By Michael Musto
Suddenly, talk shows can’t get enough of drag queens’ sensationalism. Pop rock videos milk their well-accessorized charisma. This year’s wigstock, the eight annual celebration of outrageous coifs, too much eyeliner, and too high heels, drew television cameras and larger than ever crowds to New York’s Tompklins Square Park. Drag isn’t just more socially acceptable now: it’s the baton twirler at the head of th3e parade.
As with every sexual trend these days, Madonna gets a bit of the credit – for putting her male back up dancers in Gaultier bras. But so do The B-52’s and George Michael for casting drags in their videos, and the novelty band Deee-Lite for its crossdressing entourage. Designer Todd Oldham introduced runway model Billy Beyond, whose feminine strut titillated the fashion world. Jennie Livingston brought drag to the movies last year with Paris Is Burning, her documentary about a group of colorfully oppressed voguers. Everyone felt sorry for the drags, and as a result , the most unlikely people were to be around them. Or even be them. Drag was so ready for mass consumption that it seemed almost passé when marketing whiz Tama Janowitz titled her new novel The Male Cross Dresser Support Group.
“It’s a reaction to the political climate,” says drag performer La Homa Van Zandt. “Everyone’s snapping from what we’ve been living through the last 12 years – this horrible family values garbage.” Family values as the White House dictate traditional roles – man as breadwinner, woman as homemaker, single mother as tramp – so dated they’re almost campy entertainment in themselves. In it’s counterassault the gay community has bonded even tighter, and drag has become a politics of defiance, of sexual freedom, of pride. But the culture is diverse: for every angry statement, there’s a joke to offer relief from the crisis of AIDS and the realization that at the highest levels so little is being done.
Why such mass appeal? PERHAPS BECAUSE most Americans realize they don’t fit into Dan Quayle’s stereotypes, either. Nor are prejudices as widely felt as the White House seems to think. Especially after Houston with the Bush-Quayle ticket wrapped in far right, born again rhetoric, a lot of voters feel downright contentious, ad able to appreciate the light rebellion of drag. The fact that drag performers deal in positive, likable energy marked them easy to embrace – as does the audience’s awareness that the drags are spoofing themselves in the act.
Amid this new burst of sequins, some drag stars have emerged and made strides not seen since the late underground-film star Divine became a celebrity in John Waters’s films. Mannequin Lypsinka (real name John Epperson) elevates the lip synch experience to an art form, mouthing perfectly every inflection, every punctuation mark, every breath of well-known songs. This year you could have read her lips in George Michael’s video “Too Funky”. Chanteuse John Kelly who has capped many a Wigstock with his warbling rendition of Joni Mitchell’s famous tribute to the original Woodstock festival, performs regularly at Lamama and at The Kitchen; this Spring he will play Carnegie’s Recital Hall as Dagmar Onassis, illegitimate daughter of Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. Dame Edna Everidge has gone so far as to and her own specials – on NBC yet! Edna is a middle aged frump who fancies herself royal as she sniffs bunches of “gladdies” and performs a love/hate tango with show biz that’s even edgier than Lypsinka’s. Television is definitely drag’s new medium. Liquid Television, on MTV, recently featured a segment called “Art School Girls Of Doom” starring Cody Field and Gina Varla Vetro as wacky gals in search of love and laughs. New York cable offers ‘Come’nget it” a deadpan cooking show in which a stubbly beauty whips high cholesterol treats.
For eight years now Bunny has crystallized the downtown drag scene by organizing Wigstock, featuring drag performers strutting their stuff until darkness falls and their makeup melts. With the audience dressing up as much as the performers, the event made for a stunning visual treatment to the widening drag boom. Acts include DeAundra Peek, who purposely (one hopes) Sings off key; the BoyBar Beauties; and tall, glamorous RUPaul.