Ever since RuPaul’s Drag Race kicked a stiletto-shaped hole into the mainstream in 2009, drag’s cultural significance can’t be ignored anymore. It’s already over a century removed from its cisnormative roots, and it’s come even further in the last two decades alone. A lot of the hyperfeminine hallmarks of 20th century drag remain, but now it can kinda be hyper-anything. Indeed, today’s most iconic drag queens earned their stay status just by being… the most.
What Is Drag?
Very basically, drag is an exaggerated performance of gender expression. It almost always includes wigs, elaborate makeup, and flashy clothing or costumes. Until recently, it was almost exclusively done by cis gay men channeling flamboyant feminine personas, and drag shows mainly consisted of lip syncing and dance numbers. Anywhere else you saw drag was usually in a comedic (and/or misogynistic) context.
But as our concepts of gender became less rigid over time, the boundaries of what “counts” as drag began to expand. For a lot of performers, it means portraying masculinity or femininity in an extreme manner. For others, it’s both at once. And some simply prefer to look as unnatural as possible- the more cartoonish, objectified, monstrous, or even ugly, the better.
In any case, drag is meant to be excessive, captivating, and bold. It’s meant to inspire and push the envelope, like any good art. That said, here’s a short list of queens who will go down in history for having really understood the assignment.
Early Instances of Drag
Ancient Greek Theater Performers
Long before the term “drag queen” entered the lexicon, Ancient Greek theater laid the groundwork for gender-bending performances. In these ancient plays, male actors donned masks and costumes to portray female characters, a necessity in a society where women were barred from the stage. This tradition, integral to the fabric of Greek drama, underscored early instances of drag, highlighting the performative aspects of gender long before contemporary understandings. Through their art, these performers engaged audiences in narratives of gods, heroes, and mortals, blurring the lines of gender in service to storytelling.
Elizabethan Theater Actors
In the time of William Shakespeare, English theater exclusively featured male actors, including in female roles. This practice, necessitated by societal norms prohibiting women from performing publicly, saw young men and boys dressing as women to bring Shakespeare’s famed heroines to life. This tradition of male actors in female roles contributed to the rich tapestry of English theater, providing a unique lens through which to view the fluidity of gender representation. The performances of these actors, in plays from “Romeo and Juliet” to “Twelfth Night,” offer an early glimpse into the art of drag, showcasing the enduring human fascination with exploring gender identity through performance.
Vaudeville & Drag Masquerade Balls
The true inception of drag in the 19th century was closely tied to the emergence of drag balls, which began as underground events where men would dress as women, creating a safe space for expression in a society that was otherwise intolerant of such gender nonconformity. These balls became pivotal in the development of drag culture, fostering a sense of community and identity among participants.
In the early 20th century, drag found a new platform in the vaudeville circuit, with performers engaging in comedic cross-dressing acts that were more accepted by mainstream audiences. These performances, though often steeped in stereotypes, played a crucial role in introducing drag to a wider audience. As the century progressed, drag began to infiltrate nightclubs, particularly in the burgeoning gay scenes in cities like New York and San Francisco. This transition marked a significant shift, as drag evolved from a form of entertainment often rooted in mockery or parody, to an art form that celebrated gender expression and queer identity. This era laid the foundation for the modern drag movement, setting the stage for drag to become a powerful symbol of resistance, identity, and artistry.
Drag Queen Icons
William Dorsey Swann
Dubbed “The Queen,” William Dorsey Swann stands as a monumental figure in the annals of drag history. Born into the shackles of slavery, Swann transcended his origins to become the first to don the title of a drag queen. In the late 19th century, Washington DC witnessed Swann adorning himself in exquisite gowns to host clandestine drag balls, creating a sanctuary for fellow drag enthusiasts and those emancipated from slavery. Despite facing continuous crackdowns and incarcerations, his audacity to seek a presidential pardon and confront the law head-on marks him as an early crusader for LGBTQ+ rights in America, a testament to his unwavering spirit and dedication to community.
