Who the fuck says drag is owned by men?
9AM on a Sunday morning is for the walk of shame or going to church. But for the female queens of London it's a time that straddles both; the foundation-smeared, grotty beauty of a morning creep home, and the towering feminine performance of your Sunday best.
Which is why I find myself in a studio beside a stagnant canal in Dalston watching eight women becoming drag queens – all faux fur, glitter beards, sprayed wigs, thick powder and blushed on breasts. The atmosphere isn't decadent; it's concentrated. They build their eyeliner up like plasterers.
What does it say about our idea of femininity that women in wigs, corsets, stilettos and seven ounces of make-up can sing, strip, get groped and shake to audiences in the name of gender fuck? Can we learn more about what it is to be women by disguising gender through a constructed, post-sex persona?
Victoria Sin turns up in a tracksuit, bare-faced, carrying an M&S shopping bag full of clothes, saying she's "never tried to do drag make up on Sunday morning hungover before." And yet, the slow application of clown white, blue shadow and blusher-painted cleavage is fascinating. I watch like a gawper on the tube. We talk about Judith Butler, post-break-up butch-ness and gender performance. "A lot of women are female drag queens and they don't even know it," she says. "All those extremely sexy women like Beyonce have an inch of make up, wigs, crazy clothes."
Eppie, a young queen from Newcastle, who was raised by her father and brothers, got the bus from Turnpike Lane wearing a full purple glitter beard. She doesn't want me to see her non-drag identity, doesn't tell me her birth name and leaves in full costume after the shoot. And so she should – for this project she is a bearded Barbie, not the girl from near-Gateshead. Her outfit is a £5 dress from Fonthill Road in Finsbury Park, a polyester world of overt femininity among evangelist churches and Islamic cultural centres. "I've got the same bones on my face as my dad," she says, painting a fake wig hairline across her natural hair with gold paint. "I like the feeling of being mistook for a man dressed as a woman".
Next to arrive is Lolo Brow, already in full make-up, beautiful and eloquent. A trained dancer, tight-laced into a truly unfathomable corset, she demands attention, even when drinking a giant blue can of Monster energy drink. Lolo describes drag as a way to be "more arrogant than I ever thought I could be" and the drag community as an amphitheatre of "fierce, powerful women, not men dressed as women."
Rubyyy Jones arrives with her girlfriend in flat shoes, red hair, glittered eyebrows and a black T-shirt. Part of The Familyyy Fierce Collective with Lolo Brown and fellow female queen star Lily Snatchdragon, Rubyyy has been grabbed by audiences, groped, poked by people wondering if her boobs are real, and yet she is intensely, undeniably female. "I shun a lot of female expectations in drag, as I do in burlesque," says Rubyyy, taking off her knickers and stepping into a pair of fishnet tights. "I don't shave any of my body, I don't generally wear heels. Drag can be another pressure put on women about how they could or should look. But you don't have to shave or wear heels or be thin to be fierce or beautiful. I have no interest in being beautiful. I am beautiful."
When a small blonde woman appears at the door, dragging a suitcase, her hair pulled back into a ponytail, I think it's a member of the public lost. But this is Lisa Lee – part of The Lipsinkers – who has been doing female drag for over ten years. "I definitely see it as exploring gender," she says, pulling on her silver jumpsuit and ratty Dolly Parton wig. "We're encouraging an audience to think about what constitutes male and female."
Miss Terri – the woman behind Madame Jojo's Kitsch Cabaret – has been dragging up for over 20 years. A make-up artist and singer, she describes her look as "high glam drag, rather than funny drag." Watching her gum and paint out her eyebrows and freehand her peacock-like eyes is a masterclass in painted glamour. She got into drag "by accident" after answering an advert for a singer in The Stage and yet her look is, to my untrained eye, the most recognisable as drag – big wig, feathers and a cocked eyebrow.
Self-styled "tranny with a fanny", Holestar, is a female drag pioneer. She's already come up in every conversation I've had before sailing in in full make-up. From a stint in the army to her years as a dominatrix, Holestar is no stranger to discipline. Which is perhaps how she has sustained an 11-year career performing her aggressive, female form of drag, while railing against the "vile misogyny" of "bad" queens. "Women doing drag is still not mainstream," she says, balancing a huge pink wig on her dog's head. "Recently I got called a cunt and 'some chick who thinks she's a drag queen' by a queen who I called out for plagiarism.
Who the fuck says drag is owned by men? It never has been. It was carved out that way through pantomime and tradition, but if you look at old music hall you'd have lots of gender performance by both men and women."
Of course, it's not just female drag queens who use gender fuck and live performance to grind against the casual misogyny and political inequality of our society. "We're acting out the people we want to be, because society tells us we can't be them in our 'real life'," says male drag artist and broadcaster, Scottee. "We're post-gendered drag. It's not important to me what someone's birth or perceived gender is – it's gender illusion and performance".
Is there a resistance among the male drag community? "Am I frightened that women are doing drag? No. I think it's brilliant," says Scottee. "There's a lot of misogyny that lies underneath historical drag. Talking about 'becoming fishes' to mean becoming more womanly – that comes from gay men's perceptions of women's vaginas smelling of fish. I don't want to be part of that world".
A world where young men and women, from the Lily Savage heartland of northern social clubs to grotty nightclubs of London suburbs can dress, dance, sing and paint on an identity that teeters above our traditional notion of sex and gender, is far more exciting.
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