The United Queendom: A Survey of British Drag

“UK drag is drag in its punkest form”: Tom Rasmussen explores the queens and scenes of contemporary British drag

This article is part of a series on that coincides with LGBT History Month, shining a light on different facets of queer culture. Head here for more.

Drag. Have you heard of it? Have you read about it? Or watched a little-known, largely problematic TV show about it?

Drag. It seems to have exploded into popular consciousness. At least, a very narrow conception of it has. It’s the classic Malcolm Gladwell ‘Tipping Point’ scenario: it’s started by early adopters (and by early, we’re talking varied histories of hundreds, if not thousands, of years), it gains popularity, and then all of a sudden there’s a straight white man looking at your nails and saying ‘yaaaas queen’ on the Central Line.

But as with any climb in consciousness, often the nuances of this now popular thing are lost. The world now has an idea that drag is somewhat American, hugely capitalist, and a competitive sport in which we’re all fighting to win $100k and send our sister home.

But this isn’t the drag I know, or the drag so many people who actually live inside the drag world know. And so we decided to take a look around the UK, to see what the landscape of drag looks like today, from the people who are thick in the mud of it.

It felt natural to at first go north, where I’m from, to the home of popular, perhaps more mainstream, UK drag: Funny Girls in Blackpool. “Drag in Blackpool is at times a little too old fashioned,” Mercedes and Scarlett, two of their premier performers told me. “That being said, Blackpool drag is fabulously diverse and really showcases the best kind of performers. When compared to other cities, Blackpool has an overall feel of show business, being ‘the Vegas of the North,’ there’s sequins and feathers galore. Cities like Manchester and London definitely have an edgier feel with a more Klub Kid style.”

Mercedes is known for her dancing, and Funny Girls is exactly as she describes: it’s showgirls, and comedy queens – ones which hark to the tradition of drag as entertainment, as a showbiz arena. “Drag has played a big part in the UK entertainment business for years,” the pair continue. “Pantomimes are such a massive British tradition that have been running since the dawn of time and almost always have a fabulously extravagant dame with too much makeup skipping about in garish costumes. Also, queens like Lily Savage and Dame Edna Everage have had their own shows on national TV watched by thousands – the UK love drag!”

Naturally there’s a big love of Lily and Edna where I come from because what these queens had in common were a drag inspired by working-class women, the women everyone grew up with: mums, dinner ladies, the bingo callers with a cigarette always lit.

In terms of geographical radicalism, the idea of getting into a dress and heels somewhere like where I grew up – in Lancaster, or Blackpool – remains a huge act of bravery. It’s a different system to say a London queer scene, one which breeds an even more wide-spanning array of drag performers, where putting on heels might not be seen as a radical act at all.

Back in London, I spoke with some of the scene’s most radical artists. This isn’t to decree that Funny Girls isn’t radical in context, but in London good drag is inherently tied in with both creating safe space and critiquing systems of oppression, as well as taking a much more punk slant. It’s not necessarily always about the performance of gender, instead about questioning what gender actually is, and exploring intersectional identities which surround that.

“UK drag is drag in its punkest form,” the brilliant Chiyo tells me, known far and wide for creating the amazing ‘WOOF: Redefining Sexy’ – a neo-burlesque and drag smut night that platforms bodies that have never been the symbol of sex and appeal in the mainstream media. “I think AFAB [assigned female at birth] bodies taking up space, black and brown bodies creating events to showcase themselves, and radical young hearts trying to start a revolution to platform those who often get underrepresented. The UK drag scene is throbbing with the future of drag – but not the future that will be represented on Drag Race.”

