The Changing Face of Drag

Today’s drag shows may have evolved into a more polished spectacle, but the performers in them are continuing the tradition of expanding society’s understanding of feminine and masculine dynamics.

Sissy Blake doesn’t perform anymore. After breaking her back in a fall two years ago, she has difficulty getting around. Her hands shake and her step falters, although her pain medicines haven’t dulled her sharp wit. Now nearing 60, she hasn’t been on stage in full drag in years. But back in the day…

The lights are dim in the Downtowner, except for the spots on the tiny stage. The opening strains of Della Reese’s “You’ve Come a Long Way from St. Louie” fill the room, and there she is, Sissy Blake holding court center stage in stiletto heels, a glistening sequin dress, and a red wig in a beehive that seems tall enough to scrape the ceiling. (In fact, once on a smaller stage, a nail in a doorframe snatched her wig off her head as she came onstage.)

“You came a long way from St. Louie,” she lip-syncs” (wig intact, this set). You climbed the ladder of success; I’ve seen the Jags and Cadillacs that are parked out in front of your fancy address.” As the song reaches the chorus, Sissy places her left hand on her left shoulder, shimmies her shoulders, and sashays herself to the back of the stage, a slight kick in each step as the crowd goes wild.

She even performs Della’s spoken interlude: “(Maestro) Sid Bass, everybody…We outta just do it one more time, Sid. Look like we could do it, c’mon, Sid, let’s do it one more time…Naw, let’s start at the bridge.” And Sissy does it one more time, full-throttle, while her tip jars fill to overflowing.

That was decades ago; it’s been 30 years since Sissy hung up her high heels and wig and resumed life as Darrell Robinson. Darrell, a friend of 13 years, only performed drag for ten years, but it was a lucrative living, especially once he gained headliner status. He worked the circuit of clubs from Chicago down to Florida, sometimes working for just tips. Still, when he started one of his signature songs, such as “St. Louie”, the tips were great.

Drag queens worked under different rules back then, Robinson mentions, some of which were determined by the clubs and some by the law. All drag queens had to have on at least one piece of male clothing; otherwise, they were liable to be arrested for prostitution. Additionally, performers were introduced as “Mister”, such as “Mr. Sissy Blake”.

Among the various club rules were that a performer had to change her wig for each song, runs in hose or wrinkles in dresses weren’t allowed, performers had to mix up their sets with one slow song and one up-tempo song, and couldn’t repeat a song over the course of a weekend’s performances, and no missteps were permitted while performing. Violating any of these rules resulted in fines from club owners.

The laws and rules may have changed since then, but the biggest changes have come in the performers and the crowds who come to see them. The very idea of “drag” is nothing new, dating back to the theatre tradition of male performers playing female roles before women were allowed on stage. Yet, it has only been in the last 20 years that the life of the female impersonator has entered popular culture. In films such as The Birdcage, Wigstock, and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Broadway shows such as Rent, and tv episodes of such shows as Ally McBeal and television talk shows, female impersonators have taken center stage. This season, Project Runway featured a challenge for its designers to create an outlandish outfit for a drag queen (interestingly, the straight guy designer won).

This new visibility has made drag shows more than just a “curiosity”. More straight people than ever are attending these shows, and the nature of the shows has shifted to accommodate these new audiences. Today’s drag show is much more polished and formulaic, with less direct interaction between the performer and the audience.

Robinson laments the changes, arguing that today’s drag queen has “lost the art form”, the improvisational “go with the flow because anything can happen” rawness of early drag shows. Today, fewer performers thinking of themselves as “men performing as women” and more wish they were actually women, with more transgendered persons performing as drag queens than ever before.

In large part, the social acceptance of drag has turned female impersonation into a corporate commodity. There has been an increase in the number of clubs that cater to straight and gay clientele and feature nothing but drag shows. Further, drag queens now have their own pageant circuit, with contests such as Miss Gay America and Miss Drag Queen. The winners of these contests are guaranteed bookings in top-level clubs and the financial rewards of being a headline act in such clubs.

These two pageants present the two camps of female impersonation: the realistic and the outlandish. For many drag queens, especially those who are living as women exclusively, the goal of drag is to resemble a beautiful woman. Hair, make-up, jewelry, and clothing are all selected with the goal of looking photo-shoot glamorous. These queens are quite successful in the illusion. For example, a male contestant on the game show Dog Eat Dog couldn’t determine whom was the one real woman standing with five drag queens.

Other queens, however, prefer a more caricatured look, with over-the-top wigs, excessive make-up, and wild costumes. Their names are just as cartoonish: Suppositori Spelling, Miss Violet Brator, Hedda Lettuce, and Hurricane Summers. (Personally, I’ve always thought Emma Tate would be the perfect drag name.) Typically, these queens are more comical, and tend to be what straight culture associates with female impersonation.

What exactly defines a “drag queen”, though? Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a drag queen as “a male homosexual who dresses as a woman especially for comic or theatrical effect”, but this definition is inaccurate. Such a definition could include a “drag queen”, a “cross-dresser”, and a “transgendered person”, but the three are distinctly different.

