What You Learn When You Ask Queens Why They Do Drag

For over a decade British photographer Magnus Hastings has been shooting the some of the biggest drag queens and asking them one question: Why drag?

by Magnus Hastings; Words: Michael Segalov
05 June 2016, 12:00am

Courtney Act, on the Why Drag? book cover

For over a decade, British photographer Magnus Hastings has been shooting some of the most notorious queens and asking them one simple question: Why drag? Whether during his cross-dressing childhood or his wild, heady party days on Sydney's scene, it's a question Magnus has been asking himself for a lifetime.

"I grew up an all-singing and dancing, cross-dressing at any opportunity little boy who would steal his sisters' shoes and clothes and put on plays for my somewhat exasperated parents," he says now, although he quickly realised he preferred pointing the lens to putting on the heels.

Drag may well be kicking down the doors to mainstream cultural acceptance, but it's not just the popularity of the art that has changed starkly in the time Magnus has been capturing his queens; it's the motivation. "The older queens talked about fitting in within the drag scene, about it giving them the confidence if they felt less than as a man, a way to fit in with the beautiful people without the need for a six-pack," he says.

Drag in decades gone by wasn't just an excuse to get dressed up and run wild – you only need to look to the seminal ball culture documentary Paris Is Burning to see that drag can provide community and salvation as much as it does a seriously good time. "I have often compared drag to being a superhero," Magnus says. "For some queens it gives them their power, their confidence. They can exist and behave in a way they just can't when out of drag."

"Younger queens talked more in terms of art and creative freedom," he continues. "Lots of newer drag is more fluid, less about one specific alter ego. They're trying out many things out and using [themselves] as the canvas."

Why Drag?, with photographs by Magnus Hastings and a foreword by Boy George, was published in May by Chronicle Books. We've got some of the queens' responses from the book below


"I started dressing up at 15 because I noticed how different my style was from the other kids. I guess my creativity went further than just different-coloured shoes and green hair. So at 15 I was competing in singing competitions as a girl… and they never knew I was a boy. It was so liberating to be something/someone else for a change."
Adore Delano Azusa, California © Magnus Hastings

"First and foremost, drag is a creative outlet. I enjoy creating a persona or character that can change every time I put on a face. It’s also a great challenge to keep doing new things and to continue to push myself creatively. Creative aesthetic aside, I feel that drag not only allows me a platform to raise awareness about different LGBTQ issues, but also mandates that I use it. I love drag. It’s hard to imagine my life without it."
Kizha Carr, New York © Magnus Hastings

"I started out in theatre. I was an actor and did costumes, wigs, and makeup; I had all the packaging to do drag. So it was just inevitable that it was going to happen. Because what does a fag do backstage? He always thinks he can do the role onstage much better than the person doing it. It evolved and then became a business for me. It is something that I am passionate about, but it comes secondary to the costumes and the artistry of it. For me, drag is a way to get away with murder. If I don’t wear a wig, I am called a hateful fag; when I wear a wig, they call me hysterical."
Bianca Del Rio, Los Angeles © Magnus Hastings

"Drag doesn’t make much sense: It takes up all of your time, consumes most of your money, and may subject you to some of the most extreme ridicule on the planet. But I imagine it is much like being a nun or a priest – once you get the divine (or Divine) calling, you have no choice in the matter and you belong to drag for life. Even in the case of those who have hung up the heels and sworn off the frock, the truth remains: bubbling just beneath the surface lies the eternal inner queen."
Alaska Thunderfuck, LA © Magnus Hastings

"It came to me by what seemed like an accident. The art of drag is intrinsic to who I am. The ability to create anything I want without rules is the real thing I love about drag. It’s creative, expressive, and subversive. To hold and know the power of a woman is something so amazing that I don’t think a woman could ever understand because they cannot know life without it. But not all drag is about creating the illusion of a woman, and I love that side too. Drag is about freedom of expression, performance art, and illusion. When people are caught in the act, I get to make them think and entertain them at the same time. It is so empowering to wield this act of creation. Drag has taught me that I have deliberate control over my image, and when this notion is applied to one’s whole life, it is both powerful and transformative."
Courtney Act, LA by way of Sydney © Magnus Hastings

"For me, drag has been an unbelievably satisfying artistic expression. I moved to NYC to perform and write music, and drag ended up presenting itself as the vehicle to do so without having to change my appearance or performance style to fit someone else’s narrow vision. I have the chance to show the world what I do best (at least once the rest of NYC catches on! But what it really comes down to is support. Much of the gay nightlife community is hugely supportive of my parodies and my non-traditional presentation, and that’s what’s kept me in the wig and the heels and the lashes, taking the train to the club."
Kareem McJagger, New York © Magnus Hastings

"When I explain why I do drag to somebody in my family, like my grandma, I say it’s a form of art. It’s a great way for me to pull all of my experiences together within myself. As a child growing up on a farm, I remember watching television and seeing glamorous people on the screen and in the pages of magazines. I felt that I was meant for something great and wanted to shine as bright as those representations of glamour. Drag has been a great way to captivate many eyes all around the world, and now that I have the audience’s attention, I want to be inspiring to anyone who’s ever felt invisible or disregarded or abused. Being in drag gives me the chance to spread love and creativity and bravery to anyone willing to listen and especially to LGBT youth. Yes, I enjoy being glamorous and shining bright in a room full of people, but what makes it worth it is having an impact on the planet."
Miss Fame, New York © Magnus Hastings

"I was born in East Germany and there was nothing like drag or gay things in public going on. Nobody talked about it. And ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be a girl. I remember that I loved old movies. I still do – my favorite actress has always been Sophia Loren. For a long time I thought I was transsexual and I wanted to be as beautiful as her. I always had a very female side, so I wanted to be a girl and went out in “drag” for carnival in school. And of course I wore my mother’s shoes when I came home from school for years ’til my feet got too big and I couldn’t fit in them anymore. Then the wall came down and I started to go out into gay nightlife. Soon I realised that there are places out there where you can live your dreams and dress as you want to, so that’s how I started drag. I always had the old Hollywood divas as role models. I’m still fascinated by them and still want to be like them."
Melli Magic (right) and Mataina Ah-Wie-Suss, Berlin © Magnus Hastings

"My drag was born out of activism. I joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in 1987 to change the world. My paint used to be very tribal – almost like war paint – but I quickly learned that people respond to beauty. Over the years my look has evolved into a more glamorous affair, but there’s no mistaking the iconic whiteface, outrageous makeup, and giant eyelashes of my order. People often ask me if I’m a Sister or a drag queen. I say both, because I’m proud to be a Sister and I’m honoured to be a drag queen – changing the world one glitter kiss at a time."
Sister Roma, San Francisco © Magnus Hastings

"Every little American boy dreams of being on a baseball card. Conversely, every little faggot dreams of being a supermodel. I never knew what I wanted to be growing up. I thought I could be a lawyer because I argued really well with people. I also thought I could be a cartoonist because I liked drawing and doing funny voices. I graduated high school at 16, moved out into the world, and started doing extra work in drag because it paid more money than doing it as a normal person. So drag for me was about survival to begin with. I kept at it because I started writing and couldn’t find anyone lewd enough to perform my material. I like to think of myself as the love child between John Belushi and Ann-Margret. Plus, I realised the only thing I ever wanted to top is the Billboard Comedy Chart (and I did). Also, I really like shiny stuff."
Willam Belli, LA © Magnus Hastings