Part 1: The Divine Origins
In this 3-part series, A. Loudermilk writes about the drag queen YouTube videos that are as transgressive as they are outrageous.
The first part looks at how the origins of the drag queen video in the days before YouTube.
Drag queens and YouTube videos are both DIY at heart. Each comes to life in front of an ordinary mirror or a computer screen, often privately and with little-to-no experience. Even if a drag performer gets a big name and hipster stylists, hers is at root a DIY stardom. Even if her music videos get a slick director, the YouTube network that hosts those videos began as a DIY enterprise and fosters mainly user-generated content.
Free and easy, clicked hard and shared worldwide, the joy of YouTube’s increasing number of drag music videos — by performers such as Lady Bunny, Jackie Beat, Kevin Aviance, Willam, and Loco Mama — is how in your face they are. And I mean literally, thanks to computers, right in your face. Drag shows at clubs may offer you a crowd to rub up against and a chance to tip a fave queen, but these low- or no-budget music videos needn’t be constrained by stage size. A brief overview of these video stars shows how drag’s gender-fuckery and strut’n’slut politics are all the more flagrant in their fun when on replay for the masses.
To begin with a look back at drag performers who made music videos in the 1980s-90s is not a hollow gesture. After all, their once rare videos are now youtubiquitous.
By 1981, having earned her notoriety in the X-rated ‘midnight movies’ of John Waters, husky-voiced Divine made a series of Hi-NRG dance tracks like ‘Born To Be Cheap’. Of her videos, the most quintessential is surely ‘I’m So Beautiful’. Aggressively proud in a platinum blonde wig, and alternating between tight pink and silver gowns, Divine walks a set decked with mirrors while insisting, “Look at me!” and “We’re all beautiful, can’t you see?” Far more engaging in her videos than in the many live clips at poorly lit clubs, Divine embodies the qualities found in most drag music videos to come: camp, bad taste, and wanton transgression.
Even Divine, however, can be predated as a music video star by that sainted androgyne known as Sylvester.
After sharing the stage with both The Hot Band and the genderqueer Cockettes, Sylvester committed her queenly falsetto to an album Rolling Stone begrudgingly deemed “as good as disco gets.” The anthem, ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’, hit #1 on the dance charts. In its video, just as the chorus kicks in, there is Sylvester head-to-toe in disco gold. No other words describe Sylvester better than mighty and real. Post-disco in 1983, the flagrantly titled ‘Hard Up’ got the soft touch video-wise. Footage of Sylvester being hoisted about by musclemen got cut, rendering the video not only drag-free but also sexless. And as such it went on to earn its credit as the third video by an African-American artist to air on MTV.
Three other drag stars from the 1980s and early ‘90s whose videos found renewed life on YouTube in the 2000s are The Goddess Bunny, RuPaul and DeAundra Peek. No three people could be more different from each other and from everyone else on earth too.
Goddess Bunny is a polio survivor whose ‘Tap Dance Video’, though it barely qualifies as a music video, became a treasured underground VHS among videophiles. Wearing a white negligee and toting a white parasol, Bunny’s wasted limbs are fully exposed as she tap-dances on patio concrete.
Where the person ends and the freak begins is a line Bunny works like a runway, breaking taboos with self-determination. This last year, as the sole star in the video for Tenderloin’s ‘The Golden One’, Goddess Bunny lip-syncs the lyrics while replicating her ‘Tap Dance Video’ in a wheelchair, conveying more tenderness that freakishness.
Without knowing it, many have seen Goddess Bunny in Marilyn Manson’s video The Dope Show’, right as Manson repeats the final line: “We’re all stars now in The Dope Show.” And the Goddess Bunny is a star—the most DIY drag star on the Hollywood scene.
As for the RuPaul and DeAundra Peek, they’re both Atlanta gals. RuPaul’s ‘Supermodel (You Better Work)’, deserves its status as the most famous drag anthem of all time. Written and sung by the gorgeous force behind RuPaul’s Drag Race (a current purveyor of drag music videos to which we’ll return later), the ‘Supermodel’ video enacts its star’s rise from humble beginnings, an American Dream narrative parodied lovingly by RuPaul’s stylistic antithesis DeAundra Peek.
If RuPaul sublimates her Georgia upbringing for a high-toned persona, DeAundra Peek cranks it up to ridiculous proportions.
A sissy hick in booger drag, DeAundra looks not unlike a Muppet. She interjects a drawled-out “Yayyy” every ten words and has two dimwit sidekicks. Channelling the incompetence of The Shaggs through RuPaul’s lyrics, DeAundra’s delivery is so annoying it’s endearing. The song title should be ‘Supermuddle’ instead.
In her parody of the video, she winds up on the cover of Trailer Teen magazine, above the words BIGGER THAN RUPAUL. As for her parody of Deee-Lite’s ‘What Is Love?’, DeAundra changes words like deee-licious and deee-groovy to deee-spicable, deee-pilatory and of course Deee-Aundra Peek! Yayyy! Originally these music videos aired on Atlanta’s public access program The American Music Show, a no-budget series that also gave us Lady Bunny.
Parody becomes the gambit of choice for many queens in the 2000s, not surprising if one considers drag itself a parody of the hussy or bitch. Glamorous or lowbrow, it’s a stereotype emphasizing cooter couture a/k/a pussy power. This stereotype finds equally exaggerated company in several drag music videos, none of which shock the senses quite like those by Lady Bunny, Jackie Beat and Willam.
Read Part 2, ‘The Impact of the YouTube Parody’, which looks at the YouTube sensations who parody mainstream pop stars and play havoc with their notions of identity.
Read Part 3, ‘The Original Singers, the Original Songs, and the Future of YouTube Drag’, which looks at the drag queens who sing their own original songs, as well as the future of the DIY YouTube video.