Walking into the Javits Center, I immediately felt safe. There was something oddly comforting about this year’s location of RuPaul’s DragCon, an annual convention that caters toward fans of VH1’s award-winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and general devotees to drag culture. Enclosed within Javits’s glass walls and industrial architecture were convention-goers of all ages, abilities, genders, sexual orientations, racial and ethnic backgrounds, dressed to the tens in multicolored attire.
For those familiar with drag icon RuPaul’s immensely successful reality competition show — or for anyone who has participated in or watched live drag shows — the aesthetic forwardness and diverse array of people shouldn’t come as a surprise. Both “Drag Race” and drag culture are known for championing boldness and queerness through their emphasis on high fashion, self-love and extravagant, campy performances.
With its origins dating back centuries ago, the drag movement has always encouraged people within the LGBTQ+ community and beyond to challenge preconceived notions of gender, as well as to express themselves regardless of whatever judgment may come their way. “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which premiered on Logo TV in 2009 and recently received two Emmys for Outstanding Reality Competition Program and Outstanding Reality Host, remains an important and influential staple in maintaining that doctrine by making drag more accessible to modern audiences. After a record-breaking 40,000 attendees gathered at last year’s DragCon in Los Angeles, DragCon’s expansion to New York City seemed like the perfect way to continue establishing drag’s legacy in pop culture.
On Friday, Sept. 28, day one of DragCon, my friend Ariel Friedlander — a Stamps junior and local Ann Arbor drag queen who goes by the stage name Daya Bee-Dee — and I arrived at the Javits Center at exactly 2:00 p.m. As we waited to check in for our tickets, I noted that almost everyone in our line adorned elaborate garbs, colorful costumes, outlandish outfits and lavish dresses. Once we made our way onto the upper level, the atmosphere was welcoming and unexpectedly calm for such a highly anticipated event, though it gradually became more overwhelming on day two when attendance nearly doubled.
Fortunately, the vastness of the Javits Center allowed for easy navigation. To help orient people through the gaudy spectacle of DragCon, the main floor was divided into avenues with tongue-in-cheek street names: 500 Death Drop Alley, 600 Backrolls Blvd, 700 Charisma Court. In the middle of the room laid a long, wide pink carpet, which operated as both a convenient refuge away from the controlled chaos and a runway for “Drag Race” queens and fans alike to serve sickening looks.
Beside the carpet and “Drag Race” meet-and-greet stations stood rows of booths that sported jewelry, gloves, twunk trunks, leather tights, fetish accessories, stripper poles, makeup and, perhaps most importantly, wigs. Classic bops by Britney Spears, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga blared from overhead speakers, echoing throughout the room. On the far left side, a multitude of posts featuring artists like NYC-based designer, author and personal hero of mine Adam J. Kurtz offered a selection of queer artwork and other knick-knacks to purchase. Even the younger attendees had their own “Kid’s Zone,” a space that consisted of a bouncy house and a large green foam mat, where children and their parents sat and listened to drag queens read picture books with messages about self-acceptance. This was queer heaven if I ever saw one.
Throughout the weekend, the convention radiated relentless positivity and support from every direction. Walking around with Ariel, I couldn’t help but notice the frequent rate at which compliments — namely “Yas!” and “Love your makeup!” and “Slay, mama!” — and Instagram handles were exchanged between ourselves and other DragCon attendees. Each convention-goer we met were not only friendly, but acted as if we were already friends.
The first person we greeted was Desmond is Amazing, an adorable, up-and-coming child drag star who flaunted a patriotic outfit with strawberry-colored jellies. While waiting in line for season 10 fan favorite Miz Cracker, we came across Miss Sherry Pie, a jubilant New York queen dressed in an “Alice in Wonderland”-inspired get-up. Later on, we met Double O Sexy, a flashy drag queen duo from Westchester, Pa. comprised of Ophelia Hotass and Onyx Black.
“DragCon means a collective group of creative individuals and inspiring people joining and banding together and slaying the world,” said Ophelia, who, along with Onyx, was dressed as a hybrid of a pink-and-yellow Troll doll and a zombie with eyelashes as flamboyant as Yzma’s from “The Emperor’s New Groove.” “People are coming here and just being themselves, being whoever they want to be.”
