Apart from cult stars such as Danny La Rue, Divine and Doris Fish, drag queens have been mostly sidelined in mainstream culture.
As the world celebrates Pride this summer, it is worth noting the important role of drag in the fight for LGBT+ rights. They were at the heart of New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969 and have been involved in political activism for decades. They helped transform London’s nightlife and spurred on a new generation of gender-fluid icons, from David Bowie to Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
In recent years, drag has taken a more prominent place in popular culture and even some brands have begun using drag queens in their campaigns. In a year when some critics have questioned corporate involvement in Pride, the same question can be applied to drag. Is drag in advertising a step forward for the wider LGBT+ community or is it just a form of corporate pinkwashing?
"There’s nothing worse than seeing big brands slap a rainbow flag on their logo for Pride," Irish drag queen Annie Pics said.
First toying with drag at art college, Pics went on to perform with the London club kids at Sink the Pink, balancing gigs as a DJ and RuPaul's Drag Race-themed podcast host. Fresh off the back of this year’s Lipsync1000 contest, in which she finished fourth out of 20 performers, Pics talked to Campaign about LGBT+ representation in advertising.
"When I was growing up, the only representation I had of queer people in media were secondary characters – the butt of jokes and screaming desexualised stereotypes," Pics said. "The representation of drag queens, gender-queer and trans women were all muddled together as some kind of vague perversion, with no understanding of the vast differences between these categories. So the fact that drag queens are now successful enough and considered glamorous is amazing."
That shift was initiated by RuPaul Charles, creator of hit TV series RuPaul's Drag Race. After infiltrating New York’s bustling club scene with his single Supermodel (You Better Work), Charles began to slowly build an empire of fresh-faced drag queens ready to tackle the mainstream media.
Thanks to the efforts of Charles (now affectionately known by many in the circle as "Mama Ru"), drag has flourished from a parody act to a well-respected art form. Drag Race has run for 11 seasons, winning 10 Emmy Awards and earning a British spin-off that is set to air later this year.
Drag Race's popularity has caught the attention of marketers, as seen in an ad launced by Three this month, starring Drag Race alumnus and LGBT+ figurehead Nina West. Kicking the clip off by calling Three "the best network for data… and finding strange men online", West playfully talks through tips for online dating, from sleazy chat-up lines to measuring your aubergine (or, as West insists on calling it, an "eggplant"). Three's film, released in time for Pride, was filled to the brim with drag-isms and bouts of toilet humour.
Three hailed West as a "perfect fit" for the ad. A spokesperson explained: "We are proud to connect people to people, and people to things they love. We don’t intend to play a specific role in drag culture and the wider LGBT+ community – we are continually looking at a wide range of interests and encourage our staff and customers to embrace what and who they love.
"We believe in supporting our LGBT+ customers and staff every day – not just for Pride – to allow them to express who they are at all times."
The spot had a wider impact since it was launched in partnership with the Attitude Magazine Foundation, which used a range of campaigns to raise money for LGBT+ charities during Pride celebrations.
Another positive example of drag representation in advertising was US travel company Orbitz's "Get out of town" campaign in 2017, created by Bark Bark. Celebrating the frills of Broadway, the musical spot featured drag queens Miss Richfield 1981 (The Tonight Show with Jay Leno) and Bianca Del Rio – the first drag queen to headline Wembley Arena.
The campaign won six awards for queer representation, including a gold Telly Award.
Despite this success, Bark Bark founder Brian Tolleson cautioned brands from being too quick to jump on the drag bandwagon.
"There is a lot of confusion, even among LGBT+ people, of the representation of trans people as a whole. We have to be careful that as we celebrate drag queens in our culture that we’re also making room at the table for trans members of the community," Tolleson said.
"If you don’t have an authentic commitment to the LGBT+ community already, it’s very easy to draw criticism and confusion. And I think working with a brand that doesn’t already have that commitment to the community could create some challenges towards LGBT+, and particularly trans, representations."
"Trans people are the ones really suffering at the moment," Ibiza drag queen Raven Mandella concurred. Born in Leeds, Mandella grew up wearing his mum’s shoes before becoming an understudy for a local drag queen. Working as a professional dancer, Raven combined his passions to become one of White Island’s most-respected drag queens.
Currently working as a brand ambassador for drag queen-centric Glitterbox nightclub in Ibiza, Mandella has seen his fair share of time in front of the camera. However, he is aware of inconsistencies in the ways different members of the LGBT+ community are represented in the mainstream media.
"We have this and that – we’re on TV, we’re working with brands – but what about the people who suffer just for walking down the street? That would be more worth putting on the face of campaigns – shining a light on these people and showing the world they deserve to exist," he said.
Therein lies the tightrope walk of LGBT+ representation in campaigns. While some drag queens are happy to show off their skills on the small screen – at the end of our interview, Pics signed off by saying "Bring on the branding: Annie Pics for Tesco Express" – others are more critical of the dangers of pinkwashing, or marketing strategies that appeal to gay-friendliness to be perceived as more tolerant or progressive.
Mandella, for one, said he would call out an agency that did not deliver on its commitments to the LGBT+ community.
"It’s not just about campaigns and being a sign of the times – you have to be an active part of our community," he explained. "We need to know you’re an ally to make sure your campaign is not just a play for Pride season. You earn that respect."
Likewise, while Tolleson admitted that it’s "fun and empowering" to see drag queens presented in the right light, he warned brands to be careful not to make a misstep in their depiction of LGBT+ members.
"You have to be a brand that has a larger commitment to the LGBT+ community before you jump in to drag," he said. "You need to have proven that you have a larger commitment to the community if you are going to leverage and, in some ways, appropriate traditions in our culture."