Hot pink lights fill the stage. Dancing trash cans perform choreography while a cover of the iconic 90s anthem “Barbie Girl” pours out of the speakers, barely audible over the sounds of a cheering, whistling audience. The star of the performance struts in her high-heels across the stage, dressed in an obnoxiously pink ball gown with a monumental blonde wig atop her head. Who is this glamorous diva? Miss Taylor Trash, the East London drag queen known as “the UK’s only Southern Belle-end.” Her background dancers pick up trash cans full of neon pink confetti, and as her lower half is hidden by the cascade her skirt is pulled away. She emerges from the shower of confetti in knee-high snakeskin boots and a pink bodysuit. “THIS IS HOW YOU DO A REVEAL”, Taylor later captions an Instagram post featuring a video of the dramatic feat of drag excellence.
Many people may believe that the popularity of performances such as Miss Taylor Trash’s, and the art of drag itself, began in recent years with the growing fame of Ru Paul and his reality television show Drag Race. However, drag has been around for centuries and has vibrant roots in the UK, with cross-dressing performance dating back as early as the days of Shakespearean theatre. In the Elizabethan era, the stage was closely linked to the church, and therefore women were prohibited from performing. This didn’t mean, however, that playwrights excluded female characters from their work. Thus, male actors were frequently cast in female roles, wearing traditional female clothing and acting as women. The term “drag” originates from these performances, as men would often complain of their skirts “dragging” under their feet. Female actresses were introduced to the stage in the 1660s, but this was not the end of cross-dressing performance.
The art of pantomime emerged in the Victorian period, and with it, of course, the popular character of the pantomime dame, a male actor who dresses as an exaggerated caricature of a woman. Alongside pantomime dames, Molly Houses were growing in the underground London scene. These houses were places where gay men could meet up in secret to engage in sexual intercourse with one another. Sometimes these men would dress up as women to further avoid detection, as sodomy was an illegal offense in London until 1967, and this costuming would occassionally turn into performance. This is when we begin to see drag performance as we know it today.
By the second half of the Victorian era, drag was a thriving art in the London community. Pantomime dames still populated the stages, but now alongside more alluring, glamorous drag performers. One of the most well-known drag performers at this time was Julian Eltinge. Eltinge, an American drag star born out of the vaudeville theatre scene, was known for convincing audiences that he was truly a female actress, until he removed his wig at the finale of their performance. He made his London debut in 1906 at the Palace Theatre, and while in London performed for King Edward VII.
Drag has remained a popular form of entertainment in London since it’s first emergence in Shakespearean theatre. “It is intrinsic to British popular culture”, says Jacob Bloomfield, expert on the history of male cross-dressing in England. For those looking for more information on the historical roots of the art of drag, Bloomfield has a book coming out, as well as a thesis which is currently available online to the public.
Today, the drag community here in London is as vibrant and thriving as ever. Just ask Miss Taylor Trash, who’s approaching her tenth year performing drag in London. A seasoned professional in the drag scene, Miss Trash sat down with me via Zoom to discuss the ins and outs of this dynamic, spirited community. We discussed everything from how her drag persona was born to the influence of the popular reality TV show Drag Race to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the drag industry, but the most impactful aspect of this discussion was the dedication of members of the drag community to supporting each other. After performing in several competitions, against queens who’ve ended up winning titles on Ru Paul’s famous show, Miss Trash decided to “create [her] own competition and focus on giving other people an opportunity to start.”
The competition she founded is called The Gold Rush, and is hosted by popular London gay bar The Glory. These drag competitions are not just designed to provide a space for local queens to fight for various titles, but also to create an opportunity for exposure. For performers who are just starting out, the competitions create a space for them to test out their sets, work on honing their performance, and engage with a real live audience. Since the pandemic hit, however, these competitions have only just been reopening, forcing many budding performers to find other ways to break into the industry and many long-standing drag artists to adapt their styles of creating. “People have had to find other ways of surviving,” Miss Trash told me. But, as she continued, “if you’re a creative you’ll find creative ways to problem solve.” This is exactly what many drag artists did; accessing audiences via livestreaming or through their social media accounts.
However these artists, whom Miss Trash dubbed “bedroom queens”, do not have the same audience interaction that comes with live performance, something which is intrinsic to the art of drag. Coming out of lockdown, it will be competitions like The Gold Rush that will be tasked with supplying the spaces to get these performers back in the scene, experiencing drag the way it was meant to be. The art of drag is constantly changing and evolving, but remains an important aspect of the London nightlife scene and the LGBTQ+ community. Many venues are beginning to sell tickets to drag shows and competitions again, so make sure to grab yours before they sell out!
By Madeleine Wasson