Is it really true that the drag queens of New York are stampeding to buy the Princess of Wales's dresses? Christa Worthington tests the rumour on the boys themselves
For about a month now, the rumour has run wild that drag queens will be lining up to buy the Princess of Wales's dresses, which are being auctioned for charity at Christie's tomorrow night in New York. The story has gathered such momentum that Ru Paul, the 7ft-tall transvestite TV show host, has had to issue a denial that he is interested in owning anything as tame as a Catherine Walker (though not in those words). While the rumour has made lively publicity, printed everywhere from Newsweek to the Scottish Daily Record, it has little basis in fact, judging by a survey of likely suspects on both sides of the Atlantic. The princess's dresses are far too conservative for most queens. No matter. More than these genteel clothes for state occasions, the drag connection, real or imagined, is shaping up as the fashion phenomenon of this sale. It makes up for what the dresses lack: an obvious audience.

"I'm amazed by how many people want to know this information. I'm fascinated by the rumour. I'm not fascinated by the clothes, however," says Lypsinka (John Epperton) who can't imagine how he was pegged as a bidder.

"I'm not interested in the dresses. I don't have the money for the dresses. I'm not going to this thing. The only dresses I can remember [Diana] wearing are those horrible stripes and polka dots she used to wear when she first got married. It would be sort of a camp hoot to have those, but they aren't even selling them. They looked like something JonBenet Ramsey's parents would have bought for her," he says, referring to the murdered child beauty queen. "Bad taste and extravagant taste is interesting. Good taste is completely forgettable."

In Britain, drag queen Lily Savage, also known as Paul O'Grady, declined an invitation from The Big Breakfast to cover the sale, prompted by the rumoured drag connection. "Diana's dress sense and my dress sense are worlds apart, and nothing that Her Royal Highness puts on her back would I want to be seen dead in," he says. "As Diana herself said, when I met her in Harrods menswear last week, the feeling is mutual. I hope there's this much fuss when I have my car boot sale next week in Peckham."

"I'm not wearing a cast-off, whether it's Diana's or not," says Regina Fong (Reginald Bundy).

Diana has never been at the top of the charts of the drag queens' repertoire, however much admired she is by the gay community for her charitable work with Aids concerns, which will benefit, too, from this sale. So why the presumed drag connection? Perhaps because it is difficult to imagine any socialite east of the Mississippi wearing the Princess's clothes in public.

"I can think of some transvestites with her kind of taste, but not any drag queens," says Valerie Steele, author of Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power, and chief curator at the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. (Most transvestites are married and heterosexual, according to Miss Vera's School for boys who want to be girls in New York). "I kind of suspect that it will be anonymous rich women who wear the clothes. I picture wealthy housewives in Georgia, who would buy it. She's a fairly wearable size. A lot of people can wear them, but not anyone of any kind of national importance."

Candi Cane, a sophisticated clotheshorse of a drag queen who wears Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel (she liked a "sassy double-breasted velvet gown" from the Christie's sale catalogue) imagines that owning a Diana dress "would be a matter of great pride in Dayton, Ohio or in Texas". "There are thousands of women who can afford it," she says. "They'll wear it proudly when they go to see a cabaret in Vegas.

"When she was married to Charles she had to wear flat shoes. The suits were more modestly cut to the calf. When she got separated, she started wearing the real high heels which made her look good," observes Candi. "She cut her hair sassier and wore the same suits refitted tighter at the waist, or wore some of them without a blouse, and with the skirts shorter."

"People will be buying the dresses as a fetish. These are the holy relics of the great Cinderella story of our time," says Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which will not buy any dresses from the sale. "We look for the art of the garment rather than the association of the garment. We don't consider Catherine Walker in the vanguard," he explains. "If anything, Diana's great long- term contribution to style will be her running in and out of health clubs. She looks wonderful in casual clothing. Like Jackie [Onassis] who is remembered more for the way she wore riding clothes, rather than the Valentino gowns. It seems a cultural misreading to think that drag queens want to be Diana. They're already queens. Why would they want to be a princess?"

Like Liz Taylor, Diana is too much admired as a compassionate champion of Aids awareness to be mocked (the rolling eyes of her famous television interview notwithstanding.) "I don't think anybody's ready to diss her in a funny, comical sense," says Sybilla, the Spanish invention of Jesus Cortez, a clothing buyer, who performs in New York and Provincetown. If he were to do Di, he'd do something "rebellious", such as ripping off a tiara in front of the Queen.

"Most guys in drag want to cut loose and be outrageous, as opposed to being elegant," says Charles Busch, a downtown New York performance artist and playwright (Lesbian Vampires of Sodom). "What would make Diana possibly appealing, is the fact that she seemed so put upon, and was defiant and at the same time stylish. She's suffered, and survived, and is a romantic figure. And is getting the best of everyone. That's very appealing to a drag queen. The last laugh." How would he caricature her? "It would have to be by throwing up, unfortunately, for comic effect," says Busch.

Whether transvestites buy or not is going to remain a matter of rumour, in the age of the telephoned bid.

The strand of truth in the myth is the queens' identification with the princess's transformation, with the way she found the woman within, as apparent in her dramatic style shift since she floated up the aisle like a meringue.

"I don't usually fantasise about being a bride, but Diana's wedding is up there with Julie Andrews going down the aisle in The Sound of Music. Remember that train?" says Joanna James (Jim Wilson) an old-style glamour queen who performs Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand and Gypsy Rose Lee with a troupe called "Where the Boys R". (To do Diana, he says, "I'd stand with my ankles together, holding a clutch bag with matching shoes.) "I relate to Diana because she has a lot of style and grace and is a classy dresser. She came out around the Dynasty era, but she didn't look that garish. She helped create a style that's up to the minute with the times. I think that's part of why her marriage didn't work, because she wanted to change with the times and I don't think there's a lot of room for that in the monarchy. I'm a queen, but I don't need a monarchy"n