It’s noon on a Saturday and drag/freak queen Sharon Needles is wasting time. The sterile conference room is packed with her fans, who range from teenage to retired, from polo shirts to full drag. Needles had just burst into the room in her platinum wig and leather pencil skirt, ready to sing us something before a screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show, but her music got lost somewhere and now the staffers are scrambling to find a karaoke version on YouTube while she keeps the crowd entertained.
This isn’t hard, since Needles’ ghoulish persona pulses with wicked charisma. It’s what won her the crown on the fourth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and now, on this first morning of the first annual RuPaul’s DragCon, she has plenty to say. After taking down past Drag Race contenders and a man who dared talk over her when he showed up in khakis, Needles veers into why the show and DragCon mean something to her. “These people have proven that they have been the underdog… the welcome mat… the shitstain of gay society for years—until RuPaul gave us the opportunity to let our spirit shine.” There’s a burst of applause as Needles looks at us through her alien blue contacts, then smirks. “But the one thing RuPaul forgot to tell America is that we are cross-dressing, coke-snorting, shoplifting, boyfriend-stealing alcoholics.” At this, the applause is deafening. Chasing sincerity with twisted irreverence is exactly what Needles—and the show—became known for, and the crowd loves it.
The staffers finally get the song going and Needles slays “Sweet Transvestite” as we knew she would. When she’s told to wrap it up so they can start Rocky Horror, she just rolls her eyes. “I think they’d rather hear me than watch this movie they’ve seen a thousand times.” And she’s right. The second Needles struts out of the room, just about everyone else follows.
For the uninitiated: RuPaul’s Drag Race is the most self-aware and shamelessly silly reality competition show on television. Challenges can involve any combination of ball gowns, puppets, filthy puns, glory holes, and the Pit Crew (a group of perfectly chiseled men who stand by in the tightest underwear television will allow). The queens are judged on their Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent. If they fail to impress the judges, they have to face off against another queen in a climactic segment in which they lip synch for their lives. If they win, “chantay, [they] stay.” If they lose, they “sashay away.” It all fits in with the credo of host and supermodel-of-the-world RuPaul: “Don’t take life so seriously.”
Still, the show expects a lot from its contestants. After watching the queens tackle challenges that can focus on anything from singing, to sewing, to acting, to designing, to dancing, to impersonating celebrities in the series’ signature challenge (The “Snatch Game”), other reality competitions look downright tame. To be RuPaul’s next Drag Queen Superstar, you better work.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has a rabid following despite the limited reach of the Logo network. Its fans eat up the unabashed fun of the show, making the contestants bonafide drag celebrities once they’re off the show. The queens that stand out can expect to see their social media followers spike, their catchphrases land on shirts, and their snappy retorts gif’ed. This year, World Of Wonder and RuPaul Charles decided to test the Drag Race’s popularity by holding a two-day convention in downtown Los Angeles featuring panels, photo booths, merchandise, and many of the show’s contestants. If the 14,000 attendees from six continents is anything to go by, they just might have been onto something.
I jumped at the opportunity to cover DragCon, which says a lot, because conventions tend to give me stress hives. But I’ve loved Drag Race since the beginning, when its first “lost” season was shot on such a low budget they used a soft focus in the vain attempt to make it look better. Drag Race featured some of the biggest and most fearless personalities I’d ever seen, and continues to do so today. So I made my way down the Los Angeles Convention Center for a weekend of, as RuPaul put it in his keynote speech, “color and beauty and joy and freedom.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect, since my other convention experience is mostly limited to the behemoth monster that is San Diego’s Comic Con (again, stress hives). So I decided to keep it simple and devote Day One to wandering around the convention floor and seeing where the day took me.
I get there at 9:45, flying past the “Big Pink Box Office” to get to the main door where Ru, surrounded by his drag “children” from shows past, is cutting the ribbon to open the convention. No one but press can see a thing, but the long line snaking down the hallway and back again screams and screams, anyway.
The second I step onto the main floor of artist booths and signings and merchandise, I’m stuck in an elaborate maze that takes me hours to navigate. The invite said to get there promptly at 10 a.m. to avoid lines, but the Con’s overwhelmed at how many people followed that advice, and so that doesn’t quite pan out like they hoped. I squeeze past a dense cluster of people waiting for autographs from this season’s top-three contender Pearl and former Catwoman Julie Newmar. I pass a pre-teen girl entertaining a rapt audience by destroying a lip-synch of RuPaul’s “Sissy That Walk” and end up at the booth for Katya, who was controversially eliminated in the Drag Race episode that aired the week before the convention. She’s stunning in her signature blonde wig and Soviet-Union-inspired accessories, even as she poses for a picture by burying her face in a fan’s crotch. Her t-shirts sell out in hours; her lines will be the longest ones I’ll see all weekend. While Katya’s hands-on approach makes her popular, I’m surprised and delighted to see a sign informing attendees to respect each queen’s wishes for their personal space:
SDCC might have similar signs somewhere, but I’ve never seen them.
