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Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators  
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Drag Queens and Stonewall

Through the mid-twentieth century, the drag queens of high camp generally took for themselves the right of open self-expression that closeted gay men consistently declined. That may be why a cohort of these high-camp drag queens, having adopted a life of fearless self-expression, were so prominent in the 1969 Stonewall riots that ignited the modern gay liberation movement.

One of the riots' participants, Sylvia Ray Rivera, noted that she rose at Stonewall not only to protest yet another police raid on her regular bar but also to express anger against all the indignities visited against her because of her open drag identity. She noted further that many drag queens were particularly agitated then because their idol, Judy Garland, had been buried the very same day. Such empathetic identification and expression were typical of these rebellious drag queens.

Charles Pierce, Candy Darling, and High Camp Drag

One of the greatest of high camp drag performers was the legendary Charles Pierce (1926-1999), who earned fame even in the 1950s (when full drag was illegal in most jurisdictions) for his extraordinary impersonations of a host of larger-than-life figures. He was especially known for his renditions of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Tallulah Bankhead, as well as some fictional creations, such as Doris Day's sister "Doo-Dah Day."

Performers of such high camp drag have largely faded from fashion as gay men have claimed the right to speak and act as they please. This type of performance, however, continues to thrive in an area colloquially referred to as the "Drag Belt," the southern United States, where many gay men continue to feel deeply oppressed. Examples of these drag queens are Candy Darling, Jimmy James, and a myriad of local impersonators who enliven small-town bars.

Candy Darling (1946?-1974) probably represents high camp drag's apogee. In the late 1960s, at the age of 20, she entered Andy Warhol's avant-garde circle and soon became an icon of the Pop Art movement. Born in Massapequa Park, Long Island as James Lawrence Slattery, she came to Warhol's attention because her female illusion was so convincing. His appreciation was also based on her unusual ability to impersonate Hollywood divas so convincingly.

Darling's skill as a drag queen enabled her to assemble the features of such divas as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor into a striking concoction of high-Hollywood feminine masquerade. The resulting image, augmented by a copious use of hormones, stirred a particular sensation when Darling appeared in Warhol's film Flesh (1968).

Her image was further popularized by Lou Reed's song "Walk on the Wild Side" in the lyrics "in the back room she was everybody's darlin'." Although Darling craved the cinematic fame of her idols, her own fame was on a much smaller scale, achieved through small roles in underground films. Her death of leukemia at the age of 27, however, served to solidify her image as that of a glamorous, forever young, exquisitely beautiful tragic figure of almost beatific sweetness.

Low Camp Drag Performers

As high camp drag has slipped from fashion, low camp drag has gained popularity. While gay men--at least in big cities--increasingly feel the freedom to express themselves openly, the demands made on drag have shifted. Now, rather than seek the vicarious experience of open expression offered by exacting impersonations, gay men tend to prefer the masquerade and humor so important to low camp.

This trend is not altogether new. Legendary performers such as Ray Bourbon, for example, specialized in low drag, performing what one audience member described as "doyen drag," when he impersonated a foul-mouthed cleaning woman.

Mona Foot, as an example of a newer generation of low drag performers, always allows her muscular body to show through her skimpy dresses, purposefully impeding any illusion that she may be a true woman. Moreover, like The Lady Bunny and Jackie Beat, she has built a unique drag persona that overwhelms any celebrity she chooses to impersonate.

In fact, many of these contemporary drag queens de-emphasize musical impersonation in favor of spoken comedy, particularly that built around the overstatement and failure of their female masquerade. Quite distinct from the reverential aura surrounding high camp drag, this contemporary alternative often makes gay men and even drag queens themselves the butt of humor.


RuPaul represents a good, though subtle, example of the recent transformation from high camp drag into low camp drag. Born in 1960 in San Diego, the son of an aeronautics electrician, RuPaul Andre Charles grew up a "sissy." His persistent good nature allowed him to cope with his effeminacy quite well and this, in turn, allowed him to become one of the most acclaimed, politically gay-identified drag queens in the United States.

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