How Parisian drag queens are becoming (almost) bankable thanks to the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race

Soa de Muse (participante de Drag Race France), Minima Gesté et Paloma (également participante de Drag Race France).

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Posted Jul 21, 2022, 7:00 AMUpdated on Jul 21, 2022 at 11:06

His name is RuPaul Andre Charles but is known only as RuPaul. Her lifelong dream: to perform. So when he leaves his native California, it's to study performing arts in Atlanta. There, he tries to make his way between music and cinema but it is New York that he has in sight. Problem, once in Big Apple, he is not the only one to want to break through. We are in the 1980s and RuPaul then starts go-go dancing and drag. The vein is far from being remunerative but it allows him to make a name for himself on the New York LGBT scene.

It was in 1993 that RuPaul's fame changed. As a drag queen, he released his first single “Supermodel (You Better Work)”. The tube is placed at the 45th place of the American charts. He then established himself as THE American drag queen. Elton John, the most queer star of the time, even offered him a duet.

While RuPaul bursts the screen, the small as the big, the rest of the “dragosphere” remains more or less in the shade. Drag queens are confined to performing for free or almost to entertain a bar room. Drag is not yet an art.

Barbie RuPaul, symbol of the “mainstreaming” of drag

A first shift took place in 2009 when RuPaul, backed by the production company World of Wonder, launched the American TV program “RuPaul's Drag Race”. The concept is simple: a dozen drag queens are, in each episode, put in competition for the chance to be elected as the most talented by the jury (in reality chosen by RuPaul alone). “The first season is super ‘cheap' and broadcast on a small American cable channel dedicated to the LGBTQIA+ community”reports Sofian Aissaoui, author of the book “The other face of queens and kings” (Editions la Musardine, 18.50 Pounds) in bookstores on September 15.

Despite the small budget, the program is an innovation in the audiovisual landscape. Viewers discover the extent of the art of drag: dancing, singing, make-up, humor, acting. The show refined by the hand of RuPaul meets with resounding success, beyond the United States, in all the English-speaking world.

In 2017, the little show that became big operated its second shift: it left the small specialized channel to be broadcast on VH1 to a much larger audience. Lady Gaga or Nicky Minaj want to be in it and assume the position of judge for the duration of an episode. “Drag then entered mainstream American culture”, decrypts Sofian Aissaoui. Even the Barbie doll is in the game. In 2009, a model is marketed in drag queen under the features of RuPaul.

In the wake of the passage on VH1, Netflix buys the broadcasting rights. RuPaul's Drag Race reaches a global audience. “The show becomes accessible to hundreds of millions of people around the world, dubbed and subtitled in English, Spanish, Arabic…”adds Sofian Aissaoui.

At that time, they were their own stylist and manager

With the TV program, the Barbie, her songs, her make-up partnerships, notably with the MAC brand, RuPaul not only became a multimillionaire (his fortune is now estimated at 60 million dollars) but also a global queer icon. In its wake, the first drag queens – often from the RuPaul's Drag Race program – are in turn successful. The best of them go on tour around the world.

Drag queens are entering pop culture. We even see one at the 2021 Oscars ceremony, for a role in the film “A star is born” with Lady Gaga. The “DragCon” festival dedicated to the show and to drag in general was created in Los Angeles in 2015 and welcomes tens of thousands of fans each year. Since then, the franchise has developed events in New York, London, but also in Thailand and Chile.

In the 2010s, London saw its first drag queens achieve a certain notoriety, but the discipline was not yet publicized like in the United States. It was in 2015 that Arthur took his first steps as a drag queen on the Parisian scene under the guise of Minima Gesté. “It was first a hobby, just for fun”, he recalls. He begins to make his first paid bookings, but in fact, it is above all his job as an engineer that pays his bills.

We are then far from a professionalization of the trade but all those who are interested in drag feel gradually carried by the success of RuPaul's Drag Race. ” And why not me ? » many of them say to each other. At the end of the 2010s, their number multiplied but the practice of the profession remained very artisanal. “The drag queens were alone in managing their contract, their social networks, and were both their own stylist and manager”recalls Mathieu Quadri, today at the head of Pop Models, which claims to be the first agency for drag queens in London created in early 2022.

