How Drag Queens Work

Vaudevillian Dan Leno tickled turn-of-the-century audiences by dressing as a woman.
Vaudevillian Dan Leno tickled turn-of-the-century audiences by dressing as a woman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Singer, actor and television host RuPaul has been touted as the most famous drag queen in the world and has helped bring the campy performance-oriented brand of cross-dressing into mainstream popular culture. In 1994, RuPaul's sassy single "Supermodel (You Better Work)" broke into the top 30 on Billboard Music's pop chart, catapulting the multitalented personality into a successful career with résumé highlights including a high-profile cosmetics campaign, bestselling autobiography and hit reality television series. But RuPaul isn't the first man to become a household name by donning a dress and high heels.

During the early 20th century, Julian Eltinge, born William Dalton, became internationally famous for his uncanny ability to act like a lady. Details surrounding his initial interest in mimicking women's fashion and body language are hazy, as origin stories offer different theories, such as Eltinge's mother dressing him up like a girl, him stumbling on his gender-bending knack while taking dance lessons and female impersonation on stage being a lifelong dream of his [sources: Landis, The Julian Eltinge Project]. Whatever the preceding events, in 1911 Eltinge won theatrical acclaim for his cross-dressing role in the hit play "The Fascinating Widow," which would open the door to his ultimate status as the father of modern drag queens. Transitioning from the stage to the silent silver screen, Eltinge commanded one of the highest salaries in show business at the time, launched three fan magazines dedicated to his craft, accumulated a cabinet's-worth of product endorsements and even performed for a delighted King Edward VII of the United Kingdom.

Considering the era's restrictive views on gender and widespread disavowal of homosexuality, Eltinge's onstage drag performances surprisingly didn't ruffle many contemporary feathers; female audiences in particular delighted in Eltinge's seemingly magical transformations into women. But in his personal life, Eltinge displayed a distinct unease with his stage trickery of posing as female characters. Extremely concerned that fans might assume he cross-dressed offstage or, even worse at the time, engaged in sexual relationships with men, the bachelor made well-publicized displays of his masculine passions and pastimes that included boxing, cigar smoking and fishing.

By the 1930s, Eltinge's silent film star had faded as "talkies" attracted larger audiences at the cinema, and his gender metamorphosis shtick had lost its novelty. His story, however, is only one pit stop along the extensive historical highway of cross-dressing and drag queens.

An Early History of Cross-dressing and Drag

Since the 17th century, Japanese kabuki has featured male actors performing female roles.
Since the 17th century, Japanese kabuki has featured male actors performing female roles.
Quim Llenas/Getty Images

The history of men playing female roles on stage stretches back millennia. In ancient Greece, women were barred from participating in dramatic performances because it was deemed too dangerous. During the Middle Ages in Europe, the Christian Church continued the tradition of banning women on stage as a moralistic precaution to preserve their sexual propriety. At that time, theater existed only in the form of church pageants that reenacted Biblical stories, and it wasn't until the 17th century that opera first opened up stage roles for women [source: Gerwitz]. During Shakespeare's heyday in England, men would play both male and female roles, and in 1660, King Charles II lifted the curtain on gender restrictions on stage, at last allowing women to play themselves. Over the next few decades, it even became popular for women to portray male characters, in a conceit called "breeches roles" [source: Torr and Bottoms].

Incidentally, the loosening of gender restrictions in Western theater took place as stage rules tightened in the East. In 1629, Japan instituted a ban on female actors, specifically targeting all-female kabuki troupes. Through the 19th century, male actors would have to serve as onnagata, or female impersonators, in kabuki productions [source: Morinaga].

Back in Britain, although men were no longer required to play female characters, they still carried out the custom at times, only for comedic rather than dramatic effect. And instead of men attempting to looking convincingly like women on stage, a British theater genre called pantomime evolved around masculine-looking actors feigning effeminacy for laughs, while a female actor played a young male protagonist [source: The British Players]. The first pantomime -- also known as panto -- play opened in 1723, and the gender-bending tradition of men costumed in women's garb, wigs and excessive makeup to lampoon stereotypes of older, sexually knowledgeable, women took off and would later inform vaudeville acts across the pond.

Before the rise of urban centers and movie theaters in the United States, traveling vaudeville shows were one of the most popular forms of family-friendly entertainment from 1870 to 1920. Alongside kooky acts such as ventriloquists and amateur acrobats, pantomimelike drag performances were also popular and considered safe for audiences of all ages. Although these early drag entertainers intended to mock rather than emulate their put-on heroines, the campiness of their routines would endure into contemporary "glamour drag" shows that involve more direct female impersonation.

At the turn of the century, homophobic anxieties over men dressing up as women didn't stoke much public complaint, but as gay men gradually came out of the closet, drag became more closely linked with homosexuality and transitioned to more of an underground art form. As a byproduct of Prohibition and the rise of illegal speakeasies in the 1920s and early 1930s, gay men also found new places to congregate away from the prying eyes of the law. Larger U.S. cities like Chicago and New York experienced a so-called "pansy craze," and more bars catering exclusively to gay clientele, along with bawdy drag performances, sprang up [source: Valenzuela].

