Drag culture is as popular as ever. But beneath the makeup is a rich history of promoting LGBTQ acceptance
It’s tough to pinpoint when drag went mainstream in Las Vegas. Maybe it was RuPaul’s Drag Race becoming a runaway (or is that runway?) success on TV, eventually landing its own show at the Flamingo. Or maybe it was 2003, when Cirque du Soleil contracted one of the most subversive drag queens in America, Joey Arias, to emcee its third Las Vegas production, Zumanity. Or 18 years before that, when the Riviera introduced An Evening at La Cage, no doubt rubber-stamped because of the success of the female-impersonation show across the street, Boylesque.
The truth is: Las Vegas was out before you were — or before Siegfried and Roy ever were. At the very least, drag isn’t the niche diversion you may have thought it was. From anchoring both straight and gay clubs in the 1940s to male performers in dresses and makeup reading books to children in Henderson libraries, drag culture has had the kind of multi-demographic audience Madison Avenue could only dream of, and its appeal has accelerated alongside LGBTQ acceptance and cultural exposure. Plus, the Venn diagram overlap between drag and Las Vegas is considerable: They’re both glitzy, sensational, uninhibited — and hoping you’ll take out your wallet and make it rain.
“Drag has always been part of the Strip,” says Coco Montrese, longtime Las Vegas drag performer and former contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “People have always come to see drag because they want to get away from the norm, (especially) if you’re from Iowa or Wyoming or someplace like that. When you come to Vegas, that’s what you want to see. They want to see something they can’t see at home. Vegas and drag have come hand in hand.”
Drag’s reign on Las Vegas stages predates World War II. As documented by local historian Dennis McBride in his 2017 book Out of the Neon Closet: Queer Community in the Silver State, national touring female impersonator Billy Richards landed a two-month stint at the Fremont Tavern back in 1938. Richards would return six years later to a pioneering gay club on Charleston Boulevard called the Kit Kat, which openly advertised drag shows at “Nevada’s Gayest Night Club” until it was sold in 1944.
Queens from the Kit Kat would later find work in town just like female impersonators did in other American cities: performing in both heterosexual and queer spaces. “There’s always been a gay audience and a straight audience for female/male improvisation,” says Joe E. Jeffreys, a drag historian and video documentarian based in New York City. Jeffreys, who traces drag as far back as the Old Testament, says that the art form really thrived during the age of vaudeville — from the mid-1880s up until the advent of television — where drag performers were as commonplace as singers and dancers (which drag queens often were themselves). This meant straights were the drag world’s biggest audience — especially since most gay functions that featured female impersonators were, at the time, clandestine affairs.
In Las Vegas, not only did the queens play straight venues and gay bars, they also notably worked their way into hotel-casino showrooms and lounges, freelancing the Strip like America’s Got Talent acts do today. In November 1953, nationally renowned female impersonator Lynne Carter played an extended engagement at the El Cortez while transgender performer Christine Jorgensen wowed packed crowds at the Sahara. That same hotel would serve as the local launching pad for the East Coast show Boylesque, helmed by the late, widely revered Kenny Kerr. He and the new local version of Boylesque — which eventually held court at the Silver Slipper across the street — would play a pivotal part in “the golden age of drag,” as McBride terms it, during the 1980s.
Since then, multiple shows and performers have found a home both on the Strip and off. There’s even a weekly drag brunch event at Señor Frog’s, where Montrese and others work the tables while diners guzzle mimosas and enter twerking contests.
Montrese, one of 10 local queens who have been featured on Drag Race, is also one of the many local participants in Dragapalooza, a recent video-on-demand performance film — think VH1 Divas, but gayer. It’s also a glow-up from the modern era of drag, where performers eschew singing for lip-syncing. While Jeffreys calls the latter “an art form,” the performers of Dragapalooza proudly belt their numbers out, and they’re flanked by live musicians (which includes local Grammy-nominated producer/DJ Chris Cox). Not only is drag crossing over to the world of pay-per-view, but also concerts.
Then again, drag is the ultimate crossover, and the metaphor goes beyond gender. There’s a reason why Boylesque endured during a time when the AIDS crisis heightened homophobia, and why An Evening at La Cage, another 1980s-born drag revue and a star vehicle for Joan Rivers impersonator Frank Marino, became a go-to Strip show for uptight tourists seeking an experience they likely wouldn’t have pursued back home in Dubuque.
“Audiences both gay and straight have always had the fascination with crossing the gender line,” says drag historian Jeffreys. “It’s something so impermeable, but actually it’s very porous; it’s very easy to go from one side of the gender binary to the other. That’s a problem in and itself, that people see it as a binary. ... Gender is learned behavior or presentation, so this is what amazes people. Other people have figured out the tricks of gender. And for a lot of gay people, for the things they were criticized for as a kid — they’re too swishy or too masculine — they are (now) praised for.”
And in Las Vegas, the added layer of celebrity impersonation can be the hook for straight audiences, thus blurring, if not erasing, the lines of gender and sexuality. “(Drag) is exciting to watch, especially when you’re doing look-a-likes,” says veteran drag performer Toni James. “People can’t believe that a guy can look like, say, Diana Ross or Whitney Houston or Cher or any of the famous superstars that a lot of us impersonate. They got mesmerized by it. ... When people see you on stage, they forget the discrimination stuff.”
More than that, drag has bridged the queer and straight populations. McBride writes that drag was a “vehicle for (LGBTQ) community whose importance is often overlooked.” Historically, straight folks weren’t comfortable going to businesses that celebrated gay sexuality, but they’d patronize showrooms and lounges to see gay performers. McBride writes, “It was nonetheless these entertainers who often provided straight people their first glimpse of gay community. With their gay lives and their straight audiences, female impersonators brought both worlds together.”
Which makes drag queens natural ambassadors of the LGBTQ community. Jeffreys compares the stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race to Miss America contestants who must use their platform to connect with the public offstage and express what they’re about. He also cites the work of cultural anthropologist and drag scholar Esther Newton, who ascertained that drag and camp are the two things most representative of homosexuality in the Western world. “So the drag queens are the spokespeople of the gay community,” Jeffreys says.
That platform now stretches to the suburbs. “It’s now to the point where everyone is turned on about it,” Montrese says. “I can be in a Target and I’ll see a father and his football-player son, and they’ll both say, ‘Oh, it’s you! We watch you on the show — we love you, you’re awesome!’ And I’m like, ‘Ohhhh, okay. Well, thank you!’ It catches you off guard.”
“That’s the new dimension,” Jeffreys says. “I’m constantly amazed that when I go to some of the Drag Race events, the demographics of the audience — it’s not a gay audience.”