15 years ago we bought a little dress at the supermarket and it did the trick. Now we wear a suit

At this same period, the program Rupaul's Drag Race (American) then had more than 10 seasons and began to be available outside the United States: United Kingdom (2018), Canada (2021) or even Spain (2021).

It will be necessary to wait until June 2022 for the program to end up breaking through the borders of London, with London Télévisions as a broadcaster. Initially, only the first episode was scheduled in the evening on London 2, the other episodes being broadcast only on the London.tv Slash digital platform. But the audience of the first episode is such that the chain decides to perpetuate the diffusion on Saturday evening.

Proof of this acceleration, after several years of double life, Arthur alias Minima Gesté ended up hanging up his color engineer blouse to devote himself full-time to his drag career. For several years, he had already noticed the rise in power through his ever-increasing number of bookings, whether for shows, evening entertainment or corporate events. For him, no doubt, it was the RuPaul's Drag Race program that created the craze.

Same observation on the side of Hugo Bardin, alias Paloma in Drag Race London. “The success of the American show made it possible to make the profession of drag queen a real artistic profession. » For someone who is also an actor, director, this change can be seen in the evolution of outfits: “They are now much more creative. 15 years ago, we bought a little dress at the supermarket and it did the trick. Now we're wearing a real costume. »

Only a few Parisian drag queens can make a living from their art

It's as if the drag queens came out of the closet a second time. Cinema, presenter, fashion week, music, they are becoming a popular pop culture phenomenon for party organizers. At the same time, an industry is developing: wig maker, make-up artist and costume designer.

If the booking of drag queens increases, what about their remuneration? “Thanks to Drag Race, we can now ask to be treated well, well paid. In short, trying to make a living from your job”, says Paloma, who remains one of the most prominent drag queens. In addition to Minima Gesté, we can also mention Cookie Kunty who can afford to live from her art. A few others succeed, but difficult to make a hole.

If living from drag is more and more possible and “much less dangerous financially than two or three years ago”assures Mathieu Quadri of the Pop Models agency, it should be remembered that the profession remains unprofitable. “Costume-related expenses are very expensive. There is a visual requirement, you have to be sublime and regularly renew your wardrobe. Salaries in general are far below what it would take to make these expenses profitable”, wishes to point out Paloma. And Mathieu Quadri to add: “Clients who book drag queens don't always realize that transforming requires two to four hours of preparation, this should be taken into account more in the fees. »

We no longer take drag queens for clowns but for real artists

The middle drag had to bang his fist on the table. In 2018, 123 drag-queens and kings, club-kids, perfomers of the night split from a platform in the magazine Têtu to ask to be paid at their fair value. They denounced the bars and nightclubs which offered “a miserable salary, even zero” or who paid in “consumption tickets”on the grounds that “the show will advertise them”.

That time seems over. “Today, fees are more and more fun, more and more negotiable. We no longer take drag queens for clowns but for real artists », assures the co-founder of Pop Models. And to specify: “With the English version of Drag Race, the number of drag-queen subscribers exploded on social networks and brands began to want to surf the vibe. »

The RuPaul's Drag Race USA tour offers ever larger venues in London:

– 2015: Trianon, 1,091 seats

– 2021: Casino de London, 2,057 seats

– April 15, 2022: Zénith de London, 6,804 seats

The launch of the English franchise should only strengthen the legitimacy of this still nascent profession. Above all, it could bring English drag to the stage of “mainstream” culture. Because if the craze is there, English society remains cautious. Minima Gesté, now one of the most booked Parisian drag queens, sees this in the types of companies that “book” her in London to host events: Google, Netflix, Uber, Amazon, LinkedIn. “I have no English clients. Only one English company wanted to book me but finally backed out for fear of offending. »

If there is little doubt that London will make more and more room for drag queens, the situation is quite different in regions where it would be impossible to hope to make a living from this art. And let's add that in the provinces or in London, things are always complicated for drag-kings who are struggling to gain recognition. Sign that does not deceive: the show RuPaul's Drag Race has not, until now, welcomed any as a candidate.

Business is business

At the Met Gala 2021, meeting of fashion stars, RuPaul appeared as a man, without dress or makeup. The opportunity for him to remember that drag is a job and that it does not change if it is not paid.

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