If you’ve ever seen “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and gagged in amazement watching a shy, awkward person transform into a magnificent glamazon before your eyes, you might have wondered how one of these magical beings is born. And then you might have asked yourself: Could I become a drag queen?
For anyone thinking about launching a drag career, we’ve enlisted some of the most accomplished drag performers in herstory to hear all the tea on how to get started—and what makes a truly great queen. Read on for the skinny on some of drag’s great mysteries, such as: How do you tuck? Can a woman be a drag queen? And how much money can you really make doing drag?
Generally, the term “drag queen” refers to a person—often a cisgender man—who performs as an entertainer in (usually) female drag. While this is the most widely understood description, the modern art form encompasses much more than just female impersonation. These days, there are drag performers of all stripes: queer, straight, cisgender, transgender, men, women, and nonbinary people can appear in drag as men, women, or a persona that eschews the binary entirely.
Miz Cracker, who placed fifth on Season 10 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and was a runner-up on Season 5 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” explains: “A drag queen is any person who makes a business out of playing with gender stereotypes. And anybody is welcome, because drag started in the queer community with everybody included, from drag kings to trans queens to all kinds of shades of pink in between.”
The history of drag
According to legend, the term “drag” came about as an acronym for “dressed resembling a girl” and dates back to the days of William Shakespeare. Whether that’s true or not (probably not), the cultural phenomenon of cross-dressing theater performers can indeed be traced back to the Elizabethan era when men played female roles, as it was considered lewd for women to be seen onstage.
There are numerous examples of historical figures who dressed in drag to express of their queerness, such as Princess Seraphina (aka John Cooper) in 18th-century England, as well as French vaudeville performers in the late 19th century.
Modern drag, however, can largely be traced back to Harlem’s 1960s ballroom scene and pageants like Miss Gay America, which began in 1972. Drag first reached mainstream awareness thanks to “Paris Is Burning,” Jennie Livingston’s landmark 1990 documentary about New York City’s ball culture.
Today, drag has expanded far beyond its underground origins, propelled in no small part by a certain multiple-Emmy-winning reality competition show hosted and executive produced by RuPaul Charles. While drag queens remain a cornerstone of LGBTQ+ nightlife, they can now be found everywhere from the stage to the silver screen, music videos, international tours, magazine covers, and even at the Met Gala.
The first step is figuring out your personal concept, persona, and aesthetic in the privacy of your own bathroom or bedroom. Remember, drag can be any form of artistic expression that plays with gender stereotypes, so your goal doesn’t need to be realistically impersonating someone of another gender.
Whether you intend to be a beauty queen, comedy queen, spooky queen, club kid, or anything else, you’ll need to invest time and funds in learning how to use, wear, and apply some combination of the following:
- High heels
- Body padding and prosthetics
All of this gear can be expensive, so the thriftier you can be and the more skilled you are at creating your own looks, the better. San Diego–based queen Glitz Glam says that a custom-made costume runs from the hundreds to the thousands, noting that in the early days, ensembles were made from “whatever I could get off the rack…. If you were lucky, you got some cute hand-me-downs; we call them drag droppings.”
Basic wigs start around $100, and human-hair wigs cost thousands. Makeup alone can cost you several thousand dollars per year.
YouTube is your friend for helping you transform into a fierce queen. Start by looking up your favorite drag performers and watching their hair and makeup tutorials. Then, build your skills and fine-tune your persona until you feel good about your progress.
Now the time has come to actually leave your house. “If you’re in a city with a drag scene, go to the shows and watch the queens in your community,” says Lady Camden, who took second place on “Drag Race” Season 14. “Start by going out of drag, then maybe in drag when you feel more confident. Support the queens, get to know them, introduce yourself, and express your interest in performing. Be eager and excited and supportive—while being respectful—and let them get to know you.”
If you don’t live in a community that welcomes and encourages drag, social media can be a great place to get started. “Build your presence online—it doesn’t have to be huge—and then reach out to drag queens in the nearest city and ask questions,” Lady Camden adds. “If they don’t have the power to book you for their own show, they might know someone who does. I think as long as you have a great attitude, you’re not an asshole, and you try hard, make an effort, learn your lines, and show up on time—the basic professional principles—people will continue to book you.”