Marsha P Johnson
Marsha P Johnson, a figure of defiance and resilience, redefined the boundaries of gender and activism. The “P” in her name, standing for “Pay it no mind,” epitomizes her approach to her gender identity. Living in poverty and working as a sex worker, Johnson’s drag aesthetic—adorned with makeshift flower crowns and an eclectic mix of masculine and feminine garments—embodied her resistance. Her pivotal role in the Stonewall uprising, particularly her legendary act of rebellion by smashing a police car windshield with a brick, cements her legacy as a foundational pillar in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
Divine, born Harris Glenn Milstead, became an indelible icon of the LGBT community and cult cinema through his collaboration with filmmaker John Waters. Towering at 6’2” and weighing 300lbs, Divine’s audacious makeup and performances challenged the norms of beauty and taste. His portrayal of Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” and unforgettable acts in films like “Pink Flamingos” pushed the boundaries of film and drag, making him a beloved figure of transgressive art. His legacy endures as a symbol of defiance and self-expression.
RuPaul Andre Charles, the epitome of drag excellence, transcended the club scenes of Atlanta and New York to become a global phenomenon. His hit “Supermodel (You Better Work)” launched him into stardom, leading to a multifaceted career including a MAC cosmetics deal, a VH1 talk show, and the cultural juggernaut, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” With sixteen studio albums, numerous film and TV appearances, and his own drag expo, RuPaul’s influence extends beyond drag, shaping mainstream culture and entertainment.
Bianca Del Rio
Roy Haylock, better known as Bianca Del Rio, emerged from the New Orleans drag scene to become a force in comedy and drag worldwide. Crowned the winner of “Drag Race” Season 6, Del Rio’s sharp wit and humor earned her the title “Joan Rivers of the drag world.” Despite her public persona, Del Rio embraces a more self-deprecating attitude, preferring the moniker “Clown in a Gown.” Her success as a comedian, actor, and seamstress exemplifies the multifaceted talent within the drag community.
Jason Dardo, performing as Violet Chachki, captivated audiences with her victory in Season 7 of “Drag Race,” showcasing her unique blend of vintage burlesque and aerial acrobatics. As a fashion icon, Chachki made history as the first drag queen to feature in a major lingerie campaign, embodying the intersection of drag, fetish, and fashion. Her commitment to expressing both bondage and drag aesthetics highlights the art form’s capacity for exploration and expression of identity.
Brian Michael Firkus, known on stage as Trixie Mattel, carved a niche in the drag world with her distinctive doll-like makeup and pink aesthetic. Winning “Drag Race” All Stars 3 catapulted her to fame, but it’s her talents as a folk musician, comedian, and entrepreneur that have solidified her status. Mattel’s Trixie Cosmetics brand and collaborations with Katya Zamolodchikova extend her influence beyond drag, making her a versatile and beloved figure in pop culture.
Jerick Hoffer, performing as Jinkx Monsoon, has been a powerhouse of talent and charisma since clinching the title of “Drag Race” Season 5 winner. Their non-binary identity and versatile performances, ranging from music to Broadway, have endeared them to fans worldwide. Monsoon’s wit, celebrity impressions, and status as the only two-time winner in the “Drag Race” franchise underscore their unmatched prowess in the drag realm.
Phabullo Rodrigues da Silva, better known as Pabllo Vittar, has transcended the Brazilian music scene to become an international drag sensation. With the distinction of being the most followed and streamed drag queen globally, Vittar’s influence extends beyond performances, serving as a beacon for LGBTQ+ rights in a country marked by hostility towards the queer community. His gender-fluid presentation and success in pop music highlight the evolving nature of drag, embracing both masculine and feminine identities
Danny La Rue
Danny La Rue, born Daniel Patrick Carroll, was a pioneering figure in 20th-century drag. La Rue broke ground as a drag performer in the UK, elevating the art form from the fringes to mainstream entertainment. With a career spanning over six decades, he was known for his extravagant costumes, impeccable impersonations of famous women, and a charm that endeared him to audiences worldwide. La Rue’s contribution to drag was not just in entertainment; he helped change perceptions of drag and LGBTQ+ individuals during a time when both faced significant societal stigma.
Divine David (David Hoyle)
David Hoyle, better known as Divine David in the 1990s before reverting to his real name, is an avant-garde performer whose work has challenged and deconstructed the norms of drag, art, and society. His performances, often a mix of cabaret, comedy, and critique, delve into themes of consumerism, mental health, and queer identity, pushing the boundaries of traditional drag. Hoyle’s influence is felt not just in the LGBTQ+ community but in the broader realm of performance art, where he continues to inspire new generations of artists.
