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When Hollywood gets in on the act, you know that a fad has become a fixture. So what has turned 1995 into the Year of Drag? Roger Clarke has the answers
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The Independent Culture
In the first week of September this year, glammed-out revellers at the Wigstock drag festival in New York could talk of little else but the imminent release of Hollywood's drag movie To Wong Foo, which features Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes taking a moderate career risk by playing full-on drag queens. But no one, not even Steven Spielberg who selected the script for his own company to produce, could have forseen that the movie would be such a hit and take $11m in its opening week.

This year it seems you just can't get away from men in laddered stockings, wobbly heels and smudged mascara (and we're not talking about pantomime dames, who've been subverting gender roles for years). For the success of To Wong Foo appears to have confirmed something that had been in the air all year - that 1995 is when drag went mainstream. What was once considered risque and marginal is now unexpectedly palatable for more general consumption. The threat of subversive decadence and worryingly blurred gender has all but gone out of the subject of men dressing up as women. Now it's seen as just fun and glamorous.

As if to demonstrate the new acceptability of drag, the artist Andrew Logan's once anarchic Alternative Miss World is for the first time being run by the smoothly professional, Toshiba-funded ICA and judged by the somewhat less than glam Anita Roddick.

Logan denies that his new collaboration with the ICA is a sell-out, or will cramp his style. His trannie idols are the meltingly gross John Waters star Divine, and the late performance artist Leigh Bowery. The Alternative Miss World is not a Danny La Rue-type revue. "It's a surrealistic event about transformation from male to female, from dog to cat," Logan explains. "It was inspired by Crufts rather than by a beauty show."

The transformation of certain drag queens from variety acts in seedy gay pubs in the late Eighties to high-earning stars of the small screen has been a telling sign of the change in climate. Lily Savage is now co- presenting The Big Breakfast on Channel 4, appearing on dodgy prime-time quizzes, starring in a new West End musical, and doing voice-overs for syrupy soft drinks. At the same time, Elton John's leggy friend RuPaul is advertising Baileys Irish Cream in the US and is about to publish her autobiography (joining the serried ranks of brilliant Warhol hag Jayne County and glitzy "female drag queen" Beatrix Von Watzdorf, both with memoirs out recently).

Earlier this year, Johnny Depp's portrayal of the transvestite film director Ed Wood (in the film of the same name) showed that matinee idols can still play drag roles (Cary Grant did no less than two). As a sign of the times, the film was advertised with its drag element pre-eminently featured - a pink angora sweater was the invitation to come see.

But if ever there was evidence of the current mainstreaming of drag, it's at its most pronounced in Beeban Kidron's lighthearted To Wong Foo. Boy George has just seen the film on a trip to America, and confesses that certain lines had him "on the floor". "Wesley Snipes is on the money," Boy George enthuses. "I'm telling you, I'm a drag-queen connoisseur, and he was the real thing. He was fierce."

To search out why the world has suddenly put on a dress, I turned to journalist and author Mark Simpson, whose book Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity examines the culture of camp and drag. Simpson maintains that the current drag explosion is partly a cyclical thing; drag has regularly appeared in film since the earliest days (Charlie Chaplin in 1915, for example, pre-empts the storyline of Some Like It Hot). But Simpson also detected a new, fin-de-siecle trend at work.

"Glamour is now the most desirable quality of late 20th-century life," he comments. "Drag is such an intense signal in a world of noise where everyone is trying to stand out. We're all media creatures now, we all want some of that glamour." Drag is a way of peeling that image off the silver screen, like a phosphorescent sticker.

Women like drag because "it's about learning to escape from being a woman" and they can play with their gender role. Men are intrigued by the same thing, and can play with the idea of clothing as an expression of female sexual power. Camille Paglia's recently published book of essays observes that her drag-queen friends taught her "how to be a woman".

The commercialisation of drag started in 1991, according to the deputy editor of The Face, Charles Gant, with the advent of the outrageous camp club Kinky Gerlinky in London and Flesh at the Hacienda in Manchester. "It was the first time drag really intersected with club culture," says Gant. But Gant is dismissive of the new mainstream drag. "I feel drag has really worked itself out. To Wong Foo is playing to middle-America audiences and has been stripped of all that edge it should have."

Boy George admits to similar reservations. "Part of me thinks the mainstreaming of drag is a good thing, part of me thinks it's hideous," he says. "I don't want to be assimilated, I don't want to do an Andrew Sullivan and slip by unnoticed. Society encourages you not to have too much spirit and I'm always fighting against that ideal."

Boy George admits to finding it slightly annoying to have three straight men playing obviously gay drag queens. "They're so emasculated," he shudders. "What's good about drag queens is that underneath it all they've got a dick - they're so special because of that hidden surprise. But I suppose the only way the film industry can handle it is to make drag queens asexual, and do a Carry On up the Drag Queen." George reveals he was recently offered a drag-queen role in a British film, which he turned down because it was "tokenistic". He adores John Waters' trashy transsexual oeuvre, ritually watching all his films on video every Christmas, and dreaming of the day Waters might offer him a role, "perhaps in a remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. He, too, is a fan of the demonic Divine ("the perfect drag queen, huge and scary", Boy George sighs).

Drag has taught people how to love artifice and the surface of things. It plays games with images; clothes can disguise as well as express. Drag has been dragged from the ancient fringes of our society and pushed on to the mainstream stage with a fixed smile on its face.

Drag has become much more complex in recent years, with the rise of lesbians dressing as men ("They become the thing they hate - that's interesting," notes Boy George), straight men dressing as their girlfriends, camp gay men doing a turn, bodybuilders getting "bitch tits" from too many hormones, and performance artists subverting gender. But in the end the rise of drag in 1995 must largely be put down to the insatiable desire of the media for new provocative images. All fin-de-siecle interpretations aside, drag is here to stay. It's off-the-peg glamour in the radiation age. It's gender-bending and pretending. As RuPaul puts it: "You're born naked and everything you put on after that is drag."

n 'Fireball: The Alternative Miss World' is at the Grand, London SW11, on 3 Nov. Booking: 0171-738 9000

n 'To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar' is on release from 10 Nov