If you live in Tennessee or one of the other states passing anti-drag performance laws, be sure to keep your safety in mind.
Ah, the age-old question: What do drag queens do with their junk? Who better to spill the piping-hot tea on this process than the tucking oracle herself, “Drag Race All Stars” Season 4 co-winner Trinity the Tuck?
“Without being too graphic, you will need at least three pieces of duct tape—or what I prefer, which is clear vinyl tape, because it has more stretch and is more comfortable,” she advises.
“So before you hit puberty, your testicles sit in a pocket; and when you hit puberty and they come out, the pocket is still there,” she continues. “You have to put them back where they were. Then, pull back your penis and use your first piece of tape down the middle, right where your pubic area is, and pull back to above your butt crack. Some people use tissue between the tape and skin so it doesn’t rip the skin. Then you are going to follow with one piece of tape on either side so it creates a V shape, pulling everything back and taping it.”
Trinity the Tuck likes to use a gaff, an item “which is basically like a sturdy thong, as it supports everything and keeps it held back so you don’t have to worry about slippage.” How painful is it? “It depends how experienced you are,” she says.
“The thing with tucking is you do want to be careful, because you can hurt yourself. For example, you could twist a testicle. Sitting for a while after you’re tucked can be uncomfortable. But I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’m used to it. There’s not much discomfort, usually,” she says.
Probably the most commonly held misconception about drag queens is that they have to be cisgender queer men who cross-dress to impersonate women. While this may have been true a few decades ago, it’s no longer the case. In recent years, both assigned female at birth (AFAB) individuals and trans women have become increasingly visible and revered as drag performers.
“There are a lot of questions about whether cisgender women and trans women or trans men can be involved in drag. But if you look at the actual drag community, it’s not a question,” says Miz Cracker. “I think it’s important for women to feel comfortable being drag queens, because for the queer community and so many communities, drag is a way to feel beautiful, powerful, and seen. If you don’t believe women deserve to feel those things, I think the problem is with you and not the performer.”
The days when drag queens appeared almost exclusively during the wee hours as part of the LGBTQ+ nightlife scene—and at drag brunches—are long gone. These days, they show up in Hollywood blockbusters, music videos, commercials, and TV shows. They can be found performing at and hosting everything from private parties to Pride parades, and even sports and corporate events.
The skills of a well-rounded queen may include:
- Public speaking
- Styling and fashion sense
- Hair and makeup skills
- Singing and/or lip-syncing
- Comedy and improv chops
“A great drag queen needs the ability to fall down and get up again and again and again,” says Miz Cracker. “The word is ‘tenacity.’ ”
As for the minimum skill set required, she says you need to “bring something to the party. Be beautiful, be funny, dance, or have incredible costumes. The key to drag is to make people happy and spread joy to the world. If you’re not funny, can’t dance, and can’t perform but you create a makeup look that someone sees on Instagram and is like, ‘That’s so beautiful,’ then you’ve brought some beauty into the world. And if you’re ugly as sin but can make people laugh, you’ve done your job. So find what you love, and make it what you’re good at.”
Once you’ve spent some time developing your concept and aesthetic in the privacy of your own home, you may want to try serving it to an audience. While the social media age has spawned a lot of “bedroom queens” who prefer to create content from home, most drag queens reach an audience by finding a local bar in which to perform.
“Go to the little drag bars, especially on a random day of the week like a Monday, when you know the queens would appreciate some support,” says Lady Camden. “Go to those shows, and tip them to show your appreciation and admiration.”
She suggests eventually approaching a local drag queen who runs a show that has an alternating cast and asking if you can perform.
“One piece of advice I would give is to offer a free tip spot,” she says. “Be like, ‘Hey, I’ve never performed before. I’m looking for my first opportunity. can I please perform for you and do a pop-up number for free?’ ”
For aspiring queens living in smaller towns and other areas where there’s no local scene, building a following on social media is your best bet.
“You really want to invest in Instagram and have content there, including video content of you performing,” says Trinity the Tuck. “Before social media, where I’m from in Alabama, you had to do pageants and talent shows. Nowadays, it’s easier.
