From Rome to RuPaul: A New Book Explores the “Complete History” of Drag
Simon Doonan wears many hats. He is the creative ambassador for Barneys New York, partner to designer Jonathan Adler, a memoirist, and now a drag historian. Doonan’s new book Drag: The Complete Story is the “first book on the cultural history of drag published in the 21st century,” covering everything from drag’s genesis in Ancient Greece, to the girls of Wigstock and RuPaul’s Drag Race.
NewNowNext sat down with Doonan to discuss all things drag, his personal history with the art form, and his thoughts on Drag Race U.K.
First off, I have to tell you I loved the Beautiful People series [based on Doonan’s memoir] back in the day.
All credit to Jonathan Harvey and Jon Plowman—they made a great TV show.
It aired over a decade ago now. Do fans still talk to you about it?
Well, I still get emails about it from fans saying it helped them come out to their parents and all this very touching stuff. I think it’s very positive. I feel great about it—and Olivia Coleman played my mom! I mean, now she’s a mega-star. She’s won an Academy Award! It’s hilarious.
How long have you been working on this book about drag?
About three years. It requires an immense amount of research, reading, and organization. And rewriting. They say writing is rewriting. No regrets—what a fun rollercoaster. Especially at this time when drag has taken on a very complex prominence in the culture. It was the right time to do a book about the history of drag since drag is now central in our culture.
So much has changed even since when you started the book three years ago.
In three years since I’ve started writing this book, the entire drag landscape has undergone this huge change. I mean, nothing to do with me; that was just what happened. When I started the book, I thought it was so important to have a firewall between drag and [transness], to be clear about the differentiation. But over the past three years, all of the preconceived boundaries and notions have evaporated. There are no rules anymore. You can be genderfluid, create your own identity. So much has happened in the last three years alone.
What’s your personal history with drag?
Oh, God. Well, since I’m English, I was always sort of up to my eyeballs in drag. I have a picture of when I was 10 years old, in the backyard with my best friend, and we were both in drag. Drag is such a big part of the British comedy scene. Whether it’s pantomime or TV comedy, a lot of the most popular comics in England are regularly dragged-up. Often straight guys, too. And when the gay scene—when I entered it in the late ‘60s—was infused with drag. Drag was central to it; there were always drag queens. I’ve never not been around drag, so I don’t even think about it at this point. I’m so used to it.
There are plenty of other books about drag out right now. What sets yours apart?
Mine is an attempt to do the impossible and chart the history of drag. Frank DeCaro did this great book. It’s amazing, but it’s more focused on the entertainment industry. Mine goes back to Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, mythology, all the way through to the Baroque Period, Victorian England. It was an attempt to just really flog through the history of drag, and make it fun and accessible for young people who maybe don’t necessarily think about history. But I’ve also got all of the contemporary stuff up there. I come bang up to date with pop star drag, cinema drag, right up to date with RuPaul and all the girls. Violet Chachki’s on the cover. But it does go all the way back to mythology.
I love how the book is categorized—you have pop star drag, and you even talk about butch drag.
It was very important to me, honestly, to have a chapter on butch drag. Butch drag has been very major throughout history. In the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries, women would drag up for all kinds of complex reasons. If you were in law—if you wanted to be a lawyer’s clerk in 19th-century England—you couldn’t if you were a girl. So you had people, smart girls, dress up as a boy. Over history, women have avoided rape and all kinds of horrors by dragging up to escape, fight in wars. The history of the drag kind is fascinating. In the early 20th century, drag kings actually enjoyed massive prominence. They were very, very popular in Victorian England, and I think it was because people loved to see women satirizing masculinity, toxic masculinity, and the patriarchy.
Is there a drag queen out there who you love and think is particularly overlooked?
