I didn’t meet RuPaul at the third annual DragCon, but I did run into his sister, Renetta Humphries, at the “Can I Get an Amen? Sunday Service.” All three sisters of America’s most beloved drag queen were in attendance — it’s rare when the trio are in the same city — and Renetta took credit for this opportunity for them to praise together. “I’m a Christian,” she explained from the front row when I asked her why she had asked the DragCon producers to bring back Pastor Jerrell Walls after dropping him last year. Only a dozen fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race made time for devotion during the first convention, Renetta recalled. Somewhere between 200 and 300 worshippers sat behind her last Sunday. Turnout has exploded at DragCon since 2015. So has the need for guidance and support.
Elsewhere in L.A., putting up wine-hued velvet curtains is the go-to move in transforming an anonymous office space, like this big white box in the Los Angeles Convention Center, into a solemn house of God. The sriracha-red drapery behind the grinning gospel choir and Season 4’s Latrice Royale — an ordained minister and a tower of royal blue ruffles and inky-black sequins — was more cha-cha than church. But who said praise can’t be fun? Pastor Jerrell and Sammy Parnell, a board member at the former’s LGBTQ-friendly Christ Chapel of the Valley in North Hollywood, conducted a Q&A sermon that was somewhere between a theology panel and a talk show. In many besieged communities, we need to know where someone’s been before we can trust their advice. And so, in an exhausted but enthusiastic croak, Pastor Jerell outlined his life story: growing up with Pentecostal preacher parents, coming out for the first time in a post-surgery drug stupor to his then-fiancée, and eventually concluding that homosexuality and being transgender are part of “the diversity of God.” The audience whooped when the handsomely salt-and-pepper-haired clergyman, noticeably fit under his reverend’s robes, gave a shout-out to his Jewish boyfriend from the stage.
Before the sermon, Pastor Jerrell told me that there are a lot of angry atheists in the LGBTQ community. (And drag queens in his church, who don’t dress as women for services.) If you do still believe in God, the reverend would like to help you cultivate your relationship with Him — however much other Christians may strain that bond. “They don’t see [homophobia] as hateful,” Pastor Jerrell averred. “They’re trying to save your soul.” But that doesn’t make their good intentions any less oppressive. He paraphrased Jesus, who compared the religious hypocrites of ancient Rome to whitewashed tombs: “You’re beautiful on the outside, but you’re full of dead men’s bones.”
RuPaul didn’t create drag, obviously. But he did shepherd it into the mainstream — from Logo to VH1 [Note: MTV, VH1, and Logo are all owned by Viacom], no less — aided by three powerful forces: the normalization of LGBTQ people and culture, the refinement of the reality-TV formula, and the rise of cosplay, especially among millennials. (Not that drag is synonymous with cosplay, but the increasing acceptance of dress-up as a pastime allows fans to get in on the fun.) This year’s DragCon caught fans and the larger queer community at a time of small and large uncertainties. Currently in its ninth season (not counting the two All-Stars competitions that gave eliminated fan favorites a second chance), Drag Race continues to respond to charges that the series prioritizes cis-male gay men above, say, trans performers and bio-drag queens, who are cis-female female impersonators. The current season’s Miss Peppermint became only the second trans queen to come out as such during the course of the competition. (Season 5’s Monica Beverly Hillz’s ousting came in the episode following her trans reveal.) And, of course, the dual threat of Trump and Pence in the Oval Office — along with a resurgence of emboldened hate from the right — stuck around like a bad smell throughout the convention. Some people could ignore it. Others seemed ready to do whatever it took to rout it out.
If RuPaul was anywhere near DragCon on its first day (Saturday, April 28), I didn’t hear about it. Over the rear of the main floor hung a giant banner with the Emmy-winning host encased in a skin-tight, bubble-gum-pink race suit, the words “RUPAUL’S BIG OPENING” just under his hypersculpted derriere. (It’s next to impossible that that image wasn’t photoshopped, but if it somehow wasn’t, I really need to start doing 8,000 squats a day.)
On the second and final day of the convention, I got within 6 feet of Mama Ru. He sat alone in a sleek, white tube — a Fortress of Solitude designed by Apple circa 2005. I could only catch glimpses of his eerily still figure, which was swathed in one of those endearingly loud pantsuits he wears around the Drag Race workroom. According to the screen on a photog’s camera, Mr. Charles was rocking his signature square frames and gleaming bald pate. It was lit up like a spaceship inside — good lighting is a girl’s next best friend — and the tube accommodated two slits just big enough for a single person to enter and leave. Five handlers milled around, shooing people away.
