The cheek, the nerve, the gall, the audacity and the GUMPTION: Exploring the iconic drag performers of 21st century Britain

Jack Dradey

We have now arrived at the 21st century, which is the last century we are exploring the topic of British drag culture.

Unlike the rest of the centuries, the 21st century is not over yet, and we’ve only been living in it for a short amount of time. However, drag culture has flourished beautifully! So far in this century we have seen a massive acceleration in the evolution of British drag. 21st century drag has shifted many social norms and has made itself as visible as ever. The increase of social media and television has put drag culture in the public eye more than ever, leading to a massive fan base but also more controversy. This article you be able to see how British drag has made its way into mainstream media focusing on programmes such as ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’. Also mentioning how homophobic and anti-drag attitudes have impacted British drag. At the end of the article, you will be able to read some words of wisdom from drag icon Big Liz. In the 21st century, drag has transcended from being this little niche subculture that was only mainly in underground venues and bars to being an integral part of mainstream entertainment and culture. Television shows such as ‘Drag SOS’, ‘Queens for the Night’ and ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ have placed the art of drag into millions of homes up and down that nation. ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ has shown the nation the diverse range of British Drag Queens. Shows like Drag Race UK have seen a multitude of queens some who specialise in lip syncing, comedy, singing and dancing. But a pivotal part of these shows is giving opportunities to many drag performers. We have seen on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ queens from all different walks of life, including transgender queens such as Dakota Schiffer, Non-binary queens such as Bimini Bon Boulash and Ginny Lemon (who was also on X-Factor UK in 2017 and their performance of Just A Little was an iconic piece of television) and also AFAB queens like Victoria Scone. Some queens discuss coming from a strict religious background or sharing their stories of growing up black and gay. Last year contestant Cherry Valentine of Drag Race UK series two sadly passed away, Cherry Valentine shared her story about growing up in the traveller community in Darlington, she was a fierce queen and will be greatly missed. Having drag performers like Cherry Valentine on television gives them a huge platform to share their stories and educate viewers on elements of drag and LGBTQIA+ topics. A key moment that stuck out to me was in Series 3 drag queen Charity Kase spoke out about her diagnosis of HIV and her journey going through the stigma still related to HIV despite being undetectable. This alongside Cheddar Gorgeous’s ‘Tickled Pink’ look on Series 4 where she wore an outfit with pink triangles which was a symbol used in Nazi Germany to identify homosexual men and was later adopted by the LGBTQIA+ community in the 70s and use in the ‘Act Up’ movement which does a lot of work to help those who are/were suffering with HIV and AIDs during the AIDs crisis of the later 20th century. By using their platforms whether that’s on television or via social media drag performers are showing the nation and the world how much work society has to do to better itself for queer artists. Back in series 1 of the show Davina De Campo spoke out against homophobia in Britain and said, ‘Your belief is a belief, my existence is a reality.’.
The cheek, the nerve, the gall, the audacity and the GUMPTION: Exploring the iconic drag performers of 21st century Britain
RuPaul's Drag Race

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The cheek, the nerve, the gall, the audacity and the GUMPTION: Exploring the iconic drag performers of 21st century Britain

Drag has been a key part of global news recently.

Over in the United States drag queens participate in drag queen story hour where they dress up in drag and read a book to a group of children, this was designed to show inclusivity and diversity whilst also promoting reading to young children. However, a wave of right-wing protests started to occur, and many states want to get drag queen story hour banned and children attending drag shows banned. The effect in America is quite similar in Britain. Back in December 2022 a drag queen story time in Dundee was cancelled due to protests and in February this year people were protesting about drag queen story time in the Tate Modern. However, it’s not all bad news as last year a drag queen story hour in Cardiff was funded by the Welsh government, though it will still disapproved by some angry parents it is a step in the right direction and hopefully other countries around the world will stop being so small minded and realise that is a positive activity and it is literally just a drag queen reading a kids book not a full on burlesque show. Nevertheless, contemporary drag performances show the diverse range of drag that Britain possess. From classic drag queens and kings to the avant-garde performance artists. The wide range of drag artists that you might see on television or at drag club nights or even at drag brunch that has bottomless prosecco from 12-2 for you and your besties to guzzle down, shows the public that there are so much more types of drag than just the classic drag queens these could include bio queens or non-binary artists etc. The drag king group Pecs have taken the 21st century by storm, they are an all-female/non-binary cabaret company who focus on political topics through the median of dance, songs, comedy and so much more. From this vast range of drag styles and forms of inclusivity, drag artists are changing the nations understanding of gender, identity, and sexuality. Many drag artists could be heterosexual or lesbian or AFAB, modern day drag is starting to change the stereotype of drag being for homosexual men. This speaks volume to so many individuals especially the younger generation who are advocating for more representation in society. However, drag isn’t the only thing that has evolved the use of technology and social media has been a drag artists best friend. Drag artists have used social media as a platform to speak out about certain topics and used it for LGBTQIA+ activism. Some drag artists even use their social media to teach drag or show what the process of getting into drag is like. Drag Queen Rude Velvet is one of many that uses her TikTok account with 135,000 followers to film get ready with me videos and tests new products and puts them to the test to see if it’s useful for drag makeup. This is probably the biggest difference from 20th century drag, as social media was non-existent back then. Though social media has been a massive asset to the drag community in sharing certain topics near and dear to their hearts, it does come with the negative side such as trolling and hate comments. However, this doesn’t stop them from standing up for themselves and being authentically themselves.
Ancestry UK

