If 'RuPaul’s Drag World' has taught us anything, it’s that – despite its growing popularity – drag remains the ultimate outsider art.
This weekend, thousands of aspiring and professional drag queens congregated at Kensington Olympia for an expo called Drag World. Billed as "Europe's largest drag convention", like its American cousin Drag Con the event is thrown in aid of the TV show RuPaul's Drag Race, which now boasts nine seasons of brutally catty humour and mascara-stained tears, with contestants fighting to be "America's next drag superstar".
Thankfully, the atmosphere at the London convention was a lot less competitive than the show itself. Young female fans rubbed shoulders with 50-year-old men wearing seven inch heels and synthetic wigs. There were a meagre number of stalls selling overpriced makeup, body harnesses and RuPaul merch, as well as live performances from Drag Race queens.
The best part of the day, however, was the panel discussions, which hit on important social issues like finding your queer family and understanding non-binary gender. Shade was also thrown: only at a drag convention panel would Taylor Swift get called a white supremacist.
We talked to Drag World guests about why RuPaul's Drag Race means so much to them that they sprung a load of money on travel and tickets, and in some cases even felt compelled to bring their parents. Was Drag World a corporate wash out, or the ultimate queer safe space?
Aaron, 19, Netherlands
VICE: Hi Aaron, you're from the Netherlands – why did you come to the UK for Drag World?
Aaron: For a long time I've had a passion for gender and the bending of it, and as a trans guy this event makes me feel "normal", or like everyone else. I also like to do makeup, and I do drag myself. I'd like to start live performing but I haven't yet, so just do it in my bedroom cause it's fun to do.
Do you live with your parents?
Yes. They like it, they think it's fun, and that my expression through makeup is really cool. And they hope I get to do a job out of it, like a makeup artist or something.
What would you have to do to turn drag into a career?
Be out there, make yourself known. I would perform. But right now I don't live in a real big town. There are only a few drag queens and I'd have no idea how to start doing it. Sometimes I go to drag clubs with my friends, but not often, so it's cool to see all of this.
Did you buy meet and greet tickets? How much did they cost?
Today I have two – Adore Delano and Alaska, who was one of the reasons I came here – and tomorrow I have three. A regular ticket is about £70, and then meet and greet tickets are anything up to £10 on top. It was months ago I spent the money, though, so it doesn't feel like I paid extra.
Kiera, Hollyhead, Wales, 24 and Shannon, Hollyhead, 17
To start with, talk me through your looks.
Shannon: I've come as Little Pound Cake, Alaska's alter-ego from season five. I got this dress from a charity shop, scuffed up my hair a bit, put some makeup on and I was out the door.
What about you, Kiera?
Kiera: It's taken me since November to decide what to wear, and I maybe chickened out. Even this glitter is a big step for me, though... normally I just wear jeans and a T-shirt. I feel like I stand out a bit, even though I don't.
What would you guys be doing on a normal Saturday if you weren't here?
In unison: Watching RuPaul's Drag Race!
How many times have you watched it?
Shannon: We've watched every season ten times over.
Why do you love it so much ?
Kiera: It just feels like me. I don't want to be soppy, but it's changed my life; I feel so much confidence talking about it, which I don't normally have.
How has it given you confidence?
I'm going to go deep and say that, before I found Drag Race, I went through a real dark patch and had a bit of a breakdown, which made my life stop for a bit. When I found it I started building up confidence again. I could see these people being whoever they wanted to be and they didn't care what anyone else thought. They were just them and I was just me.
What's today taught you?
Shannon: That there are no rules in drag, that we're all a bunch of weirdos together and we can have fun and do what we want.
Minerva Whip, Switzerland
Are you a gigging queen?
Minerva Whip: I'm not – I'm just doing this for fun. I only do drag about five times a year, at conventions, Pride or at clubs.
What do you love about RuPaul's Drag Race ?
The fact that it promotes diversity. That's very important, as it becomes mainstream. Sometimes people don't think it's a good thing that it's getting so popular, but visibility of diversity is a big thing; we need to see other things different to ourselves to understand them.
Is Drag World what you were expecting?
No. I expected something bigger. Everybody is really nice, though. The other drag queens are friendly, which is really good, and this is what I expected... that people are just happy to see each other in a place like this.
Jim and Gemma, London
Hi guys, what brings you here?
Jim: Well, Gemma recently started at my work, and one of the first things we bonded on was a love of Drag Race. As soon as we realised this was happening, with so many queens from the show, we knew it was something we wanted to do. I've been into Drag Race since season one, before it was on Netflix, and for a long time – even among gay guys – I didn't know people who were into it. So as soon as you find someone who is, you're like, 'Yes!' We just saw a panel discussion with Jinx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme, and they were saying how drag is how you find your people. I guess for me Drag Race is a way to find likeminded people – it's a shorthand.
A shorthand for what, exactly?
Jim: That you're open to things, open to questioning gender norms and other norms or social constructs. That you're willing to think about things in different ways, respect others' differences.
What do you love about it, Gemma?
Gemma: I first got into it on season three or four, then I went backwards. It's the expression and artistry of it. It brings out this idea that you can be who you want to be, that if you feel a certain way or look a certain way you can embrace that. Seeing everyone here do that today is inspiring. It's an opportunity to be out in daylight. We live in a world where people are still victimised and persecuted for being themselves on a daily basis. To see people walking around Kensington and Chelsea in daylight, dressed as they want to dress, that's an amazing thing.
