By BeBe Sweetbriar l www.bebesweetbriar.com
Why drag? Before we answer that question, I think we need to answer what’s art? I define art as a piece of work or project that make your senses come alive. Art stimulates thought, imagination and feelings through sight, sound, and touch. And drag through its creator does all of that. Drag is an art form, and those that practice it are artists. But their many tools available to artists by which they can stimulate thought, imagination and feeling, so why drag? I spoke with three exceptional artists of their respective crafts to help answer that question.
MAGNUS HASTINGS, Celebrity Photographer
On May 17 after many years of photographing drag queens from across the globe, renown celebrity photographer Magnus Hastings releases a new coffee-table book, Why Drag?, through Chronicle Books. The 224-page visual art book offers its readers a rare glimpse at a generation of drag. Inspired by his New York art exhibition of the same name in the summer of 2014, Hastings set out on a journey across the U.S. to shoot some of drag’s brightest talents and biggest names. “I planned on a book for years…..I decided in New York that I needed a (art) show, and if I did that right, maybe I’d get a book deal,” Magnus disclosed. While photographing 100s of drag queens, Hastings posed his models the question “why drag?”. The book offers some answers from queens like Bianca Del Rio, Bob the Drag Queen, Lady Bunny, Kim Chi, Courtney Act, Naomi Smalls, Sharon Needles and many, many, many more.
BeBe: Over the past few years we, the public, have been introduced to several drag pictorial books. What sparked your interest in doing Why Drag? Now and how long was the journey to publication?
Magnus Hastings: Well, I have been shooting drag queens for years. It’s been part of my life, and went into full throttle when I moved to Los Angeles three years ago. I was shooting drag queens knowing it was going to go somewhere. I love (drag) more than anything else. It makes total sense to me. I want to take people by the hand and show them what I love about the art form of drag. I went to a publisher 10 years ago, and they asked ‘who’s going to buy this homosexuals and transvestites?’ I guess it was too soon and too British. So, I’ve been shooting and shelving material. My New York exhibition Why Drag? (which strategically opened the day after the RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 6 finale with photos of Top 3 finishers Bianca Del Rio, Courtney Act and Adore Delano featured) after a 3 month (summer) run, and I got the book deal in November 2014. I’d say 40% of the book I shot for the exhibition, but I had like 6 months after the exhibition to shoot insanely for the rest. So, the book took a solid 2 years to put together.
BeBe: You chose Boy George to write the forward for Why Drag? Instead of a drag icon like RuPaul. George has said many times that he did not consider himself a drag queen, so why was he your choice?
Magnus Hastings: I didn’t (ask) Boy George because I thought him a drag queen. I picked him because he was my first experience of the gender bending art form. I remember seeing him in Culture Club saying to myself ‘that’s a girl’ because I had never seen anything like it before. He was so comfortable in his skin. He was the perfect person (to do the forward).
BeBe: Drag as an art form has been used to present many controversial topics and subjects over the years. In Why Drag? You present Bob the Drag Queen of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 8 in black face.
Magnus Hastings: Bob came to me and asked if I would shoot him in black face, and I said absolutely. I love pushing buttons. With Bob doing it, it takes away the power of black face.
BeBe: Is there a book tour planned?
Magnus Hastings: I want to go around a few places, but I have been so busy planning the three launches in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, I haven’t worked (a tour) out. But I want to.
Magnus Hastings launches his new coffee-table book Why Drag? In San Francisco on May 20th at 9pm before SOMETHING at The Stud featuring performances by SF drag queens in the book like Glamamore, Peaches Christ, Suppositori Spelling, Dulce De Leche, Mutha Chucka, Lady Bear, Raya Light and more. www.magnushastings.com www.thestudsf.com
DRAG QUEENS OF COMEDY
As an art form, drag is used to express an artist’s varied talents including comedy. A popular production presented by San Francisco grown Sasha Soprano, The Drag Queens of Comedy, brings together an array of legendary, seasoned and newer drag queens from across the country in a comedy show that leaves the audience in high anticipation for the next show. This year when the DQOC hits San Francisco for two shows on May 28, it will bring with it icons CoCo Peru, Lady Bunny, Varla Jean Merman and local legends Peaches Christ and Heklina, seasoned favorite Bianca Del Rio, and newer stars Trixie Mattel, Bob the Drag Queen, Alyssa Edwards and show producer Sasha Soprano. With the question of Why Drag? in mind, I spoke RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 8 and 5 stars Bob the Drag Queen and Alyssa Edwards, respectively, about the artistry and how it and RPDR has changed their lives.
BOB THE DRAG QUEEN
BeBe: During Season 8 of RuPaul’s Drag Race you had strong showing in most of the challenges, but came under a little fire from head judge Michelle Visage who accused you of showboating during the fan favorite Snatch Game challenge. How did you take the criticism?
Bob the Drag Queen: I listened to what she said, but my thing has always been (to) show ‘em what you got! Show your talent because you only have so many episodes to do it.
BeBe: Have you performed in such a entertainment platform before like the Drag Queens of Comedy that includes a wide range of experience and appeal in its cast?