“Cross-dressers” are straight or gay individuals who live as their birth gender, but enjoy dressing as the opposite sex for a sexual or psychological thrill. “Transgendered persons” are those who choose to live as the opposite gender from their birth gender, either with or without the benefit of sexual reassignment surgery. Drag queens and their female counterparts, drag kings, usually live in both worlds — the world of their birth gender and the world of the opposite gender. They frequently make a financial living from performing, and they are not necessarily queens and kings just for comic or theatrical effect.

For the uninformed, there are a few misconceptions about the relationship between gay men and drag queens. Not all female impersonators are gay, nor do they all want to be women. And not everyone who is gay or lesbian wants to be a drag queen or king.

Take myself. I’ve never quite understood the fascination with dressing up as a woman. That’s not a value statement. It’s more a reflection of the fact that I like loose and comfortable clothing, and women’s evening wear (performance drag clothing in particular) is anything but free flowing. It’s tight, binding, long, padded, wired, and oxygen-reducing (I am reminded of Mercedes Ruehl’s Tony acceptance speech, in which she noted she was breathless at winning, then added, “with all due respect to the house of Chanel, the dress doesn’t make it any easier”).

Add to that the make-up, wig, and high heels, and you have an outfit that is a claustrophobic nightmare. I am perplexed that women subject themselves to this kind of torture, so I must confess a certain curiosity as to why a man would endure it, especially when it involves tugging and hiding a part of my anatomy that I consider fine just where it is. Still, most drag queens would respond to my curiosity with a simple response, “Because it’s fun.”

Another misconception is that all female impersonators are feminine. Many female impersonators are quite masculine out of drag. And they are not afraid to throw down. Most drag queens can tell at least one story of a queen flying off the stage to knock the crap out of heckler. Darrell Robinson recalls beating senseless a young drag queen who had stolen one of Sissy Blake’s outfits.

Chris, a handsome man who performs as Sydney Devereaux, has a MySpace page called Diary of a Mad Drag Queen where he notes, “Sweetie, I can change a tire in high drag with one hand while applying mascara, and then beat you in the kneecaps because you’re laughing at me.”

No matter how their drag selves are perceived, most drag performers argue that their stage personas are not representative of their true personalities. Robinson noted that for him, his stage self evolved into her own person: “Sissy Blake took on a personality. She became real.” Still, he knew that Darrell and Sissy were two distinct individuals. According to Richard Tewksbury in Sociological Spectrum, most drag queens share Robinson’s sentiment:

Performers’ stage characters are (according to performers) assumed by audiences to be accurate presentations of the individual’s actual social identity; however, such identity attributions (virtual social identities) for female illusionists are misdirected. Rather, performers argue, they should be viewed as professional entertainers, not as deviants motivated by sexual preferences, gender confusion, or sexual orientation.

Robinson goes on to state that the appeal of performing, for him, was that being on stage afforded him a level of acceptance at a time when society treated gay men with more discrimination and exclusion. Yet, Tewksbury mentions that many drag queens suffer even more discrimination at the hands of other gay men, who they describe as “judgmental, critical, and on occasion hostile”. The reason for this bigotry is a fear that society will judge the entire gay community by the frequently outlandish behavior of drag queens or will assume that all gay men enjoy dressing as women.

If drag queens face so much persecution, why do it? For many, it is the thrill of performing. Robinson mentions that he was “enthralled” the first time he saw a man in drag, and loved the attention he got once he began performing. Female impersonator Morgan Stevens explains on his website, “Being a female impersonator is akin (at least for me) to being a magician. In other words, I am performing an illusion before you and making you believe what you see, just like the magician deceives you, because his hand is faster than your eye…Being able to look like a woman is fun, but nothing compares with the exhilaration of being on stage impersonating one of the world’s sexist women.”

Drag has changed drastically from its early days. Costumes aren’t custom-made as often, as drag queens can buy gowns off the rack or offline from sites such as and Performers can buy padding or implants to create the female illusion, as opposed to the old trick of filling hose with birdseed to create fake breasts. And production numbers now frequently include back-up dancers, elaborate lighting and props, and a stronger “fourth wall” between the performer and audience.

The early performers of modern drag broke boundaries and helped force a social reconsideration of gender identity. Today’s drag shows may have evolved into a more polished spectacle, but the performers in them are continuing the tradition of expanding society’s understanding of feminine and masculine dynamics.

One side note: although mentioned, I didn’t really discuss the world of drag kings here. Just let me add that there are many great drag king shows, with fantastic performers. Since these shows don’t get nearly the attention of drag queen shows, let me throw out a plea to check them out. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

And one final note to observe the passing of Del Martin, who made national news this year by marrying her partner of 55 years, Phyllis Lyons. Ms. Martin was one of the founders of Daughters of Bilitis, and her life was one of activism, perseverance, and example. How fitting that she and Ms. Lyons be the first couple legally married in San Francisco.