“UK drag is drag in its punkest form... The UK drag scene is throbbing with the future of drag – but not the future that will be represented on Drag Race” – Chiyo

Chiyo is a breathtaking performer, and works unbelievably hard to create spaces and nights to platform those less heard on the often cis white male-dominated drag scene. I ask them where the future of drag is: “Dare I say it, in London. I do genuinely believe the London drag scene is one of the best drag scenes in the world. I’ve seen work that has left me heartbroken, in awe, gagged, in love, mind-fucked, all within one show! I think we need to look at the souls who are openly opposing mainstream drag platforms and pay attention to the alternative measures they’re taking to platform themselves. It’s inspiring. The frontiers of drag are at WOOF. The Cocoa Butter Club. The Bitten Peach, etc. These platforms showcasing the minority have to work harder, so we do.”

In London, the best drag is the kind which actively strives to lift up minority voices within the queer community, as Chiyo explains. This is where the most radical, warm, powerful, edifying spaces grow – and while these performers of course look fucking iconic, the focus is on what is being said.

“The epitome of UK drag for me is queer cabaret performance where, yes there’s drag involved in it, but it’s not necessarily drag queens,” scene veteran and icon ShayShay explains – one of the performers who started The Bitten Peach, a ‘world of queer, Asian cabaret’, as well as the notorious ShayShay Show. “Of course this is from my east London queer bubble perspective,” they continue, “but I think it’s those spaces where more classic cabaret could happen, but these more punky genderfuck things occur. So, nights like Bar Wotever, but also the classic earlier days of Sink The Pink when it was a crazy dress up genderfuck party. Those kind of defined what I thought of as UK drag – more punky in a way, more queer, more gender fluid.”

Is the difference between the drag we see on TV and drag in real life hugely different? I ask.

“The classic earlier days of Sink The Pink defined what I thought of as UK drag – more punky in a way, more queer, more gender fluid” – ShayShay

“The commercial forms of drag people think about are lip-syncing; they think about rhinestones, big hair, big body. When the reality is when you’re a full-time drag performer, a lot of that doesn’t matter at all,” ShayShay adds. “Very, very rarely with people who work a lot, [do they] lip-sync a lot. I think that most drag performers who work a lot only lip-sync partially. It’s a lot of hosting, a lot of talking. And really big hair and big body – maybe that’s an element for some people’s drag, but it’s not a part of everyone’s. Maybe people who view drag from a distance, who see it on TV and stuff, see it really, really quite far from what it’s actually like.”

So there are endless new frontiers of drag. For many, like me, it’s in these incredible spaces made possible by performers like ShayShay and Chiyo. For a group like Pecs – a London-based drag king collective, whose show SEX SEX MEN MEN just started at the Yard Theatre (to rave reviews, I must add), they think that the new frontiers of drag exist in unlikely places. “Like schools and in workplaces,” Pecs’ Temi Wilkey explains. “I think the revolution against gender binaries will be fought, not only on our stages, but in the quotidian places that people go to every day. Pecs often run workshops for people who want to explore drag and we’ve been talking a lot about how we’d like to go into schools and encourage the possibility of exploring gender, to challenge the way young people are socialised into gender roles from an early age. We’d also love to go to workplaces and encourage women and non-binaries to take up more space, when they’d like to, within their places of work. I don’t think people should ever feel like they have to be more masculine to ‘get ahead’ under the brutal system of capitalism – but I do think that everyone should and could learn more about their own personal masculine and feminine traits and employ them more often in their everyday lives.”

Speaking with these performers, something that becomes clear is that their intentions are to change the world for good, to power people up, to make it safer and to show the gifts of those of us who are gender non-conforming, trans, queer or people of colour.

I really wanted to know what drag was like in other big cities: so I spoke with DragPunk, a Birmingham Drag Collective. “Birmingham has a young history of more modern drag. It has had a few really wonderful more cabaret performers for years, and in the last half decade there’s been a massive growth of people doing drag for the sake of it, more lip-sync based. Coming out in drag, and pushing and creating performance spaces has been a fun modern trend. It’s very raw, grassroots and very diverse. The scene isn’t huge but is larger than most places, and that’s very fortunate. Smaller areas, and regions, may simply have nowhere for people to go and do drag, see drag, all due to a lack of LGBTQ+ venues, let alone the safe space and forward-looking ones they actually need. Each bigger city does vary though, with its own drag and queer scene ecosystem. The commonality may be a that there are more new, younger people demanding more progressive thinking, inclusivity and influence over the venues which for the most part are run by middle-aged cis men who can often be stuck in their ways. Scenes will die if they don’t adapt to change.”

