A Fabulous New Book Is Here to Teach the Children About the History of Drag
No one can deny that the art of drag is having a moment right now. From RuPaul’s Drag Race winning Best Reality Competition Series at last year’s Primetime Emmys, to Shangela and Willam appearing in A Star is Born, drag queens seem to be everywhere.
If you are a recent lover of drag, and have really only been exposed through Drag Race, then Frank DeCaro’s new book, Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business, is for you. The new book is here to teach the children about the history of drag, shining a spotlight on those who sashayed in heels long before the queens of Drag Race.
NewNowNext sat down with DeCaro to talk tucking, henny history, and dish on all things drag.
The book is gorgeous. I wanted to ask, why do a book on drag?
About three-and-a-half years ago, Rob Pearlman at Rizzoli asked me out to lunch here in L.A. and said, “I’m looking for a person to do a book on drag, and I’m thinking that person should be you.” I’ve never had someone come to me before and say, “We think you should right a book on this topic.” So I didn’t quite know. And then I started to think to myself, Well, who else should do this book, if not me? I started to realize that I have been a “drag hag,” as I like to say, since I was about 4 years old—since I saw Herman Munster get hit by a bolt of electricity and turn into a female version of himself. I didn’t know who he was, this little Frankenstein monster in pin curls, but I was so taken with it! When I moved to New York, I really was following the careers of people like Lypsinka, Lady Bunny, RuPaul, Charles Bush. So I really knew this scene. I was never part of this community, but I was sort of Fan Number 1. I realized that I was exactly the right person to write this book.
Also, so much of the book—and the work that I’ve done in the last 10 years—the underlying theme and motivation for writing them has been, You need to know who these people are. You’re not paying enough attention to history. And, Your life will be better if you know who these people are. So I think that’s what sort of set the fire under me to write this book. It’s sort of…if you think drag began with Season 1 of RuPaul’s Drag Race—which I adore, just have to say—then this is what else you need to know. This is a primer of all the people you need to know about who aren’t on Drag Race, and then a big tribute to all the people who have revolutionized drag before Drag Race. That’s kind of my story, with why I did a drag book.
Were there things you were surprised to learn about when researching for this book?
Oh, yes. The thing that’s kind of staggering to me—there’s one person that a lot of modern queens, ones with any sense of history, talk about: Julian Eltinge. And Julian Eltinge was apparently such a thing that by 1912, he was given his own theater on 42nd Street. Now, it’s a multiplex right near Port Authority, but it’s still there! At least, the facade is still there—so like I like to say, it’s at least giving good face in New York City. But the idea that drag was something that has always been sought out, and the notion of drag as we think of it—you know, even though they didn’t use the phrase “drag queens” back then—has existed for a hundred years is kind of amazing to me.
I think it’s funny that drag has always been this kind of “walk on the wild side” thing for people, gay or straight. It’s just always been this groovy thing. Drag is an amazing form of entertainment, and I find that really fascinating—that if you were a cool, open-minded person, you went to a drag show. There’ve always been places to go to see this art form; I just don’t think any of us thought it would be on a primetime TV show featuring a draggle, as I like to call them, as queens. That they would be beating The Voice for the Emmy. I’m getting goosebumps about it—the idea that a drag queen won an Emmy and beat The Voice, this network juggernaut… as someone once said, “When RuPaul wins, we all win.”
Were you afraid that people would think you were just hopping on the bandwagon, since drag is having such a moment in pop culture right now?
[Laughs] Oh, yeah, I’ve just jumped on the bandwagon! Someone said to me early on, a friend of mine who’s a wonderful columnist, he said, “Write about the stuff that meant the most to you.” And that goes back 50 years. I mean, I’m an old bat. So it’s stuff that I loved. I’ve always been one of those gays who was interested in gay history, at least enough. I’m the person who is like, “Well, if you like Lady Gaga, she kind of shares the wardrobe gene with Elton John, and if you like him, you need to know about Liberace.” So you always have to go back and be like, Okay, who was doing what first, or at least early on, when things were newer? Because there’s always someone who was doing it before the person you discovered. It turned out that this book that wasn’t my idea could actually be the project that I could bring the most of myself to. I truly have been on the frontlines watching and loving this art form…I think drag queens are the torch-bearers of true entertainment. They’re a throwback to a time when performers wanted to look their best, give their all, send that audience home on a cloud. And I think no one does that more than drag queens. Good ones, anyway.
