It was a cool spring evening in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Six drag performers with technicolor wigs and a crunchy sounding speaker were throwing an outdoor, outlaw party. A crowd of about 80 people, many sporting similarly neon hairstyles, gathered to watch the artists twirl and dance around in a dried up fountain. A self-proclaimed communist queen named Cyndee Cexxx, who describes herself as “Pamela Anderson — but dipped in acid, like the Joker,” skipped and spun about in thigh-high, snakeskin stilettos and a shirt that read “I <3 BIMBOS,” while her comically enormous fake breasts jiggled. About three-quarters of the crowd were sipping White Claw.
“If anyone knows anyone at White Claw,” screamed nonbinary drag queen Qhrist Almighty into the mic, “give them my number! We want that White Claw coin!”
Only a few weeks earlier, a drag queen named Symone had won the “RuPaul’s Drag Race” branding challenge by inventing and cleverly marketing a drink called Sweet Toof. On commercial breaks between segments of “Drag Race,” queens and former “Drag Race” competitors Latrice Royale, Manila Luzon, and Vanessa Vanjie Mateo appeared in a vibrant, pastel-colored commercial for PepsiCo’s bubly bounce, a caffeinated sparkling water.
Back in Prospect Park, while Qhirst and co-host Sherry Poppins happily threw shade at the contestants of “Drag Race” Season 13 throughout the night, the two shows (one a local punk affair, the other a massively popular TV program) provided a stark juxtaposition that encapsulates the current drag landscape.
For the first time in history, drag is becoming a hugely profitable art form — thanks in part to the willingness of megacorporations to use queens as brand representatives for products ranging from vodka and sparkling water to makeup and hair trimmers. But these opportunities are not often afforded to people outside the binary, or local performers whose aesthetics are less family friendly.
Drag as an art form is inextricable from the history of protest movements, but as drag gains cultural acceptance and mainstream relevance, a plethora of companies are seeing dollar signs in this exploding movement. And as influencer culture and brand ambassadorships — in the drink space and beyond — continue to flourish in the drag community, the original revolutionary ethos of the medium becomes lost.
Although there were, of course, fights for queer liberation throughout the globe before the Stonewall riots of 1969, it was the New York-based demonstration started by gender-defying revolutionaries in response to police violence that kicked off what became known as the gay rights movement. Transgender activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson demanded equality not just from the outside world, but also from within the gay community, which often shunned people who dared to defy the gender binary.
Considering these roots, it’s perhaps surprising to see drag queens suddenly shilling for massive, global brands (only decades prior, this type of expression was quite literally illegal). 2020 may have even been a tipping point for this phenomenon, especially with queen Monet X Change appearing in a Pepsi commercial during the Super Bowl, alongside mega-popular rapper Cardi B.
In a recent conversation, New York-based rock and roll drag king Maxxx Pleasure explains the tension in this dynamic: “Drag isn’t something that was meant to be sold or put on products. It was supposed to be done in small spaces, surrounded by community members. But I think we do live in a capitalist society. Some drag performers are going to want to fight that, and others will want to accept it, and others are going to play into it.”
“It’s the RuPaul-ification of drag,” adds Yoko Oso, a Miami-based drag queen who describes herself as “DIY … with a ’90s girl rocker edge.”
“There’s this perception that drag is an inherently capitalist venture,” says Oso. “But it’s really only been in recent years that drag has been something you can actually make money off of at all — that you can have an empire off of drag. I’d say it’s more bad than it is good.”
Indeed, the massive popularity of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has caused a veritable explosion in interest in drag as both a boundary-pushing art form and as a genre of entertainment with potential for massive profits. But a problem for some in the queer community is that “Drag Race” has regularly excluded certain kinds of drag that don’t fit the show’s relatively anodyne aesthetic. Drag kings and some nonbinary drag performers have not been allowed to compete on the show, and this kind of discrimination trickles down to who gets job opportunities — like those high-profile spirits campaigns — and their treatment in the real world.
A Tale of Two Kings
MT Hart, a Boston-based drag king who describes himself as “a high fashion, dancing dumbass,” recalls being hired for a bar crawl sponsored by several alcohol brands in 2019. Although he was excited about the opportunity, especially one that had come so early in his career, he repeatedly found the brand reps excluding him from social media posts and photo shoots during the experience.
“I was in full makeup, full mug, full rhinestones.” says Hart. “It was one of the first things that I felt was a big gig — I got hired, I was paid. They had not had a king do this before. But … I was actively left out.”
At a certain point, the organizer of the event had to fight to have Hart included, reminding the brand reps that he was a performer as well.
“I did not feel I was being treated like an artist,” says Hart. “I felt like a token diversity whatever. They were quite kind to the queens. … I was performing just as hard as the others, I was dressed up just as much as the others — so I was like, ‘If you’re sponsoring this event, why not feature all of us?’”
