Saturday 20 December 2014
Drag as high art
Never thought I'd use that headline, at least not until I got hooked on RuPaul's Drag Race. The diplomate was sick in bed one weekend and turned to Netflix for comfort viewing. I only had to see a couple of minutes to know that this was better than daft: a game show in which queens from all over North and Central America compete for the drag crown. The path has led from watching all the series to buying a couple of tickets to see the Series Five winner Jinkx Monsoon, a self-styled Jewish narcolept from Portland, Oregon, in action at Camden's Black Cap Club. This was the consequence of re-bonding with lovely goddaughter Rosie May, studying theatre design at Central, who's good friends with hostess Meth and was amazed when, at the end of a dim sum lunch at our Soho regular, the Joy King Lau, we brought up her favourite programme.
RuPaul's Drag Race is in turn inspired by the seminal documentary about the drag balls of 1970s New York, Paris is Burning. When I first saw the film a couple of decades ago I warmed to the wit and wisdom of the participations. Watching again, I found it achingly sad: the resilience and creativity still blaze through, but how circumscribed it was by society then, how many of the folk in it met their end through AIDS or, in one case, being murdered by a client. That all seems so far off in the relaxed, anything-goes climate of this series. No holds barred on the language: one of the catchphrases comes in the 'lipsynch for your life' finale when the two competitors at the bottom have to battle it out on the catwalk - 'and don't fuck it up'. The entrants have to display their Charm, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent; of the two lipsynchers, Ru says to one, following the Paris is Burning lingo, 'chantez, you stay', to the other, 'sashay away'.
A more charming and encouraging drag mother you could hardly find (Ru appears for part of the show undragged, as above on the right). There are defiant mantras like 'RuPaul's Drag Show - bringing families together', and my favourite slot each season is the one in which the entrants have to drag up and make up outsiders. One deliciously skewed instance is when the grooms-to-be of engaged straight couples have to be dressed up as the bride before the couples can be married onstage. In another, mostly older gay men from the US armed forces who fought for the rights which, among other things, make the show the happy, liberated thing it is become the 'drag mothers' (or sisters). This is where I totally took my hat off to Jinkx and his/her emotionally mature response to his veteran 'drag mother', who found it difficult as an HIV-positive man on a punishing drug regime to moves easily.
Their partnership as Liza and Ethel won the game, of course, and despite being bullied by an especially insecure and spiteful fellow-finalist, our Jinkx took the crown. Watch her wipe the floor with Detox lipsynching for her life to Yma Sumac's 'Malambo No. 1'. The only decent version on YouTube doesn't seem to be downloadable so click here for the link.
What's artistic? Quite apart from the sheer 'Miss Congeniality' star quality of many of the performers - who could not adore big basso Latrice Royale, 'chunky but funky'? - some, like Jinkx can really sing at the level of any cabaret chanteuse, while the inventiveness of gown, frock and wig design in the many costume changes of each episode, can be breathtaking. It's actually not so far away from the couture of pantomime dames, which gives me the pretext of a picture interlude. The other week, I took my aged P to the latest Wimbledon pantomime, Cinderella (and got to write about it for The Arts Desk). A memory that will stay with me always is ma laughing until she cried at the ponies pulling Cinderella's coach - something she remembers from her childhood - and at the animal heads in a sylvan interlude (pure Magic Flute).
Father and son Matthew Kelly and Matthew Rixon are sisters Cheryl and Mel (photographed here by Craig Sugden in images I couldn't cram in to the review). Oddly the costume designer isn't credited in the programme, but he/she has done wonders on the breakfast frocks, the girl guides terrorising little Wayne Sleep at the country fair
and - these of course have to be the pieces de resistance - the ballwear.
As for Jinkx, she is a consummate artiste. That much was evident in her all too brief, post-cold slot with brilliant pianist Major Scales at the Black Cap: every line, ad lib, grind and bump perfectly timed. The singing voice is unique, too.
The snag - and this is why I can't go back to see Latrice - is the amplification, so distortingly loud I went temporarily deaf in my left ear. And it was pointless in that one could hardly catch a word of any of the songs. I wouldn't want Jinkx to leave the drag circuit, but she's good enough to wow much larger and more mixed audiences than this. Watch her fly. And, whoever you are, watch all of RuPaul's Drag Race as a chunk of pure seasonal escapism and joy.