Because comic conventions are stuffed to the brim with people dressing up as Stormtroopers, TARDISes (TARDI?), and superheroes, I keep my eye out for people who might be cosplaying as their favorite queens from Drag Race. Instead, I face a hoard of startling and completely original costumes. Towering drag queens crowd around makeup booths. A pair of drag kings dressed as old men introduce themselves as “Gus and Demetri” and catcall the queens while twirling their gray mustaches. Teen girls push past with dip-dyed hair and platform boots. Parents in Drag Race t-shirts hold toddlers who stare wide-eyed at cotton-candy wigs. Dudes with neon beards caked in glitter pore over T-shirts while pale goth kids wrapped in black latex crane their heads to see season six’s gender-bending queen Milk, who’s holding court at her booth in a giant blazer, a snapback hat, a black glitter paint beard, and impossibly high heels.
I am so overwhelmed. I am so, so happy.
When I finally manage to get out of the crushing crowds, I flatten myself against a towering cardboard cutout of RuPaul like it’s a life raft and take out my program to scope out the panels. Any Con is a practice in making sacrifices, since all the panels you want to go to inevitably end up at the same time, or at the end of giant lines that make you miss the rest. At this point, I’ve already missed “Give Me Body,” which would teach me “how to get that curvaceous and bootyful body with the help of some hip and butt pads that can be crafted out of the foam cushions of your sofa.” A group of teenagers near me are bravely marching toward the door so they can get to Coco Peru’s panel or the “Unbeweavable Wigs” tutorial—whichever they can get, line depending. I’ve bookmarked the “Fierce Mother Tuckers” panel with Gia Gunn and Willam, who will later do a live onstage demonstration of how to tuck your balls away (hint: clear tape and a high pain tolerance).
For now, I’m tempted by the “Drag Daddies: Secrets Of Fierce Fatherhood” panel (featuring season-two winner Tyra Sanchez and season seven’s Mrs. Kasha Davis and Tempest DuJour), but the decision’s made for me when I see that Sharon Needles is hosting a screening of Rocky Horror at the same time. I once saw Needles take all her tips, throw them into a blender with ice and vodka, and drink the smoothie down in one gulp, which was—and still is—the coolest fucking thing I’d ever seen. So yeah, I’m here as a reporter, but I’m also here as a fan, and I’m helpless to resist another Needles experience.
I peel myself off Ru and start pushing my way back out. Two girls behind me in autographed shirts are trying to do the same without much luck. (Con rules are similar to zombie apocalypse rules: The more people you have to worry about, the more chance you have of going down with them.) “Oh my Goddddd, this is crazy,” one exhales, pressing on my back. “Yeah,” the other says, “but if we die, at least we die somewhere cool.”
Day Two is immediately different, since I’m joined by my roommate with a stricter schedule and a hangover with a vicious agenda. We get to the convention center right at 10 a.m. for a panel that promises to divulge secrets from Drag Race’s more intimate sister show, Untucked. It alternately airs right after Drag Race or on YouTube (where it currently lives), following the backstage drama while the judges deliberate over the final challenge. For all of Drag Race’s pun-filled shenanigans, some of the franchise’s most memorable moments actually come from the potential chaos of Untucked, when the queens get to take off their heels and have a cocktail.
I get real smug when it becomes clear I’m not the only one who wasn’t ready for 10 a.m. drag; season three’s Mimi Imfurst is the only queen onstage for almost fifteen minutes, when season four’s The Princess, Jiggly Caliente, and Phi Phi O’Hara hurry in breathless and half-awake. They talk about some of the wildest Untucked moments, whether or not contestants ever hooked up, the logistics of stashing alcohol in the couch cushions, and how they would totally do a “Big Sister House.” Mimi Imfurst takes it another step further, saying she’d be down for something like “The Simple Life meets Coven” that makes the drag queens take ordinary jobs for the day. It’s a strong pitch, and I’d be lying if I said I’m not hoping someone reads this and runs with it.
