Welcome to 'Drag Me To Hell', a new column in which VICE writer and queen of terror Ben Smoke will be your guide through the UK's many messy, spectacular and diverse drag scenes.
Drag has exploded in popularity over the last decade. From its humble beginnings with terrible lighting to the Emmy Award-winning behemoth it's become, RuPaul’s Drag Race has catapulted the form into public consciousness and launched the careers of dozens of queens in the process – plucking them from relative obscurity and broadcasting their talents and heavily edited backstories to millions of viewers. As a result of the show’s success, almost all of today’s internationally successful queens, and the scenes they come from, are based in the US – but drag is about to hit UK TV like a death dropped wig.
This summer will see the launch of Channel 4’s Drag Lab, which has been described as Queer Eye with drag queens, and in the autumn BBC Three will host the eagerly awaited Drag Race UK, on which 11 queens will display their own brand of edge, camp and comedy. Where America is pageant and ball heavy, UK drag is rooted in East End dancehalls and West End bars. Performers today are the children of icons like Danny LaRue or Lily Savage; campy, effervescent and sarcastic. There's a self-awareness inherent to British drag, and it tends to not take itself too seriously – preferring the wink and nudge of the pantomime dame to the ostentation of pageantry. As with the American show, the UK drag scene is so vast and diverse it could never be encapsulated by ten queens on reality TV.
As more and more people enter into drag fandom through the Drag Race franchise, it’s worth remembering that the prejudices sometimes fostered by its representation in the mainstream can trickle down into the day-to-day scene. Perhaps the most famous drag queen in the world, RuPaul has paved the way for whole new generations to enjoy and engage with the form. Along the way, though, he’s been very vocal about what, or who, he considers drag. In a controversial interview with the Guardian last year, RuPaul was asked about the inclusion of cisgender women on his show. In response, he said: "Drag loses its danger and sense of irony when it's not men doing it, because at its core it's a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity."
Ru went on to say that he would not allow a post-transition queen to compete on his show, highlighting the differences in how trans and cis women are sometimes viewed in relation to drag.
The telling of LGBTQ history often misses out the contribution of those who are not cis-gay men, and the story of drag is no different. Without his legendary dancers, collaborators and friends like Barbara Windsor, there would have been no Danny LaRue. It goes without saying that without cis women and non-binary people there would be no drag, but to hold them at a distance as inspiration rather than instigators denies the fact that UK drag has always been driven forward by those who fit outside of narrow definitions of it. Pioneers like Marnie Scarlett, Holestar and Mzz Kimberely have blazed a trail in their own ways with sickening looks, jaw dropping performances and seemingly unending reserves of talent – and those are just two examples. Across the UK, there are tons of women and non-binary queens who deserve their own time and space to be explored properly.
At 11:30AM one Saturday in May, I take the tube up to deepest north London. It’s hard to tell which is sleepier: me, or the residential district of Hornsey, where people are flocking to the Three Compasses pub for Drag Royalty Brunch. When I arrive, the function room is awash with dirty makeup brushes, tape, glitter and an abandoned giant Pringles can. Performers run around putting the finishing touches to their looks.
Drag brunches have become increasingly popular in the last few years as venues seek to cash in on the holy gay trinity of brunch, drag and day drinking. This, however, is brunch with a difference: Drag Royalty Brunch is the only such event in town to book exclusively non-binary and women performers.
Today’s host is Oedipussi Rex. Styled as a barbarian, they perform "original" spoken word efforts and "Hero" by Enrique Iglesias. Artfully negotiating the technical difficulties that let you know you’re definitely at a drag show, they eventually pull a seemingly endless length of ribbon from their beard and pass it around the room, so every punter has a grip on it – much like those big rainbow sheets every primary school in the country seemed to wheel out whenever the PE teacher was bored.
In the corner, staff from LGBTQ homeless shelter The Outside Project apply glitter to audience members' faces in exchange for donations. On stage, one of the brunch’s producers, Harley V (or D, depending on whether they’re performing as a queen or king), performs a heartfelt rendition of "All By Myself" to her vibrator, desperately looking for the missing batteries. Max Legroom arrives wearing the aforementioned Pringle tube, before pulling a mini-pack from her crotch and taking a break halfway through the performance to munch through them.
Drag Royalty Brunch has all the key tenets of a drag show. It’s both ridiculous and heartwarming, challenging and stupid, intelligently vacuous and intentionally pointed. It’s strange, then, that by certain definitions or proclamations, none of this would be considered “drag” at all. Much is written about what or who is drag, but the notion that any of the performers or events featured here don’t fit into that category is nonsense. Unfortunately, opinions like those of RuPaul expose a misogyny deep within the scene – something Harley was acutely aware of when she set up the brunch.
