WHAT A DRAG! DragCon may be postponed
But the spirit of fab, fun and fantasy is alive and well
Written and photographed by Frank Rizzo
Approaching the Jacob K. Javits Center on a bright fall morning on Manhattan’s West Side, a pair of drag queens sashayed along 11th Avenue, swinging their hips as if keeping time to a dance beat only they could hear.
Crossing the street came another, even larger, group – one that had a decidedly downtown, arty-smarty feel. As they all neared 34th Street, gaggle after gaggle of stylized-to-the-max guys and gals, many bewigged, bejeweled and bedazzled, joined in the impromptu parade and headed into the cavernous building that in the past has hosted political conventions, auto shows and art expos.
It was drag’s turn to claim its place in the great hall, and – “Yaass, queen” – with flourish.
Not far from Chelsea’s Meatpacking District and the Village’s Stonewall Inn, where drag queens of decades past would strut their stuff and fight for their rights, the Javits Center was a celebration of LGBTQ+ empowerment that would have been unimaginable even a dozen years ago.
Tens of thousands of queens – and those who love them – came to DragCon, lured by that Pied Piper of glam, sass and marketing: RuPaul.
The extravaganza embraced the artist-entrepreneur’s catchphrase in defining a drag star – “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent” (and whose initials reflect drag’s sense of naughty outrageousness).
It was also – “halleloo” – big business.
The coronavirus pandemic has derailed plans for DragCon events in 2020. The Los Angeles DragCon, originally slated for May, was cancelled, and at press time it was unclear when the next New York City DragCon, typically planned for the fall, will be.
The first DragCon debuted in Los Angeles in 2015, just as the drag phenomenon was being propelled into the mainstream culture by the Emmy-winning reality series “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” now in its 12th season.
Since then, RuPaul’s World of Wonder empire has expanded to include the television spin-offs “Drag Race All Stars,” entering its fifth season, and “Drag Race UK,” which began its first season in January, officially making the brand international. Then there are “Drag Race”-sponsored tours featuring the series’ stars, multiple annual DragCon events, and an open-ended live revue show at Las Vegas’ Flamingo Hotel.
But not everything RuPaul touches turns into gold lamé, however. The star’s effort in dramedy with the Netflix series “AJ and the Queen” was short-lived and her daytime talk show took shade and was cancelled after a few months.
But for this third go-round in NYC, business was booming like never before. (Ticket prices were $70 for a weekend ticket, $40 for a single day pass, and $300 for a VIP pass.)
After going through metal detectors, attendees – many dressed to impress – walk down a pink carpet and into the epic hall where a Disneyland of drag awaits. The cultural mash-up proved to be real head-turners with cell cameras at the ready: A stocky hirsute man was outfitted as a twisted version of Ursula from “The Little Mermaid.” Another created an outfit that was Elsa from “Frozen” meets Wonder Woman. Another pair did a variation of “Game of Thrones” drag.
“If it’s your first time there, it’s a bit of a culture shock,” says Angel Rivers, a Connecticut drag performer who grew up in Manchester. “You never know what to expect and that’s how you should always be when you go to a drag event because drag queens are so unpredictable. They can be simple and sweet or they can be really out there.”
Angel says the great thing about DragCon is that it brings an even wider audience of all ages – including straight couples and families – who might not want to go to a gay club. “The mood is very supportive and there’s a real positive vibe. That’s RuPaul’s message: Everyone is different. Everyone is welcome.”
Even youngsters. Kids 10 and under were admitted free when accompanied by an adult and in the “Kids’ Zone,” children could play dress-up as the Statue of Liberty; enjoy “dragtivity” books, and sit in and listen to “Drag Queen Story Hour”’ sessions. (Miz Jade, Cholula Lemon and Angel Elektra held forth on this Saturday afternoon.)
Along aisles named “Glamazon Blvd,” “Sickening Street,” “Death Drop Alley,” or “Werq The World Way,” 220 booths featured a wide and playful range of wares, including biodegradable glitter, kaftans, enough wigs to make Moira Rose jealous, platform and stiletto heels and sneakers with a Liza-level of sequins, “drag therapy” sessions, over-the-top jewelry, lots of padding, jock straps, undies, hot pepper sauce, and campy pop art. There were plenty of free samples – and makeovers, too, which were shows unto themselves.
“People want to see their favorite queens obviously, but they’re also here to shop,” says Robert Matysiewski of Skull and Bones, a New York-based underwear and leisurewear brand that used bubble-butt models as bait, including one lithe lad in a sky blue assless number. “They garner a ton of attention and bring a lot of folks to the booth. We find with DragCon there’s a whole array of people – gay straight, bi, women, and families that are drawn to DragCon – and that just expands our demographic.”
Drag Stars Draw
The main draw, of course, were more than 150 of the world’s top drag queens, many of whom appeared, natch, on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” – and they were treated like pop stars. Long lines wound around the aisles for fans eager to meet, greet, get autographs and have their picture taken with their fave stars. for a not-small fee (prices reflect who are the hottest stars at the moment).
The wait was more than an hour to meet and greet Season 11’s “Miss Congeniality” winner, Nina West. Lines also stretched for last season’s winner Yvie Oddly. But perhaps the longest was for Vanessa “Vanjie” Mateo, the hysterically funny underdog who was the first queen eliminated in season 10, only to be brought back the following season to become a top-five finalist and a sui generis superstar.
Also tending to their followings were Honey Davenport, Scarlet Envy, Aquaria, Ariel Versace, Brooke Lynn Hytes, Shuga Cain, Ongina, Acid Betty, Gia Gunn, Naomi Smalls and Trinity the Tuck.
“My favorite was Aquaria,” says Angel. “I’ve been following her from the very start of her career. She’s very resilient. Many people have told her ‘no’ so many times because they thought she wasn’t doing drag the right way, which is something I’ve experienced myself from my community.”
Of course, RuPaul herself presided over the event like a queen on high – literally from a platform elevated 15 feet above the crowd. During the weekend, she did live interviews with Diane von Furstenberg and Whoopi Goldberg, and on Saturday and Sunday took a spot high above the main stage to played DJ sets. Then-presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren also made a special appearance via video, which was introduced by Trixie Mattel.
There were panel discussions on comedy queens, featuring drag’s best gagsters: Nina West, Pandora Boxx, Meatball, Sam Harrison and Hedda Lettuce. Another panel called “Judgey Judies” featured Drag Race’s most astute and witty judges, Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, and Ross Matthews.
Other panels offered more than just laughs. The “Queens of New York” panel featured Dusty Ray Bottoms, Brini Maxwell, Marti Gould Cummings, Merrie Cherry, and Flotilla DeBarge, who talked about having careers independent of being on “Drag Race.”
“One of the things I wished DragCon did more of was elevate the voices of local drag acts,” says Patrick Dunn, executive director of the New Haven Pride Center, who also performs in drag as Kiki Lucia. “If there was a way to have local queens perform, that would be a cool component to add to DragCon.”
Another panel including Dianne Brill, Simon Doonan and Frank DeCaro talked about the art and history of drag. Another, hosted by the political action group Swing Left, was called “Trump and Mitch, Sashay Away: How We Win in 2020.”
When DragCon inevitably makes its post-pandemic return, fans will be ready.
“Whenever it is, it’s definitely going to be bigger for sure,” says Angel. “The younger generation appreciates the art of drag – which is really so great. They’re responding to what the power of drag is, that you can be whoever you want to be.”