The queens then talk about how overwhelmed and amazed they are about the Con, which takes a turn into more heartfelt territory that becomes familiar throughout this last day. They all agree that the internet’s made it easier for people to throw both praise and abuse their way, and that this Con is a great way to meet people who appreciate what they do face to face. Phi Phi O’Hara is one of the most notorious contestants in Drag Race history for her ruthless game play, but is much more relaxed outside the confines of the competition. She also had one of the series’ most heart-wrenching stories when she shared that her father beat her so badly she was hospitalized. On this panel, Phi Phi opens up for the first time about how she had to take all the pictures and police records with her to the show, because her father tried to sue Drag Race for slander. Phi Phi, dressed this morning as Harley Quinn, wrings her gloved hands and stands by her decision to share that pain: “It was really important for me to get that off my chest. There are so many people who need to see someone who said, ‘It’s okay, you’re going to get through it.’” A conversation about how some queens are charging for selfies and autographs (as is typical for talent at conventions) similarly turns into a sentimental statement of gratitude. “I not for a million years would’ve dreamt that I’d be up here, in drag, talking and meeting with all of you guys,” Phi Phi says, face slack in disbelief. “For you to even want to come say hi and take pictures, means the world to me.”
We want to check out a church service (bearing the Latrice Royale-inspired subtitle “Jesus Is A Biscuit, So Let Him Sop You Up!”), but we end up sticking with the “Women Who Love Drag: The Biological Perspective” panel. Drag Race judge and RuPaul confidante Michelle Visage immediately takes issue with the title: “Transwomen, girls, drag queens…we’re all ‘real’ women, aren’t we? There is no real.” She’s joined by Jordin Sparks, a Drag Race guest judge and fanatic, and chanteuse Sheryl Lee Ralph, whose magnificent ponytail rules the panel. They all tell similar stories of finding their place amongst the “freakiest, weirdest misfits” (Visage), admiring drag queens’ fearlessness, and adopting the attitude for themselves. Ralph takes the rapt audience to church, purring inspirational quotes at every opportunity: “Drag started on the stage, where most of us queens belong.” “I don’t do drag for anybody else… I’m trying to show you who I am.” “Why do I love drag? Look at me.”
It’s all very inspiring, but as I’m leaving this panel, something that’s been nagging at the back of my mind all weekend comes roaring to the front. I check the literature again: “the first ever convention to celebrate drag, queer culture, and self-expression for all.” I check the program again: There isn’t a single panel dedicated to drag kings or more genderqueer drag. It’s an unfortunate asterisk on a weekend that otherwise purports to be wholly inclusive, not to mention the sometimes contentious relationship between the more gender-specific “old school” style of drag and drag that exists outside of it. But as much as the official programming skirts more diverse drag, the people attending the Con are much more liberal with their interpretations of drag, like Gus and Demetri, or Sister Bam Bam’s “modern meets traditional nun with a little bit of Madonna.” Hopefully, next year’s DragCon (to be held May 7-8, 2016) will be more inclusive of drag that exists outside of its queens.
Finally, it’s time for RuPaul’s keynote. I end up in between a pair of middle-aged women who fell in love with drag through gay clubs in the ’90s and a pair of starry-eyed teenagers who pooled their money to fly in from Houston. I now feel like a giant jerk for complaining about getting up early to take the subway, since I’ve now heard about people coming from Texas, Georgia, Detroit, Ireland, and Dubai. There are even whispers that someone came from Brazil just to see Bianca Del Rio, who won the last season of Drag Race and is admittedly awesome.
Ru walks out and everyone goes out of their minds. Just like with the ribbon cutting, Ru is not in drag, but he still commands the room in his smart red suit. He has an innate warmth that makes it seem like he’s talking to a group of friends rather than an enormous, windowless room. He’s also apparently not one for prepared speeches; the keynote is less of a manifesto than a rambling chat about the meaning of drag and life, happiness and God. He eventually wanders into a larger point about why the Con is crucial, which again points to internet trolls as a source of negativity he wanted to counterbalance when “you get to put a face to the name and connect.”
It is incredible to look around the room and see so many people celebrating queerness and freedom, whatever that means to them, without fear of judgment or worse. This is when Ru launches into a passionate monologue about how the show’s made a concerted effort this year to appeal to younger viewers, because he wants to educate the younger set of drag lovers on the sacrifices previous generations made to get there:
We come from a long line of people whose blood was spilled to make sure we could have this convention tonight. We’d do that a disservice if we didn’t acknowledge that, and if we didn’t educate young people about this. We have so many freedoms now. Who could’ve imagine the freedoms we have right now? Not just gay people, but people who think outside the box… people who love color and beauty and joy and freedom.
It’s a sobering point to make at an event that also has foam boobs for sale, but that’s also exactly why it’s a crucial one to make. It was easy for me to walk into DragCon and happily lose myself to the twisted glitz of drag, but just as easy to forget how and why I could do so.
There’s not much going on after Ru stole the stage, so we make our way back out to the real world. I look out at the proud weirdos and misfits, thank them for their creativity and courage, and sashay away.