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03Aug

How You Get Famous by Nicole Pasulka review – the triumph of drag

Why has drag culture exploded in the past decade? Pasulka finds answers in the stories of Brooklyn’s charismatic queens

On a Saturday afternoon in September 2018, I went to Bushwig, a drag festival in New York, where, over two days, 150 queens appeared in front of a highly enthusiastic and somewhat unhinged crowd – perhaps channelling Britney Spears at the 2001 MTV awards, someone even brought a live python on to the dancefloor. There was bawdy comedy and performance art so out there it was almost extraterrestrial. A dizzying variety of ages, genders and aesthetics were represented, with music ranging from heavy metal to diva classics. Bushwig confirmed that drag had become the pre-eminent performing art of the decade, and that Brooklyn was its spiritual home.

Nicole Pasulka’s book How to Get Famous sets out to explain why that happened. While modern drag was born in prohibition-era Manhattan, as evidenced by dances like the Hamilton Lodge (also known as Faggots’) Ball where men would frolic dressed as showgirls, it took 80 years and a trip across the East River for drag to get supercharged by a new generation. These queens – mostly young, often people of colour – wanted to use drag not just as a means of performing a gender illusion, but in order to express their personal history, cultural and racial identity or penchant for gross-out humour. While the drag they performed was rough and messy, low down and dirty, they had artistic aspirations that were higher than just a flawless face or a super-convincing tuck – though if they could manage those as well, all to the good.

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