By the 1950s, police had begun cracking down on gay-friendly establishments and enforcing anti-cross-dressing laws; in New York, for instance, men were legally obligated to wear no fewer than three pieces of male clothing in order to not be arrested for drag [source: American Experience]. Amid intensifying anti-gay hostility, in 1965, the Imperial Court System was founded as the first drag queen organization, and that kind of community building among drag queens would ultimately prove to be a valuable resource within the broader gay community that had begun making itself more publicly known.

Drag Queen Culture

A British drag queen celebrates gay pride in London.
A British drag queen celebrates gay pride in London.
Marco Secchi/Getty Images

By one estimate cited in the seminal book on early drag queen culture, "Mother Camp," the United States was home to about 500 regularly performing drag queens by July 1966 [source: Newton]. That was also the same year stage legend Jim Bailey first wowed audiences with his spot-on embodiment of Judy Garland, but Bailey would balk at being lumped in with a drag queen headcount [source: Petrucelli]. Although Bailey attracted an impressive following for his spot-on imitations of female Hollywood icons for more than 40 years, his preference for being labeled an illusionist and not a drag queen speaks to the nuances of cross-dressing terminology.

The term "drag queen" comes from a mash-up of "drag," which has existed in theater parlance for centuries to refer to men dressing in women's clothing, and "queen," an anti-slang word for an effeminate gay man. And while drag queens today are associated with gay populations, not all men who have performed drag are gay; often, these are entertainers like Bailey who prefer phrasing like "female impersonator" or "illusionist" to describe their craft. Drag queens who wear female clothing and makeup only during performances but identify as male offstage may also be mistakenly labeled transsexual or as a transvestite, an older term that's dropped out of favor today because of its past association with homosexuality and cross-dressing as mental pathologies. That said, transgender and transsexual people who present on and offstage as different genders or biological sexes may perform drag as well.

Cross-dressing and drag performances existed as an underground culture for much of the 20th century, and the visibility of drag queens increased alongside that of LGBT communities in the late 1960s. When the infamous Stonewall riots occurred in 1969 at New York's Mafia-run Stonewall Inn, one of the city's only gay bars at the time, homosexual acts were illegal in every state but Illinois [source: American Experience]. On June 28, New York City police officers raided the bar seeking to arrest homosexual patrons en flagrante, and when the crowd decided to fight back instead of capitulate, high heel-wearing drag queens and transsexuals were on the frontlines of the six-day skirmish that officially signaled the start of the gay rights movement in the United States.

Even in the face of legal repression and social ostracism, drag queen communities began to organize more formally in the mid-1960s. In response to the police shutting down a string of gay bars, José Julio Sarria, San Francisco's first openly gay political candidate and local performer, founded the Imperial Court System that united the drag queen and gay community at large for annual drag balls and other events [source: Imperial Court System]. Chapters now exist in cities across the United States, Canada and Mexico and largely serve as philanthropic organizations that help support HIV and AIDS prevention and research.

Drag balls also have become cornerstone fêtes within African-American drag queen communities. Similar to a fraternity system, up-and-coming drag queens can join up with local houses headed by older, experienced house "mothers" or "fathers," who help groom young members in their drag pursuits and offer moral and social support along with shelter if they've been kicked out of their homes. Periodically, drag queens and kings from various houses will face off at balls that feature walk-offs between contestants competing in categories such as Femme Queen Impersonation and Male Face [source: Trebay]. Jenny Livingston famously captured Harlem's African-American ball culture in her 1990 documentary "Paris Is Burning," which also offered an intimate glimpse into what it takes to transform into a drag queen for a night.

How to Become a Drag Queen

Drag queen makeovers are intensive affairs.
Drag queen makeovers are intensive affairs.
Peter Beavis/Getty Images

For vaudeville-turned-silent-film star Julian Eltinge, perfecting his female impersonator appearance before stepping foot on stage was an arduous process. In a 1913 article published in Theater Magazine, Eltinge described making himself over and how his hands -- as opposed to his face, as one might assume -- provoked the most anxiety as he strived for feminine authenticity. As a result, he would spend an hour and a half before curtain call painstakingly painting and powdering his hands and consider their positioning constantly throughout his performance, as he wrote in Theater Magazine: "The size of the hands can apparently be decreased by the way in which they are held, and any woman with a little practice can perfect herself in this graceful treatment" [source: Eltinge].

Quality drag entertainment requires a comparable amount of preparation today, as one of the most famous moments in drag history attests. In the 1970s, a San Francisco drag collective called the Cockettes put on such a lackluster show at their New York debut that Gore Vidal skewered them with the pithy review, "no talent is not enough" [source: Valdespino]. Perhaps drag queens took notice, since the makeover process not only takes time and money, but also an inside-out embodiment of a crowd-pleasing character.