"Women and AFABs are getting booked and represented a lot better and fairer in the cabaret scene, and have their own nights which have incredible success – LADS sells out every time – and people within the scene are calling out unequal line ups more, which is great," she tells me. "The problem [is with] more mainstream bookings. Often, women and AFABs are not represented or booked, and it’s these bookings that pay the most. TV shows, adverts, private corporate events and events in non queer-venues aren’t reflecting the diversity and talent of the scene. This is partially because bookers think that audiences only want mainstream drag performers like they have seen on TV. ‘Straight girls only like drag queens’ has been said to me before, and it’s simply not true. It's just blaming women for the sexism they experience."
The fact that drag can sometimes feel like a "boy's club" may seem rather ironic, but it’s something that hasn’t gone unnoticed in the UK.
"Being a woman in drag isn’t really much different to the rest of my personal or professional life,” Lolo Brow, a cisgender woman and professional drag queen, based in London, tells me. “The hostility there isn’t something I’m unfamiliar with. When I first started, it used to affect me, because the people’s opinions at the top do matter, but now I’ve embedded myself in a community full of people making art that I see as much more valid to me."
Lolo and I are speaking at the Bosco – a temporary theatre space in Brighton’s Old Steine Gardens – where she was booked to perform her solo show "Attention Seeker" as part of the city’s month-long fringe festival. The performance is all about audience participation – they get to choose the acts and direct the show they want to see. It’s silly and it’s camp, funny and dangerous, ironic and exhilarating. In other words: it's drag.
Arriving at the Bosco, I grab a seat in front of a group of young women and their mums, shuffling in their seats and clasping plastic glasses of wine.
"Have you seen Lolo perform before?" I ask.
"No! my mum got us tickets because it looked good!"
I can barely contain my laughter, because I know exactly what's about to follow. After an opening number, Lolo begins with "the burlesque shuffle". Dressed in a corset, gown, gloves, boots and a luminous green wig, she hands her iPod to the sound tech, which is loaded with 700 songs. The premise is simple: she’ll lip sync and strip to whatever song is playing, but the audience has control of the music. They can skip any song, at any time. We careen through Lolo’s eclectic music library as she ricochets around the theatre. She gets a member of the audience up to pretend to be a table as she lip syncs some Nigella Lawson audio, fellating a cucumber and creating nipple pasties from mash potato. She lip syncs to "Endless Love", periodically gobbing on a dildo playing the part of Mariah Carey. She puts out cigarettes on her tongue, puts a drill into the hole at the back of her nose and pulls the trigger before threading a condom into it and back through her mouth, flossing the inside of her face in the process. Eventually she ends the act completely naked, power posing to the Star Wars theme.
"At the beginning of my career I’d see a lot of male performers doing drag and donning ‘womanhood’, but they’d never branch beyond the stereotype," Lolo tells me. "It was either trashy slut, which I identify strongly with; homemaker; or ditzy woman. I watched one queen doing the trashy thing and I thought: 'Wou are a man who has no idea what it’s like to grow up being told you can either be sexy or intelligent.'
"A lot of the worse misogyny was offstage," she adds. "Performers would make comments about vaginas or female bodies being disgusting, and I found it so bizarre that they tried to embody a certain type of womanhood, but had no concept of the enjoyment of a fabulous cunt."
Misogyny is still pervasive in certain parts of the LGBT community, and in turn can create narrow views of what drag "can" and "cannot" be. Of course, there are legions of performers doing their best to stamp it out – Lolo, Harley and all those featured here notwithstanding, there are others who consistently feature diverse line-ups. Club nights like Cybil’s House, the Cocoa Butter club or Apples and Pears Cabaret are just a few examples.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been in and around different parts of the London drag scene for years, and in that time I’ve been moved to tears as often as I’ve been utterly revolted by things I’ve seen on stage. I’ve seen performers staple things to themselves, jump into the splits from the top of a pole in front of a crowd of thousands, or pull things from inside of their orifices to a crowd of ten. I’ve watched a drag version of Margaret Thatcher belt out Pulp’s "Common People" on karaoke and seen enough flips and tricks, stunts or shenanigans to fill tomes. Some have been cis men, others haven’t, but more often than not it’s those on the fringes – those with a different, new, interesting perspective, or story to tell – who make for the best drag. To ignore them, and their vast contribution to the art form, is to miss out on the best and the brightest the scene has to offer.
As well as checking out the performers and events featured above, here’s a selection of some of the best female performers and events that should be on your radar.
Lads: a night run by Lolo Brow with her sisters Lily Snatchdragon and Scarlett O’hora, Lads is a raucous celebration of female performers that never fails to disappoint.
Man-Up: a drag king competition run by east London queer venue The Glory. This year’s event saw a final at Hackney's EartH and was bursting with talent. The competition will be back next year, but in the meantime, keep a look out for any line-ups including Man-Up contestants for the guarantee of an incredible night.
Tete Bang: international superstar and one of the nicest queens on the scene, who will soon be gracing your screens in Drag Lab. Whether she’s performing, go-going or DJing, you’ll always be entertained. Catch her DJing at Savage’s closing party on the 1st of June.
Miss Disney: Brighton-based queen. Camp, silly and – unsurprisingly – lots of Disney.