440 Nightclub performers dance during the annual Durham Pride parade on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 on Duke's east campus. The Pride events in Durham started in 1981 after protests by the LGBTQ community in response to a murder and attack of sunbathers at the Little River. The Pride event in Durham has continued to be a way for city to celebrate and support their LGBTQ+ community.

From Eurovision to the Met Gala, Little Mix to Taylor Swift, Blue’s Clues to RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag has seen a surge of mainstream appeal and marketability in the last few years unlike ever before. As drag performers continue to gain massive followings, endorsements and careers off their art form, local drag performers are having to tread in the wake of these big names and make a way for themselves in a world that seems to only be comfortable with drag when it is marketable.

Queer culture first began to break into the mainstream in the 1990s with Madonna’s hit 1990 single “Vogue” and the 1990 documentary film “Paris is Burning.” Following the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, people took an interest in learning about, taking a part in and taking from queer culture, especially that of Black queer people and other queer people of color. Of course, some drag performers broke into the scene long before this mainstream acceptance. Divine, an actress with a cult following, and musician Sylvester are examples. One of these breakthrough stars was RuPaul Charles, mononymously known as RuPaul, who was casted in The B-52’s music video for their 1989 single “Love Shack.”

RuPaul’s career took off resulting in her TV talk show “The RuPaul Show,” one of the first TV shows hosted by an openly gay person. In 2009, RuPaul started “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a reality TV drag competition show, bringing drag to the everyday person and determining the faces of drag for the mainstream.

“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” while introducing the broader world to the queer art of drag, has promoted a very specific idea of what drag is since its inception: cisgender, gay men dressing up as beautiful stereotypical women and performing in competition with one another. To see why this is a problem, we must first understand what drag is.

“Drag is a queer performance art that allows people to play with and depict gender and queerness with less bounds than the way that they get to navigate everyday life,” said Marco Andro Carter, a nonbinary boylesque drag performer. “Drag creates explicit spaces that are reserved for the exploration of gender and queerness.”

Drag is an art form that can be performed by anyone and in any way. Because RuPaul’s Drag Race and other mainstream media has pushed cisgender, gay men as the face of drag, many people only see drag in this way despite the fact that modern drag is rooted in the expression of queer and transgender people of color in 1980s ballroom culture.

“You had these women or these trans women or maybe people who wanted to walk a feminine path in life, but they couldn't do that in the daytime, you know what I mean?” said drag queen Alex Thee Rabbit. “So we created our own trophies. We created our own prizes and we made money for our folks to be able to walk their truths in the ballroom.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race finally seems to be opening up to a broader pool of contestants with the first out trans woman, Peppermint, competing on season nine and the first out trans man, Gottmik, competing on season 13. The show has also worked to remove transphobic language and references from the show that had saturated previous seasons. This comes around the same time that RuPaul was called out for her transphobia in her infamous 2018 interview with The Guardian where she said she would not allow a transgender woman who had had cosmetic surgeries to compete on the show.

“The beginning seasons of Drag Race were very problematic,” said drag queen Espi O. Najj. “And I feel like it has come a long way from there, but like I said before, I do feel like with diversity and inclusion, there's always more room to grow, because we are always learning about more identity groups every day.”

One of the major positives to come out of RuPaul’s Drag Race, however, is the ability for drag performers to make a living off drag. Drag has become marketable. However, at the same time, there are only so many performers that can “make it” at once, resulting in local performers getting the crumbs of these larger performers.

“I have friends who will pay $100, $200 or $300 to go get a meet and greet and a photo with the RuPaul's Drag Race girls, but when it comes to supporting local entertainers, you know, they don't give you the time of day or they won't come to your show,” Alex Thee Rabbit said.

Teagress, a Raleigh-based drag queen, said that Drag Race queens will be paid upwards of $1,000 per booking while local queens receive much less.

“Our quality of drag is not that different,” Teagress said. “They just have more resources and they had a platform. That's pretty unfair when local queens get booked for like 100 bucks for two numbers, and we have to get all these outfits and makeup and it's really expensive.”

This is further complicated by the intersection of identities within the queer community. It’s a known and acknowledged fact that there is an intense amount of racism in the Drag Race fandom with queens of color consistently getting attacked by the fanbase, and this attitude is continued in the experience of performers of color in Raleigh. Alex Thee Rabbit created The Body Party at Ruby Deluxe specifically to uplift Black and brown femme performers.

“I was tired of being a Black girl in this community having to fight so hard to get my roses or to get my dues,” Alex Thee Rabbit said. “And I wanted to create a platform for other girls to not only be seen, but to also get their roses and get the coins that they deserve.”

Miss B. Haven, a drag performer and the host of Rubí de Lujo, a show at Ruby Deluxe dedicated to queer Latine people, discussed the impact that drag has had specifically on queer Latine people who are undocumented or on DACA.