I think RuPaul has done such an astonishing job of highlighting the drag queens who are struggling, the ones who have their inner saboteur on their shoulder. I love their stories, and I always want to know where they’re at and what they’re doing. You know, queens like Vixen, who made a big impression on me by exposing their vulnerability, their story. I’m always interested in those. There’s no shortage of bold, creative queens. Sometimes it’s the ones who are struggling who really capture imagination.
Do you have a favorite queen, one you’d buy a ticket to see if she came to town?
Well, Violet Chachki, bless her—she’s on the cover of my book. I think she’s so creative and intriguing. So her, definitely. Also Sasha Velour—there are so many genius ones! Miss Vanjie…I mean, hello?! She’s so charismatic. You can’t take your eyes off of her. It’s great.
Living in New York, how have you seen drag and the gay nightlife scenes evolve over the years?
I came here in the 1970s. There was plenty of drag, some of it very creative. In the ‘80s, after the sort of new-wave drag of Lady Bunny, Happy Face, Billy Beyond, that was an extraordinary moment. The birth of Wigstock, too. I guess what’s been so astonishing to me has been to see the rebirth of drag every few years. In the ‘90s, there was plenty of drag, but it didn’t seem like it was blowing anybody’s socks off. It was like, “Oh, yeah. Drag.” It was here; it was great. Whatever. And nobody really anticipated this glorious drag-plosion we’re having right now, with the gender revolution, the Trump bump, the new look queens, the art and meticulousness of drag. And RuPaul’s Drag Race has made drag this unbelievably vibrant, prominent form of creative expression. I don’t think anybody could have anticipated it. I mean, think back to the first season of Drag Race. I don’t think anybody ever could’ve imagined that we’d be living in a world now with the Javits Center filled with cisgender women who identify as drag queens, and bring their kids with them. It’s incredible, what’s happened. It’s fascinating. There’s this extraordinary moment happening right now where we’re literally drowning in drag. [Laughs] And we’re loving it!
Have you ever done drag?
Oh, my God. Are you kidding?! Yes! Of course! [Laughs] Halloween’s my birthday. I mean, living in L.A. in the ‘70s in West Hollywood…bonjour! Yes, of course I’ve done drag! I’ve dressed up as the Queen of England many times. I was always a bit ratchet. It was me with a glue gun in a display studio cobbling together an outfit at the last minute. That’s why I’m always in law with the queens today. Coming from England, all of my straight friends have done drag too. The American sort of puritanical reaction to drag—we just don’t have that. In England, people just think it’s brilliant and fun. When I tell people I’ve done drag, they’re always shocked. I’m just like, “What do people think I’ve been doing for 67 years?! Hello!”
Do you have a drag name?
Oh, no. I guess I was always sort of punk rock about it. You know—chopping up a wig, improvising with some like fermented makeup, making things out of found objects. I was always more ratchet. When I dressed up as a queen, though, I took it more seriously. One time, Bonnie, our CEO, wanted to have a celebrity cut the ribbon on the new store in Soho. But we couldn’t really nail one down. So I dragged up as the Queen of England and cut the ribbon. [Laughs] Those pictures are all online, darling. You can find those!
Are you excited for Drag Race U.K.?
Oh my god. Totalmente! I cannot wait to see what they do. It’s interesting because it’s such a long time coming. There’s such a long tradition of drag in England, but the American version of drag—the black drag, the drag from Paris Is Burning, the language and expression of drag—has come from the most incredible source: black drag queens. So you find now queens around the world who are serving, snapping, throwing shade, slaying, dropping. The language is drag is coming from America. I’m interested to see how much of that is in the English vernacular of drag, you know what I mean? Versus how much they’ve kept the old pub drag [style] from coming through. When I was coming out, you’d go to a pub, and all of a sudden there’d be a blast of music. And a drag queen who just stagger onto the bar and run across it. She’d be lip-syncing. There was more of a sort of throwaway, British, Lily Savage kind of ethos around it. But I think the influence of RuPaul’s Drag Race is global, and I’m interested to see how that plays out among the British drag sensibilities.