the drag scene: new york vs london

What forged the very different ethics and aesthetics of New York and London's drag scenes?

by Amrou Al-Kadhi
30 November 2015, 9:50am

My relationship with drag has always been tied to a passion for drama. Long before working and performing as a "proper" drag queen, my alter ego found means of expression through playing the leading ladies of my school theatre productions. This has heavily informed the drag I now practice, and which is at the core of my drag troupe, Denim - a self-referential theatricality that performs and deconstructs gender tropes rather than imitating them, giving the art form, I think, a comic and necessary politics. This is something at the foundation of the London drag scene, and we'll return to why.

Across the ocean in New York this summer, I was thrilled at the opportunity to bring out Glamrou, my drag alter ego. I was, however, surprised at the city's differing approaches to the art form. Whilst London drag is inherently about performance, many New York queens take centre-stage in the city's glamorous nightclubs. The Manhattan drag procedure went something like this; 1) spend the day constructing the most jaw-dropping look imaginable 2) arrive at the nightclub at around midnight 3) get photographed by the famous night club photographers for an hour 4) DO NOT DANCE and 5) go home, to hopefully find your picture in the nightclub spreads the next day. A major element of the New York queer scene echoes structures of dominant culture you might think it would reject: VIP areas for the most famous queens and club kids, a self-governing queer paparazzi, and a genuine club A-list including figures such as Amanda Lepore (who still makes a living through nightclub appearances). In a sense, the hierarchical format of Capitalist Celebrity Culture isn't abandoned, but intimately replicated just through a queer lens. It plays the logic of hetero-normative exclusivity at its own game, creating equally exclusive pockets of queer success. In other words: Not invited on the Red Carpet? Lay down your own honey.

For decades, the New York queer scene has been intertwined with mainstream culture. Back in the 60s, when being homosexual was really very tricky, Andy Warhol was determined to create spaces within mainstream culture where queer people could operate. He borrowed the language of American Capitalism and re-wrote it through a queer framework, giving New York queers a chance at mainstream ideals of success - their "15 minutes of fame". His legendary Factory - bang in the middle of midtown Manhattan - was a playground for queer "celebrities," who took starring roles in Andy's films and television programmes (that often infiltrated mainstream networks). His trademark Marilyn screen prints could also be seen to operate on this logic; in effect, Warhol stole a mainstream cultural image designed for straight male pleasure, and colourfully distorted it. Andy's Marilyn was as much drag queen as she was screen siren.

Warhol's legacy would provide the catapult that sent the 90s Club Kids, led by Michel Alig and James St James, into the mainstream. The Club Kids were a collection of club personalities; notorious for outrageous costumes and excessive partying, they made their wage by appearing at clubs and in effect "doing" nothing. Chronicling the movement, the film Party Monster hits the nail on the head in a scene where the Club Kids make one of their appearances; when expected to perform, they find the notion of doing something ludicrous, only to chant the words "Money, Success, Fame, Glamour" when on stage - Capitalism at its most elemental.

Other episodes in New York queer history reveal a reliance on tropes of mainstream success. In Paris Is Burning, the documentary which charts queer Ballroom Culture in 80s/90s New York, we witness competitions that assess who can emulate "ideal" mainstream images most effectively (looking like a Business Executive, or a High Fashion Model, say); the term for this is "realness." Although parody is involved, what seeps through is an overwhelming desire to simulate hetero-normative images of success, as a way to claim that those at the ball are also eligible. As ball regular Dorian Corey states - "The idea of realness is to look as much as possible as your straight counterpart…you're not an executive, but you're showing the straight world that you can be an executive."

Now, although I was excited by the astounding production value of the New York scene I experienced, what I missed was irreverence, and the sense of an alternative cultural model to Capitalist success. Though this partially exists in New York, it forms the basis of London drag. Coming out of a tradition of theatre - from Pantomime to Shakespeare - our drag queens love the stage. We hold dear that sense of irreverent theatricality that is at the core of Absolutely Fabulous. Hence our prized drag establishments are not nightclubs, but venues with stages; The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Molly Mogs, The Glory, The Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, The Admiral Duncan and the posthumous Madame Jojo's & Black Cap. And I see less of a trend towards "realness" and a perfectly polished image, as I see looks that lack "finesse" in a celebratory, political, and ultimately, theatrical way (Jonny Woo, Scottee, Jon Sizzle Etc…)

It's more: Not invited on the red carpet? Screw the red carpet! Tear it up, put it on you, and get it dirty. A message that is London at its core.



Text Amrou Al-Kadhi
Still from Paris Is Burning