I spoke with the iconic London based drag queen Big Liz

I spoke with the iconic London based drag queen Big Liz (you can find and follow her on Instagram @biglizabeth) who describes herself as ‘A voluptuous queen with hysterical wit, the voice of an angel and very aggressive stretch marks’. I asked her ‘In your own words describe what is at the heart of drag culture today and why is it so important to have drag in the society we are currently living in?’ and her response was ‘If I’m honest being in the drag scene at the moment is quite scary. I’ve been doing drag for nearly two years now, so not long, but I’ve already seen a change in atmosphere. Drag is being used at the moment as a distraction tactic by the conservatives and it’s putting us in the firing line. Their shortcomings in running this country have been exposed in the wake of the pandemic so in an attempt to get re-elected they’ve started a culture war. Throwing the age old homophobic narrative that queer individuals (in this instance drag performers) are predators. It’s horrendous and it can be really scary to just walk to a gig in full face because of this. A friend of mine and fellow drag performer, That Girl, has seen her drag story time protested by the far right, who’ve also created a smear campaign against her full of lies! It’s unacceptable!’ she goes on to say ‘That being said, what is evident in this situation is the sense of community in the LGBTQ+ community! We will rally together and stand up to these awful people because we have to! Now more than ever it’s so important to show the younger generation that you don’t have to put up with arseholes that will deny your existence! Drag is joy! That’s all it had ever been it’s a performance, its makeup, it’s a look, it’s a song, its laughter, it’s tears- it’s whatever you want it to be! Drag is freedom expression which is what the conservatives are terrified of.’ And she finished with ‘Expression of oneself should be encouraged, NEVER suppressed!’. I think this really sums up the highs and lows of drag in the 21st century, drag is joy like Big Liz said but drag culture is being threatened by right wing views that clearly have no idea what they are talking about in their boring suits and plain ties. I remember seeing Big Liz perform at my student union at university back last year and she shows the joy of drag when performing and she ATE UP THAT STAGE and we were all living. This concludes my article about British drag culture in the 21st century and as we can see its been a journey, we started in Elizabethan England with drag queens being classed as someone who was an actor and played a female roll, we’ve looked at the raid of Mother Clap’s house in the 18th century and the fierce drag kings of the 19th century, with soldiers doing drag shows during World War Two and to now with drag being a global phenomenon and on so many screens across Britain. I wanted to end this series of articles by echoing what Big Liz has said drag is joy, drag is fun it is an escape from reality but can also help us face reality. If you have a problem with drag queens or kings, then please educate yourself cause not being a fan of drag is sooo 17th century. But as pride month is over and pride events are coming to an end remember to spread love and support your local drag artists. Finally, in the wise words of Bimini Bon Boulash ‘you just got have a PMA…a positive mental attitude’.
The cheek, the nerve, the gall, the audacity and the GUMPTION: Exploring the iconic drag performers of 21st century Britain
The cheek, the nerve, the gall, the audacity and the GUMPTION: Exploring the iconic drag performers of 21st century Britain

Jack Dradey

Hello, my name is Jack and I’m currently studying History at Royal Holloway University of London. My interests include medieval history and fashion history. I am the writer of a historic fashion blog called Historic Fashionista. I enjoy investigating parts of history and the changes of continuities of certain periods. When I’m not up to my neck in essays and books I am normally found in museums finding out new information…or you’ll find me in the museum gift shop looking for a new tote bag.
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