“I hate going out the door in drag in the daytime,” confessed Tyra Sanchez, a contestant on the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, expressing an anxiety seasoned drag queens are all too familiar with. Being a drag queen before dark has historically been an uncomfortable experience at best, and a dangerous one at worst.
That anxiety seemed far from anyone’s mind on a recent Sunday afternoon in May, as drag queen Victoria Holiday whipped her white hair around to “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” carefully descending from the stage at Bizarre Bushwick into a cheering and tipsy brunch crowd. Spring sunlight streamed in through the windows as she collected tips from a bachelorette party, and soon, invited a woman in her 60s to join her on stage for a drinking game.
Drag brunch, until recently, was almost an oxymoron. For most of the 20th century, drag happened in queer spaces, in the dark, and was created by people who scraped together beauty from whatever they could find. Brunch, until about the 1980s, was conspicuously for the rich, or at least the genteel, an occasion for after church or on Mother’s Day — not one eating too much or getting too drunk. It was an opportunity to be seen looking sharp, at least in the church sense. There was little chance the worlds should ever meet.
But starting around the 1990s, brunch got raucous and, concurrently, drag got mainstream. Movies like To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert found mass success. RuPaul moved from being a club kid to having his own talk show. Being seen at a trendy brunch became almost as important as being seen at the right bar the night before. Nightlife and daytime, queerness and straightness, began to bleed into each other, leading to now, a time when many recognize eggs Benedict and a lip-syncing drag queen as the perfect pairing, especially when staving off the Sunday scaries. Drag brunch is an institution, one that reveals the massive cultural shifts its key ingredients have gone through. And also, what we may have lost in the process.
Drag and brunch are both, in their own way, a celebration of performance, and both have ties to flouting Prohibition laws. Brunch, at first, was a way for the rich to conspicuously day drink when booze was banned, and even as it reached the masses, it retained some of its fancier traditions — Champagne, dressing up, and dining to live music. It was the wilding 1970s and 1980s that made brunch what it is today: Progressive movements allowed day drinking to lose “much of its stigma, even for women,” writes Farha Ternikar in Brunch: A History, and brunch spread from the most elite restaurants and hotels to more casual places and smaller cities. “You do not eat brunch. You do brunch,” wrote Iris Krasnow in the Chicago Tribune in 1980. “It is the first taste of Sunday, sweet Sunday, after Saturday night. It is an event. A champagne celebration.”
Meanwhile, though the definition of drag has always been mutable, the art of exaggerated gender-specific dress for performance wasn’t always a part of the counterculture. Drag has its roots in pantomime and vaudeville, and men-dressing-as-women (to be reductive) was a popular mainstay of theater. There were also performances like the Jewel Box Revue, a traveling drag show on the chitlin’ circuit, and drag balls happening in big cities around the world. But in the early 20th century in America, Prohibition drove any and all nightlife further underground, including drag. The “Pansy Craze” of the 1930s saw a boom in popularity for drag, an “anything goes” mentality left over from Prohibition partying that lumped all “vices” in together. Around that time, crackdowns on “morality” began focusing more heavily on behaviors besides boozing. Homosexuality became more criminalized in America, and drag was increasingly relegated to gay bars and other explicitly queer, underground spaces, rather than something that could be found at any speakeasy.
Then, for a straight person to experience drag, they had to do it under the guise of dinner theater. Joe E. Jeffreys — who teaches theater studies at NYU and the New School, and recently taught a class on RuPaul’s Drag Race and its impact — named Finocchio’s in San Francisco and 82 Club in New York as “places from the 1950s and 1960s that were night clubs with elaborate drag floor shows.” These establishments skirted (SORRY) various anti-homosexuality laws in clever ways — at My-Oh-My in New Orleans, for example, performers would add “Mr.” in front of their names to avoid being arrested for female impersonation, which was still illegal at the time. Serving food gave the clubs an air of sophistication. The clubs were drag clubs, first and foremost, but the largely heterosexual audience could tell themselves, their neighbors, and any questioning police officer that they were there for dinner and a show, nothing seedier.
Around the 1960s and ’70s, laws about “female impersonation” remained on the books in many American cities, but public opinion was changing, the laws became harder to enforce, and drag and dining spread. Drag became more accepted, and spaces known for drag like “Hamburger Mary’s [which opened in 1972] and Lips, began offering drag dining experiences on a consistent nightly basis,” said Jeffreys. Eventually shows were scheduled for brunch as well: Diners were already used to listening to a gospel choir alongside their mimosa, so how hard could it be to shift to a drag gospel brunch? If you’ve already seen a jazz band, why not listen to a queen sing Broadway show tunes?
