Part 2: Parody, Realness, and Tales from the First Drag Con

Signs direct fans to the convention
Convention goers avoid confusion by following the pink signs

I arrived at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Saturday morning at 10:45, nearly an hour after the official start time, and made a beeline for the 11am panel “First Ladies of Disco: The Stories Behind the Hits.” The room was set up with about 300 folding chairs though only a third were filled and mostly with white, middle-aged gay men.  No attendees appeared to be in drag though heads turned when a few shirtless, bikini bottom clad go-go boys sauntered in midway through the panel.  For 45 minutes, disco queens Martha Wash and Linda Clifford talked with moderator Keith Caulfield about their hit songs and told a few stories from their careers.  Martha Wash swears that when she was singing with Sylvester at Studio 54 she saw some wild things going on in the back rooms but never stopped to participate and instead walked straight out the backdoor after performing.  Ms. Clifford, on the other hand, alluded to indulging in a little 70s decadence but she wasn’t telling any tales.

After the panel ended and as I made my way to the exhibition hall, I nearly collided with drag queen Sharon Needles who was trying to escape a minor mob of fans—the first of two times that day I caught her mid-escape and yet failed to ask her for a photo.  The truth is, my first day at Drag Con I felt shy about talking to the queens.  Puzzling coyness for someone who loves talking to strangers and has been a lifelong drag appreciator. 

Sharon Needles
Sharon Needles, Drag Race winner of season 4

One early drag morsel came to me courtesy of the Rolling Stones.  As a child I passed countless afternoons on the floor in front of the stereo listening to and gazing at my mom’s Some Girls album.  I loved their disco-rock-bluesy sound and everything about the album artwork: from the reproduction 50s bullet bra ads on the back to the more compelling pullout sleeve and wig ads on the front.  The LP sleeve was color-blocked and interspersed with ugly black and white portraits of each band member.  Crude red lines were drawn over their lips so they seemed to be wearing lipstick and interspersed was text that read, “PARDON OUR APPEARANCE.”  When the inner sleeve was fit into the outer sleeve, the wig ads’ cutout faces put each band member into a different wig.  For a moderately bored child, there was pleasure in moving the sleeve in and out to give Mick Jagger, say, a curly updo or a long flip.  Beneath each wig was either the wig’s name—“Afro,” “Georgie Girl,” “Boy-Cut”—or a song title, “Beast of Burden,” “When the Whip Comes Down.”  If little else, I understood that they were mocking themselves in some way.  According to the songs’ lyrics they seemed to like girls a lot—so much that they wanted to dress like them even though that was not supposed to be ok.  Yet somehow it was ok because they were the Stones and this was self-mockery.  I didn’t think about it very much.  I only knew that I enjoyed observing and participating in their transformation.

Some Girls
Some Girls, released in 1978

The Some Girls album cover certainly doesn’t represent the high caliber drag that the Stones would have known from hanging out at Studio 54.  Undoubtedly if they had enlisted their drag queen associates to help them achieve a more glamorous effect, their appearance would have been highly disconcerting to mainstream fans.  By maintaining masculine aspects they preserve gender difference and remain seemingly, safely heterosexual regardless of their notorious sexual hijinks.  Yet the album artwork does retain drag’s parodic spirit. 

Some Girls—the song and the album cover art—mocks stereotypes of “some girls.”  “English girls, they’re so prissy.” “Black girls just want to get fucked all night.”  “Chinese girls, they’re so gentle.”  While feminists criticized “Some Girls” for being sexist when the song was released in 1978, the Stones insisted they were mocking ethnic, racial, and national stereotypes of women.  The self-mocking album art parodying hyper feminine dress trappings seems to support their defense.  By putting themselves in drag, however crudely, the Stones highlight what is socially constructed about being a woman.  The outer album sleeve with its old-fashioned wig and bra ads signal that being a conventionally desirable woman requires tremendous effort in dressing.  Slide the sleeve in and out and even the Stones can be “some girls.”  They’re men, they’re women, they’re men in drag.  They transform and play with ambiguities.  They unsettle and I like it. 

Yet watching drag on TV, at a live performance, or looking at drag on an album cover is not quite the same thing as bumping into a well-known drag queen whose 6 inch heels and 10 inch hair make her tower over everyone in the room.  And if that drag queen is Sharon Needles, she’s shouting like a sailor on shore leave as she clings to a man at her side so she doesn’t topple over in her heels.  Of course I was shy when I bumped into her at Drag Con.  She was awe inspiring to behold and not just because it’s unusual to see a drag queen before noon.

Ivy Winters in her booth
Ivy Winters sells her handicrafts at Drag Con

Sharon Needles was not the only queen I crossed paths with at Drag Con.  Many of the queens were recognizable from RuPaul’s Drag Race and they either had booths—as Ivy Winters did where she sold tote bags she had screen printed herself—or they participated in other ways.  The wittier queens, such as Trixie Mattel and Willam, were on panels while others sat at tables providing autographs and photo opportunities.  Non-Drag Race queens also attended Drag Con but there were far fewer than I had thought would be present.  These queens dressed across the glamour spectrum from elaborate costumes with balloon animal embellishments to simpler drag day looks.  Wigs, make-up, clothes, heels—all affect how one moves, feels, and engages with the world.  Several glamorous non-Drag Race queens understood that this was an opportunity to shine and blocked entire aisles posing in the subjunctive—that is, posing as if a hoard of people were begging to photograph them.  By enacting fame they made it a reality, even if only for a few moments.  People stopped to stare and appreciate their glamour.  I had seen this technique before on Bourbon Street during Halloween 2009.  A queen comes to a halt, begins to pose, and engages a fortuitous breeze to perform hair-ography and glamour.  The crowd clears a circle for her and she gazes through the people as they snap photos.

Bourbon Street queen (2009)
Hair-ography and glamour on Bourbon Street (Halloween, 2009)

Queen in the exhibit hall
A queen needs space

Some queens at Drag Con were more “on” in their dressed performances than others.  Sharon Needles was one of those hyper “on” queens.  She moved surrounded by an invisible electric performance barrier that, paired with her appearance, made her terrifying to approach.  Her trailing mob hung back 10 feet—near enough to see and yet far enough away to take in the full spectacle.  I observed only one fan run up and ask for a selfie with her, which she obliged all the while remaining in character.  It is this intangible quality that made Sharon Needles a shoe-in for Drag Race Queen in season 4.  While Sharon doesn’t have the aloof glamour of say, Gia Gunn, she does set herself at a vast distance from the audience through her performance.  As she walked through the convention center she remained in character and so what I stumbled upon—both times—was an improvised show.  I could not bring myself to disrupt her performance and very likely I would not have achieved the goal I have when talking to strangers.  I am a connector, which means I love finding something in a stranger that I can relate to; finding a way to peer into their soul.  Despite what you may have heard, Sharon Needles has a soul but she wasn’t baring it at Drag Con.



Check back soon for the next installment of “Parody, Realness, and Tales from the First Drag Con.”


Read Part 1 here:


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