“Each bigger city does vary though, with its own drag and queer scene ecosystem. The commonality may be a that there are more new, younger people demanding more progressive thinking, inclusivity and influence” – DragPunk

“Outside of London there is a great connectedness,” DragPunk continue. “People really do venture from town to town, city to city, region to region, both attendees and drag artists. The degrees of separation are few. London does seem an isolated city, with its fragmented scene spread about, and a bit of a notorious rat race – reflecting the city itself – of people trying to succeed and survive. Outside of it, there’s a more unifying presence I’ve found between larger city and regional outposts, which hopefully allows the LGBTQ+ people on the frontline of homophobia and bigotry in the small local towns, to have some link to modernity and survival.”

I wonder if that’s a safety issue, one of leaving a safe space you’ve worked so hard to create. Of course there are political differences between big cities and regional places, and performers like Chiyo have experienced both the fear and the brilliance of drag both in and away from the capital. “Every time I leave London to perform, I am petrified. I have had all of my most traumatising gigs outside of London: Blackpool, Leeds, etc,” Chiyo tells me. “But the further I progress in my career, the more knowledge people have of my work, the better my reception is when I leave the capital. Now, I’m doing some of my best work outside of London because there are events like Brizzle Boiz (Bristol), Andro and Eve (Sheffield), Fever (Norwich), and OxPHWOARd (Oxford) doing the labour in these cities/towns to ensure there’s a safe space for queer art.”

I decided to reach out to a friend in Oxford, who started a student night called Haute Mess. They are keen to point out that an Oxford student body isn’t perhaps representative of what UK drag looks like, but institutions like this are filled with draconian people who – while they might be loaded and posh – they’re also homophobic and transphobic. “I think Oxford drag doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you look at all the amazing events that are put on, S.P.U.D.S, OxPHWOARd, The DragProv Revue, Lady B’s Karaoke and, naturally, Haute Mess, they are all very inclusive, irreverent and dare I say, messy. As a relatively young drag scene, Oxford is still very much a place of cultivation. Many of the nights and events here encourage fresh engagement with new performers and new punters with a plethora of new opportunities. There’s a lot of potential in the city and I’m really excited to see where it grows. I think the next step for drag in Oxford is to incorporate more activism into the events here. I am super proud of the scene and there is so much untapped talent, but we could definitely do more politically as a community. Especially with its growing popularity in the city, the drag scene has the potential to have great political mobility.”

Political mobility. That’s really the thing that stands out across the board. Whether that’s the politics of wearing a dress and heels in a working-class town – something which might seem basic in a scene like London – or whether it’s empowering communities to speak, the UK drag scene (which is far more expansive than that profiled here) is much further reaching than one might initially think. So how can you best engage with UK drag? That’s a question a lot of us are asked.

“This is where the best drag exists – on our stages, in bars and theatres, where you can catch a far better show than anything on TV”

And the answer is to support your local drag performers: be that in London, be that in Lancaster. Pay for tickets, tip where you can, and promote both the messages and absorb the politics of what you’re seeing. As RuPaul’s Drag Race enters the UK, a lot of us feel worried about the sides of UK drag that will be erased by a show based in ideals so far away from what UK drag is about.

Something that all of the people I spoke with seem to agree on about the UK drag scene first is that it’s diverse, and it ranges from showgirls to radical punk spaces for queer people of colour. This is where the best drag exists – on our stages, in bars and theatres, where you can catch a far better show than anything on TV.