It would be an understatement to say that drag is in the midst of a renaissance. Over the last 10 years, with the growth of social media and, of course, the ever-growing popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the art form has gone full mainstream and shows no signs of waning. But the art of drag is nothing new and, in fact, it goes back as far as recorded history.
With his new book, Drag: The Complete Story, writer and pop culture commentator Simon Doonan took on the monumental task of not only looking back at the long and sometimes complicated history of drag, but also the impact drag has had in pop culture and the LGBTQ community today. In celebration of the release of his fantastic book, Doonan spoke with BuzzFeed about everything from his own personal experience with drag, to the important role it plays in modern day self-expression.
First off, congratulations on the book. It's beautiful and just a fantastic deep dive! So I wanted to just to start off by asking what was your own introduction to drag culture?
Simon Doonan: Well my own introduction to drag was very early because, you know, growing up in England, after the war there was drag everywhere — like there were so many comedians in drag on TV. I have pictures of myself when I was 10 years old and in drag in the backyard with my best friend, and I think my mother took the pictures. So like yeah, drag everywhere. But of course, it was mostly done in a comedic kind of way like panto [pantomime] (which is a big tradition in England), [and with] Monty Python, Benny Hill, all that kind of humor stuff. And then we had big drag stars like Danny La Rue. So yeah, I was very exposed to it during my youth.
Tell me a little about your exposure to drag culture here in the States?
SD: Well I first moved to LA in the 1970s. I lived in West Hollywood from like the late ‘70s into the mid-‘80s. And so, you know, there was a tremendous amount of drag. There was a fabulous place — I think it's still there on La Brea — called the Plaza, which had all these amazing Latina/Latinx drag queens who were just sensational. And so yeah...oh, and Halloween, my god! I had the time of my life when I lived in LA! Think about the ‘70s, and, you know, drag was everywhere.
And when you moved to New York (which safe to say is the epicenter of drag culture), did you take some of those drag influences you had been exposed to here on the West Coast and bring them to your career doing window dressing at Barneys?
SD: Being in window display, you know, gives you an automatic connection to drag because there are boxes of wigs everywhere and everyone's experimenting with mannequins and dressing up mannequins. Especially in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, fashion became very dragtastic with the Glamazon. It was the era of supermodel and that was also the time when RuPaul had his first big hit “Supermodel (You Better Work)". You know, when we would have our weekly meeting at Barneys, people would often throw on a wig and just come to the meeting.
I have to ask the question you probably get asked a thousand times, but what made you want to take on writing such an in-depth history of drag?
SD: Well, I think it's a great time to examine the whole notion of drag because drag is having a very explosive and creative moment. You know, if you look at, obviously RuPaul’s Drag Race, but now we have a gender revolution that's affecting everything in the culture, and changing everything: pronouns, gender fluidity. It's a time of rapid change in the area of gender and androgyny.
Then, of course, there are new genres of drag emerging, like the Look Queens — there's no precedent for that. There's this incredible meticulous artistry that you see with Violet Chachki, Ryan Burke, Sasha Velour that's such a new thing. So these were like the main reasons why I thought, Yeah, this is a great time to do a broad history of drag, ‘cause drag is really having a moment and people will be interested in it.
One of the things I liked a lot about your book is that you divided it up into nine categories. To be honest, when I picked it up, I thought it would just be the history of drag in chronological order. But you have it separated into different types of genres. Did you go in knowing you would have the chapters separated like that, or did it happen organically as you started looking into what you were going to do?
SD: Well initially, I tried to do the book chronologically, but it didn't make sense because it was very uneven chronologically. Like, there's lots going on in mythology and the ancient world, but then when you get to the Middle Ages, there's no documentation of what was going on. Then it sort of starts again in the Renaissance and the Baroque periods. So I thought it made more sense to dedicate one chapter to the ancient world like Egypt, Rome, Greece, and the bring it forward into 18th-century France. From then on, it gets a lot easier because drag's written about.
Another thing I wasn't expecting was that you would go back as far as you did. Was that something you knew you were going to do? Go back that far into history and talk about drag from the ancient world.
SD: Well I love history, and the publisher, Lawrence King, wanted it to be a comprehensive historical overview. So I was prepared to go back as far as it took, and, you know, ancient Egypt, ancient China, we're talking many, many thousands of years B.C. I love history, so I was happy to go back as far as I could find stuff to write about. And I think like history is great because it's very reassuring because you read about all these terrible eras, and you start to think, oh, maybe it's not too bad now. You know, these days it’s a bit of a purveying idea that we're living in this very challenging time. But really, if you compare it with hard periods in history where it was so chaotic and so divisive, like now it seems a lot more bearable, you know, so I find history very reassuring.
When you were doing your research, was there anything that sort of surprised you about the history of drag?
SD: When I was doing my research, I was surprised by how outrageous some of it is. I mean, if you read about these Roman emperors, my god, it makes you hair stand on edge. But it's so hilarious as well because at this distance, two thousand years on, it's kind of either you can have a good laugh about it, but Emperor Nero, Caligula, you read that stuff and you won't believe it.
Of all the different categories you wrote about, was there one in particular that you were most excited to educate people on or to explore?
SD: I was excited about a bunch of it. I mean, it was really fun writing about art drag (the use of drag in art), going back to my Marcel Duchamp and all that kind of stuff. And then I think the drag king chapter, I had a lot of fun doing it and, and you know, women have worn men's clothes for as long as history's been recorded. There's so many reasons to put on men's clothes: to seek employment or for safety. I find that all very interesting and I think it was probably a surprise to lots of readers how far that goes back.
