RuPaul’s Drag Race: How drag pageantry evolved throughout the 20th century

It was recently announced that Graham Norton and Alan Carr will appear as celebrity judges on the UK version of RuPaul's Drag Race

Sabrina Barr
Friday 15 February 2019 18:32
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RuPaul calls for performers to audition for UK version of Drag Race TV series

Following the news that a UK version of RuPaul's Drag Race will be airing later this year, it's now been announced that television hosts Graham Norton and Alan Carr will be appearing on the show as celebrity judges.

The show, expected to air later this year, will follow the original US programme by following contestants as they take part in a series of different challenges every week, such as catwalks and a lip sync battles.

While drag pageantry became a popular phenomenon in the second half of the 20th century, the practice of men cross-dressing as women and vice versa has occurred for centuries.

Here's everything you need to know about drag pageantry, and how it came into being:

The centuries-old practice of cross-dressing

Examples of cross-dressing can be found in ancient mythology and literature.

Over the course of several centuries, it became customary around the world for male actors to dress as girls and women in order to portray female roles on stage, such as in medieval England in plays such as William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night.

What began as a convention in the theatre evolved significantly in the 20th century, leading to increasing numbers of drag queens and, soon thereafter, the rising phenomenon of drag pageantry.

This eventually led to the conception of the hit TV show RuPaul's Drag Race, which takes its name after head judge, host and mentor RuPaul Andre Charles.

The evolution of the drag queen

A drag queen is typically a male performance artist who dresses in women's clothing, styling their clothes, makeup and hair in a very exaggerated manner.

It's believed that the term "drag queen" originated from the way in which male actors playing female characters in the theatre would talk about their dresses dragging on the floor.

By the early 20th century, people started to view cross-dressing in a more negative light, with many making associations between the practice and the LGBT+ community, despite it having been commonplace in the theatre for centuries.

Affiliations with the LGBT+ community had criminal implications at the time, what with sexual relations between people of the same sex only becoming decriminalised in the US for the first time in 1962 in the state of Illinois.

It therefore became more commonplace for male performance artists to dress as women and perform at nighttime venues such as speakeasies and clubs, rather than on the mainstream stage as they had done before.

In the early 1930s, drag queens, then known as "pansy performers", became hugely popular in cities including Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. This period was known as the "Pansy Craze".

During the Prohibition Era, the 13-year period during which alcohol was banned in the US, performing at underground clubs provided drag queens with the opportunity to freely express themselves without the fear of prosecution.

Even after the Prohibition Era ended, drag artists continued to perform at underground bars, thus continuing to raise their profile.

The rise of drag pageantry

Drag pageantry was developed in the second half of the 20th Century, thanks largely to the pioneering work of US drag queen Flawless Sabrina.

Flawless Sabrina, also known as Mother Flawless Sabrina, was a performer and actor, in addition to being an LGBT+ activist and admired mentor within the LGBT+ community.

Flawless Sabrina founded the National Academy, a drag organisation through which she ran drag queen pageants throughout the United States.

From 1959 to 1969, the company put on 46 drag shows and competitions on an annual basis, employing approximately 100 people, most of whom were members of the LGBT+ community.

While Flawless Sabrina was arrested on multiple occasions for cross-dressing as a woman in public, an act that was illegal at the time of her arrests, her work as an LGBT+ campaigner and promoter of drag queen pageants had a strong influence on popular culture.

In the years that followed the creation of drag queen pageants, mainstream media saw a number of high-profile men begin to experiment with gendered fashion conventions, such as Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter in the 1975 musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show and musicians David Bowie and Boy George.

The creation of RuPaul's Drag Race

In the 1990s, drag queen RuPaul burst onto the scene, achieving fame on a global scale with the release of the 1992 pop song "Supermodel (You Better Work)".

Following years of success, which included becoming a spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics, hosting a talk show and appearing in several films, RuPaul launched reality series RuPaul's Drag Race in 2009 with the aim of finding "America's next drag superstar".

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There have been 10 series of the show, in addition to spin-off shows RuPaul's Drag U and RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars.

The reality competition has also won numerous awards, including accolades at the Emmy, MTV and Reality Television Awards.

In 2015, RuPaul explained to The Independent why he believes drag will never be fully accepted by the mainstream, describing it as "punk rock".

"It mocks the mainstream. The mainstream is sceptical of drag, and rightly so: drag is making fun of it," RuPaul said.

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