A close shave is a basic first step to dressing, since stubble will ruin a lady-for-the-night's looks. This is followed by a think application of full-coverage foundation to even out skin tone [source: Logo TV]. Drag queens typically wear exaggerated amounts of cosmetics to shape and soften masculine jaw lines and musculature and emphasize their larger-than-life personas; accessories like false eyelashes and wigs help complete their above-the-neck look. In drag speak, "beating one's face" or "beating one's mug" is code for slathering on the right amount of cosmetics [source: Etkin]. Before getting dressed, male performers must tuck, tape or use a cloth device called a gaff to hide their genitals from view in tight-fitting costumes [source: Logo TV]. To enhance their décolletage, drag queens may also choose from a variety of breast forms that either attach directly to their chests or fit inside bra cups. Silicon breast forms, which tend to look the most realistic and conform to a person's body temperature to keep them in place, can cost hundreds of dollars, depending on the size and quality [source:].

Wardrobe and cosmetics styling will depend on the overall look a drag queen is going for. Fishy drag, for example, aims to look as womanly as possible, as opposed to camp drag that humorously maintains a manly look in a dress [source: Etkin]. Glamour drag plays up the beauty pageant angle with big hair, sparkly gowns and plenty of jewelry. No matter the category of drag, superstar RuPaul maintains that the ultimate message should be "don't take life too seriously" [source: Fernandez].

Once done up, drag queens remain mindful of posture, stride and vocal inflections to continually project effeminacy. And all of it, from the wig to the posture, serve to complement a new identity, via quirky drag queen monikers such as Lady Bunny, Coco Peru and Hedda Lettuce.

Drag queens serve different purposes depending on the type of event they work. They may, for instance, be employed as party promoters, milling through crowds and ensuring that guests are having a good time. Drag revues are more theatrical affairs that generally feature lip-synched song and dance routines performed by drag queens for cash tips. Higher profile drag queens may also be called on to emcee fundraisers or other soirees. And while they may bring in some extra pocket money in drag, most typically pursue it as part-time work due to late-night hours and minimal compensation; in a study of drag queens in Key West, Fla., for example, most made less than $200 per week [source: Taylor and Rupp]. But for a lucky, bewigged minority, it's possible to make it big in drag.

Famous Drag Queens

Wigstock founder Lady Bunny gets grabby on fellow drag queen Bianca Del Rio.
Wigstock founder Lady Bunny gets grabby on fellow drag queen Bianca Del Rio.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

As it usually goes in any branch of show business, success and fame only happens to a slim minority of those who seek out stardom. That goes for drag queens to a greater extent since their niche craft appeals to narrower audiences than more mainstream forms of entertainment. RuPaul, as mentioned earlier, probably is the most successful personality in drag history, but there are plenty of other notable names who have left their glittery imprint on other queens and fans alike.

This is just a sequined handful of drag queens to know:

Danny La Rue: Britain's equivalent to RuPaul in terms of public adoration, Danny La Rue stumbled on his knack for stage craft while enlisted in the Royal Navy during World War II [source: Barker]. During peacetime, La Rue honed his talent for female caricature, and by the 1970s, he'd earned a fortune as one of the most popular stage actors -- albeit costumed like an actress -- in the country. La Rue died in 2009.

Doris Fish: Born Philip Mills in Australia, Fish moved to San Francisco and became one of the colorful city's most beloved drag queens in the 1980s [source: Out]. Fish also wrote and starred in the cult alien film "Vegas in Space." He died from AIDS in 1991, the same year "Vegas in Space" was released.

Divine: Divine befriended filmmaker John Waters in their childhood home of Baltimore when he was still going by his birth name, Harris Glenn Milstead. Waters featured the striking drag queen in a series of his campy films, including the 1988 "Hairspray," in which Divine portrays the protagonist's portly mother Edna Turnblad. Divine died soon after the release of "Hairspray" from complications related to having an enlarged heart.

Dame Edna Everage: Although Australian Barry Humphries, who created the character of Dame Edna Everage, wouldn't likely refer to the purple-haired housewife as a drag queen, her international popularity deserves recognition. Beginning in the 1970s, Humphries hoofed the Dame from Australian stages to Britain and eventually landing her own Broadway show in 2009. Unfortunately for fans, in 2012, Humphries announced he would retire the good Dame [source: Lawson].

Lady Bunny: An entertainment jack (or Jill?) of all trades like RuPaul, Lady Bunny made her name as a multitalented comedian, DJ and actress [source: Gilman]. Known for her signature enormous blonde wig, Lady Bunny also is the founder of the New York drag festival Wigstock that lasted from 1985 to 2005.

To learn more about the fabulous subculture of drag, shimmy on over to the links on the next page.

Author's Note: How Drag Queens Work

As someone who has attended her fair share of drag revues, getting to research and write about drag's history and culture was a particularly fun prospect. I was surprised to quickly find out that there hasn't been much mainstream coverage or scholarly research into drag. Cross-dressing in Elizabethan theater often is mentioned as an historical touchstone, which then leaves a centuries-wide gap between it and modern-day drag. When you take a closer look at that intervening time, what's interesting is that men dressing up as women didn't become a countercultural phenomenon until it became associated with homosexuality. As a result, the social response to male cross-dressing for entertainment can also be interpreted as an extension of the broader acceptance or rejection of more fluid models of gender and sexual orientation.

That said, a drag queen probably wouldn't be interested in broaching that level of discourse; she has a routine to nail and a crowd to charm.

Related Articles


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