TO BE sure of one’s identity and have the power to fully express it is a wonderful gift to be cherished. To add an artistic flair to it makes it a talent and art. Drag queens may have earned their reputation as men dressing up and performing as women, but it is clear that this is a potent means of self-expression for them. The drag community continues to catch people’s attention with their exaggerated looks, extravagant attire, and phenomenal stage presence. They are people who remain immensely dedicated to their work, and the art of drag is undeniably admirable. Drag is more than a profession; drag is the ability to express their individually distinct identities creatively, one that is memorable to long-time supporters and newcomers alike.
What is a drag queen?
Drag traces all the way back to ancient ceremonies in which men used to dress up “femininely” for religious rituals. The official term – which incorporates a more artistic context – comes from early theatrical art. Men often dressed up as women in plays because women were not allowed to perform at that time. In the present day, however, drag has evolved into a profession that focuses on self-expression. Due to their feminine personas, most drag queens are closely associated with gay culture, despite the profession’s openness to all sexual orientations. “Doing drag” is a form of entertainment that can consist of lip-syncing, dancing, and though these performances seem simple enough, drag queens have an unforgettable presence that makes drag shows all the more entertaining and memorable.
Becoming a drag queen involves meticulous planning and an array of accessories and garments. Colin Edward Carman, one of the contributors to the Encyclopedia Britannica, divides the process of becoming a drag queen into three basic components. Firstly, a drag queen must assume a stage name and create a different identity. This follows a fraternity system in which starting queens are discovered and taught by older, more experienced drag queens, dubbed as their “drag mothers.” Second, they must be ready to take the stage as they assume their new personalities as women. This involves being wholly dedicated towards undergoing an entire makeup and bodily transformation. Finally, after embracing their newly assumed feminine nature, drag queens display their gender fluidity and non-conformity through their performance. This is the most captivating element of the art form as they can take their lives into their own hands and express themselves in a manner they feel most comfortable in.
The transformation process is unique to every queen. The basic guideline: to disguise themselves as women, thus erasing any trace of male characteristics. They use makeup to exaggerate feminine features and further enhance this illusion by altering their body shape. Many will hide their genitals, also known as “tucking,” and will also invest in breast plates to give the impression of a womanly figure. Their attire ultimately depends on their desired style. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, a drag queen by the name of MORE who is currently working in an Itaewon club, Trance, answered that he often enjoys wrapping rose-covered fabric around his head and makes most of his outfits from daily supplies such as blankets and curtain sheets. MORE does emphasize, however, that the attire is never complete without wigs, stating that “a wig is a drag queen’s life.”
The biggest impact in drag is the reality TV show Rupaul’s Drag Race, which is a competition-based reality show that presents a group of drag queens participating in a series of challenges and demonstrating their talents. The show has done wonders introducing drag culture to unexpecting spectators, and the world is now more exposed to the queer community.
Drag in Korea
Drag culture in Korea, though not as prominent as in other countries, is becoming more noticeable in society. Its conservative nature has contributed to the lacking appearance of the queer community; despite this, drag culture still prevails.
Currently, the drag community in Korea remains limited spatially, visible mainly in the Jongno and Itaewon districts. Yet simultaneously, these areas are celebrated for their diversity; foreigners from all over flock to these districts continually. Drag queens use this open and accepting environment as their main platform to express their drag to the public, performing in the many established clubs. A typical night for a drag queen is lively and dynamic, and the cheering audience is usually a mix of both foreigners and Koreans. MORE notes that many who come to see his shows are regulars who come every week to enjoy the club’s atmosphere, but he also notices curious onlookers who have heard rumors about drag and are willing to give it a shot.
Drag has started catching momentum in Korea due to the influence of both online and offline platforms. One of the biggest examples is Kim Chi, a Korean drag queen who became one of the three finalists in Rupaul’s Drag Race. His appearance on global television not only introduced the Korean community to the drag form but also brought in a fresh perspective for onlookers of the queer community. His coming out story was particularly inspiring to many, especially because he was unable to tell his parents about it during the actual filming of the show.
Apart from that, social media too has become a powerful weapon for Korean drag queens to showcase their art as it provides a platform for them to display their craft and allow the art of drag to become more recognizable in society. When asked how important social media is to drag queens, MORE answered, “it goes beyond expectations. Through social media, drag queens are able to share videos, photos, and even book drag shows because we’re grabbing people’s attention.” Such artistic flair has brought in curious eyes who are interesting in learning more about this profession and has garnered a large support system from people who enjoy the art form. There is an air of open-mindedness that allows modern youth to embrace this unfamiliar craft.
There is also a noticeable change in atmosphere in accepting the queer community. An example is the recent release of the musical Hedwig in Korea, which portrays a male protagonist who begins to understand his complex gender identity. Surprisingly, this musical has accumulated a strong fanbase in Korea, attracting almost 500,000 fans*, despite its seemingly controversial plotline of a rocker undergoing
a sex change. This musical alone has educated many about drag and the diversity of gender norms, even inspiring some to try drag for themselves. Older generations who enjoyed the musical are also widening their horizons on the queer community, coming to realize that love has no boundaries.
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When asked what kind of change he wished for the most in Korea, MORE’s answer was simple but impactful. “There is nothing more I want to do than to express myself as part of the majority, not the minority.” Simply, he wishes to be accepted as any other person in society without being marginalized. Korea is still a few steps behind in accepting the queer community, but drag culture is clearly growing stronger and becoming harder to ignore. A simple introduction to the concept of men dressing up as women may lead to a whole new world of explosive artistry and creative expression.