Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage… Drag, which has completely taken over the world as we know it.
Thanks to RuPaul and his Emmy award-winning series RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag queens are now more popular, visible, and marketable than ever. Where only a few years ago, you’d only be able to see queens in gay bars, they’re now all but unavoidable in mainstream media, and probably in the city you live in as well.
While there is no one way for someone to be a drag performer, the art of drag is inseparable from makeup. There is no better place to see drag’s indelible mark on culture than the aisles of your favorite beauty retailer.
It’s easy to feel like drag was birthed with the premiere season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but gender impersonation has been present in almost every part of recorded human history, including ancient Egypt, China, and Greece. In Shakespearian times, women were not allowed on stage, so men were forced to wear women’s clothing and play their roles. Even on the vaudeville stages, men performed as women frequently.
Drag is often thought of simply as men dressing up as women, but drag has evolved past the idea of female impersonation into larger-than-life characters that transcend and defy gender, age, and sometimes gravity. RuPaul put it best when he said “I don’t dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen!”
After over ten years on the air, RuPaul’s Drag Race has introduced an entire generation to not only drag, but the infinite possibilities of makeup.
The Evolution Of Modern Drag
Many queens originally had to resort to using stage makeup in order to get the bright, vibrant shades they needed to help them transform into their drag personas. Today, we’re lucky to find what is essentially drag makeup in drugstore aisles.
“I think as drag became more mainstream people started to really embrace color,” drag veteran Sherry Vine says. “Not that it was the first time we saw bright vibrant colors in makeup (YSL of the 70’s!), but now you frequently see bright colors purples and oranges and pinks — I love it!”
With today’s access to YouTube and social media, you’ll have a hard time finding someone who hasn’t looked up a beauty tutorial to figure out how to apply makeup. But before beauty fans had digital how-tos at their fingertips, queens had to learn from each other in the back rooms of bars before they hit the stage.
“Now we have tutorials on YouTube, but back in prehistoric times we learned from watching others and practicing,” Sherry says. “I remember Candis Cayne teaching me how to line my lips over and over again.”
Drag’s Influence On Mainstream Beauty
Take one look at television ratings and social media engagement and you’ll see that drag queens have followings that rival pop stars. Because of this, drag techniques are being adopted into mainstream beauty in both overt and subtle ways.
Monét X Change, winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 4, explains, “Much like fashion, drag is very influential in the beauty industry. I’ve worked with so many designers and makeup artists that say that celebrities are bringing Drag Race pictures for inspo!”
Willam, a multi-hyphenate performer who appeared on season four of Drag Race before continuing her career in television, music, and movies — including appearing in A Star Is Born alongside Lady Gaga — sees drag in people’s makeup every day. “Women have started wearing lashes way more now, and I think that that’s definitely due to drag queens and showgirls. The everyday woman wants to feel more of that glam in her day-to-day too.”
Peppermint, runner-up on season nine and the first out trans woman to originate a role on Broadway says, “Drag definitely has relevance in modern conventional beauty practices. Theories like contouring and highlighting have found a new significance in everyday beauty, especially lashes and lace front wigs.”
Willam adds, “Drag has always been at the forefront of pushing the limits to what people did with makeup, injectables, and images from top to toes. Drag Queens are the trendsetters.”
Drag & Popular Culture
Drag can be seen throughout contemporary pop culture as often as it can on a stage at a gay bar: in the often-referenced contour on Kim Kardashian, the cut crease on Megan Thee Stallion, the draped blush on Doja Cat, the overlined lip on Kacey Musgraves.
“I mean the Kardashians and Real Housewives wear just as much much as the average drag queen,” says Willam. “Makeup is makeup. Way Bandy and Kevyn Aucoin were doing to supermodels what drag queens have been doing for years. It’s just more evident now with social media and the internet being the conduit instead of just the pages of magazines.”
Drag queen and CEO of DragQueenMerch, Biblegirl, says that she sees drag as more than just the makeup. “Ultimately, I feel like any public-facing celebrity is inherently leaning towards drag. Simply having to be ‘on’ or outwardly perceived on a wide, global level is very drag to me.”