Lady Bunny, an American drag queen, DJ, and promoter, has been an iconic figure in the drag scene since the 1980s. Known for her over-the-top wigs, humorous performances, and founding the Wigstock festival, Lady Bunny has played a crucial role in popularizing drag culture. Her work extends beyond performance to advocacy, where she uses her platform to address political and social issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community. Lady Bunny’s enduring appeal and activism make her a pivotal figure in the history of drag.
Conchita Wurst, the stage persona of Austrian singer Thomas Neuwirth, gained international fame after winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014 with the song “Rise Like a Phoenix.” Wurst, characterized by a full beard and glamorous gowns, became a symbol of tolerance and diversity in Europe and beyond. Her victory at Eurovision was seen not only as a triumph in the music world but also as a significant moment for LGBTQ+ visibility and acceptance on a global stage.
Courtney Act, the stage name of Shane Jenek, is an Australian drag queen who first rose to prominence as a contestant on Australian Idol in 2003 and later gained international fame on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 6. Act has since become a renowned singer, television host, and LGBTQ+ advocate. She has appeared on various reality TV shows, including Celebrity Big Brother UK, where she won the 2018 series, further solidifying her status as a prominent figure in the drag and entertainment world.
The Vivienne, the stage name of James Lee Williams, is a Welsh drag queen best known for winning the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK in 2019. Her impersonations, singing talent, and polished drag aesthetic have made her a standout figure in the UK drag scene. The Vivienne has used her platform to advocate for LGBTQ+ issues and continues to be a prominent figure in British entertainment.
Leona Winter is the drag persona of Rémy Solé, a French-Chilean drag performer known for her appearances on The Voice: la plus belle voix (France) and RuPaul’s Drag Race España. Winter’s performances are marked by her incredible vocal range and glamorous, sophisticated style. She has become a notable figure in both the French and Spanish drag scenes, showcasing the diversity and talent within international drag communities.
Fictional Drag Queens We Love
Vida Boheme, portrayed by Patrick Swayze in the 1995 film “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” is a fictional drag queen who left a lasting impression in popular culture. The film, celebrated for bringing drag into the mainstream, follows the journey of three drag queens on a road trip across America. Vida, with her grace, dignity, and motherly attitude, became a symbol of the drag queen as a figure of strength and compassion. Swayze’s portrayal brought depth and humanity to the character, highlighting the artistry and resilience of drag performers
Lola, the vibrant and inspiring drag queen in the Broadway hit “Kinky Boots,” was originally played by Billy Porter. This musical, based on true events, explores themes of acceptance, friendship, and the power of embracing one’s identity. Lola’s character, with her charisma, talent, and heart, not only drives the narrative but also brings a message of empowerment and self-acceptance. Porter’s portrayal of Lola earned widespread acclaim, showcasing the intersection of drag and Broadway as platforms for storytelling and social commentary.
Frank N. Furter
Dr. Frank N. Furter, portrayed by Tim Curry in the 1975 film “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” is a fictional drag character that became a cult icon. This musical horror comedy film, known for its campy style and memorable songs, features Frank N. Furter as a charismatic and seductive mad scientist. The character’s bold sexuality and unapologetic self-expression have made him a beloved figure in the LGBTQ+ community and a symbol of sexual liberation and nonconformity.
Miss Coco Peru
Miss Coco Peru, created and performed by Clinton Leupp, is a legendary drag character known for her sharp wit, monologues, and signature copper-toned wig. Since her inception in the early 1990s, Miss Coco Peru has appeared in films like “Trick” and “Girls Will Be Girls,” as well as various stage shows and YouTube videos. Her blend of humor, storytelling, and advocacy has made her a beloved figure in both the drag world and wider LGBTQ+ community.
Chi Chi Rodriguez
Chi Chi Rodriguez, played by John Leguizamo in “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” is another fictional drag queen from this landmark film. Chi Chi is portrayed as a young, energetic, and somewhat naive queen who learns about confidence, self-respect, and the value of friendship on her journey. Leguizamo’s performance brought a sense of vulnerability and growth to the character, contributing to the film’s impact in bringing drag culture to a broader audience.
