Everything is Drag
Welcome to XP Land’s new series, “Everything is…” Each month, we’ll highlight an experiential trend that has caught our eye and explore the many thriving subcultures that exist today. From professional wrestling and musical theater to cruise culture and cannabis, there are hundreds of flourishing communities that are crossing experiential boundaries, experimenting with different mediums and waiting for you to jump in and join them.
Up first, drag (and no, not just because George Santos is still in the news)…
Today, it may not seem shocking or even out of the ordinary to see a drag performer. The genre is everywhere, and today’s kings and queens of drag flaunt their talents far beyond lip-sync battles. They’re reality competition winners, singers, actors, activists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and always the life of the party.
To take it way, way back… Drag and gender nonconformity weren’t always categorized as forms of rebellion or subversion, but rather as natural and accepted aspects of society:
- Ancient Egypt: Men cross-dressed as women in religious ceremonies and rituals
- Ancient Greece and Rome: Men dressed as women during religious festivals and theater performances
- Ancient Japan: Kabuki and Noh theater both featured men playing female roles
- Native American: In the Two-Spirit tradition, individuals who identified as both male and female were considered sacred and were often involved in spiritual ceremonies and rituals
The modern concept of drag as art and self-expression developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the gay communities of London and New York. Drag queens and kings became prominent in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the gay rights movement and really entered the mainstream with the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning.” The film chronicles the ball culture of 1980s New York City, exploring race, class, gender, and sexuality.
While drag shows will always be the OG, the way we experience drag culture today continues to evolve. From brunch to Broadway and community centers to convention halls, today, everything is drag. Here are a few of XP Land’s favorite experiential options…
Contestants on the Logo TV reality show compete in a series of challenges, including lip-syncing, acting, and fashion design, with the goal of being crowned “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” When the show premiered in 2009, the initial reaction was mixed. Some praised its representation of the LGBTQ community and introduction of drag culture to a wider audience, while others criticized it for being too commercial and playing into gay stereotypes.
Many contestants go on to have successful careers in music, acting, entertainment and nightlife. After winning the 10th season, Aquaria modeled for Moschino, Savage X Fenty and H&M and became the first drag queen ever invited to the Met Gala. Sasha Velour runs a drag show called Nightgowns, prompting Fast Company to say she is “disrupting the business of drag.”
A Fulbright scholar, Velour has spoken at the Teen Vogue Summit and the Smithsonian’s Long Conversation about LGBTQ+ issues and history. All-Stars’ season 3 winner Trixie Mattel has turned her win into a successful business career. She launched a beauty brand, Trixie Cosmetics, and even got her own Discovery+ show about renovating a motel.
Other drag shows you can’t miss:
Because you can’t lead a revolution without a convention… DragCon, like ComicCon, DragonCon, etc., includes panel discussions, fashion shows, meet-and-greets, and merchandise vendors. It also gives fans an opportunity to interact with contestants from “Drag Race,” as well as other drag performers. Held annually in Los Angeles since 2015, the event has expanded to other locations such as New York City and London.
In fact, the London event kicked off earlier this month after a three-year pandemic hiatus. The three-day conference drew 150 drag performers and thousands of fans from around the world. There was a Kids Zone where children could play with toys and listen to stories read by drag queens, and Amazon’s Audible hosted panel discussions about Black excellence, drag’s Asian diaspora and the importance of reading and writing.
Actor, singer, comedian and two-time Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon — having conquered reality TV, traveled the world with her holiday show alongside BenDeLaCreme, and launched a comedy series — has now made her Broadway debut in the role of Matron “Mama” Morton in the long-running hit musical Chicago.
In conversation with Out, Monsoon said,
“Any step that drag takes forward into the mainstream is a positive thing. Drag Race currently is doing more for the queer community than any politician or government official. Drag Race is destigmatizing the queer community. Drag Race is teaching parents to accept their kids for who they are. Drag Race is tearing down misconceptions about queer people way more than I’ve seen any government person do. So yeah, drag should keep taking over the world.”
Other great moments in Broadway drag:
- Peppermint in Head Over Heels
- Valentina in Fox’s live production of Rent
- Nina West in Hairspray’s national tour
We’re living for the tagline, “It’s just what it sounds like.” Drag Story Hours (typically held at libraries, schools, and community centers) aim to promote literacy, creativity, and self-expression among children, using positive queer role models who defy rigid gender restrictions. Not only does this help kids tap into their own imaginations, but it demonstrates for them the importance of authenticity and uniqueness (not to mention nerve and talent).
Though the premise is innocent, something as simple as reading to children can still fuel controversy. Critics on the right argue that the event promotes a particular ideology or lifestyle and may be confusing or harmful to young children. Some religious groups and conservative organizations even claim that these events are a form of “indoctrination” of young children, exposing them to sexualized and age-inappropriate subject matter.
As recently as December, protesters and counter-protesters clashed outside a branch of the New York Public Library, over a reading event geared toward neurodiverse children. City Council member Erik Bottcher shared images and videos online of the protesters, some of whom he tried speaking with before entering the event.
But let’s just call this what it is… homophobia. Drag culture is LGBTQ culture and those fighting to keep kids hidden from different forms of expression, creativity and gender aren’t “protecting” them, they’re acting out their own fears instead. In an op-ed for Out, performer Nina West explained what fuels her to continue Drag Story Hours through the hate:
To those of you who think a drag queen should not be performing for kids, I ask that you reconsider what it means to be a drag queen. My drag is inspired by the kindness of Dolly Parton; by the friendship and individuality expressed in the Muppets; and by the adventure of storytelling so inherent in Disney. I’m here to promote love, inclusivity, and acceptance of self. That’s the greater purpose of my artistic expression as a drag queen.
Of course, the best way to experience drag is a live show at your local queer bar.
If you’ve never been, here’s the lowdown. Queens typically lip-sync, do stand-up or perform a dance routine, with shows ranging from amateur events to professional productions. Some drag performers make a career out of this and may participate in competitions or pageants, too. There are rules, of course — bring cash to tip during each performance and never, ever touch a queen (it’s 2023, people). Or, you can make like Cinderella and go to the ball…
Ball culture is a drag show on steroids. There’s an entire hierarchy of players (mothers, fathers, children, virgins…) and competition categories (face, American fashion / European fashion, hands performance…) to keep track of. If you’re attending your first ball, it’s important to know what to expect.
Let the performers know you are present throughout the night. Applaud, snap, cheer. Give them all your energy and they’ll return it tenfold — but don’t be disruptive. Give the performers space to move and vibe as a spectator, not a back-up dancer. It may feel like a party, but it’s still a performance.
Drag is designed to inspire. Let the performers’ creativity and openness take you on whatever journey they’ve laid out, explore different mediums, and remember, if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?
Join us in XP Land. A community for experiential creatives and experience-makers, brand leaders and IP-owners, space stewards and venue visionaries — all of those in the business of epic gatherings and live, immersive storytelling.