A few feet away from RuPaul’s iPod hideaway hung some of his most outlandish Drag Race gowns. His 2016 Emmy, as gaudily brassy as anything that’s ever been featured on the show, sat in a glass casket, waiting to be kissed. The line to pay a visit to Mama Ru was so long and crowded even LAX would be embarrassed to house it. But it makes sense that RuPaul was treated not just like a star, but a deity, to which one treks a pilgrimage. Everywhere you looked, there were things that wouldn’t have existed without him: the convention, the community, the swarming customers for niche businesses. We were living in his creation.
The Los Angeles Convention Center’s West Hall is a maze of hospital-green walls. Its particular shade of seafoam is the color of an extremely polite individual’s sick. The vast majority of DragCon participants — surpassing 40,000 this year, double the number of last year’s 22,500 attendees — alighted on Saturday. (Attendance was so high that World of Wonder, the production company behind Drag Race and the convention, is launching a sister convention in New York this fall.) Last Saturday’s morning visitors had to wait half an hour to get in — not bad for a ride at Disneyland, but once in, attendees had to elbow past vamps, aliens, mermaids, a pair of Melanias, a woman dressed as a theater proscenium (!), a 9-foot-tall goddess-witch-clown, and a whole lot of normals just to stand in another line. A few people — a lot more women than men — hobbled around in 6-inch heels. Men could be women there, but they clung to male stoicism when it came to foot pain.
In making drag accessible via commercial television, Drag Race has desexualized, depoliticized, even de-weirdo-fied the art of celebrating femininity through parody. There are some who might decry Drag Race’s partial erasure of drag’s inflammatory and insurrectionary potential, but tell that to the children at DragCon. The 2017 convention was the first to host a Kid’s Zone — the one space in West Hall where I thought of the primary colors, That’s a bit much. In front of the Zone’s bouncy castle is where I talked to Tom Born, one of several attendees I met who wouldn’t exactly call himself a fan of the show. He sipped his beer while waiting for his 14-year-old son, Max, to return from his makeup shopping trip around the main floor. After teaching himself how to brush and blend via YouTube, Max has been wearing makeup to school every day for the past two years. So accommodating is Max’s school, in the affluent L.A. suburb of Culver City, of his passions that administrators have him do the makeup for theater productions and allowed him to teach a class on makeup. A couple of years ago, Tom was nervous about his son’s embrace of a culture he considered part of “the underbelly of society.” He was also worried that Max would be bullied, but the divorced dad eventually decided that it was more important to accept his preteen son as he was than risk losing him. Thanks to the wide availability of images of men in makeup, including on Drag Race and at DragCon, Max doesn’t need to hide his real self like generations of gay kids before him. “He’s pretty confident about who he is,” his father says. “Everybody else is struggling.”
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that drag has saved many queer lives, but does it liberate straight women? Queer scholar Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performance — echoed by RuPaul’s famous quote that “we’re born naked, and the rest is drag” — suggests that straight men and women can also find freedom from gender roles. But few females at the convention seem interested in defying the straight-male gaze: Drag kings were a rare sight, and the boldest that most cisgender women at the makeup booths dared to go was purple glitter lipstick. But straight women did relax in the reprieve from that gaze. A trio of twentysomething ladies, two of whom live in Texas, expressed relief that they wouldn’t be catcalled or groped for their tight skirts like they would be in Houston or Austin clubs. At DragCon, their figure-hugging, sequin-laden costumes weren’t accessorized with male expectations. Jordan Meyer was inspired to become a makeup artist after her favorite queen, Raja, took the Season 3 crown. (Meyer recognized Raja as the makeup artist on one of her other reality favorites, America’s Next Top Model.) But these days, she longs for the days when she can let her face go bare.
While Drag Race’s female fans are always welcome, bio-drag queens are less so. The practice is new enough that its practitioners go by several names: femme queens, hyper queens, faux-queens. Shakespeare and TV actress Angela Sauer, a.k.a. Chicka Cherry Cola, is having none of that “faux-queen” nonsense. A petite brunette in her early thirties with huge eyes and a mile-wide smile, Angela found freedom in womanly excess. “Femininity and feminism have always been at odds against each other,” she said, explaining that bio drag — which she sees as the refusal to cater to straight men — is one way to circle that square. When she started femininity impersonation a year ago, she didn’t know any other bio queens in Los Angeles. Today, she vies with several others in local competitions.
