Drag is having a moment in New York City.
“I’ve seen the boom come and go,” says Lady Bunny, a seasoned queen who rose to fame in the ’80s alongside RuPaul, of the increasingly popular series “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Three decades later, a new generation of dusted queens is reshaping the scene, performing for diverse crowds of all ages, and learning to turn their craft into careers thanks largely in part to the success of the reality competition series.
Nominated for a record 12 Emmys this year, “Drag Race” wrapped up the most-watched season in its 10-year history in June. The season 10 finale averaged 469,000 viewers aged 18-49 and 723,000 total.
But “Drag Race” isn’t just riding the current-day high; it created it.
“Before ‘Drag Race,’ not many people knew what drag is and [had] never even seen a drag show before,” says Yuhua Hamasaki of season 10. The Manhattan-based competitor added, “Now, it’s available in your own living room, whether you’re LGBTQ, over or under 21, without any extra hurdles.”
The piqued interest is impacting the scene in New York City, where several of the show’s winners and contestants first slipped into glittery evening gowns and lip-synced for their lives.
Breeding fierce competitors
There are two things New York City drag queens all agree on: They’re the freshest, and they have their city to thank for it.
The past five “Drag Race” winners all had ties to NYC: Aquaria of season 10 and Sasha Velour of season 9 both called Brooklyn home; Bob the Drag Queen of season 8 was born and raised in the city; and Violet Chachki of season 7 and Bianca Del Rio of season 6 both repped their city loyalties during their runs.
“I think they embody what New York is all about. They’re gritty and they’re tough and have big hearts,” judge Carson Kressley said in an interview before the past season’s finale. “They love what they do. They’re always a force to be reckoned with.”
The odds of taking home the crown on “Drag Race” are in the city’s favor. Last season, five of the total 14 contestants hailed from the city, one more than the previous year’s four.
“They have great experience because they work in New York City clubs,” Kressley, 48, explains, noting that their ground-level performances have given them a sense of confidence on stage that other queens may lack. “It’s a definite advantage.”
The city’s queens are spending hours a day perfecting and transforming into their stage personas, riding the subway in full drag to head to the central Hell’s Kitchen gay bar hub, and trekking back at 3 or 4 a.m. to catch a few hours of sleep before doing it all again.
“People used to do drag for its own sake. Now, people have much more of a goal to make it a career. There is also a hierarchy that comes with the drag scene,” says former “Drag Race” competitor Miz Cracker, 34.
A 26-year-old newcomer to the scene agrees, saying there’s a zealousness the city’s queens have no choice but to develop if they want to survive in the scene.
“It’s just an environment where you’re surrounded by ambition and you’re forced to keep up,” says Golden Delicious, who was first exposed to the scene through “Drag Race.” Residing in Inwood, she considers herself to be one of many queens making up the city’s new generation of potential drag superstars.
The generation of social queens
Unlike the days when an aspiring queen had to fully submerge herself in the scene alongside a veteran mother to learn the ins and outs, younger “orphans” are stepping onto city stages with preparation provided by their television and computer screens.
Take Aquaria: Not yet a teen when “Drag Race” premiered in 2009, she grew up with the aid of the country’s fiercest competitors at her fingertips. She was hitting the city stages by 2014 and the underage ID in her pocket didn’t stop her. (According to several queens, it’s widely known in the community that performers often slip by security.)
Her path is one several newcomers are following today.
“Ten years ago, before ‘Drag Race,’ there were probably only a handful of us doing drag, but now years later, I mean there’s hundreds and hundreds of drag queens in the city,” Hamasaki, 27, says.
“Drag Race” gives viewers a look beyond the wigs and lip-sync battles, and when the episodes end, fans are now getting their drag fix elsewhere.
“I’m seeing an increase in drag performers who are inspired by YouTube videos, makeup tutorials,” Lady Bunny, 55, says, exploring the psyche of the latest generation. “A lot of these queens look really beautiful, but the makeup is just what you do before you go on the stage. Some of these queens are incredible; a lot of them are forgettable.”
Golden Delicious admits finding inspiration early on in YouTube videos posted by makeup bloggers but says it’s now all about social media.
Drag queens creating their own presence on Instagram is helping to spread interest by placing drag culture on the platforms teens head to daily.
“Now, Instagram is like the big thing. If you’re not curating a really great Instagram page, you’re not doing drag,” Golden Delicious says.
Most of the New York City competitors who make it onto “Drag Race” come with their own impressive fanbases. Aquaria entered her season with a combined 300,000 social followers on Instagram and Twitter. Now, she’s nearing 1.5 million.
“Instagram is such a great way of consuming drag. It goes beyond just taking really beautiful pictures. People can share this art through their stories in realtime and engage with fans,” Golden Delicious says. Her Instagram page is nearing 4,000 followers.
Still, the new age of drag existing offstage and growing in popularity isn’t sustainable solely behind the screen of a smartphone.
“I think it’s important to remember, and I stress this with a bit of humor in my shows, is that in order for the performers you support to be making a living doing what they do, you have to buy that ticket,” Golden Delicious stresses.
Are they buying those tickets?
For now, yes. Even with a decline in drag bars in comparison to the ’80s, venues like Industry Bar and the Laurie Beechman Theatre are finding themselves filled up with fans eager to take in a show, according to the performers.
And those audiences? They’re becoming more diverse than ever before.
Lady Bunny recalls a “rare Friday off” last month when she went to take in a drag show at the iconic Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.
“This place was packed to capacity with such a young, diverse crowd,” she says. “I caught a queen who I hadn’t seen perform in years, Diva Jackie Dupree, singing her butt off and really had the crowd going to everything from jazz to EDM.”
Drag shows that were once considered an underground scene centralized in lower Manhattan bars are now a part of event lineups at spots across Brooklyn and parts of Queens.
A passing trend?
Naturally, queens are building careers off the high interest among locals, tourists and Instagram users. But they’re not convinced it’ll last.
“There was actually a drag boom in the ’90s with “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “Wigstock: The Movie,” and RuPaul’s career took off,” Lady Bunny recalls. “Right after that ’90s boom, we all thought mainstream society accepted us, we had it made.”
But the interest faded with time.
“I don’t know if this current boom will last forever, but I sure hope so,” she adds.
Several queens fear the mainstream media focus on “Drag Race” won’t thrive long under the Trump administration.
“We have an office right now that wants to marginalize us to the point that we’d disappear again,” Golden Delicious says. “What I’m trying to do is recognize the platform that ‘Drag Race’ has given queens and remember that if we let ‘Drag Race’ be the only place we see drag, we’re going to get pushed under the radar again.”