Monday 9 December 2019

'Drag's become anodyne': How an underground subculture hit the mainstream

Drag isn't just massively popular - it's now mainstream. Katie Byrne asks Ireland's best-known queens of the art form if the once underground subculture can still poke, provoke and stick two immaculately manicured fingers up to the world

Visibility: Declan Buckley, aka Shirley Temple Bar, became the host of the RTÉ's Telly Bingo in 2001. Photo: Andrew Hetherington
Visibility: Declan Buckley, aka Shirley Temple Bar, became the host of the RTÉ's Telly Bingo in 2001. Photo: Andrew Hetherington
Drag queen Enda McGrattan (aka Veda). Photo: Kyle Tunney
Yes, she can: Panti celebrates the same-sex marriage referendum vote at Dublin Castle in 2015. Photo: Paul Faith
In demand: Belfast-born drag artist Chris Rowan, aka Bunny O’Hare

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Nathan Elliott (aka Mizza Queerius) was standing outside Bow Lane Social in Dublin with a group of fellow drag queens.

The group host a drag brunch in the Dublin restaurant/cocktail bar and they're well used to heads turning, car horns honking and smartphones flashing when they mingle with guests in the street-facing smoking area out front.

What they're not used to, however, is groupies - pre-teen groupies in particular.

"These two mams with their buggies and their kids walked by," recalls Nathan, "and one of the kids, who was about nine, started singing 'Cover Girl', a song from RuPaul's Drag Race.

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Yes, she can: Panti celebrates the same-sex marriage referendum vote at Dublin Castle in 2015. Photo: Paul Faith
Yes, she can: Panti celebrates the same-sex marriage referendum vote at Dublin Castle in 2015. Photo: Paul Faith

"Then the mam said, 'Oh, she loves RuPaul - she loves drag queens. Can she get a photo?'

"It was really strange," says Nathan, who has been working as a drag queen for the last five years. "Some kids give you a strange look, like 'I know that's a man', but that kid started following us like she was part of the crew!"

It's a sweet story, but it's also indicative of a wider shift that's taking place both in Ireland and the rest of the world. Drag culture, once underground and unconventional, has moved from the fringes to the mainstream - and US drag queen RuPaul has a lot to do with it.

Now in its 12th season stateside and its first in Britain, the wildly popular show has seeped into modern culture in ways some may not even realise. The 'Yas Queen' meme that's all over the internet? The contouring make-up trend attributed to Kim Kardashian? The 'Camp: Notes on Fashion' theme for last year's Met Gala? All can be traced back to drag.

The mass-market appeal of Drag Race has also spawned some rather more obvious offshoots. There's a preponderance of drag-themed TV shows on the box (Netflix's Pose; Channel 4's Drag SOS) and drag-themed social events are no longer confined to bars and nightclubs.

Restaurants like Bow Lane Social are hosting drag brunches, a group in Dublin run regular 'Drag and Draw' nights, and there's even something for the younger generation: The Magnificent Nina West Show - billed as the "first ever drag magic show" - comes to Liberty Hall in January (and it's aimed at the 14-plus market).

Visibility: Declan Buckley, aka Shirley Temple Bar, became the host of the RTÉ's Telly Bingo in 2001. Photo: Andrew Hetherington
Visibility: Declan Buckley, aka Shirley Temple Bar, became the host of the RTÉ's Telly Bingo in 2001. Photo: Andrew Hetherington

Drag isn't just having a moment - it's more popular than ever before. And that raises an important question. Can drag culture sit comfortably in the mainstream? And can the art form continue to poke and provoke - to stick up two immaculately manicured fingers to the world - when it's on telly every night of the week?

Drag artist Alan Amsby (aka Mr Pussy) mulls over the question when we meet in Dublin's Gresham Hotel. The London-born entertainer agrees that drag has become mainstream but he argues this isn't the first time that this has happened.

Alan was the first- and, for a long time, the only - drag queen performing in Ireland when he arrived here in 1969. However, while he was an outlier on this side of the water, the London he left behind was, he says, in the midst of a "drag boom".

"When I started, it was in every bar and pub," he says, before pointing to the influence of Cork-born Danny La Rue, who opened his eponymous club in Hanover Square in 1964.

Alan also made hay while the sun shined. Along with Bono and his brother Norman Hewson, Jim Sheridan and Gavin Friday, he opened his own club, Mr Pussy's Café de Luxe, in Dublin in 1994. It was an anything-goes, all-night-long kind of place that celebrities loved. It closed down the following year.