“My parents are convinced I’m destroying my career,” Angela sighed, then pointed out that Shakespeare has “at least five girl [characters] dress up as boys.” She uses some of the 60-odd wigs in her personal collection to occasionally dress up — and even audition — as a guy, but “girls get better wigs and clothes.” I’m not exactly sure what she’s dressed up as — maybe an autumn garden wedding? On her head was perched a three-tier, mustard-yellow wedding cake that refused to cater to my appetite, on top of which stood a gender-nonconforming couple: a groom in a burgundy tux with delicate features and his/her bearded bride. The hoop dress Angela wore was festooned with maroon flowers and butterflies. Drag can be an expensive hobby: Angela spent $120 on her thick, glittery makeup that day, as well as another $100 for the gown at a costume sale — a steal, she said, because the zipper was broken. The cost is another reason why she bristles when people assume that a woman aping womanhood doesn’t take much effort. In drag, she speaks in a much girlier register than her natural contralto — people are nicer to women with higher voices, she said — and had to unlearn the skills from her competitive-karaoke days to teach herself how to lip-synch, which is less about self-expression than embodying the singer whose words you’re mouthing the lyrics to. Angela’s only seen one season of Drag Race, but she hoped there would be a bio contender on the show one day. The transformation from male to female is a fun spectacle, she grants. But so is her secret weapon: “Not being afraid to make a fool of myself.”
Signing up for a reality show takes courage. Even on a series that promotes creativity and self-acceptance like Drag Race, in which every episode ends with RuPaul repeating his catchphrase (“If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”), contestants submit to grueling, stress-filled schedules and to being edited with an eye toward formula and entertainment — which may not coincide with who they really are.
But for those who give themselves over to the process, there is reward in surrender. Nearly 80 Drag Race queens came to take selfies with their fans (starting at around $10), as well as to sell merch like stickers, t-shirts, tote bags, pins, autographs, and photo strips. Season 8 runner-up Kim Chi, already a legend for her outlandish yet meticulous anime-based looks, came to play, attired as an adorable lion-Lolita hybrid straight out of a hentai that I don’t have the remotest interest in watching. She wore six fake eyelashes over each eye, which counts as a chill day — she’s worn up to 25 lashes at a time. The line to shop her makeup line, Sugarpill, snaked past adjacent booths. Though the queens met a new fan every two minutes, they reached for a warm connection with each visitor as their suspicious handlers gauged each interaction from a few feet away. The girls worked hard for their money.
But DragCon is more interesting for all the people and constituents and edges that don’t make it onto Drag Race. Unsurprisingly, there were more than a few queens who had been rejected and/or planned on applying for future seasons scoping out the competition. Korean-American Chicago native Soju, who considers Kim Chi her drag sister, already has onscreen experience via her drag-centric YouTube talk show, “Shot With Soju.” She didn’t rule out Drag Race from her future, but she seemed hesitant about appearing on the show. It’s too bad; her act — which incorporates K-pop and tae kwon do — is exactly the kind of drag diversity a reality show could use nearly a decade after its launch.
During the Q&A portion of her makeup panel with fellow finalist Naomi Smalls, Kim Chi requested that she not be asked about her virginity, which the 29-year-old revealed on the show, or her mother, who didn’t (doesn’t?) know about her drag activity despite the queen’s appearance on national TV. The flame-tressed S&M siren Soju, a fifth-level black belt who owns and operates a martial arts studio, isn’t out to her parents or any of her coworkers, either. She compares her existence to Hannah Montana’s, but also sees it as normal: She doesn’t know any Asian queens out to their families. “I respect [my] parents’ wishes of not wanting to know,” she shrugs.
Down on the main floor, I saw Soju hoofing it for hours in her 6-inch heels, shooting interviews for her show and networking with others in the drag industry. Compliments like “You look so good, girl!” splashed across every aisle, and dozens of necks craned in response. The convention center was a magpie’s dream that weekend, organized along Lacefront Boulevard and Deathdrop Alley and stocked with clothes, makeup, crowns, coloring books, psychic readings, Etsy detritus, boots transported from Planet Glamazon, homemade dolls of Drag Race contestants, jeweled (dog) collars, and a few political orgs like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. During the five or so minutes that I talked to Vincent Cuccia, a legally blind entrepreneur who started Planet Pepper — the company that makes Astrobooty foam hip pads for drag queens (sold out by the time I got there) — a woman selling silicon boobs came by to introduce herself to Vincent and compare notes on manufacturing materials.
It’s hard to date as a drag queen, I heard over and over again, partly because the long hours aren’t conducive to romance and partly because of the internalized misogyny of the male gay community. But Vincent is happily dating his drag-queen boyfriend, who wears his pads, naturally. Less of a snug fit in this community that theoretically embraces inclusion across the full spectrum is someone like Lisa Goshon. An African-American woman who works as a corporate business strategist by day and a marijuana-themed fashion designer by night, she voted for Trump and identifies as a Republican. Her island-hued, kaleidoscopic caftans, as well as their politically subversive messaging, look like they belong here, and maybe they do. Pastor Jerrell welcomes his GOP congregants, too, even tamping down his political points after complaints of partisan bias.