Lips in New York has been hosting a drag brunch for 23 years, and owner Yvonne Lame said it felt like a natural thing to try, even though performing at night does have more practical benefits: ”The dimmer the light, the better they look, so brunch was always a hurdle for any queen.” Lame’s brunches aim to emulate the club feel with dark, dim rooms, so the performers don’t have to worry about bright lights revealing the tricks of their costumes and makeup.
Lame says the brunch at Lips gets a more “diverse crowd” than the weeknight performances, which typically attract a predominantly gay clientele. Weekend brunches, on the other hand, attract straight women and sometimes entire families because, according to Jeffreys, brunch is an easier way to give drag a shot. It’s at “a more sane hour.” Sunday brunch is easy, and — at least when it comes to the eating part — a newbie already knows what to expect.
Of course, as with anything that goes mainstream, something is lost when drag moves into the straight establishments that are capitalizing on its popularity. You can still go to Lips or Hamburger Mary’s for drag brunch, but you can also go to any number of restaurants that aren’t traditionally queer venues. Coca Mesa has been performing drag in New Orleans for 20 years, and brunch for the past 10, often at the Country Club, a restaurant that offers “traditional Creole cuisine” and an outdoor pool. “They’re all bachelorettes, and bachelor parties, and graduations. It’s a special event for them to go enjoy themselves,” she says. She’s also performed a drag brunch cabaret at a casino, where the crowd was about as straight as it gets.
Many, like Jeffreys, credit RuPaul’s Drag Race as the catalyst that made drag performances as ubiquitous as they are. “Before RuPaul’s Drag Race, yes, we had drag brunches, but they were smaller, there were not as many of them,” he said. Now, Drag Race contestants are everywhere, and what’s more, they’re getting people to see performers that haven’t been on TV. “[Novices] are not knocking down the doors at your local gay bar to see non-RuPaul’s Drag Race performers,” says Jeffreys. But the drag brunch is where everyone feels comfortable. You’re not there for the specific drag queen, or for the specific brunch — it’s the combination that’s the draw.
Much has been made of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s influence on drag culture. Some say the visibility has brought us into a golden age of drag, and of queer acceptance. But others point out the inevitable losses that happen when a community that forged itself out of margins of society goes mainstream. Gay bars are dying, since the gay community is accepted more publicly — ”I don’t even consider my gay bar a gay bar anymore,” says Coca Mesa. “Everybody’s welcome just so that they can make money.” Such acceptance is precarious, and constantly threatened, but the shift from the outside in is undeniable. Cops march in Pride parades; the civil rights movement that peaked with the Stonewall uprising has given way to something more conventional. If anything represents that shift, it’s the drag brunch. On one hand, here is an oppressed population thriving in straight spaces, in the light. On the other, the straight bachelorette parties may only be there to gawk and fetishize, not to appreciate.
Still, drag brunches are pushing the art forward in different ways. In 2011, drag queen Misty Eyez posted a YouTube video answering the question “Why don’t girls like Daytime Drag?,” after a fan wrote in asking why so many famous Drag Queens complained about it on social media. “Well darling, it’s very simple. In a nightclub... you’re only going to see what the spotlight shows,” explains Eyez. In the daytime, there’s a greater chance of revealing places where you missed shaving or your eyebrow glue. However, in the past decade, the mainstream conception of drag has also been overhauled. Where the photos of the performers at My-Oh-My show men whose makeup and clothing make them look like any other high-society woman, the performers on RuPaul’s Drag Race have, for the most part, intentionally left “female impersonation” in the dust. The risk of daylight and whether or not you were sufficiently “fishy” is, depending on where you are, no longer the primary concern. Victoria Holiday at Bizarre Brooklyn didn’t need darkness to help with her “illusion,” because she wasn’t trying to convince anyone she was anything but a drag queen.
Until recently, even as drag evolved into a daytime activity, it was still considered an adult one, something naturally paired with alcohol and blue jokes. But in the past few years, it’s become something even more acceptable — sometimes even child friendly. At public library locations across New York, and in other cities, Drag Queen Story Hour for kids has taken hold. And in March, drag queen Marti Gould Cummings went viral for her performance of daycamp favorite “Baby Shark” to a two-year-old boy at Talde in Jersey City. It’s adorable, and the farthest possible cry from the midnight floor shows once quietly advertised for their sexual and lascivious undertones. (Of course, not everyone is a fan. The library story hours have been met with some protests and pearl-clutching, with objectors worrying that seeing a man in glitter makeup will “groom children into the Transgender lifestyle,” leaving us to wonder where all the trans people who didn’t go to drag story hours came from.)
Both drag and brunch began as distinctly illicit — one came about to push the boundaries of gender in a straight, cis world; the other was a way to keep drinking when both social mores and the law demanded a level of sobriety. And though they both maintain celebratory auras, they separately and together have woven their way into everyday life. A drag queen singing to a child at noon is the starkest possible indicator of how far both drag and brunch have come. And how, maybe, they’ve helped each other get there.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.