Indeed, all walks of life seemed to be present at DragCon, including a few notable standouts. Among the varied streams of regal, spooky and silly personalities were muscular, scantily clad men in assless chaps and neon speedos — known on the show as the “Pit Crew” — while “Adventure Time,” “Rugrats,” “Clueless,” “It” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” cosplayers strutted around. Casual encounters with popular queens, like season 10 winner Aquaria and season six contestant Gia Gunn, made for pleasant surprises. RuPaul himself remained an elusive figure during DragCon, but as serendipity would have it, he strode past us on day three, decked out in a pink vest and white shirt. A throng of followers tailed behind his slender, formidable figure, as he carried a sign that said #TakeBackTheHouse and waved hello to fawning fans basking in his glory.
Even with the non-stop promise of fun festivities and queer liberation, DragCon wasn’t without its faults: Merch was expensive, certain vendors were overeager, lines to meet “Drag Race” contestants were long and time-consuming. In one particular instance, Ariel and I waited four hours to see season seven and All-Stars season two favorite Katya, whose line extended for what seemed like miles but whose Red Room-styled station made the trip worthwhile. Though most of the meet-and-greets were free, taking a picture with more top-tier queens like Detox and All-Stars season 3 winner Trixie Mattel required paying a ridiculous cost. Even non-“Drag Race” contestants like Nikki Blonsky, the lead actress from “Hairspray,” were trying to make a quick buck; an autograph was worth $20 and a picture with Blonsky was $30.
The absurdity of these incentives — and the general exhaustion that comes with an event as spectacle-heavy and pricey as DragCon — was lost on neither of us, nor on other drag queens present.
“(DragCon) is like a drag queen’s shopping mall. It’s basically where all get to come together,” Onyx said. “It’s like a family reunion, but also like, ‘Girl, I wanna get this makeup. I need a corset. I need some lashes.’ It’s so easy to get everything.”
“For me, (DragCon) is a pleasure, but it’s also an assault on the body,” said season nine contestant and University alum Alexis Michelle, who wore a stylish black-and-silver dress with a matching feather and jewel-encrusted crown. “These convention centers are made of concrete, so stepping on this cement floor is really, really painful for the body. When you spend two days setting up and then three days, all day on your feet, a lot of the time in heels, the body hurts. But it’s great other than that.”
In addition to the economic and physical fatigue that comes with the DragCon experience, the notion of gender and trans inclusivity posed as a prominent yet barely discussed issue. Inclusion is, by and large, a central theme of both drag culture and “Drag Race,” but it’s often dismissed in the case of anyone who isn’t a gay man.
In the words of Evah Destruction, an Atlanta-based drag queen who dressed as Elphaba in “Wicked” for DragCon, the biggest misconception about drag is “that it’s a boys game. That it’s all just a man’s world because as of now, it’s so much more than that.”
“I know that we need more people on the front lines that are genderqueer, cis-female,” Evah continued. “Anyone that wants to do drag should be able to do drag the way that they want, but also have the exposure just as much as everyone else gets. We’re not in the ’70s anymore. It’s not just for men. We need to do better.”
This problem directly affects RuPaul, who became the subject of discourse last May after making a series of controversial comments about prohibiting openly transgender queens from competing on his show. Given the disproportionate rates of violence and murder against the trans community, proper representation of queer non-cisgender folk in both straight and queer media remains to be seen, which is why events like DragCon provide a potential beacon of hope for those who feel excluded from their own community.
“There’s still so many people that are confused as to what drag is and how the line is drawn between being a drag queen or a transgender individual or genderfluid or anything in between,” Ophelia remarked.
Even with the immense progress made in the growing mainstream exposure of drag culture, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of making it even more accessible for more marginalized sects of the queer community. As Alexis Michelle pointed out, DragCon will hopefully keep getting bigger and fill up entire convention centers in the years ahead. Onyx joked that she wants DragCon to transform into “RuPaul’s Drag Resort.” For now, though, the size and scope of DragCon represent a radical example of celebrating drag culture and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” for what they are and the potential for what they can become.
“It’s so big for the LGBTQ community and everybody within that spectrum,” Ophelia said. “It gives a place where everyone can come together and not be judged or picked on. There’s no issues here. Everybody is happy and friendly and living their best life and living their truth.”