Searching for the Future of Drag at RuPaul's DragCon
We talked to drag queens about how drag is everywhere—from the fashion industry to country music to a TV channel called VICELAND.
All photos by Lili Emtiaz
Drag queen Trixie Mattel knows how to wake up a crowd at 10 AM. On Sunday, she leapt into a room of roughly 300 people who screamed at the sight of a hot pink real-life Bratz doll beaming with butterfly-like eye shadow under a Snapchat filter-worthy flower crown.
On the second and last day of RuPaul's DragCon 2017, which took place in NYC for the first time this weekend, the audience was hungry for the former RuPaul's Drag Race season 7 contestant's dark sense of humor and eager to hear about her upcoming sketch show, The Trixie and Katya Show, premiering on November 15 on VICELAND.
Her show, she explains, gives a glimpse at the future of drag— wherein the actual drag attire and aesthetic comes second to the show's comedy. The show is based on their YouTube show UNHhhh, wonderfully bizarre mized comedy show that blends humor, gay culture, universalizing human experiences, and an obsession with the movie Contact. Mattel highlighted an overarching theme at the convention, which is that drag is just one of many performances we see and act out ourselves all the time. Or, as RuPaul has said for years, "You're born naked and the rest is drag."
"Drag [is becoming] less defined by a man being dressed as a woman," said Mattel. "We're going to also start seeing levels of drag. We're not going to be able to say what is and isn't drag because we're going to become aware of the fact that everybody's in drag a little bit of the time."
In fact, Mattel is surprised to find that many people still view drag as a heightened performance of femininity. "If you look at Trixie Mattel and think 'woman,' that should make you think, 'Wow, what has society made me see a woman as?'" she said. "It's too much makeup and this extreme body shape and this giant, bleach blonde hair, why do I see woman when women don't look like that? No matter what gender you identify as, drag makes everyone in the room feel like [I can] let my corset out and do whatever I want." She notes how artists like Dolly Parton have been performing in drag for years in front of a variety of audiences, even if she identifies as a cisgender woman. "It's only when someone like RuPaul who identifies as a man and that's the whole gag where he's a man in drag [that you think] 'Oh, that's drag,'" she said. "We see drag all the time."
Others at the convention looked at the future of drag in terms of where and how it will bend and influence other art forms and industries. In the Saturday panel, "Drag Does Fashion Week: A Fashion Affair," makeup and beauty mogul Edward Bess, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, and former RuPaul's Drag Race alum Miss Fame, Naomi Smalls, and Detox all agreed drag is changing the world of fashion—and not the other way around.
"If you look at who's having success in fashion right now, it's those who are paying homage to drag," said Bess, citing fashion label Belmonte and the Kardashians as those influenced by drag. "The derriere is back in fashion perhaps as an homage to what queens have been doing all along...The big butt is back in style because of drag influences [on] fashion."
Longtime fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi added to Bess's assessment. "Drag leads the way a lot of the time," said Mizrahi. "I urge people to think about the next kind of cultural beat that's about to happen. Because if we're all in tight dresses and giant hair and loads of makeup, it's time to think about what comes [next] because it's over before you know it...Gotta think about the next thing." He joked: "Start thinking about flip flops and visors."
"The fact that we're in drag is kind of irrelevant"
Eric Coble, a 35-year-old dressed as Marie Antoinette, waved a massive fan with "MEH" scrawled across it as he talked with me about the future of drag as going far beyond defying the gender binary, and how the art form combines performance elements with other influences, like cosplay, historical times, or political causes. "There's always things that you see getting blended in, but there's always the throwbacks," said Coble, referring to the 90s club kid looks present at the convention. "I think it's ever-evolving and it's also combining [current looks]."
Drag has also long been used by individuals to tackle hot button issues or difficult topics. Mattel believes both drag and comedy are similar in their surreptitious ability to pull audiences into discussions around serious topics in a lighthearted manner. "We also like to address darker, more serious topics through comedy [on the new show]," said Mattel. "We get to make people start thinking and talking about some things accidentally."
For Mattel, comedy and performance will continue to come before drag itself. "The fact that we're in drag is kind of irrelevant," said Mattel. "It's just something fun to look at. The drag is the candy bar wrapper, but the comedy is the candy bar."
The Trixie and Katya Show premiers on VICELAND on November 15.