by: Kevin Sparrow
Note: This post was originally featured on Go Over the Rainbow. You can find the original here.
Cross-dressing for performance–though unfortunately not the most popular pastime–has a rich history dating back to Greek theater. The term “drag” derives from Elizabethan dramaturgy notes to mean “dressed resembling a girl.” Much as troubadours have evolved into American Idol contestants and epic poets into modern spoken word artists, theatrical transvestism has been granted a new level of visibility through RuPaul’s Drag Race on MTV Network’s Logo channel. The series comprehensively emulates various forms of today’s popular reality entertainments–fierce competition, do-it-yourself manual, talent spectacle–to present people in the LGBT community as capable as anyone else–and, in certain ways, more so.
Season 4 features Chicago contestants Phi Phi O’Hara, The Princess, and DiDa Ritz. Mystique from the first season is from the Chicago suburbs. Phi Phi has lived in Chicago for three years according to her interview with Jerry Nunn for Windy City Times. She and The Princess performed and hosted Drag Race: Season 4 premiere party at Spin Nightclub in Chicago’s Boystown last month on Jan 30. Meet the contestants, courtesy of Logo, here.
To undergird the physical representations–in much the same way these drag queens pad their own curves–the show’s range of contestants and their life experiences elevates Drag Race‘s significance to queer communities of color. Current contestant Latrice Royale shared her personal history by describing the painful circumstances of losing her mother during and 18-month incarceration; he notes that it has given him a lot of drive in the competition and has been a point of bonding between Royale and fellow contestant Jiggly Caliente, whose mother also recently passed away. Previous contestants have detailed their coming out stories, battles with suicidal thoughts or attempts, and the difficulties of dating for female impersonators–though the multicultural couple of season three runner-up Manila Luzon and season two contestant Sahara Davenport reveals there are plenty of happy exceptions.
Having such varied examples of the same struggles embodied by a wealth of people brings forth an understanding of why this unique art form has retained its currency: the performance of drag highlights individual strengths and emphasizes performers’ positive qualities while allowing them to come to terms with, and often laugh at, their flaws.