As L.A. Weekly celebrated with our special “Queendom” issue in a couple weeks ago, drag has permeated pop culture in wonderfully eye-popping ways, providing an inclusive and exuberant form of entertainment that is clearly here to stay. L.A. writer Frank DeCaro has written a definitive exploration of drag artistry, Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business, spotlighting legendary “ladies” such as Jackie Beat, RuPaul, Divine, Bianca Del Rio, Miss Coco Peru, Lypsinka, Varla Jean Merman, and many, many more. His vibrant and vivacious book couldn't be better timed, what with another successful DragCon just ending in Los Angeles and L.A. Pride in full swing. With more than 100 photos — many from performers' personal collections — this comprehensive look at the culture of cross-dress is chock full of info and fabulousness. Advancing his book signing event at Barnes & Noble tonight, we spoke with the author about the history and exploding appeal of drag in pop culture.
L.A. Weekly: Who was the first queen you give credit for bringing drag into the public consciousness entertainment-wise?
Frank DeCaro: Every drag queen I've spoken to with a sense of history points to one man as the sort of grandmother of modern drag: Julian Eltinge. He was a performer who starred on Broadway, made movies and had a magazine that offered beauty tips… he was even given his own Broadway theater. And then it blows your mind when you find out this was in 1912! He defended his masculinity and heterosexuality loudly and physically — which I don't quite believe — but still, I love the idea that he had so many media things going on. That made him the first modern drag queen.
What do you mean by “modern drag queen?”
I think when you go across different media, I think that's when you're modern. A man playing a woman in ancient Greece, well at that point women weren't allowed to be on stage — that's how it was. But I think when you're really making progress in various areas, you're a modern type. I think that's what the girls do today.
Cross-dressing and gender bending has always been part of entertainment right? Milton Berle always get mentioned.
As I say in the book, the first drag superstar was Uncle Milty, the father of television. He wasn't gay. By accounts he was almost just universally regarded as heterosexual. And he was known for having the “meatiest tuck,” as they say. He was very well endowed. He wore dresses throughout his entire career. In [his] 80s he was still putting them on. It's interesting he's the archetype of that hairiest, most manly, ugliest guy, but put him in a dress and the world is at his feet. That's always the trope, you know, you put an ugly guy in a dress and he's suddenly a catch and you know, everyone wants him.
Right. But the queens of today are the opposite. Most are very beautiful. Things really changed. Your book traces the history of drag and its most important figures. When it did start to be significant or somewhat mainstream?
As far back as the '50s, if you knew where to look for drag in any city in America, sooner or later you could find it. In doing the research for this book, I would find like an ad for a theater in Fort Worth, Texas doing an entire month of drag shows. I'm like, you're kidding man… in the '50s? in Fort Worth? For me in writing this book, the revelation was not just discovering people like Julian Eltinge from 1912, having a Broadway theater, but also that drag really existed for such a long time. It wasn't mainstream the way it's mainstream today, but it was mainstream in a different way. It was kind of a hip thing. If you were cool, you sought it out.
What do you notice are some of the differences regionally between queens. What's special about our L.A. gals?
The drag performers in L.A. have a tremendous sense of Hollywood history and television history, and I think that that colors the kind of drag that they do. I also think that what L.A. does better than anyone is spoof pop culture. I point to a number of performers who've made a name for themselves. Drew Droege doing Chloe Sevigny or Tanya Roberts is about as funny as anything you're ever going to see. Tom Link doing Tilda Swinton or Zoet deChanel at The Mismatch Game at the [Gay & Lesbian] Center is as funny as anything you're ever going to see. Jackie Beat's version of the Bea Arthur is the one to beat. Nobody does Bea Arthur better than Jackie. And Sam Pancake in his lovable kookiness doing the sort of drunk Lucille Ball or an overheated Blanche Devereaux (Rue McCallan), he's a scream.
We got some great comedic queens here for sure.
I think that the skewering of mid 20th-century and late 20th-century television is really funny. I think other people try it in other parts of the country, but nobody nails it and nobody has the talent level that performers in L.A. — like the ones I mentioned — do. The Mismatch Game at the Center, which is not really a drag show, shows you some of the best female impersonators out there. It's this deranged take on celebrities. It's so genius. You don't see that level of hilarity in other parts of the country. I mean New York does have great comic queens though — nobody's funnier than Lady Bunny — but it's a different kind of thing. I think the most exciting thing about drag right now, is it's a true smorgasbord and you really can find whatever you're looking for. It's mainstream but also subversive and everywhere in between.
What credit do you give RuPaul and Drag Race for making drag what it is today? Is it everything or just a reflection of where we are now in terms of entertainment? Which came first: the chicken feather boa or the colorful Easter egg?
I don't think you can underestimate the contribution that RuPaul's Drag Race has made on the drag community and by and large, it's been a very positive effect. I say that because not only has it brought drag to the mainstream of entertainment, but it's allowed Americans and the world actually —people, gay and straight — to see drag queens as soulful human beings, with wants and desires and goals and loves. I think that's a huge contribution. There were people before like Harvey Fierstein, who wanted to show the human side, like he did with Torch Song Trilogy years ago, so I don't think they're first to try that, but they're the most mainstream and most successful in doing it and making that happen. TV critics I spoke to said this in my book, [Drag Race] just so happens to be about men in dresses. It's a great show, period. Rupaul's Drag Race winning the best reality competition any over a juggernaut like The Voice is mindblowing and a testament to what they created and also where we're at as a culture. And it's kind of miraculous to watch.
With DragCon's recent success it just seems to keep growing, too. Drag's mainstream popularity is pretty incredible right now.
And I also think it's great that it's happening now, because at a time when we're so politically conservative and horrible things are happening to roll back equality everyday, people were standing up and being more outrageous and more outraged. I think you have to a stand your ground and drag queens have always done that historically. It's the 50th year anniversary of Stonewall, so it's a good time to look at drag queens and thank them for the good fight, and for the entertainment, and for just being themselves and being there for the community.
Frank DeCaro is joined by Bruce Vilanch, Reba Areba and Alaska 5000 Tue., June 4, for a book signing of Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business at Barnes & Noble at the Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, Fairfax; 323-525-0270. This is a wrist-banded event. Books must be purchased from the location to receive a wristband, issued on a first come, first serve basis. Limit 1 wristband per book. More info here.