“Judge us on the performance, not what’s in our pants”: Drag queens have left smoky ballrooms and are now taking centre stage. Thanks to social media and the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, these queens now have a mainstream platform to showcase their art. But for the female drag queens (women dressing in female drag), their existence is sometimes met with questions, not applause. Amidst accusations of cultural appropriation by the male-dominated drag community and charges of misogyny by some feminists, it seems these women face 360° criticism.
These criticisms have left many wondering: who can perform drag? For a lawless and limitless artform, are restrictions good? We asked London’s leading female drag performer Holestar for her thoughts.
What was it that drew you to drag? Have your reasons for performing evolved?
My first drag inspiration was watching the Blake Edwards film Victor/Victoria numerous times as a child and later the artist Claude Cahun. On the gay scene, I kept seeing traditional drag queens being vile about women which I found puzzling. Feminism did a lot of incredible things for women, but it killed glamour, especially in the 90s. My idea was to reclaim the fabulousness that drag queens had kept alive and reclaim it to the female body. I wanted and still, want people to question what they think they know of gender binaries and to simply let it go. Who cares what’s going on in someone’s gusset? In the context of drag performance, are you entertained? Reclaiming drag was intended as a one-off art piece but grew fishnet legs, and fifteen years later, here we are. I maintain that politic, but my main aim now is to entertain. The majority of people work hard, and during their downtime, they want escapism and fantasy. It’s my job to provide the best I can. A facilitator of fun if you will.
I am sure you have read the infamous RuPaul statement about the “men-only” nature of drag. Did this statement effect you? How would you respond to this particular statement?
RuPaul always has been a fierce business person, which is to be commended, but I’ve always found him the corporate face of drag. I’m more bothered how his statement effects trans people. Numerous trans people explore and find themselves through drag. Why should they be rejected from an art form because of their gender identity? Are naturally pretty and feminine men excluded? No. What is in someone’s pants, their hormone levels or how they present on the daily is neither here nor there. It’s the performance of being a queen that matters. Drag Race is a carefully produced and manipulated show but has an international platform with a far-reaching influence. I hope after Ru’s dismissive statement and subsequent fall out he will rethink things and allow anyone of any gender to apply to the show. Judge the work, not the gender. And to be fair, the show could do with reformatting. There’s only so many bitchy narratives that can be repeated.
Do you think the popularity of RuPaul’s show has been helpful to female drag queens?
Drag Race has introduced a generation of women to drag which is fantastic! And there are some fabulous women out there who have really learnt their craft and heritage beyond a reality TV show. But as I say to any woman who wants to do it, learn your craft and heritage. Have a talent to sell. Getting your knockers out and painting a pretty face isn’t enough to maintain a career as there’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you. And you’re going to need a thick skin. I may have been stomping around for a while, but we still have to work twice as hard as the boys to be heard as a lot of bookers and promoters still see us as a novelty act. Again: Judge us on the performance, not what’s in our pants.
The gender is in the mainstream consciousness at this moment. For someone who has been performing drag for such a long time, do you find this discussion helpful?
Absolutely! Fuck gender binaries! Whether people play with gender for performance or as part of their identity, let them be. Seeing trans issues in the mainstream is encouraging that one day, gender won’t be an issue at all, just a bunch of assholes roaming around a rock we call Earth. I got teary when I saw Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, that was a groundbreaking moment. Shame she’s such a pillock.
Drag is sometimes criticised as being misogynistic, how do you respond to this?
It can be, but I think it depends on the context and intent. There’s a generation of gay men who are repulsed by women, our bodies, our orifices. My theory is many grew up being teased or bullied about being gay and/or effeminate and wanted to distance themselves from anything feminine (for example clones of the 70s and 80s. Exaggerated butch and masculine dress became a tribal uniform for many gay men. The rejection of femme is still seen on gay apps. Masc for masc, no femmes etc). Some with a quick wit who learned to defend themselves through humour turned to drag. Rather than attack the patriarchal society that suppressed their sexuality, the women they were impersonating became the source of ridicule. Rather than empathise with a group repressed by the same culture, they punched down.
There are drag queens on the UK circuit who still spout misogynistic nonsense about vaginas and lesbians. It doesn’t offend me as I’ve a thick skin as a dinosaur (apparently) but it’s tired and lazy. As I’ve said onstage in a gay venue, “don’t be frightened of vagina, you all came from one”.
After 15 years of performance have you been able to define what being female means? And if so what is it?
I’ve no idea what female is. Only what the media and society have forced upon me. I may have tits and a minge, but my lady bits don’t work correctly, I’ve high levels of testosterone in my system, and I’ve always identified more with men than women. In my day to day life, without a scrap of makeup, I’m misgendered quite a lot. So I guess I define myself as a fruitcake.
Why do you think people, particularly members of the queer/drag community have been so critical of you?
Have they? I’d love to know who and in what context! It’s probably because I posted a stupid status on social media about non-binary people which I didn’t mean. Rather than come to me themselves, certain people went on an online witch hunt and decided I’m Satan herself. I’m gender queer and non-binary myself you loons. I’m on your side and carry the wounds from the battles I’ve fought on your behalf, so please, with respect, wind your necks in.
I’m happy to call anyone their chosen pronoun; I’ve no problem with that. I simply find it a tad pretentious and academic when LGBTQ+ people internationally are struggling, ridiculed, rejected, bullied and murdered for merely existing. Things in the West are slowly getting better for LGBT+ people, hurrah for us. But try going to a developing nation and tell a gay or trans person you demand being called ‘they’, they’d laugh in your face. They’ve got bigger issues to worry about. Like staying alive.
I’ve a big mouth which gets me in trouble sometimes. But nothing I ever say comes with hate or malice. If people are offended by my nonsense so easily, they must have a pretty comfortable life with little else to stress about. Lucky them.