A musical based on the movie that humanised the female impersonator, it’s the latest work to commodify the drag queen for the masses. With YouTube tutorials showing us how to craft the perfectly-painted face and TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race exposing the tricks of the trade, what do the old hands think about the drag scene in Ireland today?
“I can’t tell them apart,” Shirley Temple Bar says, referring to the current crop of ‘baby’ drags. “They all want to look like Britney, doing slut drops in their spiky heels. Drag performance isn’t just about sticking yourself in ladies clothes and putting a wig on. A lot more artistic thought goes into it.”
Shirley is inundated with requests to appear in her show in Dublin pub, The George. “If they can’t hold the crowd, I have to work twice as hard to get them back,” he warns.
Things were easier starting out for Shirley. Ireland had decriminalised homosexuality just a few years previously, there were precious few other drag artists on the scene and certainly no one thought you could make a career out of it. But with almost 50 kings and queens trying to plough their furrow in the drag field today, acts need to do more than look the part.
“I didn’t say boo to a goose when I started,” says Bunny, 25, who ran the Hutch, a sort of open-mic night for drag artists in Panti Bar in Dublin. “Nowadays baby drags have an opinion and don’t necessarily want to learn. They come as if they are fully formed thinking, ‘I’m the fiercest thing in the room,’ believing that gets them more attention, bitching and fighting amongst themselves. But you need people to like you and to want to have you around backstage.”
Once the wow-factor caused by their appearance fades, acts need to have something to back it up. The internet and social media are skewing the learning process. Instead of slowly earning their dues and observing their predecessors, baby drags are hailed for their appearance automatically and develop a sense of entitlement that often doesn’t translate on stage. “They’re like battery chickens,” says Phil T Gorgeous (32), a drag king for 10 years. “They are nurtured in the wrong way. They turn up with a crowd of people telling them they are fabulous and swan out with a super-inflated ego.”
Phil compares working on the drag scene to being a commercial artist. “It can suck the fun out of it. In order to keep a weekly gig you have to work your ass off. I’m never not learning lyrics. I listen to the one song on repeat for five hours until it becomes second nature. If you don’t know it inside and out, the theatricality of what you are doing is lost. You look like you are trying to remember your lyrics instead of focusing your attention on the audience.”
Phil watches videos of performances to see what areas of his transformation need to be worked upon. “I had to put in the time in front of the mirror learning to round my shoulders to make myself more masculine and to pay attention to ensure I wasn’t limp wristed.”
Davina Devine, 28, is among the hardest working drag queens in the business. “I performed for free at first for exposure,” says Davina, who took every opportunity that presented itself, from standing around at weddings to wiping down punters at foam parties. Davina now runs a competition, Davina’s Apprentice, where the winner gets the opportunity to have regular gigs. Phil T was Davina’s first success story and Limerick’s Candy Warhol, 21, is the big new star.
“When I started, every one thought I was really extreme because I was literally thrown off the stage at the Alternative Miss Ireland [AMI],” Candy says. “They would constantly ask what I was doing next which resulted in me eating hearts, getting covered in blood, becoming a big scary weirdo.”
Davina says he teaches them about the business aspects of the drag world. “There’s a boring side to this job. We keep track of receipts and pay our taxes.”
Shirley says he hasn’t seen anyone emerge in the past five years who could sustain a career beyond the gay scene. “One thing I loathe is new drag queens thinking they are being original because they found something someone else did online. It’s like they forget every other person in the bar has the internet as well. Only talented, unique people break their way through.”
Shirley was involved in the AMI towards its final years of existence and believes her association with the event lead to its dilution.
“When it started it was all crazy art students. But when we won and became successful afterwards it became homogenised, it lost its underground soul to wannabe drags wanting to have the careers we have.
“You are of no value unless you have an original act.”
* Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, until Oct 26