RuPaul's DragCon UK: Drag's gone mainstream and we're a better society for it
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a phenomenon. One of the biggest series on streaming services like Netflix, it features drag queens battling it out become America’s Next Drag Superstar. Following the format of America’s Next Top Model, the queens compete in a mini-challenge and a main challenge, before strutting their stuff on the runway. After this, RuPaul and his trusty sidekicks judge the quality of their performances, with the bottom two queens battling for their survival by lip-synching for their lives.
The show has featured many a hilarious incident and many a memorable queen—Derrick Barry’s drag was so good that when he made his season eight entrance many people, myself included, thought that Britney had legitimately tried her luck on the show and then there was Adore DeLano's undeniable talent but complete lack of skill in the sewing department.
Last weekend, the first RuPaul’s British DragCon was held in London. A celebration of the hit series, which made its UK debut last year, the event was bustling. Attendees had the chance to watch the queens sissy that walk on the runway, and among other activities, attend panels with queens past and present, and of course, RuPaul himself. The convention was also an opportunity for fans to meet the queens, many of whom are American, and dress up themselves.
RuPaul is pictured below opening the first British DragCon:
One of the most remarkable things about the show, however, has not been its entertainment value, but its ability to improve representation and understanding of the LGBTQ+ community. In the dressing room, many of the LGBTQ+ queens discuss their experiences growing up as part of the community and the struggles or lack thereof that they’ve faced. In season nine, Peppermint, the only trans queen to have featured, opened up about the transphobia she encountered while presenting female in Russia.
Drag Race stars have also gone on to promote increase representation and understanding elsewhere, with Courtney Act winning widespread praise in the UK for her candid explanation of gender identity on the reality TV show Big Brother.
I attended to find out more about how drag has exploded into the mainstream thanks to Drag Race, which premiered for the first time in the US in 2009, and how it has opened up what was once a relatively underground art form to people all of all ages, gender identities, and sexualities. So much so that there was even a drag storytime at the convention for children!
One of the queens I spoke to was Gothy Kendoll, who starred in the first British season of the Drag Race. She explained that the show’s movement across the pond has opened audiences up to a new type of queen.
VT: What do you think the main difference between British and American drag is?
“US drag originated from the pageant scene where it’s all about really polished and as proper as you can be. Whereas British drag came from the pantomime scene where it’s all about taking the p*ss and being as campy and as entertaining as you can be. That’s the biggest difference. I feel like with Drag Race there’s more of a crossover between the two.”
VT: Do you think British queens have anything on the American ones?
“Absolutely. I think we’re way better. Our humor is better. In American drag, there is a lot of shadiness because [people] get easily offended, whereas the British will make a joke out of everything. And I think that’s the best thing to do with drag because it’s just a laugh at the end of the day.”
VT: How has your life changed since becoming a RuPaul girl?
“So before I’d been doing drag for a year and a half, and I did it once a month. And now I get to do drag five times a week, and I get to meet really fabulous people that can help push my drag further and do the things I wanna do.”
Another queen I had the chance to speak to was Morgan McMichaels, who appeared in season two of the US show. She revealed that queens really do have the opportunity to open up their influences to audiences and explained that while RuPaul encourages contestants to possess the right amount of charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent, there's something else which all drag queens should aspire to.
VT: Has has being Scottish-American influenced your drag?
“Oh God yeah. My musical choices. The first three years I did drag, I only chose Scottish artists. Then I would always do British artists. I have a huge British influence. I have a podcast. It’s called Funk What Ya Heard. It’s available on Apple. I have a story behind every song that I chose. It’s an opportunity for Americans, especially, to hear music that they’ve never heard—covers that they’ve heard. British music is so cheesy, open, fun and diverse. That’s what really represents the UK for me.”
VT: Putting charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent to the side, what’s the main quality that you think makes a great drag queen?
“Probably how you treat people and personality. You can be the most talented person in the world, you can win Drag Race, you can be the most beautiful one, but if you have zero personality and you treat the people who you think are not of consequence or circumstance poorly... I always look at how queens treat their waiters or random people in the street. That’s how you judge character.”
However, not all queens in attendance at DragCon were RuPaul girls. The shows has created more drag content on multiple platforms, something that I learned when I spoke to one of the Sugarbaker Twins, who was there promoting her YouTube comedy series Camp WannaKiki.
VT: How has RuPaul’s Drag Race changed your life?
“It’s definitely brought the world of drag more mainstream. I think it’s just fantastic. I personally have my own show on YouTube, Camp WannaKiki, and I guess you could say that inspired me to do my own show where we [showcased] camping drag queens. RuPaul is all about the glamorous and then you get dragula, monster queens, but there was nothing for the campy, funny queens. So now there’s Camp Wannakiki.”
VT: How do you think it’s going to change in the future?
“I think there is gonna be more content. If you look at Netflix and Amazon Prime and all these big channels. They all have drag content.”
VT: How long have you been doing it for?
“I have been doing it for about 15 years. The Camp WannaKiki show is in its second season here.”
VT: What was it like doing drag before it was mainstream?
“You know, it was definitely different. Yeah, I mean, now it’s just more mainstream. I’m also part of Hamburger Mary’s, which is a big US drag chain. It’s a lot busier. We get a lot more straight people coming to drag shows.”
VT: Do you like the fact that it’s opened up beyond the LGBT community?
“Now you’ve got women who were born women doing drag. You’ve got drag kings, AFAB queens. It’s a more open, inclusive and safe space for everyone.”
In a world that in many ways is more divided than ever before, Drag Race is a lighthearted reminder that fun can change the world for the better. Phrases once used only in the LGBTQ+ community are now fan favorites outside it too—such as “shade”, “realness”, and, of course, the almighty “werk it”. However, there is still a lot more work to be done, with a 2017 report from Stonewall finding that one in five British LGBTQ+ people had been the victim of a hate crime.
While drag has been around for centuries, there's no doubt that its popularity is at an all-time high, and as Gothy Kendoll put it, the introduction pantomime-esque British queens to the scene, which, until now, has been dominated by American queens, is only going to win the art form even more fans.