Drag and beauty don’t simply run parallel from each other. Drag increasingly impacts the beauty industry directly with queens being the faces of campaigns, brand collaborations, even launching their own brands.
Drag’s Relationship With The Beauty Industry
What started with RuPaul as the face of MAC’s Viva Glam campaign opened the door for other queens to follow in her footsteps. Brands like NYX, Lush, Anastasia Beverly Hills, Huda Beauty have all collaborated with or featured drag queens in campaigns. Queens like Willam, Kim Chi, Trixie Mattel, and Miss Fame have all started successful beauty brands of their own.
Biblegirl even notes brands have been including queens in PR mailers and paid media campaigns of product launches, like in the case of Sunday Riley, which is working with Shea Couleé, Gia Gunn, and Gigi Goode. “I think beauty brands are influenced by drag even outside of makeup and style. It has also proven a successful branding and marketing tool. I’d be remiss in not acknowledging the boom of inclusion of drag personalities being the faces of beauty brand launch PR rollouts.”
While drag is characterized by full coverage complexion and heavy contours, Gen Z has been focused more on “no-makeup makeup,” clean skin, and more pared-back beauty. Since a lot of drag’s audience is now part of Gen Z, does the clean skin trend ever find its way into drag? Bob the Drag Queen, winner of season eight, thinks so. “For sure. There was a big moment when drag was influenced by neutrals and browns, and wet hair was a huge thing for a while. There’s a lot of intersection between the drag and beauty world.”
Drag & Social Media Influence
Thanks to Instagram and YouTube, consumers and influencers now have the power to create trends and dictate what is cool and relevant, and a queen’s influence can be felt as soon as a new photo is posted.
Naomi Smalls, who appeared on season eight as well as All Star 4, knows firsthand how posting on social media can start a new beauty trend. “With the world of social media, there are drag performers who can leave a huge styling impact by just posting a selfie. That mug, look, or wig can end up on a mood board for an upcoming pop diva or runway show. Everyone wants to be bold when filming a music video or stage performance, so it only makes sense to pull from drag.”
Drag & Black Culture
In the same way that drag influences beauty, fashion, and pop culture, Black culture has been affecting, and really, creating beauty, fashion, and pop culture for even longer. Pop culture constantly steals from Black culture, without credit — does drag take from Black culture in the same way?
“Drag culture is Black culture. I’m a drag queen and I’m Black,” Bob says. “There seems to be this insinuation that queerness and Blackness cannot be the same thing. They’re not mutually exclusive. Sometimes they are mutual, but not always exclusive. …I think sometimes it is Black culture and drag culture at the same time. Black culture and drag culture are not completely different things.
Monét X Change, who co-hosts a podcast with Bob called Sibling Rivalry, expands on this. “There is a long history of society appropriating Black culture. They tell us not to do it, rip it from us, wear it like a costume, then they make it okay. It's a twisted cycle.”
If you’re looking for a classic trend from the Black community that has re-emerged, leave it to Monet for the tea. “Category is: baby hairs! I do know some who foolishly attribute it to drag culture, but we all know it undoubtedly is a technique popularized by the Black and brown communities in the ‘90s.”
Drag’s Influence On Modern Makeup
Drag’s influence in beauty goes even farther beyond someone recreating an iconic drag look — it is seen and felt in the techniques we use every day, the products brands are putting out to market, and the way the consumer is being spoken to, just to name a few. The influence drag has on beauty, like drag itself, is ever evolving, but in both cases, it’s not going anywhere any time soon.
As Miss Fame, contestant on season seven and an ambassador for Viktor & Rolf, explains, “Drag has forever transformed the relationship to makeup as we know it. People from all walks of life are finding a self-celebration through dramatic makeup looks and potentially liberating their human experience beyond all restrictions that they’d ever known. Drag is a celebration of identity and beyond.”
And Willam, as always, summarizes drag’s overall impact in the succinct way that only she can. “Do what you like and if it doesn’t look good, a drag queen will likely find a way to tell you.”