EITHERna Saturday afternoon in September 2018, I went to Bushwig, a drag festival in New York, where, over two days, 150 queens appeared in front of a highly enthusiastic and somewhat unhinged crowd – perhaps channeling Britney Spears at the 2001 MTV awards, someone even brought a live python on to the dancefloor. There was bawdy comedy and performance art so out there it was almost extraterrestrial. A dizzying variety of ages, genders and aesthetics were represented, with music ranging from heavy metal to diva classics. Bushwig confirmed that drag had become the pre-eminent performing art of the decade, and that Brooklyn was its spiritual home.
Nicole Pasulka’s book How to Get Famous sets out to explain why that happened. While modern drag was born in prohibition-era Manhattan, as evidenced by dances like the Hamilton Lodge (also known as Fagots’) Ball where men would frolic dressed as showgirls, it took 80 years and a trip across the East River for drag to get supercharged by a new generation. These queens – mostly young, often people of color – wanted to use drag not just as a means of performing a gender illusion, but in order to express their personal history, cultural and racial identity or penchant for gross-out humour. While the drag they performed was rough and messy, low down and dirty, they had artistic aspirations that were higher than just a flawless face or a super-convincing tuck – though if they could manage those as well, all to the good.
Pasulka’s book follows a handful of Brooklyn queens from their first days jumping subway turnstiles in heels to their graduation as fully fledged drag stars, and what it meant to them personally and to the culture at large. The question of how drag queens actually did get famous, relatively speaking at least, leads inevitably to RuPaul’s Drag Race. This gameshow, which started out in 2009 as a camp parody of Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, is now an Emmy-winning cultural juggernaut that has been franchised around the world.
The problem for the Brooklyn queens was that for all the show’s sass and subversiveness, RuPaul himself – as exemplified by his own glamazon persona – was a traditional kind of drag queen, who prioritized, as the book puts it, “cisgender men dressing as hyperfeminine women”. That shut out transgender queens – Pasulka reports that some even delayed their transition so they could compete on Drag Race – drag kings, non-binary performers and cis women. After a lot of social media pressure, Drag Race has become more inclusive – non-binary performers come along every series, and the most recent season of the UK version featured Victoria Scone, a cis woman from Cardiff.
The explosion of trans, drag and queer culture over the past decade, of which this book examines one particular aspect, has been remarkably effective in putting previously marginalized groups in spaces that were once closed to them. Pasulka touches on the popularity of drag queens among children, with events like Drag Queen Story Hour taking place in libraries around America – a favorite target of conservative ire. But How to Get Famous also asks whether attaining mainstream acceptance is even a goal worth pursuing, especially when fame as a drag queen seems to entail heaving enormous suitcases of costumes around the world while getting non-stop abuse on social media, or a lifestyle of constant nightclubbing that is bound to catch up with you eventually. The book ends with the quintessential Brooklyn queen Aja defying the haters by deciding to make rap music – and to transition.
Pasulka writes effectively about how drag performances felt like an act of resistance after Trump’s election in the US: as Drag Race winner Sasha Velor points out, “Here in our utopian dreamworld… we get to be in charge”. Pasulka has provided a valuable service in noting down for posterity performances that were shambolic, ephemeral and only viewed by a handful of late night barflys in racket venues like Metropolitan in Brooklyn. One that sticks out is by a drag queen called Charlene, who turns Britney Spears’ Til It’s Gone into a doom-laden melodrama in which she throws herself around the stage in a bra and knickers to a montage of childhood photographs, then produces a pair of scissors and pretends to hack off his penis, finally swinging from a ceiling beam naked and covered in fake blood. The MC’s response is “Oh my God! Who wants a hotdog?
With such vivid visual material, it’s a shame that the images in this book often feel posed or like press shots, rather than capturing the queens in full throttle. The writing sometimes suffers from a lack of imagination: we really need a new metaphor for being delighted by abundance without resorting to kids and candy stores. But nonetheless, like the queens she writes about, Pasulka manages to fashion something original and compelling from a nonsense hotchpotch of sources: nightlife history, social media chat and reportage, all stitched together with great respect and love.