Queer culture – specifically drag culture – has been reduced to RuPaul’s Drag Race, so mainstream audiences’ conception of drag is influenced by the success of that show. Though the program has done immeasurable good in giving queer performers – particularly queer people of color – a platform to achieve popular success, the focus on high-end, expensive glamour has distorted the history and art of drag. Because the media is focused on the alumnae of Drag Race, it’s vital that voices of queer culture that predate the show be heard.
The Drag Explosion by drag artist Linda Simpson is a first-hand account of a very creative and vital moment in queer life from the 1980s to the early ’90s, in which activism, nightlife, a D.Y.I. approach to drag, and pre-Giuliani New York culture crash into each other, creating a vibrant chapter in queer history. Mining her collection of snapshots from her adventures with fellow drag queens, Club Kids, models, performance artists, and aspiring celebutantes, Simpson creates a wonderful and vivid chronicle of a bright time that has since passed.
Nightlife and party culture are now relentlessly documented with selfies, seemingly intimate moments captured and splashed on social media. But as Simpson points out in her introduction, “My photos are B.C. – before cell phones – when we lived in the Now.” Because these photographs were taken to be kept in photo albums (or shoeboxes as Simpson writes), there’s an unstudied freshness and rawness to them, even if the subjects are posing for the camera
The rhetorical effect of the book is a novel one: what does it mean to create a coffee table book of photographs that weren’t intended published? It means that there’s a refreshing immediate effect to the photographs. The pictures aren’t photoshopped, cleaned, or edited. Instead, we get what Simpson referred to as the “Now” – a quick snatch of a moment in which Simpson captures her subjects’ thoughts, feelings, pretensions, and attitudes in the immediate. Instead of glossy, staged photographs of influencers or celebrities, Simpson gathers images of fabulously talented individuals, all celebrating queer and alternative culture.
There’s a profound beauty in this specific approach to drag, one that prioritizes individuality and inspiration as opposed to expensive glamour or ‘realness’. Even someone as self-assured and self-possessed as RuPaul, who eyed glamour relatively early in her career, is seen in a number of these pictures with an appealing roughness. (In some of these photos, RuPaul is at the precipice of her pop fame.) Other drag pioneers (including Simpson herself) like Lady Bunny (captured before her iconic mane of blonde hair), Tabboo!, Hapi Phace, Lypsinka, Mona Foot, Jackie Beat, Flotilla DeBarge, John Kelly, and Joey Arias, and Mistress Formika, among others, are included in these pages; other New York City nightlife legends like Leigh Bowery, Keith Haring, and the great/late Willi Ninji also populate the world documented by Simpson in The Drag Explosion. Because Simpson is a peer of these wildly talented individuals, there’s an empathy and a sense of camaraderie in her pictures.
One of the issues of the mainstreaming of queer and drag culture is that commerce and capitalism tend to have a blanching effect, as seen with the merch-infused art that is the resultant of the global success of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The queens who found commercial and mainstream success through the show are hardworking and deserve the largess of that success but the current mainstreaming of drag and queer culture has an erasing effect on the kind of drag aesthetic that is celebrated throughout the pages of The Drag Explosion.
Simpson predicts some of this success in the “Queens, Queens, Everywhere!” section of the book that looks to assess the ascending popularity of drag queens among straight audiences. In the early ’90s, though drag started to find its way to mainstream audiences, much of it was still to shock and titillate (think of the tabloid talk shows that challenged their audiences to guess which queen was born a man). However, “the entire entertainment industry jumped on the bandwagon”, Simpson notes. “Drag had already been hip for several years among the avant-garde, but now queens were popping up in big-budget MTV music videos and advertising campaigns, on the silver screen, and in prime-time television programs.”
To illustrate her point, Simpson includes pictures of Lady Bunny fielding a question on Entertainment Tonight, RuPaul appearing on Arsenio Hall’s talk show, Mistress Formika and Joey Arias prepping on photoshoots for New York Magazine, and Dina Dynell and Philomena appearing on the premier of Beeban Kidron’s 1995 drag comedy To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. But Simpson isn’t naïve or uncritical of this explosion of popularity. These photographs, which include hard-working queens who found themselves in mainstream projects (though still largely on the margins), belie the fact that “this drag renaissance…took place during an era that was by and large much more homophobic than it is now.” Simpson astutely surmised that for “straight people, it was easier to cope with queers if they were wearing lipstick and false eyelashes.”
An inseparable part of queer culture is activism. Aside from queer rights advocacy, much of what Simpson and her peers were fighting for during the time captured in The Drag Explosion was AIDS research and health care. Much of the creativity that was born from this environment was stunted by the AIDS crisis, which took so many artists at their peak. Adopting a ‘guerilla’ approach to their work, Simpson published the zine, My Comrade, which spoke to readers who were under siege by a terrible disease and a government and society that was hostile to their plight. Among the pictures of Muscle Marys, handsome men in varying states of undress, and queens in a variety of guises (including nuns’ habits) there are photos of ACT UP! protests at City Hall.
With so much of queer culture being co-opted by multi-media, multi-million-dollar conglomerates, we must hear and see the stories of queers from a time when queer culture was still outside the mainstream. Because Simpson was there and was a participant, we’re getting the narrative from someone ‘from the inside’ which is key when looking at the representation of queerness and queer culture; The Drag Explosion isn’t a part of a gimmicky PR campaign to promote or sell something. With The Drag Explosion, Simpson is sharing a very important part of queer culture that is essential to remember.