Drag queen Enda McGrattan (aka Veda, main image), who hosts 'Witchy Wednesday' in The George, used to work in Mr Pussy's nightclub, but not as a performer.

In demand: Belfast-born drag artist Chris Rowan, aka Bunny O’Hare
In demand: Belfast-born drag artist Chris Rowan, aka Bunny O’Hare

His first foray into the drag world was in San Francisco in the late 1990s. A few years later, back in Dublin, he teamed up with Irish drag queens Panti Bliss and Shirley Temple Bar, and the trio were soon in demand as a performance act.

"Everyone who was having an event wanted a drag queen in the room, if not on the stage," he says about Dublin's Celtic Tiger social scene. "And we were the only drag queens in Ireland pretty much. We did the MTV Awards in Dublin - we hosted the backstage party and did a little show for people like Mariah Carey and The Spice Girls. It was just a real 'in' thing to be at that time.

"Before the Celtic Tiger left the building, we were doing a lot of corporate-y stuff - ironically. So when people talk about drag becoming mainstream since RuPaul, I kind of think, 'Hmmm, pre-recession it was pretty mainstream as well.'"

Drag queen and activist Rory O'Neill (aka Panti Bliss) was in his twenties at the time. And while he agrees that drag was in fashion back then, he says it wasn't nearly as popular as it is today.

"Around that time, I would get stupid gigs like handing out the canapés at a corporate gig," he recalls, "but it certainly wasn't anything like the way it is at the moment.

"It's basically all down to RuPaul's Drag Race," he says, "and I have very mixed feelings about it.

"I got into drag in the first place because it's underground and transgressive and discombobulating and confronting and inherently punk… and it isn't like that at the moment - it has become anodyne.

"And that's something I personally struggle with," he adds. "In Ireland, I have become very mainstream. And I still don't exactly know - can you be transgressive, confronting and discombobulating and also [he adopts a diddly-eye accent for effect] be on the cover of the RTÉ Guide?

"I don't know if you can. It's a weird one."

Belfast-born drag queen Chris Rowan (aka Miss Bunny O'Hare), who 10 years ago won a competition to work in Rory's PantiBar, also has conflicting views about drag's new-found fashionableness.

In one sense, he worries that drag could become "a little bit vanilla, a little bit filtered out and cleansed of all its riskiness".

In another sense, he's excited about the possibilities. "Once you open the gamut, and everybody can do it, then you're letting in a tonne of new ideas," he says.

It also helps that he doesn't have to explain his career choice to people anymore. "I remember I started a course to be a personal trainer and, on the first day, we all had to introduce ourselves. I said I worked as a drag queen and the person beside me said, 'A dry cleaner?'

"There would always be that thing of constantly having to explain what you did, and now, with RuPaul's Drag Race, they have a much better reference of what you do."

But it wasn't always like that. Drag may have flirted with the mainstream in times gone by, but the cultural landscape was vastly different back then. And according to drag queen Declan Buckley (aka Shirley Temple Bar), the mainstream wasn't always a comfortable place to be.

Declan dramatically increased the visibility of drag in Ireland when Shirley Temple Bar became the host of the RTÉ National Lottery gameshow Telly Bingo in 2001. It was a huge moment for drag culture, but the overall experience, he says, "wasn't attached to the cachet of the right-on, hashtag 'I'm down with the gays' environment that we have now".

At times, he says, it was "very isolating".

"I thought, 'I don't know if this is the right thing for me to do with my career' but it was something I had to do - to push this thing out into people's houses, because that conversation is an important conversation.

"But I went into a very strange environment where, on a public-relations level, the organisation and the people around me on the programme were very excited about this very spinny, fun story.

"It hit all the points and it was a clever marketing thing from them - but on a personal level, I still had to walk through the corridors of RTÉ in drag and be dealt with in this kind of weird… people didn't speak to me unless I spoke to them first. I had to break down these weird barriers…

"When you're walking through a corridor past people who work in news or sports, and they don't have anything to do with your project - nor do they care about it - you're doing it week after week, day after day, and people aren't saying hi. And you know it's because you're in drag, because the minute I stopped being in drag, people were really friendly. It's a power that a drag queen has, but it can be very quickly flipped against that person."

Nowadays, thanks to the 'RuPaul Effect', the next generation of drag queens don't have to overcome the same challenges.

"When I started drag, every drag queen looked horrible for 10 years," says Rory. "I had to make my own shoes in the beginning because I couldn't get shoes to fit me. Make-up was trial and error, trial and error, hoping that some day an older queen would give you a tip on how to cover that eyebrow.

