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To Be Real

Kelly Kline's 'Drag Survivor' rethinks the art of illusion
Brandon Watson, 3:20pm, Mon. Jan. 28, 2013
photo by flashyfish photography via Facebook
Drag Survivor's diverse line-up
The illusion of drag hides rigorous artifice. False eyelashes form impossible anime eyes. Foam sculpts exaggerated curves. Swipes of bronzer conjure Sophia Loren cleavage. Contouring, layered pantyhose, spirit gum; it’s all smoke and mirrors. Odd then that few goals in drag are as valued as realness.

Still, After Lady MF Glitta’s won Kelly Kline's Drag Survivor, it seems realness has its limits. Facebook quickly lit up with comments disparaging the judge's call. Maybe Glitta turned it during the competition, maybe her lip sync was on point. But she wasn’t supposed to win a drag competition. After all, Lady MF Glitta is a cisgender woman. Without illusion, the comments argued, where was the drag? Where was the challenge in being who you are?

Kelly Kline, the host and co-creator of the competition, seemed surprised at the hubbub. Inclusivity was advertised since the beginning. “I wanted to create a safe place for everyone, regardless of looks, age, race, and sexual orientation to showcase their talents. All contestants must sign a contract that states the competition is open to any gender. As entertainers, we all know we have to go above and beyond to entertain our audience, but the contest is judged 100% on lip-sync ability.”

Indeed, Kline’s commitment to diversity was backed up by the line-up of contestants. Along with traditional drag queens, the competitors included drag kings, genderfuck artists, and men performing as men. The runner-up, Chanel Andrews, is a transgender woman. Female illusion was decidedly not the point. As Kline said in a Daily Texan interview: “they could come out in a trash bag but if their lip-syncing is on point they will advance.”

Whether Kline intended it or not, the “come as you are” approach touched on a larger argument. Many in the community regard drag as the art of passing. The more convincing the simulacrum of the opposite gender, the more talented the queen. In its simplest form, drag is the performance of gender. Faux queens, women who perform in female drag, have certainly had a lot more practice.

Practice makes perfect, but drag's type of gender performance really has nothing to do with the roles that culture pins on assigned sex. Drag is a fiction. Dolly Parton performs drag with her exaggerated womanhood. The “Castro Clones” of the Seventies performed drag by emphasizing the superficial tokens of masculinity. Drag also often creates space between gender poles. Even RuPaul’s Drag Race, though restricting participation to anatomy, tends to be heading in a new direction. “Fishy” queens dominated the competition in its first couple of seasons. But the last two winners, Raja and Sharon Needles, rarely bother with “passing.”

Drag also has never been rigidly defined. The ball culture of the Eighties and Nineties, as shown in Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, included categories that allowed men to dress as butch archetypes. Leigh Bowery's drag often presented gender outside the binary. And many legendary drag troupes opened their doors to cis women from the start. Jessica Kitty Buick, one of Austin’s most well-known faux queens, offers some historical perspective.

"I came of age in San Francisco and was constantly aware of not only drag in general, but also drag being open to women. Early performers dating back to the Cockettes and the Popstitute group paved the way for women, making drag not solely about gender, but also performance quality. Drag queens, faux queens, and other gender benders weren’t some faraway vision on YouTube, but tangible performers who were also roommates, friends, and fierce entertainers."

Still, Austin has its share of traditionalists. Kline waxes philosophical. “There will always be people who oppose change. But change happens every day and is inevitable.” Buick admits that there “will certainly always be detractors who base the ideal art upon gender,” but was disappointed with the negativity. “Performing drag here in Austin solo as well as with Poo Poo Platter is a great honor, and for the most part people have been very supportive. I was shocked at the strong opinions surrounding Lady Glitta’s win. I don’t want to feel that there is a “glass ceiling” in Austin’s drag community.”

The implied glass ceiling seems particularly out of place in Austin – the place that beatified Leslie Cochran, is home to Kings N Things, and boasts Christeene. Faux queens add to Austin’s tradition of doing things its own way. Some might call that pioneer authenticity, in a city rapidly changing face, the very definition of "real."

Next in GayPlace: The AggreGAYtor: January 25 »