Drag Queens Sashay Their Way Through History Drag is experiencing a golden age, thanks to TV's RuPaul's Drag Race. But the tradition of drag performance has its roots as far back as Greece and has gone through a radical evolution in the U.S.
NPR logo How Drag Queens Have Sashayed Their Way Through History

How Drag Queens Have Sashayed Their Way Through History

Drag queens hold a feather boa in an attempt to break the Guinness World Records title for the longest feather boa during a celebration of Pride Month in New York City's Times Square on June 20. Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Drag queens hold a feather boa in an attempt to break the Guinness World Records title for the longest feather boa during a celebration of Pride Month in New York City's Times Square on June 20.

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

A man struts through the Los Angeles Convention Center wearing a mermaid-style gown, decked out with pink ostrich feathers. No one bats a fake eyelash.

He is just one of more than 60,000 people who streamed into the convention center in May for RuPaul's DragCon, the country's biggest drag queen convention, according to its organizers. Fabulous outfits, high-heeled pumps and colorful wigs filled the hall.

Loud and proud, drag culture is having a moment.

"Drag has arrived at the big kids' table. People are finally acknowledging it as an art form to be reckoned with," says Randy Barbato, co-executive producer of RuPaul's Drag Race, the TV show that has helped push drag culture into the mainstream.

Though its mainstreaming might be a recent thing, drag has a long and complex history.

"In ancient Greece, men were playing female roles," says Frank DeCaro, author of Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business. "In Shakespearean times, it was the same thing. In the kabuki tradition in Japan, it was going on. In minstrel shows they had a drag queen. In vaudeville, in burlesque, there's always been someone cross-dressing for work."

DeCaro traces the modern drag movement back to Julian Eltinge, an American vaudeville performer, singer and actor in the early 20th century. Eltinge sang as a female impersonator, or "femme mimic," but emphasized his masculinity offstage.

Back then, performers like Eltinge fought against "homosexual panic" by making clear that they were men in women's clothing, to not fool audience members. (Today, drag queens are closely linked to the queer community, though not all of them are gay.)

In the 1950s and '60s, troupes of drag performers toured the U.S. — even as they existed in a "legal in-between," since people could still be arrested for dressing as the opposite sex.

During the television era, immensely popular comedian Milton Berle followed in Eltinge's tradition, wearing dresses for comedic effect while making no effort to hide the much-speculated-about "python in his pants."

"Basically, a lot of drag in television, really up until RuPaul's Drag Race pretty much, was take the straightest, hairiest, ugliest guy, put him in a dress, and a straight guy will fall in love with him," DeCaro says. "That's the story always."

Milton Berle, in drag, performs a skit with Bob Hope during taping of the Bob Hope Buys NBC special at NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif., in 1985. Shin/AP hide caption

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Shin/AP

Milton Berle, in drag, performs a skit with Bob Hope during taping of the Bob Hope Buys NBC special at NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif., in 1985.

Shin/AP

Next came Flip Wilson, another TV drag personality of note and the first African American to host a successful TV variety show. His character "Geraldine Jones" became a nationwide hit and famously popularized the phrase "What you see is what you get."

Then, the 1980s ushered in a more alternative vibe — embodied by the scene in New York — and marked a turning point for drag.

DeCaro says the edgy, vulgar, playful ethos of RuPaul and modern drag queens grew out of Wigstock, an outdoor drag festival in Manhattan's East Village.

Drag Queen Cloud performs at Wigstock in New York in 1994. Paul Hurschmann/Associated Press hide caption

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Paul Hurschmann/Associated Press

Drag Queen Cloud performs at Wigstock in New York in 1994.

Paul Hurschmann/Associated Press

After Wigstock, RuPaul became a star in the drag community. And the rest is history. The modern drag movement, spurred by RuPaul, seeks to defy and deconstruct expectations of "normal."

"To be a drag queen is to fly your freak flag, to live your life out loud, to not let other people dictate normal or to not edit yourself so that you fit in with other people," says Fenton Bailey, another co-executive producer of RuPaul's Drag Race. "So it's very much ... a big, bold, brave statement of individuality."

D.J. Pierce, known professionally as Shangela, is a popular drag queen and former Drag Race contestant. He has used the medium to think about his sexuality.

"Becoming a drag entertainer and really embracing that helped me to embrace who I was as a gay person even more," Pierce says.

"It's kind of like another coming out, almost. To walk into a room ... you learn how to let go of those feelings of 'I need to please others,' " he says. "You just get this heightened sense of confidence."

Shangela performs during the 30th Annual GLAAD Media Awards Los Angeles on March 28 in Beverly Hills, Calif. Rich Fury/Getty Images for GLAAD hide caption

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Rich Fury/Getty Images for GLAAD

Shangela performs during the 30th Annual GLAAD Media Awards Los Angeles on March 28 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Rich Fury/Getty Images for GLAAD

Shangela appeared in 2018's A Star is Born and thinks that the mainstreaming of drag is a positive. In the film's pivotal meet-cute scene, Lady Gaga is "discovered" while performing in a drag bar.

Yet women who dress as drag queens or kings aren't having the same cultural moment.

Maya Durham performs as a drag king in Los Angeles, under the name Malcolm Xtasy, and she wants to see the drag movement welcome more women. She thinks that the lack of a place for women is related to gender norms and misogyny and hopes the movement will come to incorporate drag kings.

"I don't want to see queens knocked down from the level that they're at; I want to see kings rise up to the same level," Durham says.

As Pride Month comes to an end, drag kings and queens continue to sashay and stride across the big screen, festivals and pop culture, spotlighting drag's rich history.

"I think that's what happens when drag starts to go mainstream," Pierce says. "All of a sudden, you're watching The View and there are three drag queens on there and it's not a joke. Yes, we're here, we're queer and you better deal with it. 'Cause we ain't going nowhere."

Anjuli Sastry produced and Jordana Hochman and Alexander McCall edited this episode for broadcast.