Bob the Drag Queen: I have performed with seasoned drag queens before. Yes, I’m pretty new to the national scene, but I’ve been doing drag for 7 years now. All those, should I loosely use the term, ladies have been doing drag much longer with Alyssa next to me at 10 years.
BeBe: You have a multitude of talent. Why did you choose drag as the art form to showcase your talents?
Bob the Drag Queen: I was really inspired by RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve watched every episode. It looked fun and like something I could do. I got addicted to doing it. Every week I would go out and do drag whether I was paid or not. I did every competition I could. I learned to sew, do my makeup, walk in heels, make a (performance) mix. It’s truly a magical art form. It’s one of the true art forms meaning you have to learn drag from another drag queen. There’s no there’s way to learn drag.
BeBe: With RPDR your inspiration, I can only imagine how it felt for you to not only be on the show but to be in the Top 3 finale.
Bob The Drag Queen: It’s two things; It is an honor and it feels right to me. It feels like it was supposed to happen. I’ve always been a goal setter. If I say I am going to be on RuPaul’s Drag Race, even though there are a million drag queens with more experience, better make-up, and more famous than me, you can bet your bottom dollar I’m going to be on RuPaul’s Drag Race. That’s just how I am.
BeBe: Some former drag queens of RPDR have drawn criticism for going into so many different directions and not focusing on what they are most good at after being on the show. What will be your focus after Season 8?
Bob the Drag Queen: I am and always have been a stand comedian and actor. Those are my passions. I don’t have a passion for music, or creating fashion and make-up lines. I’m a performer.
BeBe: So, no album?
Bob the Drag Queen: (laughing) yeah, a contemporary jazz album of standards, Bob Lowers The Standard .
BeBe: It’s both a pleasure and a surprise to have you coming to San Francisco as a part of the cast of The Drag Queens of Comedy. I mean you have given us so much beauty, performance dance, and a trillion one liners that are now a part of gay culture, but we haven’t seen you do 10-15 minutes of stand-up comedy. Will this be a challenge for you?
Alyssa Edwards: I am so excited. When they told me I was coming with the DQOC, I had to look at the memo again because I said ‘I don’t know what kind of fucking jokes I’m gonna tell these folks.’ When I saw the lineup I was like ‘Oh hell to the fucking naw.’ Some of my very, very favorite legendary, iconic entertainers in the business (in the lineup). But, I’m gonna come up with something. With my comedy, it’s really unintentionally funny. It’s not like I’m gonna be up there ‘you’re Mama’s so fat she uses a VCR for a pager.’ I think my biggest challenge is that I only have 15 minutes. I am a talker with the gift of gab. I’m gonna go with the energy of the room. I’ll prepare an outline, but the minute I start going script it will sound canned and that’s not me.
BeBe: You’ve done so much with your drag art; the pageants, the stage performances, hosting your own YouTube show Alyssa’s Secrets, an upcoming one-woman show. Do you have your eyes set on something for the rest of your drag career?
Alyssa Edwards: Before Drag Race, I had quit drag. A year before RPDR, I had sold everything. I felt I had reached a plateau. I was focusing my time, energy, efforts and my art into my dance company (Beyond Belief Dance). The studio was (demanding) so much of me at that time with being voted one of the Top 10 studios of the South. All the charades and shenanigans…the struggle is real but the hustle is deep. Trying to get a gig, trying to get an opportunity is severe. Before RPDR came along, the girl was hustling. Pageants aren’t cheap, and after the dethroning (Miss Gay America, 2010), I’d had enough! I sank my heart into the dance studio. And then, Shangela (RPDR Seasons 2 & 3) said I should do Drag Race. The next thing I knew I’m back up in drag on Season 5. Here I am 3 years later. It has opened and reopened so many doors. It changed my life. But I don’t know what’s next for me. I’m just enjoying life as much as everybody else is.
BeBe: What about the future of the show, Beyond Belief, about your dance studio? It’s been in development for a couple of years with World of Wonder.
Alyssa Edwards: Stay tuned! A lot of it is timing. Not one network said no, but not one network said 100% yes either. We are still pushing and revamping a little. I really believe in it.
BeBe: You work with many young kids in your dance studio which leads me to ask about your impact on gay youth as a gay drag performer with international notoriety. Even in the days of so much progress in LGBTQ equality, so many gay youths still can’t see themselves achieving what they want to do or who they want to be simply because they are gay. But you are a role model that says you can do and be all you want. How do you feel about what you have done as an inspiration to others?
Alyssa Edwards: I think it was my calling. That’s why I have kept my dance studio in Mesquite, Texas. There’s not a lot of wealthy families there. It’s very rewarding to know life has come full circle and that I’m able to give back. I honestly believe that’s why I’ve been blessed abundantly. The greatest reward I’ve received is the gift of being a teacher, which even goes into drag with the Haus of Edwards (Alyssa Edwards, Shangela, Laganja Estranja, and Gia Gunn).
Alyssa Edwards and Bob the Drag Queen appear with Bianca Del Rio, CoCo Peru, Lady Bunny, Trixie Mattel, Varla Jean Merman, Peaches Christ, Heklina and Sasha Soprano in The Drag Queens of Comedy will be in San Francisco on May 28 for two shows at 6pm and 10pm at the Castro Theater. For tickets and more info www.DQOC.com