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Dragging the Mainstream: RuPaul's Drag Race and Moving Drag Practices Between the USA and the UK'

Parslow, Joe (2020) Dragging the Mainstream: RuPaul's Drag Race and Moving Drag Practices Between the USA and the UK'. In: Contemporary Drag Practices and Performers Drag in a Changing Scene Volume 1. Methuen Drama Engage, 1 . Bloomsbury Publishing, London, pp. 19-31. ISBN 9781350082946

Abstract

In the wake of the ever-growing popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race (Logo TV, 2009), an American television series in which drag performers compete for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar, drag is increasingly considered in homogenised forms across national and international boundaries. Alongside this programme, the increase of the presence of drag performers on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has meant that access to drag and drag performance is increasingly available outside of venues in which the performances occur, whilst the presence of make-up tutorials on YouTube allows those interested to practice the aesthetics of drag from the safety of their bedrooms without stepping heel on stage. Furthermore, it is often argued by established drag performers in the UK that younger performers only learn their drag via Drag Race, not through local drag traditions or more individuated exchanges between performers.

Beyond a simple binary of British and American (or “drag race”) drag, this chapter explores the ways in which drag performance is a form that is usually learnt, rehearsed and developed on stage in front of an audience. In order to explore this, this chapter will consider a particular London-based drag competition, Not Another Drag Competition, as a semi-formal mode of learning drag. The competition takes place in Her Upstairs, a venue in Camden, London, known for producing drag, cabaret and burlesque performance events. It proceeds over a period of 10 weeks, with each week being framed around a particular challenge that allows performers to explore tropes of drag performance including lip syncing, live vocals and celebrity impersonation. This competition is one of a number of competitions across London and beyond, and is knowingly derivative of Drag Race, whilst maintaining a set of localised references and practices specific not only to the geographic area, but also often to the venue itself.

Discourses on the contemporary British drag scene either paint Drag Race as the saviour or nadir of drag; it has either revitalised a stagnant field of entertainment, or turned all drag into an “American” form of that ignores UK practices and histories. Taking the time to consider with more care the agency of younger and/or newer performers, this chapter explores how this mainstream manifestation of drag, and the contemporary drag competitions it has facilitated, might work to produce alternative forms of drag training which still place performance and performing as the first term. Working from performance as a place of both doing and learning drag, this chapter argues that the mainstream and the local emerge at the level of the performers’ bodies in problematic and productive ways.

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