• Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander drag entertainers at Miss First Nation. They're part of an ecosystem that goes beyond TV's Drag Race. (AAP)Source: AAP
The show has turned a fringe culture into mainstream fare, but First Nations queens aren't getting their fair share of the glory.
By
Dan Butler

Source:
NITV News
23 Jun 2021 - 3:49 PM  UPDATED 24 Jun 2021 - 10:38 AM

The international reality TV behemoth Rupaul’s Drag Race has just wrapped its first season “Down Under”, and if the memes are anything to go by, it wasn’t one for the ages. 

Even before the show aired, there was a cloud over the production: drag star Felicia Foxx publicly called out one of the contestants, Scarlet Adams, for her history of performing in blackface.

Representation also became an issue pretty quickly: the show, a mix of Australian and New Zealand queens, failed to include any Maori contestants.

The only two queens of colour on the show, the inimitable Jojo Zaho, and the incomparable Coco Jumbo, were sent home on weeks 1 and 3, and the white queen sent home on week 2 was brought back later without an explanation as to why. 

In the end, the top four were all white, and the person with the most wins under her belt? Scarlet. 

She didn’t win, but it was the show’s attempt at handling the issue that had many up in arms. 

“I don't think they did handle it, to be blunt” says Stone Motherless Cold, an Arrernte drag performer working in Naarm. 

“We were all aware (on the drag scene) that Felicia Foxx had called out Scarlet... We were just wondering how it was going to be dealt with.

"And it was done in the blink of an eye... Rupaul was more mad about (contestants) wearing h&m clothes than (having done) blackface. 

Perhaps it was inevitable after so many seasons, but this isn’t the first time fans have accused the show of failing to live up to their expectations.

Rupaul caused outrage and subsequently apologised when he said trans women couldn't compete on the show after beginning their physical transition; fans complained when there was a long stretch with all-white winners; and then of course there was the revelation that  Rupaul profits from fracking on his ranch (co-owned with his Australian husband).

With such a chequered history, perhaps it’s no wonder that for some, this latest stumble was the final straw. 

Stone gave up on the show long ago, and the idea of ever being involved is dismissed.  

“I started watching in 2016, and began drag myself shortly after that. But I’ve stopped looking up to Rupaul for years now… Especially as a trans woman, I wouldn’t feel comfortable on the show.”

***

Drag Race premiered on cable US TV in 2009. An infamously opaque filter did the heavy lifting of masking the show’s meagre budget. But the slapdash campery of it all seemed appropriate for a show centred on radical counter-culture. 

It had a diverse set of contestants, was hosted by a famous Blak drag queen, and the inaugural winner was an immigrant from Cameroon, come to America to chase her dreams. It perfectly captured the Obama-era optimism. 

Fast forward 12 years, countless seasons, international syndication and hundreds of drag queens, and those humble roots have long been forgotten. 

The show is an industry now, Rupaul’s name is gold-dust to advertisers, and the financial stakes are infinitely higher.

It’s a pressure that has flowed through to the contestants. Many queens take on large debts in preparation for the show; some reports say spending USD$20,000 is common. 

“I cannot even fathom having that much money,” says Stone. 

“The show has created a hierarchy of what drag should apparently look like. It’s increased the expectations… People expect drag artists to have shit tons of money.”

But for many, that price tag is out of reach, and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performers, it can be especially true.

The drag scene is not immune to racism. 

“A lot of First Nations and POC queens aren’t getting the gigs, events and shows... (they’re) not getting mainstage commercial gigs,” says Ben Graetz, also known as Miss Elaneous, a drag queen and 24 year veteran of the performing arts. 

“Because of that it’s harder to resource your drag. Drag is a very expensive art form.”

Ben is a descendant of the Northern Territory’s Iwaidja and Malak Malak clans, and of the people of Badu Island in the Torres Strait.   

Another former fan of the show, he lost interest in the most recent season after the two queens of colour were sent packing, with the familiar critique that their drag lacked “polish”.

“(Drag Race) has become popular culture, which is fine, but it’s made alternative drag less popular. 

“I believe in the whole ecology of drag, and there’s a lot more diversity than what is shown on the show. I think it only shows a small part of what there actually is.”

Acutely aware of the lack of opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander drag queens, in 2017 Ben co-founded the Miss First Nation pageant. It’s the country’s only national competition for Blak queens.

He says “polish” is not one of the top criteria for winning queens. 

“Oh god no... and what’s so beautiful about the Miss First Nation competition, it’s not about how polished you are, it’s about who you are, and how unique your character is, and your connection to audience. 

“It’s not about how good your makeup or outfits are.”

In that way, the competition harks bark to the art form’s more radical roots. 

The Stonewall riots of 1969, acknowledged as the initiating event of the Pride movement, were started when trans Blak drag queen Marsha P Johnson threw a brick at raiding police officers.

The ballroom scene in 1980s New York saw queer Blak communities coming together to perform drag for each other in defiance of the racism and homophobia they faced daily. 

Competitors on Rupaul’s Drag race, on the other hand, sign binding legal agreements that limit their speech for years, in a sign of the tight image-management the show’s vested interests enforce. 

In contrast, Ben says the politics are still as present as ever at Miss First Nation. 

"I was always taught the moment you’re born an Aboriginal or Torres Strait islander person, you are born political. I’ve always believed that. 

“First Nations queens are gonna be political because of the nature of the art form, and what they’re representing. They’re making a statement about their sexual orientation and their gender identity.”

For Ben, there’s a natural affinity between drag and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. 

“We come from the oldest surviving culture on the planet, so we’ve got music, story telling, song and dance in our DNA. I think that’s what makes us unique as performers and artists and drag queens, that knowledge and culture. 

After her experiences of racism in the drag scene, Stone Motherless Cold started her own drag house, and organises gigs for herself and her sisters, which includes Cerulean, recently crowned 2021 Miss First Nation. 

She has a simple test for people who say they enjoy drag. 

“My question is, if you say you’re into drag, can you name 10 Rupaul drag queens? (Now) can you name 10 drag artists from your local scene? And if not, then you're not a fan of drag, you’re a fan of Drag Race.

Ben Graetz says it’s there’s a simple remedy for those who’ve become disillusioned with the show, and want to support the art form. 

“It’s all about generally supporting your local drag scene… and it’s about supporting all of our diverse queens, POC, First Nations, disability queens.

Yes Rupaul has made drag extremely popular, and brought it to a general audience. The exciting thing about drag is that there will always be an undercurrent of something new and evolving. There’s always gonna be someone creating something that is a revolt against the norm and the popular.”

Aboriginal drag queen Felicia Foxx to walk the runway at Australian Fashion Week
Drag queen Felicia Foxx has been selected to walk the catwalk at the forthcoming Australian Fashion Week.