Wigging out: why drag is bigger and wilder than ever at Edinburgh

It used to be that just wearing a dress and lip-syncing was enough. But now drag is mainstream, the bar for this most creative and transgressive art form has been raised

It’s Friday night at the Edinburgh fringe. Artists are running all over town, weaving around drunk punters and through flooded streets to make their guest spots. In full drag is me, dragging a tent through the rain, my wig swiftly uncurling. I arrive 15 minutes before I am supposed to go on stage, as a guest in someone else’s show. Up there already is a comedian reading from a yellow piece of paper. Next up, a man walks on stage and reads from a white piece of paper. Then it’s my turn: while using two audience volunteers, I spend four minutes erecting a tent while altering the lyrics to a popular ballad, singing live, ad-libbing jokes, wearing a full face of makeup, heels and a wig, all while reinterpreting Susan Sontag’s wondrous (and perhaps problematic) Notes on Camp. All in a day’s work for a drag queen in 2019.

When I started drag 10 years ago, the act of raiding your local Primark (without a care in the world for the impending meteorological apocalypse) and sticking on a dress and a plastic wig was deemed radical. Although this practice had existed for hundreds of years – not the Primark bit, but the transgressing gender through dress bit – barely anyone had seen it before. But now, after a stiff cocktail of RuPaul’s Drag Race, social media and the increased acceptance of gender fluidity, there are countless queens out there with more followers than Jeremy Corbyn. Drag is everything the internet could want: colourful, uplifting, funny, beautiful, political, and the key to a wholly different way of life. And so, with more interest came more drag. And naturally, with more drag came higher expectations.

Crystal Rasmussen Edinburgh 2019
‘It has become complicated to know what’s expected of us’ … Crystal Rasmussen Photograph: PR

So, as queers have had to for centuries, we evolved: we went multi-genre. Genre-fluid, perhaps. Now there are drag performers who can do everything. I know drag artists who can do backflips while singing, who can sew a whole wardrobe, lip-sync the house down, gather entire communities in rural areas together and change people’s minds. Not to blow my own horn, but I can also make you laugh and cry and – as two people have told me this week – pack an emotional punch while also making you feel kind of turned on, all while hitting almost every note in Minnie Riperton’s perfect Loving You.

A friend of mine, the brilliant queen Ginger Johnson, who is at the fringe with her show Happy Place, attributes the increasing performance dexterity we now see in drag to our widening cultural diet. “Drag has always been a pastiche of mainstream contemporary culture,” Ginger explains. “Digital life has seen that mainstream broaden, so drag has had to do the same. I think there are also just a lot more queens around than there used to be, which is bringing a lot more cultural influences into the art form. And that can only be a good thing.” Being asked to broaden our practice is no bad thing: it makes our performances richer and more textured.

But it also becomes somewhat complicated to know what’s expected of us, too. Spellbinding drag prinx and scene legend Chiyo says they often turn up to gigs and aren’t sure what they should be offering. “Last week I almost did two upbeat, almost nude burlesque numbers to a room of five people in prime daylight in Brighton. It wasn’t until I actually got to the space that I realised they probably wanted me to do an artist talk and/or some spoken word.”

We must ask why have expectations for us been raised, when expectations for the dominant voices in entertainment – for example those two boys with their pieces of paper – remain the same.

Ginger Johnson, appearing at the fringe with Happy Place.
‘Drag has always been a pastiche of mainstream contemporary culture’ … Ginger Johnson, appearing at the fringe with Happy Place. Photograph: PR

Jodi Mitchell, or John Travulva depending on the time of day, is a brilliant drag king and standup who is co-founder of the side-splitting collective The LOL Word. “Every time I perform standup in drag, I have to dissect ‘the point’ of my set – whether there is one or not. Audience members sometimes invent excellent ones for me. I suspect this is because, subconsciously, they know that without there being a message, the point of the performance would just be that I am funny. It would be far too empowering for a non-binary person dressed as a man to just be funny, like male standups are. That would be truly terrifying.”

Of course, people who are single-genre should be celebrated for absolutely killing it in their chosen space, especially if they’re really bloody good, but I want to endlessly fanfare the brilliance of queens, kings, prinxs, inbetweeners who get up there and give us, literally, everything. Those who stand up on stage and subvert gender stereotypes, deconstruct power systems through jokes, mine their trauma, cover it in glitter, sing a cappella, all while doing a dance routine with a death drop. These people don’t simply comment on what they see, they offer entirely new ways of seeing it – and that’s real magic.

Now I don’t want to be a standup. I love the creativity and means of expression drag offers us. But often it can feel like all this skill is filed under “drag” and then chucked in a basement somewhere. But drag performers are stars, deeply skilled at many things because they have to be. It would be so wonderful for that to be celebrated by more than just a yasss queen.

  • Crystal Rasmussen presents The Bible 2 (Plus a Cure for Shame, Violence, Betrayal and Athlete’s Foot) Live! is at the Underbelly, Edinburgh, until 25 August

Crystal Rasmussen

The GuardianTramp

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