Also the chapter on black drag, I’m very interested in the area of black drag and like just how incredibly creative and influential the black drag queen has been. And I wanted to sort of underscore that so that people see that basically drag culture owes everything to the black drag queen.
What do you think the biggest misconception about drag is right now?
SD: I think the drag landscape is so massive, so diverse, and so interesting that I think it's actually hard to sort of sum it up, and even have a misconception about it because there's so much going on. There are so many different voices and different genres. What do you think is the misconception people have with it?
I think that there's the misconception that if you are a man dressing in drag that it’s because you want to be a biological woman, which is obviously not necessarily the case. I think that's probably the biggest misconception that I think people still have to this day. Also — this was actually a question I was going to ask later on — but I think RuPaul’s Drag Race has given a bit of a narrow view of what drag is, and so people assume that drag is just one thing. You sort of hit on it when you were you were answering the question and saying there are many different types of drag that it's hard to sort of categorize it.
SD: Yeah! And I think the reason that RuPaul’s Drag Race is so fabulous is that it is his vision. Good shows need a visionary at the head. Also, the show doesn't claim to sort of represent everything. So I think that's why it's successful, because he has a vision and conviction.
I think probably you're right that the average lay person might think, If you want dress in drag then you want to be a woman. But the reality is, if you wore drag and you don't necessarily want to be a woman, you might change your mind when you're 65 and decide you do. That's the thing about now; it's incredibly fluid...time, when there are no preconceived notions…do you agree?
I do agree. I feel especially now when we’re living in an age where you have access to things like YouTube or Instagram and can see people expressing themselves, whereas you couldn't get that before. Before, if you think about 25 years ago in the ‘90s, you literally had to go to a club to see people like drag performers, or the other option was what was being fed to you on television — maybe you watched VHS tapes that someone had or something like that. But now you sort of can easily explore all sorts of different gender identities, drag, and people just expressing themselves.
SD: Yeah, it's incredible. I mean, you nailed it there. It's about the impact of social media, Instagram and YouTube, on drag, because drag is a visual language. And look what the whole social media has done for the area of style and makeup and transformation, and that overlaps to drag. So drag overlaps with so many things, but definitely, with makeup and self-presentation. It’s hugely overlapping and different areas feed off each other. It's a very exciting time! That's why I feel this is the right moment to do a book about drag; I think it would have been too early even 10 years ago.
Right. I mean, 10 years ago, you would have had MySpace, Facebook, and maybe a website. But now there's so much access to really everything — it really is a great time to be exposed to drag. Because you can live in the middle of nowhere and instantly see a drag queen who might live in New York or live in Paris, and you can be exposed to something that otherwise would have been unattainable before.
SD: It’s inspiring and makes people part of this huge global glamour community. I think it’s brilliant. Yeesh, I’m so old and I lived at a time where you really had to shlep in the rain to go to The Black Cap in Camden to see Ragina Fall dressed up. But I've seen such a huge change, even during the three years I was writing this book. The amount of change in terminology and the whole language of drag and how people see gender identity, the rapid change in that period was extraordinary. When I started this book, there was still that kind of firewall between trans and drag and then within a very short period of time, pronouns were changing, people were changing how they identify. And as I'm going along and seeing all these rapid changes, I am thinking, Yes, yes. Oh my god, I have to keep tweaking my text, just to keep up with all the changes.
Who are your favorite queens working today?
SD: I think I tend to respond to the ones who express their vulnerability, you know, and tell a story. Like the ones on RuPaul’s Drag Race who are willing to reveal parts of themselves and their backstory — like The Vixen comes to mind — somebody who exposed their vulnerabilities on TV, even struggles, you know. And then there are the ones who are just totally real like Kennedy Davenport, super talented, very much her own person. It's just hard to pick because there are so many extraordinary personalities who kind of as a whole make this incredible constellation, you know? Peppermint coming out as trans and Monica Beverly Hillz, who also did the same thing. Also, girls like Trixie Mattel, just extraordinary people who really reinvented genres and invented new genres.
Obviously over the last 10 years — and we've been talking a lot about it — RuPaul's Drag Race has really brought drag into the mainstream. What do you think the appeal of the show is to cisgender straight women?
SD: I think the appeal is complex. The average straight woman has a certain way of viewing men, especially straight men, and drag gives you an opportunity to sorta deconstruct masculinity. You saw that in Victorian England, where all these drag kings became immensely popular, and I think some of that had to do with the fact that Victorian women lived with these very patriarchal men, and watching women do satirical performances, which makes fun of that kind of patriarchal masculinity was probably exhilarating. Women have to deal with men and all the complexities that come with dealing with them. So drag queens open up another facet of vulnerability that's kind of playful and fun. And on the superficial level, they give great makeup tips!
So last question: Drag has a very long and storied history, and obviously queer culture is not something that's taught in schools. So is there something about drag and its community that you would really love for queer kids growing up today to take away from your book?
SD: I would love for them to take away that drag is a fantastic place for personal expression. So in other words, don't compare yourself to anybody else. Look at all the genres of drag that have emerged, and all the different ways people express themselves. Just like do your thing, because drag is essentially about craft and self-expression — it's not about perfection. I think social media is fantastic, but it can also make people incredibly self-critical and I think, you know, throw that out the window. Just have fun. Don't get swallowed up in criticism and self-criticism and just think about the idea of self-expression in its purest form.