“Drag samples all of pop culture. So DragCon is like Comic-Con, Beautycon, Vidcon and Chaka Khan all rolled into one! It’s where sensitive, creative souls and out-of-the-box thinkers come to see and be seen. And nothing, especially in today’s political climate, beats spending time IRL with your tribe.”
—RuPaul on DragCon
I didn’t get to interview RuPaul “IRL,” only via emailed questions and answers, but even via type, Ru rules when it comes to quotes and quips, and he keeps it — ironically, some might say — “real,” too.
“Drag is an art form that also makes us think, laugh and feel,” he replies when asked about how his TV show RuPaul's Drag Race, and by extension DragCon, has helped open people’s minds. “In the chaos we live in today, Drag Race and DragCon’s message of love and acceptance is more attractive than ever.”
Love and acceptance is all well and good, but Drag Race is a competition — a TV competition — with some of the wittiest, most acid-tongued “wo-men” in entertainment. It can get catty (which is why we watch it, right?). DragCon, on the other hand, is not about rivalries or ratings. It’s real life. A celebration and place to connect on a creative level, it features panels, signings, vendors and plenty of photo opps. In fact, this year’s event, set for May 11-13, touts more than 30 “Instagram-worthy photo spots" located on the floor, including the actual “Werkroom from RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10” and a re-creation of the “Judges Panel set” complete with cutouts of RuPaul and fellow judge Michelle Visage.
At least 90 drag royals will be in attendance this year, according to World of Wonder, and all of them are connected in some way. Most have been on Drag Race (currently seen on Logo and VH1) but others are seen via WOW’s popular YouTube channel, which gave birth to the subscription TV service WOW Presents Plus last year. WOW also produces a TV show starring two of its most popular queens, Trixie & Katya, for the Vice channel.
The men behind World of Wonder, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, have been building their empire with longtime collaborator and friend RuPaul for decades, one size 13 stiletto at a time, starting with New York public-access TV, then with Ru's talk show on VH1 during the "Supermodel" era, and finally Drag Race, which had obvious hit potential from the get-go. Still, nobody expected it to be the cultural phenomenon it's become today, with branded merch sold in malls (there's even a Drag Box, à la Birchbox, that fans can subscribe to) and massive conventions in both L.A. and New York.
“Drag queens have been at the forefront of the LGBTQ community forever, and it feels like they are finally getting the props they deserve,” Barbato says. “People around the world are discovering and supporting their artistry, and it's absolutely awesome.
“In our weekly creative meetings with RuPaul, he would always say how great it would be to find a way to bring our tribe together, to physically connect the social media family we were building,” Barbato says on how the convention came to be. “Finally we just decided to do it, and RuPaul’s DragCon was born.”
Covering World of Wonder events over the years, freelance writing for their blog The WOW Report, and even leading live chats on Logo.com during Drag Race's early seasons kinda makes me (in my mind) an honorary drag queen. I’m sure I'm not the only female who watches the show for makeup ideas, either. But drag culture has, as Barbato notes, been a big part of gay gatherings and entertainment for quite some time, and in L.A., I've seen it inspire all nightlife as a whole, gay and straight — from fashion to music to lifestyle and attitude.
I’ll be conducting my own panel at DragCon this year, delving into the significance of drag, androgyny, dress-up and creative excess in Los Angeles after dark. Panelists include Paul V, from the legendary Silver Lake cross-dresser party Dragstrip 66; Danny Fuentes, who’s bringing back club-kid culture with a provocative twist at clubs like Sex Cells; and Mayhem Miller, a Drag Race fan favorite.
Covering Los Angeles nightlife, I’ve gotten to know so many of the city’s most talented and creative queens over the years, and it seems like each season Drag Race features another L.A. “wo-man” on the show. Some local favorites over the years include Detoxx, Willam, Tammie Brown, Ongina, Alaska and Drag Race winner (Season 3) Raja, who used to go-go dance in all the clubs and later became a successful makeup artist, seen on America's Next Top Model.
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Raja, whose real name is Sutan Amrull, will be at DragCon, many years after his win, which led to a recording career and worldwide recognition. He's seen drag and the perception of drag evolve more than anyone, and despite calling out the culture sometimes on his social media, his love for the form of expression and its biggest celebration is pure and unjaded. "DragCon is a monolithic monument to how far we’ve come along," Amrull says. "It's now an industry. Mainstream drag brings an awareness to diversity. Drag is fun and provocative. Drag is beautiful, sometimes grotesque, but ultimately it promotes expression."
Indeed, the beauty of DragCon lies not with the exquisitely lined lips or perfectly coiffed wigs but rather the mixture of excess and self-expression, the individual interpretations of glamour, allure and vibrancy. You don't have to be gay, a man, or even an adult to express yourself in this world of cartoony color, dazzling glitz and ominous characters and creatures. The boundaries have been broken and all are welcome.
And RuPaul says this is key. When asked about the future of drag, he says, "I have no freakin’ idea, and that is what makes drag so exciting," but he adds that what surprised him most about DragCon's success was "how many young people and their families come to play. It still brings tears to my eyes when I see all the loving parents allowing their sons and daughters to see what is possible."
RuPaul's DragCon, Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 S. Figueroa St., downtown; Fri., May 11, 4-8 p.m. (2-8 p.m. for VIPs); Sat., May 12, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun., May 13, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (9:30 a.m. start for VIPs both days); pre- and after-parties at various downtown locations. rupaulsdragcon.com.