Drag in the UK has an interesting history. Despite Britain perpetuating a rather homophobic culture throughout the 20th century, many queer icons and drag queens especially were celebrated on TV namely Lily Savage and Danny La Rue.
In the 2000s and 2010s however, drag in mainstream British culture went fairly quiet, reserved for comedians adopting drag personas in skits such as in Little Britain. However, drag queens themselves weren’t generally celebrities in their own right.
RuPaul’s drag race is without a doubt what brought drag to the western mainstream in the 21st century. The show launched in the US in 2009 and started to pick up mainstream attention around 2015, mostly thanks to Netflix broadcasting it internationally. The show then launched a UK spin off in 2019 which has created several British drag race stars who are now celebrated both in and outside of the drag scene from model and fashion icon Bimini Bon Boulash to comedy queen Baga Chips and TV hostesses The Vivenne and Cheryl Hole, the UK – both its queer and heterosexual population – are going gaga for drag.
This move into the mainstream for drag has inevitably had ripple effects on the creative industry from more daring, body confidant and genderless outfits to extra glamourous and transformative makeup looks.
Makeup is particularly notable with drag culture encouraging the makeup industry to wave goodbye to the 2010s preferred ‘no makeup makeup look’ which, although flattering, often made many women feel they couldn’t step outside without looking naturally flawless. Drag, on the other hand, is about subversion even in makeup: it is an ally to self-expression, making fun of yourself, impersonating who you can’t be out of drag. And in that sense, drag’s effect on makeup encourages liberation.
Drag queens have even collaborated with makeup brands – take Alexis Stone’s palette collaboration with Revolution – thus bringing bolder, genderless and transformative makeup to the masses.
Makeup artists, models, dancers, stylists and designers in the UK creative scene are being inspired by this current upsurgence in drag culture to push the boundaries of their art in a way that embraces gender fluidity, expression and transformative potential.
While RuPaul’s drag race UK has launched drag into mainstream creative industries and pushed more visible brands this is not to discredit the hard work and ongoing bravery of the underground drag community which has existed for years in the UK. If it wasn’t for the exciting ongoing age-old activities of Britain’s queer community, there would be no launchpad for the BBC to jump on in bringing drag to the mainstream. It is to these unnamed artists we owe much of this artistic freedom, not to mention the trans women who often inspire and propel much of drag culture’s vernacular and aesthetic.