Drag – The Complete Story is a beautiful new book by US author Simon Doonan that traces the history of drag from Rome to the Renaissance to RuPaul and much more. Packed with fascinating photos and Simon’s witty text it’s a must for anyone really interested in the fascinating history of the art form. Dave Cross met up with Simon to find out more.
Hi Simon, what made you want to write a book on the history of drag?
Drag is suddenly at the centre of the entire culture. It seemed like the perfect moment for a historical/hysterical drag overview.
Did you work to a strict definition of what drag is in the book?
These days there is nothing strict about drag. There are no limits. There are straight women and young kids who identify as drag queens. It’s a great time for discarding old definitions and embracing creative expression.
What were the earliest examples you found?
Ancient China, Egypt, Rome. We are talking some serious BC thousands-of-years-ago drag.
In the UK we are taught that men had to dress as women to play female roles in the theatre, Shakespeare is usually credited with this, what did you find out about that?
The greatest roles in the theatre, such as Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra – were originally played by teenage boys. Elizabethan England was totes dragtastic.
The other great British traditions are music hall and panto, do you cover those?
Yes! Drag queens and drag kings were a huge part of Victorian and Edwardian popular entertainment. We devote many pages to these fabulous thespians.
What are the earliest things you found in America?
One of the biggest drag stars at the dawn of the 20th Century was Daniel Eltinge. He was such a huge star that he had a theatre in New York named after him. He even published a magazine offering beauty tips to his female fans. I guess this makes him the world’s first drag beauty influencer.
In the UK there’s a history of drag performers imitating famous women, did that also happen in America?
Yes, impersonation was big in the US drag scene. Charles Pierce did a mean Bette Davis, and Jim Bailey was known for his Judy. Audiences loved seeing their idols satirised by witty men.
What impact did films like Priscilla and To Wong Foo have on drag?
These were playful camp movies which enjoyed wide viewership because the stars were big names like Patrick Swayze, Guy Pearce and Terrence Stamp. They are drag landmarks in the entertainment industry and definitely helped bring it to a mass audience.
Largely thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race drag has become big business, what do you think of the show and the impact it’s had?
The explosive positive Impact of RuPaul and Drag Race is hard to measure. I am sensing a Nobel prize at some point.
Are you looking forward to the UK show?
Of course… I cannot wait for the UK version.
Do you have any favourite UK drag performers?
My all-time favourite is Dame Edna aka Barry Humphries. Born in Australia but has lived most of his life in the UK. A true genius. Does he qualify?
Where do you think drag is heading next?
Drag is wildly unpredictable. I await the future with baited breath. Not knowing where it’s all going is part of the magic of drag.
Is there anything else we need to know about your gorgeous book?
Yes please! 100% of my proceeds benefit The Ali Forney Centre in Harlem supporting LGBTQ homeless kids.