Do you remember the first drag show you went to?
The first—there was a drag queen in New Jersey. There was a bar called Charlie’s West. I think it was probably the summer after my freshman year of college, so the very early ‘80s. And there was a drag queen there named Mimi, and I dedicated the book to her even though I know nothing about her. She was my first drag queen, and she, as I recall, wore a sequin dress in the colors of the Italian flag. She didn’t tuck very well, god bless her. She had a bulge. But she made this huge impression! She would lip sync to “Where The Boys Are,” the Connie Francis song, and you can’t get more New Jersey than Connie Francis, or a drag queen dressed in the Italian flag. But there she was.
In some ways, it’s good to be an old fart because I’ve seen all of these legends live… I mean, I can text Bianca Del Rio. It still blows my mind to get a text back from Bianca Del Rio because she’s one of my absolute favorites. She’s a star for old time, not just a momentary thing.
If someone’s a fan of Drag Race, but that’s all they really know from the drag world, what you recommend they watch or read next?
I think they should buy this book! [Laughs] I think you kind of—you have to have your antenna up. There are so many things happening right this very minute. At this moment, the idea that The Queen is coming to home video, at the same time at Desmond Is Amazing is doing his thing and changing the world in his own little pint-sized fashion…it’s kind of amazing to me. You can have queens who are long gone and an 11-year-old, and you have to pay attention to all of it. That’s what you really have to do. And go see drag! Support it. Don’t just support the queens who are famous; support the ones who are up-and-coming. Most of the people I talk about in the book who’ve risen to prominence in their own towns, a lot of them have never been on Drag Race. I think the idea that drag is all-encompassing is exciting. And that you can be a bio-queen—the idea that you can be a cisgender woman who dresses like a drag queen and perform it. That’s pretty groovy. I get mad when people don’t accept that. It’s like, “Oh, just open the front door and let everybody in,” you know? Are they fabulous? Yes? Then they can come in. Who cares what you’re tucking or not tucking?
That’s what Elvira says—the only difference is that she doesn’t have to tuck.
I get into that at the end of the book. I talk about the notion of what drag means. And Elvira is signing and taking pictures with people at a drag event, while Mark Indelicato, who was on Ugly Betty, is talking about being kind of non-binary. And there was a trans guy on a panel, all at the same time…It’s kind of all going on. You’re kind of all doing something that’s worth paying attention to. It’s really an all-you-can-eat drag buffet. It’s really amazing how much you can experience if you look at the definition of drag, with very wide eyes. That’s what I’m hoping this book does. It’s not just drag queens; it’s all of it.
Do you have a drag name?
Well, I did play Fatty LuPone once. I dressed onstage as Patti LuPone’s fat sister—her twin sister, actually, but she’s just real fat.
Do you have a favorite queen?
Oh, I hate to pick one, but I can. [Laughs] I love them all, but my absolute favorite in Dina Martina because she goes to places that I never think she’s going to go to. Her utter lack of predictability thrills me. But there are 20 that blow my mind, and I’d do anything to see them. Whether it’s Lady Bunny or Bianca Del Rio—I could keep going on. I love them all. And I used to go to Wigstock, so any of the Wigstock queens.
What’s your favorite thing about drag?
My favorite thing about it is that it’s as fascinating and entertaining as it is. It’s everything I like about show business all in one place. It’s funny. It’s often glamorous. It’s subversive. And that—I like that combination. I think if you do anything that’s subversive, but you make it funny and fierce, that’s the way to reach your audience. It’s an agent for social change in the most palatable way possible. It really is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business is available now.