If you were stranded on a desert island and had just one book to read—and that book was “Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business”—your stay could be longer than that of Gilligan, the other six castaways, and that guy from “Cast Away” put together—and you’d never lose your appetite for the candid interviews, fabulous factoids, and keen insights assembled by writer, performer, and Sirius XM Satellite Radio host Frank DeCaro, who does his thing with all the dot-connecting intensity of a dogged anthropologist.
At 144 pages worth of lovingly crafted layouts, 100 story-unto-themselves photos (some of them from the queens’ personal collections), and contributions by the likes of Lypsinka, Bianca Del Rio, Hedda Lettuce, Harvey Fierstein, and Wesley Snipes, DeCaro’s “Drag” is, as the foreword by Bruce Vilanch fittingly puts it, “a living, pulsing documentation of some of the most brilliant subculture artists in America’s cultural history.”
“I’m ‘Drag Hag #1.’ I’ve been a fan of drag since I was a kid,” DeCaro says, “and have followed the careers of many of the most important players of the 20th century, whose ‘work clothes’ were those of the opposite sex.”
Work on the project began “almost five years ago,” he says, “and I kind of shaped it in a way that was encyclopedic, but also lighthearted.”
“Encyclopedic” is right. DeCaro originally pitched his dizzyingly comprehensive tome as “Dragapedia Americana.” The name might not have stuck, but the ethos remains firmly intact.
Drag, it seems, is everywhere today—but, as DeCaro notes, it’s been here “since man first walked the Earth… in heels.”
And so it goes with “Drag,” which draws a chronologically sound (albeit not-so-straight) line from ancient Greece to Shakespeare to Kabuki theater to the vaudeville and nightclub circuits to 1970s variety shows to NYC’s gritty Pyramid Club to the works of Charles-es Busch, Ludlam, and Pierce to Bugs Bunny to Lady Bunny to Madea—and ends up in a world where a little show called “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has seen the art form embraced as it has been so many times before, but now, finally allows the men behind the makeup to exist as both person and persona.
“We cannot give enough credit to ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ for what it’s managed to do,” DeCaro says, “for the ‘normalization,’ if you will, of drag. It’s gotten it in front of people, yes, but it’s done it in a way that’s more profound. RuPaul has shown that drag performers can have families. They can have relationships with their parents, their siblings, lovers, bosses. They can have truthful lives, as much as anyone else can, and I think that’s the most revolutionary, or ‘RuVolutionary’ thing about ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ ”
It wasn’t always that way.
“Although in many towns a man could be arrested for impersonating a woman,” the tome recalls, “most every city had at least one club that featured cross-dressers and managed to get away with it.”
Club management might have found a way around strict community standards, but the performing artists weren’t so lucky.
“There are many stories in the book,” DeCaro says, “about how dangerous it was to be a drag queen, how you had to keep your drag in a trash bag and sneak it into where you were going to play, and make sure you were dressed as a man when you left.”
As for the slow and steady progress toward mass acceptance, mass media brought drag into America’s living rooms (see Chapter 6’s ode to Milton Berle), but cross-dressing as practiced by “Uncle Miltie” (“TV’s first drag superstar… heterosexual by almost all accounts,” DeCaro notes), “was pure comedy.”
Berle was a standalone superstar in his own right, whereas some of TV’s true drag queens “were not allowed to be whole people. They had to have no sexuality,” DeCaro recalls. “They had to whip their wig off at the end, to make sure you weren’t too titillated, or faked out completely. You had to know, ‘Yes, this is a man. Cool your jets.’” But now, DeCaro proudly points out, “we can see two drag queens have an affair on television, with Miss Vanjie and Brooke-Lynn Hytes [Season 11,”RuPaul’s Drag Race”]. Nobody’s ever seen that before.”
And it’s here that DeCaro manages to pull off a particularly nimble act of public education-meets-pop-culture-appreciation, by putting the personal struggles and artistic integrity of 20th century drag performers into the wheelhouses of contemporary audiences—who can name the winner of every “Drag Race” season, but don’t necessarily know somebody like Jim Bailey, who, DeCaro notes, “was as good of a female impersonator as anyone will ever be, but he had to call himself a ‘gender illusionist’ and he ‘dated’ Lucie Arnez back in the day. He had to do the Liberace approach, where there was no truth to the offstage life. It had to be made palatable and safe. So that, to me, is a real cautionary tale.”
Fans of all ages were eating up those tales, and more, when DeCaro moderated a May 26 panel at RuPaul’s DragCon LA, in which James St. James, Leslie Jordan, Drew Droege, and Coco Peru discussed drag past and present, with no small amount of attention focused on the ongoing quest for authentic portrayals.
In the audience were, DeCaro notes, “actual drag performers who’ve been doing their glorious thing for ages—Larry ‘Hot Chocolate’ Edwards, the best Tina Turner impersonator in the business, Dolores DeLuce, a cisgender woman who’d performed with The Cockettes, and the beautiful Reba Areba, Miss Best in Drag 2018.”
Alongside those who were spring chickens when The Cockettes first took to the stage, young fans in attendance, DeCaro says, “were hungry to hear about the oppression performers faced back in the day, and how they managed to overcome it. They wanted to know how we got to a place where drag is truly mainstream.”
DeCaro’s “Drag” takes you to that place, and beyond—and for as much as it spends time shining a light on trailblazers, it also lavishes attention upon contemporary voices, whose mainstream visibility has worldwide reach. In Chapter 2, for example, revealing Q&As with veteran performers Rick Skye (Liza) and Steven Brinberg (Barbra) bookend an equally insightful page from Derrick Barry (Britney).
“I think the most exciting thing about drag right now,” DeCaro says, when asked to put a fitting coda on his conversation with the Blade, “is that it’s this all-you-can-eat buffet, and every flavor is represented—whether it’s a man in his late ’80s [Darcelle XV, of Portland], who is doing his thing and looking fantastic in sequins, or a kid like Desmond Is Amazing, who’s 11 years old, and is the fiercest little kid you’ve ever met in your life, doing drag, and being invited to walk the runways of the New York collections.”
Drag these days means you can, DeCaro happily notes, be “any gender and perform as any alter ego. You can be a biologically cisgender female, and be a drag queen. Or you can be a woman dressed as a man, and be a drag king, or you can be a trans performer who’s also a drag queen on top of that. I think that the key to enjoying it now is to think of it as this giant party that we’re all invited to.”