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Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators  
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RuPaul got his start in Atlanta's informal Now Explosion drag troupe, which styled itself "punk drag." Like others in this mid-1980s group, he combined wigs and wild make-up with clothing that clearly exposed his male body. In the early 1990s, however, he moved into the "glamour drag" for which he is most famous, characterized by enormous blonde wigs, stiletto heels, and tight groin tucks.

Yet despite this highly worked masquerade so reminiscent of high camp drag, RuPaul normally performs his own songs. When he does sing songs other than his own, he performs them as "covers" of anonymous works to which he applies his own distinct performance styles, as in his "Little Drummer Boy" (1997).

Also, rather than attempting to emulate celebrities, RuPaul, unlike high camp drag performers, consistently affirms himself, creating a distinctive drag persona of his own. He makes clear that he is a black gay man under the pounds of make-up and costume in which he performs.

This reality check allows him to embrace gay rights and other causes as a black gay male advocate; and he frequently performs at benefits and demonstrations. His musical hits such as "Supermodel" (1992) have won him a large and devoted following based on his own persona rather than on the impersonation of others.

RuPaul's female "realness" and chatty affirmation mildly break the rules of low camp drag where self-deprecating comedy and obvious masquerade have largely become the rule. These components of low camp have not only given drag a new life among gay men, but they have also given the practice a broad appeal well outside its original constituency.

Movies and plays such as Edouard Molinaro's La Cage aux Folles (1978), Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy (1982), Stephan Elliot's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), and Jenny Livingston's Paris is Burning (1991), music videos by performers such as RuPaul and Joey Arias, and New York's annual Wigstock festival all demonstrate the increasing popularity of drag for a diverse audience.

The queerness of a gay man offering bitchy banter in a dress has become as acceptably entertaining as an overweight Roseanne Barr telling jokes about her size or comedian Margaret Cho musing on her Korean parents. These various forms of comedy offer a humorous view from outside the confines of normality, even a self-deprecating view to which many in today's audience seem sympathetically inclined.

Andres Mario Zervigon

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literature >> Overview:  Camp

Combining elements of incongruity, theatricality, and exaggeration, camp is a form of humor that helps homosexuals cope with a hostile environment.

social sciences >> Overview:  Cross-Dressing

Cross-dressers have often been misunderstood and maligned, especially in societies with rigid gender roles.

arts >> Overview:  Divas

The diva has traditionally played a significant role in both gay and lesbian culture as an object of cult worship with whom those who suffer the heartaches of forbidden love and ostracism from an unaccepting society find solace and identification.

arts >> Overview:  Drag Shows: Drag Kings and Male Impersonators

A recent arrival in the drag arena, drag kings are part of an international drag movement that emerged in London and San Francisco in the mid 1980s.

social sciences >> Overview:  Gay and Lesbian Bars

The centrality of gay and lesbian bars to glbtq culture has been reduced in recent years, but they continue to fulfill important functions; and, in many areas, they remain the most visible manifestation of glbtq presence.

arts >> Overview:  Pop Art

An early 1960s school of painting and sculpture that utilized the subjects, techniques, or stylistic conventions of popular culture, Pop Art expressed a camp sensibility.

arts >> Ashley, April

Outed as a transsexual in 1961, the indomitable April Ashley rose from poverty to become a glamorous entertainer and top model who married into the British aristocracy and later became a transgender activist.

arts >> Bankhead, Tallulah

Although Tallulah Bankhead is today remembered mostly as an irreverent wit and volcanic life force, she was also one of the most significant actresses of her time.

arts >> Beyer, Georgina

As the first open transgender person in New Zealand to be elected to the offices of mayor and Member of Parliament, Georgina Beyer has evinced courage, humor, and personal honesty.

arts >> Bourbon, Ray

Legendary drag performer and recording artist Ray Bourbon appeared in silent movies, vaudeville acts, Broadway plays, and, from the 1940s through the 1960s, performed across the United States in a gay nightclub circuit.

arts >> Busch, Charles

Actor-writer-director Charles Busch has distinguished himself through his virtuouso performances of "grand dame" characters and through his writing of dramatic vehicles for these roles.

arts >> Caja, Jerome

San Francisco visual artist Jerome Caja is known for his small, sensuous combinations of found objects, which he painted with nail polish, makeup, and glitter, as well as for his drag performances.

arts >> Cho, Margaret

Korean-American bisexual actress turned stand-up comedian Margaret Cho has become one of the most prominent Asian Americans in show business and in glbtq culture.

arts >> Epperson, John

Talented actor and writer John Epperson has had an extremely successful career performing as the glamorous and hilarious drag diva Lypsinka, among other characters.

literature >> Fierstein, Harvey

Award-winning Harvey Fierstein is one of the finest gay male playwrights currently working in the American theater.

arts >> Fierstein, Harvey

Actor Harvey Fierstein has had phenomenal success as both a performer and a playwright, and has been steadfastly committed to the cause of glbtq rights.

arts >> Garland, Judy

The fragile persona and emotion-packed voice of actress and singer Judy Garland are powerfully linked to gay culture and identity; she appealed especially to gay men, but also to lesbians.

social sciences >> Hirschfeld, Magnus

German-born Magnus Hirschfeld deserves recognition as a significant theorist of sexuality and the most prominent advocate of homosexual emancipation of his time.

social sciences >> Krafft-Ebing, Richard von

The carefully detailed case studies of nineteenth-century psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing shed light on the sexual habits of a wide spectrum of men and women.

arts >> Pierce, Charles

Self-proclaimed male actress Charles Pierce took an aggressive stance against homophobia, believing that quick wit, a serious attitude, and consummate acting skill could vanquish oppression.

arts >> Reed, Lou

In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, bisexual rock musician Lou Reed, pencil-thin, craggy, and dressed in tough leather or androgynous glitz, came to symbolize the rebellious outsider.

social sciences >> Rivera, Sylvia

A legendary veteran of the Stonewall Riots, Sylvia Rivera is notable for helping to spark the event that ushered in the modern-day Gay Rights Movement.

arts >> RuPaul (RuPaul Andre Charles)

A six-foot five-inch tall African-American drag queen who usually performs in a blonde wig, RuPaul has given drag a new visibility by infusing it with gentleness and warmth.

social sciences >> Stonewall Riots

The confrontations between police and demonstrators at the Stonewall Inn in New York City the weekend of June 27-29, 1969 mark the beginning of the modern glbtq movement for equal rights.

arts >> Warhol, Andy (as filmmaker)

Although Andy Warhol is generally remembered either for a single film--Sleep (1963)--or for works that he did not actually direct, his contribution to gay cinema is incalculable.


Baker, Roger. Drag. A History of Female Impersonation on the Stage. London: Cassell, 1994.

Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Poseidon, 1993.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. Psychopathia Sexualis. Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke, 1887.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970.

Woodlawn, Holly, with Jeff Copeland. A Low Life in High Heels. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.


    Citation Information
    Author: Zervigon, Andres Mario  
    Entry Title: Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 19, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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