Was it the sight of the hirsute diva Conchita singing Rise Like a Phoenix in the glitter rain, sequins dress glimmering, beard glistening, to win Eurovision? Almost. Was it watching her on Jean Paul Gaultier’s catwalk at Paris fashion week dressed as a gothic bride? The news that Jonathan Ross is bringing RuPaul’s Drag Race to British television? Or just crying with laughter at Jodie Harsh’s #DragQueenProblems on YouTube?
Actually, it was none of the above. It was when my friend Ben made me dress up as Jordan (in a pink velour tracksuit and three Wonderbras) while he put on a fishnet onesie and Lady Gaga blonde wig so we could go clubbing at Sink the Pink. That was when I realised drag was definitely back.
If, in the 1990s, “drag” was shorthand for a guy in bad make-up singing I Will Survive to a half-empty gay bar, now it has become a mainstream obsession. And naturally, darling, it’s fabulous. The stripper heels, the candyfloss hair, the bitch fights, RuPaul pouting “Don’t f*** it up” to contestants lip-synching for their lives, while dishing out beauty advice (hairspray on your face keeps make-up in place). Drag — what’s not to love? Unless you’re a feminist like me, perhaps.
Because, I admit, as a woman, I’m never quite sure where drag sits with me. Is it just a laugh? An excuse to go clubbing with my gay best friends dressed like Beyoncé? Or is it actually laughing at women?
Perhaps the critics who claim drag is a sexist version of blackface are onto something. Or is drag so subversive that it works, not against women, but on their side, to undermine gender stereotypes and prove Judith Butler — who says gender is performance — right? What is most interesting about the new drag scene emerging in Britain is that it’s answering those questions itself.
“In the past six months, it’s been, BOOM! Drag is so hot,” growls Harsh, looking ghetto-fabulous in a side-swept blonde wig, wet-look black jumpsuit and chunky bling. When Harsh, aka Jay Clarke, isn’t producing tracks for Beyoncé, she hosts a club night, Room Service, in London and New York where she DJs, looking like the love child of Iggy Azalea and Dolly Parton.
When I first knew Harsh, in the early Noughties, she was stumbling around Soho with Kate Moss, after getting into drag while studying fashion at Central Saint Martins. Now she has become the grande dame in a new generation of queens reinventing the British scene: creating a nouveau drag distinct from the glitzy perfection on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Sink the Pink has largely been responsible for this, dragging dress-up onto the dancefloor with its gaudily outrageous club nights: a maelstrom of bad wigs, charity-shop clothes, glitter balls and polysexual perversion (in the best possible way), attracting a crowd unwilling to be defined, and straddling the gay/straight club divide.
“In America, they are more about drag in its traditional sense,” says Glynfamous, who started Sink the Pink with his BFF, Amy Zing. “There are rules, a drag tradition, ‘Have you done your eyebrows the right way?’, and so on. We are the opposite of that. RuPaul’s Drag Race is gentrifying drag. It’s making it formulaic, and that’s the opposite of all the things I like about dressing up.” What Sink the Pink has done is inspire a new drag scene in which the audience are encouraged to transform themselves in any way they choose. “One day you could come as a perfectly dressed-up drag queen and the next naked with a bolt through your nose. We give people a place where we don’t just say this is ‘fine’, because I hate that word, but this is fabulous.”
The new scene masterfully taps into drag’s roots. The documentary Paris Is Burning chronicles how drag exploded in underground 1980s New York, where predominantly black and Latino boys in the Bronx created a culture of “balls”. Here, broke kids enamoured of affluent white lifestyles would come together and dress up to emulate their fantasies. Back then, drag as we know it (that is, men dressed as women) was just one category among many in competitive dressing-up competitions in which contestants would walk the runway in classes such as “executive realness” (putting on suits to look like City boys), schoolgirl style and vogue (which Madonna later stole).
Read the full feature here: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/style/fashion/People/article1453668.ece