Oso, who observes similar things happening in Miami, explains: “Drag queens have become ‘the norm,’ so much so that it no longer is subversive to be a drag queen. I think drag kings, drag artists, drag things — that’s where the subversion is now, where artists can f*ck with perceptions of gender. And corporations are less likely to find that style of art aligning with their values or what they’re trying to present to the world.”
Meanwhile, Pleasure had a very different experience working for bubly seltzer: “I was a little apprehensive at first because I feel like so often, people who aren’t involved in drag ask for too much for too little [pay]; they don’t understand how to talk about [drag],” he says, “but it actually was a really good experience.” Not only were they paid well, which is sadly uncommon for those in the LGBTQ+ community, but, “the campaign also had a donation component to GLAAD and the Center for Black Equity. They were literally giving back to the community by making it a point to hire local talent,” Pleasure adds.
On Substance Abuse and Sponsorships
At some point, Pleasure, who does not drink, grew apprehensive about his inclusion in a campaign that he felt might inevitably compel him to advertise alcohol.
“They wanted us to share a drink recipe that went with our seltzer flavor,” Pleasure says. “I didn’t want to put a cocktail recipe on my feed, because that’s not what I’m about … but that’s what the job called for. So I said, ‘Hey, actually, I’m sober. Are there mocktails for these drinks?’ And there was! It was perfect! There was no weirdness about it at all.”
But Pleasure’s nervousness points to another controversial aspect of the recent synergy between alcohol brands and the drag world. Considering the LGBTQ+ community’s staggering rates of alcoholism and substance abuse problems, an increasingly vocal segment of this population is finding it exploitative for booze brands to be catering so hard to queer people specifically.
“There is a conversation to be had about the relationship between queer trauma and stress and resorting to drugs and alcohol to cope,” says Oso. “What kind of spaces do these partnerships really facilitate?”
“The expectation is that part of [being in drag] is that you’re there to sell drinks,” says Hart. “When we’re in a community that has much higher rates of alcoholism and substance abuse disorders, it can be really frustrating to hear these companies say, ‘Yes, we’re pro-LGBTQ+ — because you drink a lot!”
Hart is correct to note that because of the interweaving of the history of drag and bar culture — because drag has traditionally been performed in bars — many people in the industry can’t disentangle drag from the booze the performers are expected to sling. But as people become more aware of the ongoing mental health crisis in the community, it might be that the relationship between alcohol and queer people is one of parasitism rather than symbiosis: that alcohol brands are targeting LGBTQ+ people because they know so many queer people are dependent on substances, rather than responsibly enjoying them.
To Influence or Not to Influence
For drag performers in 2021 — especially in the wake of the economic devastation the drag community faced due to the pandemic following lockdowns and the impossibility of producing live events — the question of whether or not to participate in certain kinds of brand partnerships has begun to feel like a moral dilemma.
All of the drag performers included in this article agree that they certainly wouldn’t fault any artist for taking this kind of work. (“I support queer people getting their bag however they want to get their bag,” says Hart.) But it’s also not that simple. “You also have to grapple with the moral aspect of it: Are you comfortable with [commercialism] being your art? Is the company practicing what they preach? What — besides using performers for advertising — are they doing for the community?” Hart asks.
“If corporations are willing to shell out money to the girls, I feel like they should take the money and run,” echoes Cexxx. But this increased prominence of sponsorships in the drag scene has led to a bigger shift: The newest generation of performers is starting to think of drag less as an art form and more as a career path.
“I get this more from the younger girls who have grown up watching Drag Race,’” says Cexxx. “They see [drag] as a springboard to becoming an influencer. Some girls really love the art of drag, and they want to do something that’s creative — but I think there’s a lot of girls who are in it to get a lot of followers. … They’re just trying to avoid having a regular job. They don’t care about the history of drag or the community.”
The result is a kind of chilling effect on the more counter-cultural or shock art aspects of drag: Because the up-and-comers are hyper-aware of what potential sponsors may or may not find appropriate, they’re less likely to engage in certain kids of radical, political speech — the kinds of speech drag pioneered.
“You have to make every decision calculated around what they want; to a certain extent they own who you are,” says Oso. “That becomes the end goal: to get these sponsorships. It’s no longer about honing your craft. It’s about being good enough that you have accessibility and brand recognition. It’s like they want us to be coming out of a factory, already market-tested and focus-grouped.”
“And a lot of the time, these more typical girls, they really do have a following,” says Oso. “But at the same time, I want to break whatever their audience thinks of drag, I want to shock them. I want them to see their pretty girls and have fun, but I want them to stay and watch the weird b*tch eating maggots on stage. Because that’s what drag is about.”
The situation as it stands now indicates that drag performers are at an important crossroads: Will they embrace the drag scene’s newfound appeal to corporations, or will they continue to use drag as a way to reject the norms of society? Because of the LGBTQ+ community’s systemic economic disadvantages, these sponsorships represent a new avenue for queer people to find success in a world so thoroughly rigged against us — but if the former avenue is embraced, perhaps drag will entirely lose the transgressive zeal that gave the art form power in the first place.