The artistry of student drag

On the 6th December 2018, YouTube dropped their annual rewind video, and one of the many things they paid homage to was “the fierce, fabulous and empowering art of drag”. The video went on to become the site’s most disliked ever, but the fact that such a mainstream media behemoth decided that drag was one of the pop-culture highlights of last year still speaks volumes. Ten years ago it would have barely been a blip on the radar.

Drag has its most basic origins in classical theatre, where male actors dressed up to play women’s roles, and over the centuries it grew and evolved, making a reappearance in American Vaudeville during the early 20th century and the Pantomime. It became linked to the LGBTQ+ community in the 1930’s and went on to explode into the 80’s with the underground Ballroom Culture in New York. Today’s A-list Drag Queens are glossy, flawlessly made up, global superstars. Iconic drag artist RuPaul has a net worth of $16 million, drag queen Sasha Velour has over 1 million Instagram followers, and Bianca Del Rio is an artist who has toured everywhere from Sweden to South Africa and Singapore. All these queens had to have started somewhere.

Cork based drag queen Candy Warhol first put on drag during her college years as part of an art project

Student Unions and societies in colleges, universities and ITs in many countries have started staging drag competitions and drag events, with Ireland being no different. UCD, DCU, DIT, NUIG, Trinity College, and UCC have all hosted drag events in recent years, often with the aim of fundraising for charity. These events have given young up-and-coming drag queens a chance to strut their stuff and perfect their art and there are plenty of performers making waves. Cork based drag queen, Candy Warhol first put on drag during her college years as part of an art project, and now she runs drag makeup masterclasses and was named the ‘Big New Star Of Drag’ by the Irish Examiner. Her counterparts include queens such as Liam Bee and Mia Gold. All these are younger artists that showcase bold, experimental looks that are a far cry from the more classically feminine old-school queens, with their impressive padding and 50’s style glam. The new generation’s style was perfectly exemplified by their presence in 2017 at the NUA Fashion and Awards show, which was created by Warhol herself with an emphasis on independent designers.

So what’s the scene like for artists that are just emerging? A.E. Quinn was responsible for hosting UCD’s Drag for Life this March, which raised money for cancer research. They’re confident in the future of the campus’ rising drag scene and “how inclusive on gender diversity we are in terms of the types of performers we showcase”. Drag for Life not only showcased queens, but also Drag Kings, non-binary queens, and BioQueens (Cis women who perform feminine drag). For Quinn, drag is about inclusivity, community and heritage, and they stress how important it is to “give artists a creative outlet and space to grow.”

Val Myles is another student drag queen that values creativity, saying that the most important thing that performers can do is “be true to themselves and find out who they are as an artist”. Kai Donohoe is a twenty year old non-binary performer who cites RuPaul’s Emmy winning reality TV show Drag Race as the reason for the ‘skyrocket’ in student drag shows across Ireland. According to Donohoe, “young people are encouraged and have so much support from other young drag queens.”

gigs  in bars  and clubs  are difficult  to come by and  the old guard can  be dismissive of new talent

Despite all this, there are significant challenges to being a student drag queen. For Quinn, Donohoe and Myles they are respectively: money, time, and exposure. Money and time are the obvious ones, as any college attendee will tell you. Paying for cosmetics, wigs, and costumes on a part-time salary requires imagination and thriftiness. Devoting time to your art between studying, attending classes, handing in assignments and holding a job requires dedication. Getting real-world exposure may be the hardest, gigs in bars and clubs are difficult to come by and the old guard can be dismissive of new talent. Myles points out that people with connections may have an “unfair advantage.” Ultimately though it seems inevitable that the new generation of drag performers will complete their steady course to the top. Drag is about pushing boundaries and breaking rules, and the student drag artists of Ireland are doing just that.