How do you think drag has changed?
Jim: Five years ago this would have been mostly gay men and a certain type of gay man, but lots of people here – I would assume – are cisgender and straight, and there's lots of young people. Drag's always been underground when I've seen it, but now if you're a young person looking for your people, you find them online or on Netflix, and then you can come here and meet one another and express yourself.
Gloria Gaybar, Lola Collins, Florine Elyssa, from Romandy, Switzerland
So how do you all know one another?
Gloria: Lola is my best friend; we met when I did my first drag performance, 15 years ago.
Lola: It was 17 years ago!
Florine: I met them on New Year's Eve, when I was in drag.
What would you say to someone who said drag queens were mean?
Lola: I'd say they're right! Not really. But there will always be artistic differences, like Madonna and Lady Gaga, for example.
Gloria: There are many types of drag; I'm more burlesque, and gorgeous.
Lola: Whereas my type of drag is more pop and fashion, a little bit campy. I'm inspired by Joan Collins, who is my mother; Joan Crawford; big stars from the 80s, like Cindy Lauper, Celine Dion, Liza Minnelli…
As a younger queen, would you say Drag Race inspired you to get into drag?
Florine: I've been doing drag ten months, yes, but it wasn't Drag Race that got me into it. I was depressed in Antwerp and I met Dina Price, another drag queen, and I realised drag is art and fun and I thought, 'Damn, I want to do that!'
What do your parents think?
My mother was ecstatic, and my father... a little more complicated. He was like 'you do whatever you want', but I'm not sure he understands what drag is.
Amy, West London, 22, and Effie, South East London, 21
Has Drag Race taught you much about the world of drag?
Amy: Before I started watching it I didn't know a lot about drag culture, and being able to see them talk about social issues in the gay community, I learned so much. And to see them transform themselves into different people – they make more beautiful women than I do!
Had you seen drag before?
Amy: Only at Pride, but I'd never been to a drag show before I saw Drag Race. Now I have. My uni in High Wycombe hosted Alyssa and Trixie Mattel. We went to Bianco del Rio's comedy show, and obviously now we're here.
What do you think of the convention?
Effie: Well, I went to Comic Con and there's a lot less costumes here, and it's a lot less packed. I think this could catch up, though. The drag world is becoming known – popular; a lot of people are loving it now, and I know RuPaul has his own big Drag Con in America. I feel like it could become on par with that over here. This is a massive turnout for the first year, though.
Jan, Warrington and Heather, 18, Warrington
Do you both watch the show?
Heather: My mum's seen a couple episodes. I've seen every season. My little brother's 13 and he watches it with me.
What you think of the convention, Jan?
Jan: I think it's great. It's been really inspiring listening to a panel today on the boundaries of gender. We all have perceptions put onto us about gender – girls have to behave like this, boys like that, but you don't have to, do you? That's just how society's made everyone. It's not written anywhere. It's made me think.
Why did you bring your mum, Heather?
Heather: I'm not that young – I'm 18 – so I could have come on my own really. But I wanted my mum to understand. My parents ask me why I love drag so much, and it's so hard to put into words what you see – girls and boys and everyone in between coming here to be in the atmosphere. It's not about men dressed up as women or women dressed up as men; drag's become this whole other thing now. It's all the kids who were the outcasts in school in one big conference building. It's crazy that something like drag, which you wouldn't think of as related to that, could bring all these people together.
Do you think some people might find it surprising that young women are so into drag?
Heather: Drag queens are the new pop stars – it's crazy how many Twitter and Instagram followers they have. Traditional drag was more of a parody of women, but it's evolved into a portrayal of strong women. Sasha Velour is a portrait of an unapologetic women, and that's what draws girls in. We get told by boys that we do this too much, or that too much, or wear too much makeup. Drag queens do all of it too much and they don't apologise.
What have you learnt today, Jan?
Jan: To keep the movement going. When you see people be negative to anyone, to speak up and say something. Like if they say it's not OK to be gay, in your own little world, don't be quiet, encourage people to be themselves, whatever that might be.
Dante, 32, London, New York and DC
Who did you come with and why?
Dante: I'm here with my husband. I've experimented with drag in New York, and I toured with a dance company, so I've done some drag around the States. I've always been interested in the performance element, but I'm also a costume designer, so I'm stealing ideas, seeing what people are doing. I like the meshing of feminine and masculine – I buy men's and women's clothes – so it's interesting to see that here.
Have you ever seen so much drag in the daytime like this?
No, never. There are discussions and people are sober – for the most part. So there's a connectivity happening on a different level that doesn't involve intoxication. People are actually engaging with one another.
Does it feel like a safe space?
It does. I was thinking about that as I was getting myself dressed this morning. I don't live in a particularly dangerous neighbourhood, but I was thinking about how to leave the house like this, and then when I arrived here I felt totally at ease. The way I'm dressed wouldn't be that outrageous in New York, but here we haven't quite moved to the place that the "other" is accepted in the streets, so I think people should try to take it further. It's beautiful how many people here are just themselves and experimenting. If you want to do that, it's nice to know you have a community to turn to, other people like you, and that's what this is all about it.
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