“If you’re not a well-known queen, you have to put yourself out there, and Instagram is essentially your portfolio,” she continues. “Then what you want to do is contact different venues and promoters and be like, ‘Hey, my name is so-and-so. I’ve been doing drag for this amount of time. I would love to come to your venue and perform. My fee is this; here are some of my clips.’ ”
“RuPaul's Drag Race” Courtesy VH1
Some of the biggest stars of “Drag Race” can earn several thousand per gig—not to mention money from side hustles like modeling, makeup lines, and motels. But this isn’t true for the vast majority of working drag queens.
Miz Cracker says that prospective queens should be driven by something other than money. “Some of the greatest queens in the world are not ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ queens,” she says. “They are hardworking queens who represent their city, do six shows a week, and make a living off fees and tips, and they are the foundation of the drag community.”
In some regions of the U.S., local queens might make less than $50 a show. In a place like New York City, that number may start at about $150, plus tips ranging from $100 to $1,000.
“If you don’t love drag, you’re going to be very angry all the time—because it’s not a cash cow. So just make sure you love it,” says Miz Cracker. “Even at the top end of the scale, there are people earning astronomical amounts of money and also spending astronomical amounts on their drag.”
“I don’t think any queen, even if they are just starting out, should be accepting less than $100—because drag is expensive!” Trinity says—a sentiment echoed in “Drag: The Musical’s” aptly titled song “Drag Is Expensive.” “The fees some of the clubs are paying local queens are outrageous,” she adds. “Even if you’re just starting out, $100 is not even going to cover a wig, shoes, a costume, and your makeup. I think a fee for a local queen who’s established should be no less than $250.”
Kathy Hutchins/Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock.com
The following drag performers represent different eras of the art form and hail from across the gender spectrum.
- RuPaul Charles: A TV persona, recording artist, and model, RuPaul skyrocketed to fame in the 1990s and is best known as the creator and host of the multiple Emmy-award–winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
- Lady Bunny: A DJ, actor, and comedian, Lady Bunny is the co-creator of New York City’s legendary Wigstock festival and a longtime friend of RuPaul’s.
- Miss Coco Peru: An actor and comedian, Miss Coco Peru has appeared in movies including “Wigstock: The Movie,” “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” and “Girls Will Be Girls.”
- Bianca Del Rio: The winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 6, Bianca Del Rio is arguably the show’s most successful top finisher. Her one-woman show “It’s Jester Joke” famously sold out London’s Wembley Arena and New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2019.
- Shangela: A contestant on “Drag Race” Seasons 2 and 3, as well as “Drag Race All Stars” Season 3, Shangela’s acting career includes appearances on “Community,” “Broad City,” “Glee,” and “The X-Files,” as well as in “A Star Is Born.”
- Peppermint: A recording artist, actor, and activist, Peppermint was the runner-up of “Drag Race” Season 9. She was also the first contestant to enter the competition as an out transgender woman. Later, she starred in the Go-Go’s Broadway musical “Head Over Heels.”
- Trixie Mattel: A contestant on “Drag Race” Season 7 and winner of “Drag Race All Stars” Season 3, Trixie Mattel is the most-followed “Ru Girl,” with 3.5 million followers on Instagram. She’s also a recording artist and comedian.
- Alaska Thunderfuck: An author and activist, Alaska Thunderfuck was a finalist on “Drag Race” Season 5 and the winner of “Drag Race All Stars” Season 2. She co-hosts the successful Race Chaser With Alaska & Willam podcast. She also co-founded the Moguls of Media podcast network alongside fellow “Drag Race” alum Willam.
- Gottmik: A finalist on “Drag Race” Season 13, Gottmik is the first out transgender man to compete in any of the “Drag Race” franchises.
- Victoria Scone: A contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race UK” Season 3, Victoria Scone is the first cisgender female contestant—and lesbian—to compete in any of the “Drag Race” franchises.
- Maddy Morphosis: A contestant on “Drag Race” Season 14, Maddy Morphosis is the first cisgender heterosexual man to compete in any of the “Drag Race” franchises.
- Pabllo Vittar: A Brazilian drag performer and recording artist, Pabllo Vittar has a huge social media following (12.6 million on Instagram). She became internationally famous in 2015 when her music video “Open Bar” reached 1 million views on YouTube in less than four months.
- Vander Von Odd: A filmmaker and visual artist, Vander Von Odd won the inaugural season of “The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula.”