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BY CHARLES BATTERSBY | Drag was once on the fringe of society. Gender rebels performed their cutting-edge material in nightclubs and cabarets that most citizens never knew existed. Now drag culture is mainstream enough to warrant an industry convention that fills half of the Jacob Javits Center. The attendees at RuPaul’s DragCon NYC (Sept. 28-30) were an even mix of pro queens and their civilian fans — and this edition asserted itself as a place for parents to bring their kids, wholly in spite of the sexy outfits, bawdy humor, and free samples of alcoholic beverages on the show floor.
In its second year at the Javits Center, DragCon NYC not only took up more space, but also showed signs of catering to a wider crowd, including the disabled. New to the con was PinkOracle.com, which was founded by disabled queen Ramona Dabone and John Bowden after they visited last year’s DragCon.
The Javits Center hosts conventions that range from whimsical comic book conventions (this weekend’s New York Comic Con) to stuffy business events. DragCon is a mixture of both. Fans line up to meet celebrity queens, but the show floor was also checkered with booths run by serious businesses that provide supplies to professional drag performers.
Drag performers generally don’t use the sort of makeup that civilians buy at drug stores. Among the theatrical-caliber makeup suppliers at the con was Alcone, a long-lived company that once catered to Broadway, but became a staple for drag artists. We spoke to J.D. Kraemer of Alcone. “We’ve catered to the drag community since the beginning,” he explained. “We started out selling eyelashes to Broadway showgirls — who were the original drag queens.”
“Consumers” (as he calls the non-queens) were about half of his business, but the rest were professional drag artists stocking up on indispensables like Ben Nye face powder, and Kryolan TV paint sticks — a combination of makeup hardy enough even for clowns and geishas.
Smaller cosmetics manufacturers are also aiming to bring their products to gender fluid consumers, as was the case with Fluide, a smaller booth at the con. We spoke to Laura Kraber, the company’s co-owner and CEO. “We want to make makeup fun and easy for everyone,” she told us, “and break down some of the gender binaries that exist in the fashion and beauty world.” Around the show floor, there were dozens of similar small companies presenting drag-specific makeup, nails, eyelashes, and glitter for every part of the body.
One of the con sponsors was Anastasia Beverly Hills, and they catered to both pros and fans by offering makeup touch ups, followed by a photo shoot that literally placed people on a pedestal. Several other booths were offering recreations of high fashion photo shoots, to promote photography services. Jonsar Studios even had a fan blowing on the attendees to give these aspiring models the glamorous “wind in her hair” look, as photographers’ assistants hovered around. This sort of diva treatment is routine for the drag performers, but it is a fantasy come true for fans who want a taste of the glamorous life.
Unfortunately, even a glamorous photo shoot at a drag con is still no escape from politics! Although the con was planned a year ago, it happens to fall in the middle of a contentious Supreme Court confirmation, plus the regularly scheduled midterm elections. A panel was held on the “Resistance” movement, and booths were allocated to an anti-gun violence organization, as well as the “Swing Left” movement. Although there are a few members of the drag community who openly espouse conservative views, DragCon definitely hangs to the left (when not tucked).
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” has been on for 10 seasons; long enough for Ru and the girls to become role models to a generation of kids. During a Q&A with Michelle Visage and other judges from “Drag Race,” a mother and her teen daughter in the audience talked about how the sassy queen attitude can help cisgender girls in their own lives. The Swiger family came to DragCon together, and Franny Swiger noted, “ ‘Drag Race’ has brought me and [her daughter Emily] so close… I’ve used it as a tool to make her stand up for herself.” When picked on at school, Swiger instructed her daughter to, “Put your hand on your hip and use your best drag queen quote, and say ‘B!tch please.’ ”
To help promote this family-friendly image, the con has a new Kids’ Zone in the middle of the show floor (not too far from booths that were handing out samples of cinnamon-flavored whiskey, and 99 proof fruit beverages). The Kids’ Zone included a ubiquitous bouncy house, along with a theater for puppet shows, and frequent installments of the popular “Drag Queen Story Hour.”
A new organization joining the con this year at the Kids’ Zone was Sabre Guild: Empire Temple, a group of Star Wars fans who teach lightsaber techniques to younglings and Padawans. We asked Michelle Montanez, the assistant local director of the temple, how the crowd at DragCon differs from sci-fi oriented events like New York Comic Con. She said there weren’t any Jedi trainees in drag, but that the crowd was “less inhibited here… They’re more willing to jump in and do it.” As a result, Montanez noted, the group spends “less time creating illusion, and breaking down the barrier to entering this fantasy world, because everyone comes here, ready for that.”
For more information on the con, set to return to NYC in 2019, visit rupaulsdragcon.com.