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It’s a Thursday night at Bloc Bar in Camden Town and a drag queen with a huge glittery beard is pretending to orgasm while sitting on top of a washing machine. Before she was on, a queen called Cheryl Dole performed a feminist rap about a night out in Newcastle. And before her, an American queen called ShayShay did a lip-syncing ballet routine as they waited for a Bird’s Eye microwave meal to cook.
If you haven’t been to a London drag show, you’re missing out on one of the most intoxicating scenes in our city. Over the past few years the capital has gained a new wave of talented and political acts who are using the art form to challenge society’s values rather than just entertain. More traditional drag queens – Lily Savage style hosts with bouffant wigs, floor-length dresses and bawdy comedy – are getting elbowed out of the spotlight by performers whose portrayal of gender is far more fluid.
London’s no stranger to boundary-pushing drag. In the ’80s and ’90s, Boy George and regulars of nights like Kinky Gerlinky challenged what it meant to be ‘male’ or ‘female’. In the noughties, legendary queen Jonny Woo brought DIY outfits and hedonistic ‘drag terrorism’ to London. This time around the audience has expanded. Every performer I spoke to for this piece credited American reality TV show ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ for bringing drag culture (for better or worse) to the attention of viewers who would never have gone to a show before. In addition, a growing interest in queer culture and what it means to identify as man, woman or something else has increased the demand for more inclusive nights.
One of London’s most commercially successful nights is Sink the Pink, whose events are an addictive mix of palpitation-inducing remixes and total freedom to dress how you want. A recent show featured a queen dressed as a bag of ‘Wankers’ crisps, to an audience in everything from gimp masks to Celine Dion costumes. Since it started in 2008, the collective has gone from running monthly house-party-cum-drag-shows at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club to presiding over a drag empire. It now works with more than 50 performers, one of whom is ShayShay.
Shay Shay – portrait by Rob Greig
‘Some drag queens wouldn’t think that I am a drag queen’
‘Some drag queens wouldn’t think that I am a drag queen,’ the 24-year-old tells me. ‘It’s easy for me to look femme, so I find it more fun to do silly “alien” or natural make-up looks. I’ll wear a wig and no make-up, or heels and no wig. There are very few clothes that I wear just for drag. I wear skirts in my daily life.’
It’s one year since ShayShay (who prefers to be referred to as ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’) did their first drag performance. The Californian was working as a project manager at the time and decided to enter annual talent competition LipSync 1000 at The Glory in Haggerston: ‘I was terrified. My friend did my make-up as I only knew the basics, and I wore a big foam ass. I looked nothing like myself.’
For ShayShay, the move from project manager to performer made total sense: they had danced since school, had always been interested in gender politics and by their own admission liked the sound of their own voice. All it took was discovering a broader spectrum of drag performers than simply men impersonating women to spark their interest.
‘With the popularity of Sink the Pink, people are starting to recognise a larger span of drag queens,’ ShayShay says. ‘London has always had variety, but because drag has become so big, it seems like more people are noticing “Oh, wow, this drag queen has a beard!” or “This one isn’t wearing a wig!” Hopefully people are starting to open their minds a bit.’
While Sink the Pink has gone from strength to strength, other areas of the drag scene haven’t been so lucky. Over the past few years London has been losing many of its traditional queer venues. Soho cabaret institution Madame Jojo’s had its licence revoked towards the end of 2014. In the same month it was announced that anarchic Hackney venue The Joiners Arms was closing. Last year, rising rents forced Shoreditch gay pub The George & Dragon to close its doors. And The Black Cap pub in Camden Town has become a café after 50 years of serving the queer community.
In 2015 it was announced that the Royal Vauxhall Tavern – one the UK’s oldest LGBTQI venues – was facing closure, but thanks to a fierce battle fought by loyal punters, the building was Grade II-listed and saved. It was a joyful result for Ingo, who has run inclusive queer cabaret night Bar Wotever (featuring everything from drag to poetry to burlesque) for the past 11 years. While sad to see the loss of traditional venues as meeting spaces for the queer community, the promoter says it hasn’t stopped the drag scene from entering a golden era of ‘interesting, smart and provocative’ performance.
‘The art form has expanded to be much more than the people I call “traditional drag queens”,’ Ingo says, ‘which is more about the character and shock value.’
That shift is something that’s hard to miss at the weekly heats for this year’s Lipsync 1000 at The Glory. The nine performers who take to the stage in the first week of March include a performance artist wearing a crown of duct tape while miming a conversation from ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ and a performer rapping Nicki Minaj tracks dressed as a goth Jesus. Perhaps best of all is the heat that sees a drag Donald Trump take to the stage.
‘It doesn’t matter if you look like a car crash’
The Glory is owned by drag queens John Sizzle and Jonny Woo, who have seen London’s drag community change dramatically since they started out nearly 15 years ago. In fact, you could argue that Woo’s first night at The George & Dragon in 2003 set the tone for today’s performers. ‘I’d just come back from New York and experienced the club scene there,’ he says. ‘It was drag, burlesque and strippers rolled into one. I brought that style of drag to London. It was explosive and all-inclusive: put on an outfit and have fun, it doesn’t matter if you look like a car crash.’
