In the rush to meet market demand, few in the drag business seem to be kept up at night by philosophical questions about what its mass commercialization might mean–for the LGBTQ community, for kids and families, or for the art form itself.
“The bigger the audience, the better,” says Shangela, a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3, which is airing now. “I don’t have any problem with drag being more mainstream . . . I enjoy the fact that we’re moving toward a place where people are a lot more open.”
Until recently, drag queens themselves were the main beneficiaries (to varying extents) of the gold rush set off by Drag Race. Three years after introducing herself to the public in the second season of the series, which aired in 2009, Shangela founded Say What Entertainment, a talent agency specializing in drag performers. The firm began by handling nightclub bookings but now brokers TV role deals, brand ambassador positions, and university speaking engagements. “We encourage our clients to go for the full gamut,” says Shangela, whose agency currently represents seven clients. “We want them to be very well rounded.”
In 2014, the drag queen known as BibleGirl launched Dragqueenmerch.com, an online store whose mission, she says, is “to not make it difficult for anybody” to monetize their craft, “because we’re already fighting to have an established mainstream market as a queer community in general.” Last year Dragqueenmerch.com partnered with global retail chain Hot Topic, a mainstay of the tween market, to distribute exclusive merchandise through its 600 North American stores and online. In 2017, BibleGirl’s company grew 30% and grossed over $1 million.
“I really do feel like this is at the tip of the iceberg,” BibleGirl says of the expanding merchandising opportunities for drag performers. “I think it’s going to be a very fast domino effect . . . The market is only getting wider.”
The influx of youngsters and their parents is assuredly good for business. It isn’t for nothing that in 2016 Covergirl announced its first male ambassador, and brands like Marc Jacobs and Diesel followed suit in booking androgynous talent. But I wonder–while the perusing leather body-harnesses, spike collars, and combat boots on offer–is how these commercial opportunities are impacting other facets of the culture. I ask Viktor Pelayo, founder of Huntees, who got his start making t-shirts for his dodgeball team before selling drag-themed swag, whether the expanding market influences his designs.
Drag’s transformation into a consumer segment comes at a time when gay nightlife in major cities is in flux. High rents and the ease of apps like Grindr are putting the squeeze on the gay bars where drag has traditionally thrived, mostly outside of mainstream view. Now that RuPaul’s Drag Race is mediating conversations about gender identity and sexuality across hundreds of thousands of American living rooms, drag iconography is taking on a new meaning, too–as just another way for kids to signal tribal belonging.