Part 4: Parody, Realness, and Tales from the First Drag Con

Late Saturday afternoon found me bleary eyed and dumbly stumbling upon a photo opportunity with RuPaul (out of drag).  The professionally photographed event was not cheap but I figured, anything for Ru-search, right?

So began Waiting for RuPaul.  First there was waiting to be photographed and then waiting to pick up my color print, which reflected just how bad the exhibit hall’s unflattering florescent overhead lights really were.  A souvenir Ru-and-you photo where we appeared recently embalmed was worth the wait.  Not so much because I now have evidence of us standing side by side, but because the waiting gave me opportunities to talk with fans.  Standing in the first line I found myself directly behind a tall, willowy bespectacled woman in her twenties with pink and bleached blonde spiky hair.  The self-described Oakland-based bisexual polyamorous, punk rock, stage manager for a wrestling group told me that she had been a RuPaul fan for ages.  She proudly showed me a hand drawn RuPaul inspired promotional wrestling poster that she planned to ask Ru to sign when she met him in the curtained photo area.  She and her partner had driven down from the Bay Area to attend Drag Con.  Nearby, an unobtrusive looking fan in his thirties gushed about seeing RuPaul for the first time on VH1.  Throughout the weekend and several days later at the RuPaul’s Drag Race Season Finale taping, every fan I spoke to had a testimonial story—a story about the magic they experienced the first time they saw RuPaul on TV or a story that demonstrated their loyalty such as driving from Las Vegas to attend Drag Con as two women in the Latrice Royale autograph line told me they had done that morning.  While longevity as a fan gives one a certain amount of bragging rights—“I was a fan before Drag Race was a show”—Drag Con and its related parties, events, and media provide opportunities for even novitiates to demonstrate their dedication.

Me and RuPaul at Drag Con

Several days later during Waiting for RuPaul: The Sequel, I stood in a downtown LA line that slithered around two city block corners from the Orpheum Theater’s entrance.  Standing with other ticketholders to the live taping of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season Finale, I had 45 minutes to get to know the two women in front of me who said they had driven up from Long Beach to attend.  The younger woman, scarcely in her twenties, told me she had begun to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race this season when her friend recommended the program.  She told me that after seeing several episodes she was hooked and that in under a week’s time she had binge watched all episodes from the preceding six seasons.  As we discussed which of the three queens we hoped would win and which queen we thought would win—there was no consensus on who we were rooting for but we all agreed that Violet Chachki was likely to win—the young woman shared her thoughts on Ginger Minj’s personality.  She assured me that editing for RuPaul’s Drag Race made Ginger Minj seem meaner than she really is.  As an avid viewer of Untucked, a “behind-the-scenes” web-based after-show that promises juicy extras about the queens, the woman said there is evidence that Ginger is actually a sweetheart despite her snarky comments on Drag Race.  Though this woman has only been watching Drag Race for several months, she has done the research to have additional information about Ginger giving her greater fan credibility.  As she pointed out, even her companion who had been watching the show for years had never seen Untucked

Haus of Edwards photo booth
Alternative photo opportunities at the Haus of Edwards booth

World of Wonder broadcasts several web-based programs to complement RuPaul’s Drag Race.  In so doing, they create opportunities for fans to learn more about the competing queens.  Whatcha Packin’ hosted by Michelle Visage, for example, puts the Drag Race judge in the eliminated queen’s hotel room where for 4 minutes they talk about what the queen would have worn were she not eliminated and chat generally about the competition.  In addition to Whatcha Packin’, there’s Drag Center hosted by Pandora Boxx, which recaps each episode.

Fans go wild for Willam
Fans go wild when Willam shows up late, pizza box in hand, to sign autographs

As a recent Forbes magazine article pointed out, RuPaul knows how to build a brand.  With web-based series, books, podcasts, music, souvenirs, and now Drag Con, RuPaul understands the importance of creating multiple opportunities for fans to become involved.  Many such opportunities require the outlay of cash but not all, which Forbes writer Jackie Huba notes is key for building consumer loyalty.  For example, during season 7, RuPaul launched a free smart phone application, the RuPaul’s Drag Race keyboard, which allows fans to send Drag Race-related gifs and images.  Huba admires RuPaul’s entrepreneurial savvy and holds it up as, if you will, a supermodel of how to succeed in business. 

Katy and Jujube puppets
The line to meet Katya was one of the longest but there was no waiting for puppet Katya and puppet Jujube

While the Drag Con exhibit hall featured more than 100 vendors selling everything from youth rejuvenating skin cream to breast plates, the most significant thing for sale was utterly intangible: an experience.  Indeed it was the experience of seeing queens in person and having an opportunity to talk to them that fed fans’ quasi-religious testimonials.  Standing near the autograph tables on Sunday I met one young woman who was attending Drag Con with her mother.  She told me that she had waited in line for three hours in order to meet three of her favorite queens and to get their autographs.  She did not volunteer which queens she had waited to meet.  What she emphasized to me was the waiting.  A willingness to wait three hours validates her status as a dedicated fan.  While she no doubt will treasure the signed program as cultural artifact, the experience is one she can revisit by talking with other fans.  When she and hundreds of others wait in line for three hours, they have opportunities to bond and to exchange stories and observations.  Each morsel of shared insight is a testimonial and a reaffirmation of their own “realness” as fans even if they themselves are not drag queens. 

Latrice Royale with fans
Latrice Royale meets her fans

Drag emphasizes what is performed and constructed about social categories.  It mimics and parodies those categories and creates opportunities for people to release tension and to negotiate ambivalent feelings they might have about restrictive pigeonholing that defines their lives.  Most of the people I observed waiting in the long lines encircling the exhibit hall were not in ostentatious drag of any kind.  They could have been anyone in any shopping mall in any town in the US.  Like any such “con,” Drag Con is oriented towards earning money for its organizers and vendors.  Yet it also reinforces for its participants a sense of community and belonging.  The wait is less about achieving a goal than it is about sharing a moment with other people.

Catch up on tales from Drag Con:


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