Drag entertainers are everywhere nowadays, but that doesn't mean the art of doing drag is any easier to pull off. Au contraire! The stakes are higher, and so are the standards, as the public carefully assesses drag stars for their style, wit, and creative imagination. In the age of RuPaul's Drag Race, you have to earn those drop earrings, while tucking for a higher purpose that makes you more than a quick visual gag. The shock value is still important -- subversion has always been a big part of drag -- but it's harder to nab it, since drag is on TV, at bachelorette-filled chain restaurants, on a Starbucks commercial, and all over the media these days like a Pucci poncho.
No longer do drag queens have to lower their voices and make "I'm really a guy" jokes. The audience is in on it. But because of the familiarity, they do have to find ways to stay special rather than coming across as another guy in a dress. The best ones are bitchy yet somehow lovable, serving as entertainers, observers, wits, and jesters. Their role is to brighten a night out with a one-liner and a production number while avoiding "Make some noise!" pleas, or hoary Whitney Houston impressions. It's not enough merely to imitate a pop diva's breakdown -- and any drag queen who doesn't know that is in for a breakdown of her own. They've come to realize that they need to whip up elaborate medleys featuring music, rap, dialogue, and usually some screams and giggles, often with some sociopolitical content beyond mere camp. Today's drag queens have learned to become virtuosos -- and it's no wonder. They're easily replaceable, so they have to keep evolving to stay relevant and employed.
The current gals have to be sharp-witted like Bianca Del Rio, pizzazzy like Courtney Act, and a little bit off-kilter like Adore Delano. But they can't just be Frankenhooker-like combinations of those three Drag Race finalists -- they need to meld familiar strands into something eye-opening and newish. They should be able to sing, not just lip-synch, and they have to become divas, not just imitate the existing ones. In the process, they should never come off as so audience-friendly that they lose the healthy sense of rage that's always permeated the act of doing drag. Today's slicker showman- ship shouldn't distract from the edginess that is so intrinsic to crossing the sartorial divide. After all, drag and trans people were integral to the Stonewall revolt that christened the modern LGBT movement. So the current drag star finds herself in the difficult position of having to be both polished and ragey, using the post-Stonewall "We've still got a long way to go" subtext to feed into some dark allure behind the sequins.
Bianca, for example, goes to Lisa Lampanelli-like extremes in her purposely un-PC cracks about people of various races and sexualities. Courtney Act is as slick as a Vegas showgirl, but her act is filled with wildly raunchy personal stories. And Adore? Well, at merely 24 years old, she recently filled a New York theater with squealing teen girls (and some older gays), who thrilled to her Courtney Love-like musical pathos. According to reports, Adore was fully together as a musical act (you don't get to number 1 on the iTunes dance album chart by being a mess), but she filled her performance with a madcap passion and punky energy that made her way beyond something you'd see in a La Cage-style revue in a casino.
On top of all this, today's drag stars have more public responsibility than ever because they're interacting with their fans all over social networks and also in person as they regularly tour the world. As internationally known emissaries, they've come to represent the LGBT community, learning the importance of sending out messages, whether literal or metaphorical. Bianca updates her Facebook page seemingly every two minutes, whether it be with leaks to her press, commentary on dumb behavior by homophobes, or defenses of Logo's ban on "she-mail." Her 76,000-plus Twitter followers get a similar stream of pine-scented brain farts.
Most of all, though, these drag queens have to be strong performers. For a button-down observer like me, the drag basics have always seemed as easy to spot as an Adam's apple. And the bar has truly risen. Almost a decade ago, I saw a New York drag queen perform in a boite and found her cursed with an overriding enemy that made things unworkable -- namely, herself!
For one thing, the queen entered the stage with her back to the audience, and when she finally turned around, her hair was blocking her face. (In the age of Instagram and YouTube capturing every faux pas, that would be an instant career destroyer.) What's more, her look was sparkly but not at all definable -- there was nothing to it that would help an audience impulsively think, Oh, that's so-and-so! Love her! But it's when she talked that any chance of success evaporated like steam from Bianca's iron. Today's drag queens know more strongly than ever the need for some sharp, focused remarks, as well as the ability to ad-lib like true motormouths.
The queens that last are the ones like Wigstock legend Lady Bunny, who adapt to current trends while also staying true to their own performing ethos. Rather than coast, she keeps the ragged energy of someone just bolting out of the gate with heels on. Furthermore, there's no one quite like Bunny, with her potty mouth, political wisdom, and love of country music. Straight girls will recognize her enduring uniqueness as readily as a bar full of queers -- and a truckload of Facebook friends -- do.
That, plus the ultimate drag queen test: "Is the drag essential to this performance?" If the answer is no, then the act has lost its raison d'etre -- and its accessories.
So carry on, drag queens. But if you can't be fresh, versatile, individual, media-savvy, and a good role model, then sissy that walk out of my life.