Certain parts of the drag community are under fire from the other side of the political aisle, too — and arguably rightly so. After the first day of the Con, I went to the “Drag Queens of Comedy” show, featuring Drag Race winners Alaska Thunderfuck and Bob the Drag Queen, drag-comedy legends Lady Bunny and Coco Peru, and several other headliners. Joan Rivers’s spirit haunted that show, mostly through jokes about Asian men with small penises and black names being unpronounceable (to whom?). Though it came from a small minority of queens and fans, it wasn’t hard to find cultural appropriation in the convention hall. The “my culture is not a costume” slogan hasn’t yet permeated Drag Race, whose eighth season presented four different queens in kimonos in a tribute to Madonna’s “Nothing Really Matters” music video, which predated Katy Perry’s geisha dress-up by 15 years. (The challenge was to channel Madge, who most queens know has more than one memorable look.)
The queer left can claim one concrete victory: Drag Race recently got rid of its “She-Mail” segments after sustained outcry about that word. But message boards rage on with debates about whether RuPaul’s usage of the word “tranny” is offensive. Mama Ru lashed out at what she sees as the PC police on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast: “You know, I can call myself a nigger, faggot, tranny all I want to, because I’ve fucking earned the right to do it. I’ve lived the life.” I have to admit I’ve gone from laughing at the use of the word “fishy” to feeling uncomfortable about its built-in sexism in the past few years of my Drag Race fandom. The convention is ample evidence that hacky jokes and controversial terms don’t get in the way of business. But I do wonder how much of white gay male culture’s unexamined privileges permeate drag culture — and alienate fans.
Bob the Drag Queen is the reigning winner of Drag Race. Gloriously loudmouthed, Bob (whose given name is Christopher) looked both gauche and regal at the politics panel. (Her gold gown with swollen sleeves was a stately frock that Elizabeth I might’ve worn to her cousin’s baptism, if the Virgin Queen wasn’t constantly trying to kill her sister.) Alaska Thunderfuck, a fellow comedian and fan favorite, sat on the panel looking like Marie Antoinette as a stripper, donning a ball gown made of dollar bills and several more poking out of her foot-high blonde bouffant. But Bob quickly took over the panel, to the crowd’s delight. Uninterested in elaborating on the resistance’s usual solutions of vigilance and voting local, Bob called for a reality check: “This is not the first time we’ve had the president against us.” She urged people to educate themselves about the War on Drugs and to watch Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th.
The DragCon staff had to turn attendees away from the politics panel; more fans sought succor than the cavernous hall could hold. Bob gave the people her version of it, which lies in pop culture. “Drag Race is the most important show to queer people in the history of television,” she proclaimed, arguing that it’s the only show that’s told the real stories of trans people and women of color. Those groups have been leading the charge since Stonewall, she asserted, because they “feel like [they] have nothing else to lose.” She wanted to honor Divine and John Waters: “No one was putting a chunky girl as the lead in a movie.” Of that iconic scene in Waters’s Pink Flamingos, she roared, “She ate shit!” — a gesture Bob saw as an act of vengeance. As a kid, Bob saw those turds in Divine’s mouth as her bullies. She also had a lifetime’s worth of eye rolls, but only two words, for Caitlyn Jenner: “You’re stupid.”
On the subject of drag appropriation, the panel was less united. Bob called out Sia, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Madonna for stealing from drag culture without giving due credit to its originators. “Drag went from being referential to being referred,” she said of how a queen’s outfit, sewn in her basement, gets “elevated” by, say, Givenchy. “The problem is, people don’t know where things are from,” Bob contended, and so millionaire singers get praised for their originality and style while many queens can barely pay the rent. And yet Bob seemed to soften when the current season’s Eureka, the third panelist, noted that the normalization of drag elements by the mainstream can result in less discrimination and violence against the queer community. Exposure can’t buy you groceries, but a changing cultural climate might keep you out of the hospital, or worse. Progress can be terrifyingly slow.
I don’t want to harsh the good vibes at DragCon, but I can’t help asking Vincent Cooper, a preternaturally poised and thoughtful 24-year-old drag impresario from Brooklyn, whether drag is currently at the crest of a wave and we’re not seeing it. In an interview a few hours before DragCon, Lady Bunny had told me that she witnessed drag’s rise and fall as a novelty fad in the ’90s. Vincent owes the entirety of his young career to Drag Race, managing a couple of queens and organizing a live weekly drag competition called Lady Liberty that grew out of viewing parties at the Ace Hotel. He’s thought about the possibility that drag might soon be forced to sashay away, too. But for the time being, he’s busy checking out his queens’ competition and looking for sponsorship possibilities.
For Vincent, drag wasn’t love at first sight. He remembers the “nausea” he felt at the deliberate confusion between the male and the female. Coming from a Republican Italian family from New Jersey, he now believes “the straight world could really benefit” from drag, especially in breaking down the wall between gender roles and countering against the “toxic,” society-destroying force that is hypermasculinity. But as far as the queer community’s future, and that of drag, everything feels up in the air.
“Drag is no longer a subculture,” he says. “We’ve broken down the door. Now what?”