We all have the unconscious idea that metropolitan areas are too sophisticated for bigots. I mean, as Bernadette Bassenger said in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, “I don’t know if that ugly wall of suburbia has been put there up to stop them getting in or us getting out.” With ‘them’ being the homophobes; the uncouth straight people.
But our views have changed a lot over the years. So much so that drag queens are now perfectly normal in many towns outside suburbia. Predominately in Australia and America.
Bigots, as we now know, are not defined by their postcodes. And, thanks to straight people, drag ain’t what it used to be, as Australian drag queen Verushka Darling told me.
“I remember when Priscilla: Queen of the Desert came out [in 1994]; the rage around and popularity of drag queens happened back then,” Verushka said. “Previously, drag was more of an underground entertainment within an underground community. I mean, Australia was beginning to decriminalise homosexuality. So we were just coming out into the public!
“But ever since then, we have expanded out into the broader society. Most of my work is actually in straight clubs because straight people value our entertainment. I’m not saying that gay people don’t, but I think that for a lot of gay venues, gay people take drag very much for granted.”
As a drag queen myself, I can attest to this. Mostly from the fact that straight people are less likely to judge my makeup skills, style or character. They are usually enthusiastic about seeing a drag queen compared to those within the LGBTQ community.
Of course, I am generalizing here, but this is generally the case. And the likely culprit is familiarity. Gays and lesbians living within a 50km radius of any capital city are more likely to be exposed to drag queenery. Much more than our straight counterparts. And that familiarity can lead to growing indifference and taking drag for granted.
Straight people are only just beginning to see the wonders of drag.
But, as Verushka said, while drag queens are entertaining the heterosexual world, they’re also educating and sharing the queer world to straight people.
“So I remember in the lead up to the [Australian] marriage equality postal vote, we were doing most of our work out in the straight communities,” said Verushka. “And people would come up to us and go, ‘you know, until I met you, I really disliked gay people (or drag or transgender people), but now that I’ve had exposure to you, I really like you guys!'”
Drag is more than just entertaining, and it always has been. It parodies the roles of society — most prominently gender roles — and challenges people’s perceptions.
But recent pop culture has uncovered vast differences in the world of drag. In particular, the difference between Australian drag and American drag.
The Cultural Appropriation Of Drag Queenery
Bernadette Bassenger came up with another quip in Priscilla, and it goes: “These days, gentleman are an endangered species. Unlike bloody drag queens who just keep breeding like rabbits.”
That statement is truer today than in 1994. And not just about gentlemen being a scarce commodity. The fact is, everybody wants to be a drag queen, and much of this is thanks to pop culture — more specifically Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
Verushka Darling believes the normalization of drag devalues what it really is; many of those taking it up now do not understand it’s history.
“And so you have people who have no cultural context or cultural understanding who then appropriate drag and think that they’re drag artists — especially if they come from outside the LGBTQ community,” Verushka said.
“If you look at many aspiring drag queens getting into the industry, there really is a disconnect. I call it generation Ru. Their main contact with drag is through Ru Paul’s Drag Race and they see American drag and they think that’s what drag is and what Australian drag is.
“Australian drag performers — especially professionals — would look at what they’re doing and just roll their eyes. Because, for us, death drops and the like (even though they require skill) are not only American, but also culturally appropriated; death drops and vogueing are appropriated from New York Black ballroom events.
“Most of the community have no idea that that’s what’s going on.”
According to Verushka, Australian drag culture used to be idolized around the world. What we did back then (and even now) was so unique, including productions shows of 15-20 minutes, often with a storyline, which no other country did.
“And I remember after the first few seasons — at least up until 5 or 6 — when the drag race performers came to Australia, they got a really rude shock,” Verushka said. “Because they would see how hard we worked and what we’d do with numbers — because in Australia we’re paid to entertain. Whereas in America, drag queens would get paid in tips.
“It was cringingly embarrassing when they would do a number; what they would do was maybe do the chorus, and then for the verse they’d walk around doing what we would perceive as begging for tips.”
For us Aussies, the giving of tips is not a custom since we have a decent minimum wage. Not only that, but it would also interfere with a drag queen’s performance. And most venues are willing to pay drag queens a reasonable fee for their services, or we’d compete in weekly comps for a cash prize.
Speaking of drag performances, it’s clear that spot numbers are completely standardized. In Ru Paul’s Drag Race, solo performances are a punishment, as if it’s not something you should be aspiring towards.
“So the lip sync for your life is something that happens when you haven’t done well,” Verushka said. “And what you see is not a performance as such; you just see a catalogue of tricks because it looks good on stage. You know, the split at the timed moment, the death drop at the end. The duck walk and the arm flapping vogue thing.
“There’s no connection to the spot number; it’s just catching the attention of the judges.
“Whereas in Australia it’s all about the song, it’s all about the performance, it’s all about the connection. And it may be part of America, too, but it’s not what we see — especially the younger generation who only watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race.”
What is also a cultural difference between Australian and American Drag is the competitiveness we see on Ru Paul’s Drag Race. In Australia, drag is a very communal industry, where queens work together.
“Traditionally, we drag queens in Australia tend to work as troops,” said Verushka. “Not so much now because a lot of venues don’t have the finances, but we work as teams, we work as troops, we work together. And even if we don’t like each other — and that doesn’t often happen — part of being a professional drag queen is to not get caught up in that drama.
“That’s not what I see mirrored in Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
“And with the reading, it’s not what we do here either,” Verushka continued. “We do what we call “dig” each other, but normally you only tease people you like. When you do a joke (in what Americans call a ‘read’) in Australia it’s actually an in-joke between the two of you that you’re involving the public in. And so no one is offended and it’s not being mean.
“When the girls on Ru Paul’s Drag Race pick on each other’s looks, it’s kind of awful. But generally in the drag world, when you’re doing a gig, it’s always with someone who’s completely in on it. And normally, it’s matched with a compliment. You know, a kiss/slap/kiss technique rather than just trying to undermine them.”
The Future Of Drag
Despite the cultural differences between Australian drag and American drag, the ultimate goal remains the same: to entertain and to educate. Even now, with cisgender women taking their position on RPDR, we’re all learning something new.
Drag itself has, for too long, been a predominately cis male sport. And it doesn’t have to be. Your genitals shouldn’t dictate whether you’re allowed to be a drag queen. Provided you truly understand drag culture and history, as well as stick to the traditions of makeup, ostentatious costumes, and lip-syncing better than Mariah Carey (love your songs, babe!), then anyone can be a drag queen. Or even a drag king.
And while we’re at it, your sexuality shouldn’t come into question either. Straight men can be drag queens if they so wish!
As for the real future of drag, well that’s up to all of us — whether spectator or participant. As they say, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. Dress how you wish, perform how you wish, banter how you wish.
As Verushka says, drag is always evolving, culturally and across the globe. So let’s enjoy it!