“Within the Latinx community, the Latine community, you have undocumented folks here under DACA, right, and you have undocumented folks here, just in general, and a lot of times it can be tricky for folks like this to be able to get stable employment,” Miss B. Haven said. “Nightlife really allows a space for informal economies to kind of grow. It's just like, ‘Okay, I know that this performer has shared with me that they are DACA undocumented, so I can give them a gig this night to help them get, you know, an extra 100 bucks.’”

Marco Andro Carter discussed the sexism perpetuated by mainstream drag culture that gets replicated in the local drag scene.

“There is a club in Raleigh that has explicitly said, ‘We don’t book kings,’” Marco Andro Carter said. “‘We don’t do that here,’ which is very overt. There’s less overt stuff like me reaching out regularly for bookings and never getting a booking or getting booked on a stage that has no traffic and having my songs chosen for me and expecting to be thrilled for that—being expected to be grateful for crumbs.”

The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula and Alaska’s Drag Queen of the Year Pageant are the only two high profile competitions that have included a drag king in the competition: Landon Cider and Tenderoni, respectively. Landon Cider and Tenderoni both won their respective seasons and still have nowhere close to the followings of some of the Drag Race queens.

“There’s less structured mentorship for kings,” Marco Andro Carter said. “There’s less resources. We’re talking about the earning potential societally of assigned female at birth people and trans and nonbinary people is less than cisgender men so the resources to get good looks and makeup and stuff and the mentorship structures — it’s difficult to grow if you don’t have that. There’s only so many kings that have really made it, so they can’t mentor everyone. We’re left sort of creating our own structures and systems of mentorship with each other.”

The “look” that Drag Race is promoting is not just about who is under the makeup but also what the performer looks like in drag. RuPaul’s Drag Race has pushed a very specific image of beautiful, glamorous pageant drag — with an occasional Sharon Needles — which is not representative of the spectrum of drag that exists in the real world. 

“I do think that Drag Race is definitely trying to appeal to the mainstream audience,” said Derelict, a self-proclaimed queen of the dump who does “scary and trashy” drag. “So I do think that if Dragula follows a similar approach to the mainstream, that that type of drag will get more accepted.”

So much of the drag look that is being promoted by Drag Race is based in pageant culture which rewards contestants for how well they can “pass” as the opposite gender and look glamorous. The pageant system has led to an elitist practice of booking performers in venues based off of their pageant titles.

“Historically at places that would host pageants, a lot of queens that would be booked in those places would be people that had done the pageant system,” Derelict said. “And so, prior to Drag Race and social media, a lot of what brought people out were these titleholders and people that were winning crowns and in pageants and whatnot, but there really is a class line there, because we don't have enough money to enter into the pageant, or spend thousands of dollars on wigs and gowns, or however much it would have cost you like, that was not an option to you.”

This class line is extremely visible in the mainstream drag media with Drag Race queens spending as much as $20,000 on looks for the runway while RuPaul and co-host Michelle Visage criticize contestants for wearing “off the rack” looks.

However, some local performers and venues have pushed to create openings and opportunities for younger performers who want to get into the industry. Once a month, Ruby Deluxe hosts an event called the Glitter Hour with the intention of opening a space for mentorship and practice for younger performers. Pre-pandemic Legends would also host a monthly talent show for performers of all experience levels to show off their skills.

“Being in the Bible Belt and not being somewhere in a big city where there's so many clubs everywhere — you know, Raleigh has really like three or four major ones — I feel like there is this cycle of rotation of queens who are known and popular around the area and around the Triangle,” Espi O. Najj said. “So I think getting in, in terms of there being space for everyone, I think it's very, very difficult.”

Most of the performers echoed this sentiment that while they appreciate that drag is becoming more approachable and popular and gaining the interest of younger performers, in a place like Raleigh, there are only so many venues that performers can be booked: Ruby Deluxe, Flex, Legends and Work. The lack of venue spaces speaks to the political nature of existing as a queer person and/or a drag performer, especially in the Bible Belt.

“I do think drag is a reflection of — especially in North Carolina and the post-House Bill Two moment that we had in 2016 — even though that was a localized thing here, it really caused a moment in the whole country,” Derelict said. “But that dates all the way back to like the late ‘70s, there was this activist whose name was Anita Bryant, and she was very much with the family coalition groups that even back then they were using the argument of gay people and what gender they were choosing and it being a danger to the bathroom.”

Mainstream drag seems to have sterilized itself a bit from its political past, but the art of drag is still as political as ever. It’s not unusual to see a culture get picked up by the mainstream and watered down.

“I think throughout history we've seen where underground movements have become mainstream. There is now room for critique, and there's room for setting bars that do not necessarily have to be there,” Espi O. Najj said.

The mainstreaming of drag culture is not inherently a bad thing. We just have to be knowledgeable of the history and politics of how we got here and be cognizant of who we’re stepping over as we chase down the Drag Race queens.

In closing, make sure you tip your local drag artist.

Arts & Culture Editor

My name is Austin Dunlow and I am the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Technician. I'm in the Graduating Class of 2021 with a major in Political Science. I have been at Technician since February of 2019.