RuPaul's Drag Race's impact on South African drag performance
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The success of the RuPaul's Drag Race had a ripple effect in South Africa with more and more of the local queer community wanting to watch a live drag show.
“Gentleman, start your engines and may the best woman win!” A phrase coined by RuPaul in every episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race that has changed the world of drag since 2009, when the reality TV show premiered.
Ten years later, drag performers are not only popular within the queer community but have crossed over into the general public, even walking the red carpet at the Oscars. We are in the golden age of drag and the international success has spilt over into South Africa.
The local drag scene has flourished since Drag Race became one of the biggest reality TV phenomenons.
Drag performers have been a part of South African entertainment landscape for years. But mainly in pantomimes and drag pageants, which portray a very uniform perception of what a drag queen looks like. Drag Race was able to not only showcase drag on an international platform, but also introduce different types of drag to a wider audience.
This enabled local queens to explore drag as more than just a man dressing up as a woman. One of the biggest local drag performers to have gained major popularity is Manila Von Teez.
The Cape Town-based drag queen has become a well-known public figure after she finished second on SA’s Got Talent in 2016. Manila said local drag had “changed quite significantly” since she got started.
“This is due to RuPaul’s Drag Race as well as access to information.” Johannesburg-based drag queen Pieter “Jaquilation” Serton shared Manila’s sentiments, saying Drag Race had made the art of drag available to a broader audience.
“The show has changed people’s perception of drag. Where people have been able to see that drag is not a man wanting to dress up as a woman, but a true performance art form.” Manila and Jaquilation had different starts to their drag careers.
Manila said that she started experimenting with drag at costume parties, but drag pageants were where she really got started. Jaquilation got started in theatre and studied the behind-the-scenes aspects of drag. Compared with Cape Town, the Johannesburg scene is still growing as a performance art.
Queens mostly perform in clubs and restaurants such as Beefcakes. Manila says that pageants are about “grooming” and that “pageant Queens are specifically trying to achieve a certain aesthetic and give more of a fishy girl look. Nightclub queens are freer to express themselves however they feel want to”.
Another young drag performer who is making waves in the Cape Town drag scene is Inappropriate.
The drag ingénue has been a breath of fresh air in the local scene, forgoing the need to look “fishy” – a term used to describe a drag queen who convincingly resembles a cis woman – and has a more unconventional approach to drag.
Inappropriate wears more risqué clothes and modern make-up, which is different to the look chosen by other drag and pageant queens.
She is very much a product of Drag Race and got her inspiration from watching the show. However, Ina, as she is known, feels that there are actually three categories of drag queen: the pageant girls, the club girls and the performers.
Pageants are the biggest platform for drag in Cape Town; there’s a pageant almost every month and the title winners are seen as drag royalty. The club queens are the ones who dress as a means of expression, while the performers are very much the worker bees. Jaquilation agrees that the Johannesburg drag scene, being young, is only getting bigger and bigger.
In the past couple of years, RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Bianca del Rio, Dusty Ray Bottoms and Morgan McMichaels all performing in the country to sold-out venues. The popularity of Drag Race has not only made drag queens superstars but also has done a lot for queer representation.
And while the show is mostly made for entertainment, it has also been able to showcase real issues within the queer community, such as homophobia, conversion therapy, racism, and has helped to give people the tools to understand the difference between a drag queen and transgender woman.
It seems that this race isn’t ending any time soon with Thailand and the UK producing local versions of the show. Hopefully, South Africa will join in and we will be watching our screens to find out who will be South Africa’s next drag superstar.