"Now, part of me is jealous and part of me is resentful. [The new generation] watch YouTube instructional videos on how to do perfect drag make-up. They can order fabulous wigs online and shoes from China for five euro - and they look f***ing good! And the part of me that is resentful thinks, 'You didn't work for that. You don't deserve that.' And of course it's silly but that's the way of it."

The other issue, adds Rory, is that the drag queens we're seeing on RuPaul's Drag Race don't necessarily represent the true artistry of drag culture.

"They're make-up artists and stylists, which is a perfectly good career choice, but it's not the same as being a drag queen."

Enda is of the same opinion. He has "endless respect" for the show but he thinks RuPaul's interpretation of drag "is not what drag actually is if you go out into the clubs to see it for yourself".

"When Tyra Banks was doing America's Next Top Model, the models that won the show were not the models that you would see if you went to a catwalk show at London Fashion Week - it was a very different animal.

"And I think the same is true for drag. There's definitely a crossover but it isn't exactly the same thing. That's television and they're cast for television, in the same way that models cast for Tyra's show might not be cast for a Fashion Week show."

And this, of course, has a trickle-down effect. Rory says he went to a live Drag Race show in the Olympia last year which was "packed to the gills" with an audience that was 60 per cent young women.

"And this was mind-boggling to me," he says. "That was never drag's audience. The kind of stuff I love seeing drag queens doing wouldn't speak at all to that audience. So then they are forced to do different things to appeal to the audience that comes to their shows - and I'm not sure that's good for them."

It's worth noting that an appearance on RuPaul's Drag Race can lead to a very lucrative career and that, in turn, leads to an Arts vs Commerce conflict that the drag industry didn't really have to tussle with before now.

And that raises another important question: will drag eventually split into two groups? Those who continue to make art on their own terms and those who acquiesce to the creative model that makes eye-watering amounts of money for the producers of Drag Race?

Or, as Declan says, will there eventually be "billions of mediocre drag queens who all thought they had a future in rock 'n' roll"?

Drag queen Enda McGrattan (aka Veda). Photo: Kyle Tunney

The other downside, adds Rory, is that the increasingly commercialised industry will one day encounter the inevitable trough in the trend life cycle. "You and I know that anything that is this popular and this trendy now is going to be considered naff and unfashionable and uncool in another three or four years," he says. "And then it's going to become harder for people like me who are trying to make a living out of it to make a living out of it."

On the plus side, he says, there's more work for drag queens now. "And it has exposed this art form that for years I've tried to get people to take more seriously."

And that, in and of itself, can be powerful. Take Nathan (Mizza) who, at 25, is one of the younger drag queens on the Irish scene. He says RuPaul's Drag Race helped him discover his gender identity when he was a teenager.

"I went through a stage where I didn't know what I was - was I gay or straight or trans? I started wearing make-up and lip gloss. Then I was wearing heels and real tight leggings. Then I was sitting up one night and I saw season two of [RuPaul's Drag Race]. I was watching that and it was kind of a realisation: I don't want to be a full-time woman. I want to be a part-time woman."

"I love that there are 13- and 14-year-old kids trying out drag in their bedrooms," says Chris. "If I had that as a kid in Belfast, I would have had a much better time.

"The pendulum will eventually swing back," he adds, "but what happened in that time is that all of those people who needed to be made aware of drag - who it can help - have been made aware of it."

But will drag still have the power to shock and subvert when the proverbial pendulum swings back?

"I don't think you necessarily need to keep drag subversive because there will always be a subversive element," says Enda. "Without sounding pretentious, it's like any other art form, so no matter how mainstream a certain type of, say, grime artist becomes, that doesn't mean that there won't be other types of grime artists on the fringes, doing more edgy stuff."

What that edginess will look like is anyone's guess. Alan thinks the future of drag will be more androgynous in its presentation. Nathan thinks there will be more room for Drag Kings (women who impersonate men) and Faux Queens (women who exaggerate and subvert their femininity). Chris thinks the scene will become "a lot more inclusive of trans people - where it won't be about gender at all".

Rory doesn't make a prediction when the question is put to him, but he's confident that the show will go on. "There is something about [drag] that is just intrinsic to people and so I don't think it's ever going to die off," he says.

"It will change and express itself in different ways and become more popular and less popular, but I think it's always going to be here because it always has been.

"Drag will always save itself because it always has something to say about our cultural view of gender. And even if our cultural view of gender changes, there is still something to say about it."

Irish Independent

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