From a performer’s point of view, says Woo, it feels like many of the venues closing down are those that hosted ‘pub’ drag – based on men impersonating women. He thinks this might be because public tastes have changed. ‘Lots of established acts have lost spaces to work,’ he says, ‘but that’s probably because audiences just don’t want a misogynist approach to drag any more. I think we have to check ourselves: are we pastiching women or playing with social convention and mocking that?’
In December, US drag act Charlie Hides found himself at the centre of a racism row after his character Laquisha Jonz was described by campaigners as ‘based on misogynistic stereotypes of black working-class women’. The character was banned from The Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Hides is not the only one who’s caused controversy. Nights including Sink the Pink have been criticised by the trans community for using the word ‘tranny’ on their posters and in their newsletters.
Adam All – portrait by Rob Greig
‘A drag queen booted me up the arse and on to the stage’
The push for a more inclusive scene may have led to some acts being criticised, but it’s also enabled previously under-represented styles of drag to step into the spotlight. The male-impersonating drag king scene has exploded over the past few years, thanks to performers like Adam All kickstarting it with nights such as BoiBox at Soho venue She, and drag king competition Man Up. ‘I started dressing in drag way before I started performing,’ explains the 31-year-old, who performs as a man in big square glasses and brightly coloured suits. ‘I’d frequented karaoke nights for a couple of years. Then a drag queen just booted me up the arse and on to the stage.’
Adam explains that when he started, the drag king scene was so small he could only find four YouTube videos of kings in action. Now, it’s booming. Performers who started off at BoiBox have gone on to launch their own nights. ‘I’d like to think, in my own selfish little way, we’ve single-handedly created a world where drag kings can thrive,’ he explains. ‘But also it’s the environment we’re living in now. Society, outside the LGBTQI community, is looking at gender a lot more.’
Awareness of the drag scene has also helped increase support for London’s growing number of a drag queens who are biologically female.
There’s Lolo Brow, a member of the Family Fierce collective who have a residency at Bloc; and Eppie, a performer who dresses up in Coke cans and wears Lidl-carrier-bag get-ups rather than trying to look like a man or a woman. Then there’s Holestar, part of the ‘drag terrorism’ movement alongside Jonny Woo. She blazed the trail for today’s female queens.
In fact, it was Holestar who encouraged 25-year-old Victoria Sin to give drag a go. By day, Sin is studying for a masters at the Royal College of Art, by night she’s a drag queen. ‘Before, doing drag at all was really fringe,’ she says. ‘But now that drag’s more mainstream, different forms that are more subversive are becoming popular. People who thought they didn’t have permission are realising that they do.’
Victoria Sin – portrait by Rob Greig
‘It’s important to get the message that drag is subversive and liberating’
Growing up in Toronto, Sin started sneaking into the city’s gay clubs when she was 17. When she moved to London, she started doing drag secretly in her bedroom. She did this for months, making videos of herself in flamboyant make-up, before she eventually stepped on to the stage six months ago.
‘I thought it was something I couldn’t do,’ she says, ‘but thanks to female queens like Holestar paving the way, the scene is more welcoming to women now. There were some guys online who said that what I was doing was cultural appropriation because I wasn’t a gay man, but that’s just misogyny.’
Victoria Sin’s look is Marilyn Monroe meets Marlene Dietrich meets Jessica Rabbit. She wears bleached-blonde, pin-curled wigs, sequin gowns, Barbie-pink faux-fur jackets and towering heels. Her outfits are deliberately impractical – on stage, she barely performs (although a recent performance at Lipsync 1000 saw her pull a grimacing smile as she whipped two maracas out of her bra). Sin’s act is a deliberate statement against what she describes as ‘the forced performance of femininity for people who identify as female’.
While Sin credits the growth of the drag scene to a wider change in attitudes towards gender, she doesn’t think that increased awareness has had a wholly positive effect. She believes that ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ has actually had a negative impact, since it’s helped reinforce the stereotype of drag as just exaggerated female impersonation by men. ‘Drag can be a tool to deconstruct gender binaries [the idea that men and women should fulfil specific gender-based roles],’ she says. ‘But if people don’t question what they’re doing, it can be done in a way that’s quite misogynist. It’s important to get the message that drag is subversive and liberating.’
This is the true spirit of drag: it can create confusion, it can be political, it can be an act of self-definition, but it should always challenge the viewer. It’s something that many of the performers I talked to reiterated as important.
ShayShay explains: ‘The only time I’ve experienced some hateful speech, it was from a fellow gay who was at Sink the Pink, walking alongside and slagging us off for not being “real queens”. He was like: “If I was a drag queen…” I was like: “Yeah? Show me, babe.” ’