Zaza, also known as Albin, is the star performer in the musical “La Cage aux Folles.” This character, originally portrayed on Broadway by George Hearn, is a drag queen and the partner of a nightclub owner, navigating the complexities of family, identity, and society. The musical, which has seen numerous revivals and adaptations, including a film version, is celebrated for its portrayal of LGBTQ+ themes and characters, with Zaza/Albin at its heart as a symbol of resilience, love, and pride.
Mitzi Del Bra
Mitzi Del Bra, portrayed by Terence Stamp, is one of the central characters in the 1994 film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” This Australian road movie follows the journey of two drag queens and a transgender woman traveling across the Australian Outback. Mitzi, the de facto leader of the group, showcases a journey of self-discovery and personal acceptance. Stamp’s nuanced performance earned critical acclaim, helping the film to win an Academy Award for Best Costume Design and bringing international attention to the art of drag.
Felicia Jollygoodfellow, energetically played by Guy Pearce, is another key character in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” As the youngest and most rebellious member of the trio, Felicia brings a sense of adventure, humor, and youthful energy to the film. Pearce’s portrayal captures the vivacious spirit of drag and contributes significantly to the movie’s exploration of LGBTQ+ themes. The film’s vibrant costumes and poignant narrative have made it a beloved classic in queer cinema.
Albert Goldman, played by Nathan Lane in “The Birdcage” (1996), is a drag performer and one half of the film’s central couple. This American remake of “La Cage aux Folles” depicts Goldman as the flamboyant partner of a nightclub owner, struggling to put up a facade for their son’s conservative in-laws. Lane’s performance as Goldman received praise for its comedic timing and emotional depth, capturing the complexities of drag culture and LGBTQ+ family dynamics. “The Birdcage” was a commercial success and helped bring drag into the mainstream of American cinema.
Hedwig, the protagonist of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” was not only a cinematic icon but also a Broadway sensation. The character, originally portrayed by John Cameron Mitchell, who also co-wrote the book and directed the film, has been played by various actors in its stage adaptation. Notable performers include Neil Patrick Harris, whose Broadway debut in the role won him the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 2014, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, Darren Criss, and Taye Diggs. Each actor brought their unique interpretation to the complex character, further enriching the narrative of identity, transformation, and self-acceptance. The show itself, lauded for its innovative storytelling and powerful music, won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical in 2014. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” remains a seminal work in the landscape of musical theater, celebrated for its groundbreaking portrayal of gender fluidity and queer identity.
Edna Turnblad, the endearing and vivacious mother character in “Hairspray,” is a beloved drag role played by various actors across film and theater. In the 1988 film directed by John Waters, Divine iconically portrayed Edna, bringing both warmth and flair to the character. The 2007 film adaptation saw John Travolta donning the role, adding his unique charm and humor. On Broadway, Harvey Fierstein originated the role, earning a Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical in 2003. His portrayal was praised for its depth and authenticity, contributing significantly to the show’s success, which also won the Tony for Best Musical. Edna Turnblad, as a character, symbolizes the transformative power of acceptance and love, resonating deeply with audiences.
Angel Schunard, a character in the groundbreaking musical “Rent,” is a drag queen and street performer with a heart of gold. Wilson Jermaine Heredia originated the role on Broadway in 1996, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Heredia also reprised the role in the 2005 film adaptation. Angel’s character is central to the narrative of “Rent,” portraying themes of love, loss, and resilience in the face of adversity. The role is celebrated for its portrayal of a character who is both LGBTQ+ and a person of color, offering a vital representation in the theater and film worlds.
Mrs. Doubtfire, played by the late Robin Williams in the 1993 film “Mrs. Doubtfire,” is a character cherished for its comedic and heartfelt portrayal of a father dressing as a female nanny to be with his children. Williams’ performance, filled with humor, empathy, and skillful disguise, earned him a Golden Globe for Best Actor. The film itself was a critical and commercial success, widely praised for its handling of themes such as family, divorce, and identity. “Mrs. Doubtfire” highlighted the art of drag in a family context, showcasing the lengths one would go for the love of family, and remains a beloved classic in Robin Williams’ filmography.
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