There simply aren’t enough drag queens in my world. I covered cross-dressing in historical film last week, so let’s go full-on glamazon. Not just a little theater gender-play, but major camp and genuine genderfuck, as seen in movies and TV. While this isn’t the complete history of drag on screen, it’s my essentials and highlights to get you started (especially focusing on films that are easy to find on DVD and streaming). Consider this an intro for those who’ve only heard of RuPaul recently.
Have at it, hunties! Here are some great moments in drag on film and TV…
Pink Flamingos (1972)
John Waters and Divine. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s a huge part of film history and drag history. Yep, it has that scene. Yep, Divine’s character is the “filthiest person alive.” Yep, that shit is real. I’m not saying you need to see it, but this is important to understand where has drag come from. Also, I highly recommend watching the original Hairspray (1988) with Divine and not the, in my opinion, pointless remake with John Travolta in the lead.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Admit it — Tim Curry was your favorite sweet transvestite when you were in high school and college. You know you spent way too many midnights singing, throwing rice and playing cards, and yelling at the virgins. If you didn’t, I’m sorry, we just can’t be friends. Or you have to catch up ASAP! The movie’s underlying message of “Don’t dream it, be it” freed a couple generations of us to stop being just Brads and Janets.
Paris Is Burning (1991)
You know that song by Madonna? This is what she ripped it off from. Because making the underground palatable for the mainstream is what pop music is all about. “Vogue” is more than just a dance, it’s an attitude, a rebellion, and a way to gain status among queer / minority / working-class guys and girls. This documentary is an amazing glimpse into a thriving subculture that serves so much more than just face. Watch it on Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes, and you may never be the same.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Three drag queens cross the Australian outback in a rickety bus. What could go wrong? Their stop to perform “I Will Survive” among aboriginal folks is priceless — in fact, the musical numbers are what make this film fierce, entertaining, and iconic. To top it off, Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel won the Best Costume Oscar for Priscilla, and for the awards ceremony, Gardiner wore the now infamous dress made out of credit cards.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)
Coincidence? Apparently so. This one feels like an American remake of Priscilla, but directors of both flicks swear they each just came up with these ideas at the same time. shrug Newmar features a ton of popular drag queens in cameo roles, including RuPaul, Lady Bunny, and Hedda Lettuce.
The Birdcage (1996)
The original La Cage aux Folles in 1978 was more influential, true. For a long time, that was the most popular foreign film in the U.S. But being in French, it doesn’t get as much play today, and some people find it less accessible. This is one of those rare remakes that is equally as good as the original, plus starring Robin Williams gave it lots of cred with the mainstream. Nathan Lane isn’t the prettiest girl you’ll see, but he has undeniable performing chops. The debate about whether to hide their gay / drag selves and then the finale where everyone comes out is really lovely.
Kinky Boots (2005)
A little-seen British film that became a Tony-award-winning Broadway musical co-written by Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein. Who saw that coming? It’s very loosely based on a true story about a family-run shoe factory that turned to making fetish and transvestite footwear to stay afloat. Lola, the drag queen, is kind of a token Magical Dream Queen, in that she exists to teach the main characters Valuable Life Lessons and, of course, save the factory. The real history was far less glamorous, as usual.
RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-present)
RuPaul has done more than anyone in America to bring drag to the masses, with dance music hits, TV and film roles, as a product spokesmodel, and now with all the T that’s fit for basic cable. To Ru-cap: Drag Race is a reality TV show to find the Next Drag Superstar — each season, 9 to 14 ladyboys compete in mini-challenges and main-stage competitions, in teams and individually, to prove who has the Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent to follow in RuPaul’s 4″ platform heels and win a crown and cash prize.
While I admire any man who can strap on a pair of heels, put on lipstick and a wig, and walk out in public (to paraphrase Ru himself), those who go beyond a basic ballgown really rock my small dark heart. The most recent winners have been amazing in that they each had well-defined aesthetics that mixed humor, haute couture, and mad costuming skills (including the reigning queen, Bianca Del Rio, who worked outside of drag as an award-winning costume designer for regional theater and opera).
RuPaul’s Drag Race combines the best of Project Runway, America’s Got Talent, and Survivor by showing these divas building several whole new outfits each episode, planning one or two performances, and doing several types of competitions. There’s always some sad little doll who can’t sew (hello, have not watched this series before applying?), and she rarely lasts the whole season! The most amazing drag ensembles take inspiration from high fashion, history, and classic drag camp, and ultimately create something new that suits the queen’s persona.
Here are some of my faves from the six seasons, including views of the queens’ post-Drag Race styles.
Season 7 just started, and the queens seem to be a diverse lot. Who knows what they’ve got planned. Will you be watching?