capturing the contemporary drag scene
Read an excerpt from 'Alright Darling?', a new book by Greg Bailey featuring the biggest names in drag today.
Jodie Harsh by Greg Bailey
Drag isn’t just fabulous; it’s a political statement, and it makes you question your understanding of sexuality and gender. Once you think you have a grasp on what drag is, or start to see a pattern, it surprises you by reacting against that pattern. The world of drag is constantly evolving. It questions, it revolts, it does not conform, but it always welcomes you with a wink and a smile that says ‘Alright Darling?’.
When I first started working as a photographer with drag performers, the imagery I was creating was being lost online. It would occasionally resurface on a Tumblr page or pop up on a blog, but the contemporary drag scene wasn’t as embedded in modern pop culture as it is today; there just wasn’t the pull towards it. The now cult TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race was airing in the United Kingdom in the early hours of the morning to a relatively small audience, but, needless to say, I was hooked from season one in 2009. After the third season had aired, feeling a bit more confident in myself and my work, I decided to congratulate the new winner of the show, Raja Gemini, never expecting a response but still really hoping for one. Six years later, she’s been the cover star of my self-published zine Alright Darling, we’ve got drunk together and partied in Hollywood, and we’ve visited each other’s homes. Working with and getting to know someone like Raja helped me as a photographer more than she knows, and her relaxing demeanour silenced any anxiety I might have had about photographing celebrated personalities in the scene.
I had hardly even begun to think about creating something tangible from what I was doing when I started talking to Raja. It was actually another drag-race alumna that helped to start the ball rolling, Willam Belli. She was performing for the first time in the United Kingdom after her infamous disqualification from the show. I travelled up to London to photograph her in her room at the Imperial Hotel (there was nothing imperial about it, but the abundance of plain white walls that you’d expect in a mid-range hotel was the perfect backdrop for a photoshoot). Following that shoot, Willam and I worked on several editorial projects together for some mainstream magazines.
After being rejected for what felt like the hundredth time, however, and realising that I wouldn’t be able to fulfil my promise to Willam that I would get her a cover story, I decided to create something of my own, something that documented drag in a way that wasn’t campy or throwaway, but collectible and special. The zine Alright Darling was born in 2015 with not just Willam as the first cover star but also the other two members of the drag supergroup the AAA Girls, Alaska Thunderfuck and Courtney Act. We took over an American Apparel store in Brighton for a night and used the windows as a ready-made set for the shoot. In between outfit changes, Willam strutted from window to changing room in just a blonde wig and her tuck, giving the curious onlookers outside something to be properly shocked at.
Drag has been propelled from being a subsector of the gay community into the spotlight of today’s culture. I’m proud to be part of and to document a scene that’s beautiful and powerful. Its strength doesn’t come from dominance, oppression or conformity, but from love, happiness and inclusivity.
This book offers a glimpse into the contemporary drag scene with a mixture of styled portraits and candid backstage moments from some of the most recognisable faces of drag today. It includes performers who have shaped the way I see the world and who work hard for their art, and I hope it communicates the positivity in what they do.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.