National Theatre, I don't know if it's so much mainstream as bringing our art and our nonsense and our stupidity and being offered a platform to show it to people. And the National Theatre is acknowledging that.
What a ridiculous statement for RuPaul to make—his "Supermodel (You Better Work)" was a huge pop song. Is that mainstream? If not then what is? Crossdressing a man to a woman, gender politics aside, is still viewed by the mainstream as provocative, weird, difficult, and entertaining—there is room for that in mainstream but I think that comes down to how that person behaves in the moment. The sexualized nature of performance can challenge people sometimes.
It's having a renaissance since probably the 80s. I think the last time there was high-profile drag was Lily Savage during Blankety Blank and when she was doing the Royal Variety show and things like that. It's always been about hasn't it—Dame Edna and that.
Obviously there is a subversive side to it and we don't need to become so mainstream that it's completely acceptable, as it'll lose its power if it just becomes another thing that you see everyday. It has to be a bit darker and a bit naughty.
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